James Rufus Dorsey
by Jeff Blakley
I am indebted to Ed McMichael for much of the information in this post. Without his help, it couldn’t have been written. Or, perhaps I should say, a much leaner version with much less information in it would have been written.
Jean Taylor, in her book The Villages of South Dade, wrote a short piece on Ruf, as he was called, and his family. He was also known as “JR”. In this post, I wanted to create a more detailed picture of Ruf than Jean was able to do in her book.
James Rufus Dorsey was born on October 7, 1883 in Lovejoy, Clayton County, Georgia, which had been carved out of Henry County in 1858. The town of Lovejoy was founded on September 16, 1861. James’ great-grandfather, John Dorsey, along with a brother, Frank, had settled in Henry County, coming from Maryland shortly after 1800. Stephen Green Dorsey, one of John’s sons and James’ grandfather, became one of the largest landowners in Henry County and also owned more slaves than anyone else. It shouldn’t be surprising that Stephen Green Dorsey was a judge in Atlanta – prominent landowners often hold important positions in their communities. John J. Dorsey, James’ father, was born in 1850 and died on the 1st of January, 1889, due to pneumonia contracted while helping to battle a fire that destroyed a large portion of the town of Lovejoy. After his death, his widow and her family moved a short distance to East Point, Georgia, which is in Fulton County, where they lived on Dorsey Avenue.
James grew up in East Point and apparently had a good deal of mechanical talent because by 1910 he shows up in the census of East Point as a “telephone repairer.” The first telephone company in the Atlanta area had been established in 1879 and by the mid-1880s, the Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Co. had been formed. Southern Bell opened a switching office in East Point sometime between 1902 and 1905. Ed McMichael has a photograph of three operators at the East Point exchange, taken on January 10, 1905. One of the operators, Jennie Tom Brown, became James’ wife.
A second telephone company, the Atlanta Telephone and Telegraph Co., began in 1899 – the first AT&T, not to be confused with the other American Telephone and Telegraph company (AT&T), which was formed in 1885 as a subsidiary of the American Bell Telephone Company to build and operate a long-distance network. As is often the case, this new upstart grew rapidly and soon overtook Southern Bell in numbers of subscribers. However, that was not to last for very long, as Southern Bell bought out the Atlanta Telephone and Telegraph company in 1919. By that time, James had been in Homestead for at least 6 years.
James and Jennie were married in Jacksonville, Florida on August 12, 1909.1 Since Jacksonville was the northern terminus of the Flagler System and James was an adventuresome young man, he may have decided to head on down to Florida to see what everyone was talking about. This was the time, of course, when Flagler was building his Key West Extension and you can be sure that word of that project was wide-spread. Perhaps he and Jennie were not quite ready for the big move, though, because on April 25, 1910, they were enumerated in East Point, living with Jennie’s parents, Thomas J. and Martha A. Brown.
James and Jennie’s first child, James Rufus Dorsey, Jr., was born on November 7, 1910 but died the next day. After settling their affairs in East Point, James and Jennie moved back down to St. Augustine, where their first daughter, Marian Elizabeth (“Mannie”), was born on December 14, 1912.
John U. Free and James D. Redd had met while working on the railroad in the Keys but it is unlikely that James Dorsey worked on the Extension. In a short item that appeared in the November 14, 1913 issue of The South Florida Banner, it was stated that “J. R. Dorsey, wife and daughter from East Point, Ga. has been hired by the Dade County Telephone Company as lineman and will be here about the 15th or soon after.” When they arrived, they lived in a rented house that was owned by J. U. Free on what is now N. E. 5th Avenue. The Dorsey’s second daughter, Francis Aire, was born in that house on September 10, 1915.2 It is not known how James Dorsey came to be hired to work for the Dade County Telephone Company, established in 1911, but there is a possibility that J. R. knew J. U. Free from the time when they both lived in the Atlanta area – before J. U. Free headed south. If J. R. (“Ruf”) had no prior knowledge of a job working for J. U. Free, his experience in East Point surely came in handy, because by September 12, 1918, he was the manager of the Dade County Telephone Company.
The Dade County Telephone Company grew to have 380 subscribers by July, 1923, when it was purchased by Frank Shutts, who also owned The Miami Herald in Miami and was the president of Miami’s telephone company, The South Atlantic Telephone & Telegraph Co. The Dade County Telephone Company served the area from Florida City all the way up to Kendal (often spelled with one “l” in those days). James was a man of many talents. In addition to being employed by the Dade County Telephone Company and its successors, the Homestead Telephone Company and Southern Bell, he farmed, bought and sold real estate and managed the Homestead School Bus company that his wife, Jennie, had established in 1923. The company picked up children and carried them to and from Florida City and Neva King Cooper elementary and Homestead High school until the early 1950s.
James Rufus Dorsey died on May 10, 1973, at the age of 89. He is buried in Palms Woodlawn Cemetery in Naranja.
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