A history of President's Island from moonshiners to manufacturing

Geographically speaking, President’s Island is actually a peninsula. Once upon a time, however, it was an island — the largest one on the Mississippi’s 2500-mile course — and it has endured a journey from untamed wilderness to the bustling industrial park it is today.

The 7,500-are island has been part of Tennessee since it became a state in 1796. Just 3.5 miles south of Downtown Memphis, it was a remote wilderness until the spring of 1865 when, at the end of the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was created by Congress to help former slaves, established a camp on the island.  

“More than 1,500 refugees were quartered there,” according to Robert Talley in a 1947 Commercial Appeal article. “The men farming and working in sawmills and the women being taught to cook and sew, until they were gradually absorbed into other communities.”

Shipping and manufacturing boomed at President's Island in the 1970s.

Just 10 years after hosting freed slaves, President’s Island’s activities shifted to activity that was eerily similar to that experienced by the freed slaves before Emancipation. Starting in 1875, Nathan Bedford Forrest leased 1,300 acres and operated a farm there in an effort to recover the fortune he lost in the Civil War and in unprofitable railroad investments.

According to a Forrest biographer Jack Hurst, Forrest “contracted with Shelby County for the use of some of its jail inmates in farming operations employing slave-style labor.” 

The workforce for the island farming operation included 117 prisoners, most of whom were African-American. Forrest himself died in 1877 from dysentery from questionable water from the Island.

Around this time, Memphians fled to President’s Island during the Yellow Fever epidemic, which brought death to over 5,000 Memphians and caused 25,000 others to evacuate. After World War I, during Prohibition, remote areas of the island became a haven for moonshiners. Frequent raids were made by revenue officers but the moonshiners’ business continued to flourish until Prohibition was repealed in 1933.  

During the early 20th century, President’s Island also became a site for farming. Joe Sailors owned a plantation on President’s Island, and 31 African-American sharecropper families lived and worked on his land. For the sharecroppers, there was a church that doubled as a county school. Its proximity to the Mississippi River, which helped make the soil so rich for farming, also made the island prone to flooding, and who those lived on the island had to be evacuated during the flood of 1937.

In 1946, a group including Senator Kenneth McKellar planned to relocate the Memphis’s riverfront harbor and warehousing businesses away from the Downtown area and onto a location that could handle the capacity of barges, railcars and trucks that were part of freight transportation in the post-war years.

Thus began President’s Island’s transformation from agricultural to industrial.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helped construct a closure dam to link the island to Memphis and turn it into a peninsula. Sinclair Oil became the island’s first industrial tenant, and the city of Memphis annexed President’s Island in 1947. By 1958, business was booming. A Commercial Appeal article from that year boasts, “During the last year more than 23 acres of industrial sites valued at $150,000 were sold on President’s Island by the Memphis and Shelby County Port Commission.”

A photo from 1955 of the Norris Grain Co. facilities on President's Island. (University of Memphis)

In the early 1970s, the idea of having a prison on President’s Island was suggested by Shelby County Commissioner Lee Hyden and Mark Luttrell, who was then Commissioner of Corrections. The prison area envisioned was intended to eventually replace Shelby County Penal Farm at Shelby Farms, and President’s Island seemed like a good location because it was separated from residential areas. The idea was eventually scrapped after objections from the President’s Island Industrial Association and the Memphis and Shelby County Port Commission.

President’s Island is part of the International Port of Memphis, which includes both President’s Island and Pidgeon Industrial Park.

President's Island houses a variety of companies, such as Barnhart Crane and Rigging, Memphis Wire and Iron, GlaxoSmithKline, Vertex, WM Barr, and Ergon. The island is also home to a restaurant called The Port, which is owned by Nick Vrettos, a member of the President’s Island Industrial Association Board. The Port, which first opened in 1964, is President’s Island’s only restaurant.

“People from Downtown also come to the restaurant,” said Nick Vrettos, “But 75 percent of our clientele are workers or visitors to the island.”
Cook Grains Inc. on President's Island in the 1970s (University of Memphis)
In April, Cargill partnered with Calysta Inc. to construct a feed production facility at Cargill’s 69-acre property on President's Island. The new facility is expected to be completed in 2018 and will employ 160 workers.

The Cargill news “was great news to most of the Island residents”, said Jeffrey Harris, storage and logistics specialist with Barnhart Crane and Rigging.

Barnhart purchased property on President’s Island in the mid-1970s, expanded operations and acquired a second property in the late 1970s.

“I am still impressed with the stability of the Island,” said Harris. “And impressed with the variety of businesses still active. I feel there are less unoccupied buildings on President’s Island than most industrial parks in Memphis. While there have been changes over the years, many businesses have flourished and grown.”

Another President’s Island company is Memphis Iron and Wire, a family-owned business that has been around for over 125 years but relocated from Downtown Memphis to President’s Island in 1964.

According to the company’s president, Jim Stafford, having a business on the island is helpful because of the proximity to similar industries. “Our competitors are also located on the Island, and they help us when we get overloaded, and we help them when they get overloaded,” said Stafford.

Like Harris, Stafford has a positive view of the current state of the Island.  “The Island is doing fine,” he said. “Some large companies have left in the past 8 to 10 years, but there are still quite a few here.”

On that secluded strip of land, history runs deep and industry is booming.

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Read more articles by Tamara Williamson.

Tamara is a native Memphian and has a B.A. and M.A. from UT Knoxville. She has previously written guest posts for I Love Memphis blog.