Born at Rock Spring Plantation in Patrick County, Virginia, on 20 July 1850, Richard Joshua “R.J.” Reynolds (1850-1918) was the son of tobacco planter Hardin William Reynolds (1810-1882) and Nancy Jane Cox (1825-1903). Hardin William built Rock Spring Plantation, located near Critz, Virginia, in 1843 on land first purchased in 1814 by his father Abraham “Abram” Reynolds (1771-1838). The plantation proved quite adept at producing bright leaf tobacco. Hardin was a successful farmer, merchant, and banker. Hardin, who processed his first tobacco at the young age of 18, created a tobacco manufactory to turn the bright leaf into chewing tobacco on the Patrick County property, and by the 1850s, tobacco was his principal form of income. Hardin also operated a thriving country store on the land selling a variety of goods such as corn, oats, coffee, sugar, cloth, clothing, bacon, flour, peaches, and boots. By 1860, Hardin William Reynolds owned nearly two dozen properties consisting of 8,000 acres in Patrick County and 3,000 acres in nearby Stokes County, North Carolina. His 59 slaves made him one of the largest slaveholders in that area of Virginia. Hardin and Nancy Jane Cox Reynolds had 12 children including R.J. Reynolds, founder of Reynolds Tobacco Company, and his older brother Abram Reynolds, father of Richard Samuel Reynolds, founder of Reynolds Aluminum.
Before becoming a vital player in the industrialization of the New South, R.J. Reynolds worked for his father’s tobacco business, attended Emory & Henry College from 1868 to 1870, and eventually finished at Bryant & Stratton Business College in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1873. In 1874, R.J. Reynolds sold his share in the family tobacco business and moved south to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he established his own plug (chewing) tobacco factory in 1875. In 1888 he incorporated his business as the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Introductions of new tobacco blends and innovation in advertising made Reynolds a success. The popularity of Prince Albert smoking tobacco, introduced in 1907, and Camel cigarettes, first appearing in 1913, made Reynolds Tobacco number one in the tobacco industry.In addition to his shrewd business dealing, R.J. was known as having a genuine concern for his employees, both white and African American. R.J. opened doors to economic development and left a lasting legacy of charitable giving.
In 1905, Reynolds married Katharine Smith (1880-1924) and found a loving partner to match his drive and ambition. R.J.’s first cousin once removed, Katharine Smith of Mount Airy, North Carolina, was the daughter of Zachary Taylor Smith (1847-1938) and Mary Susan Jackson (1855-1926). A student at the North Carolina State Normal and Industrial College and a graduate of Sullins College in Bristol, Virginia, where she earned a degree in English literature, Katharine worked as a secretary at the Reynolds Tobacco Company before marrying R.J. in her parent’s home in Mount Airy on the morning of 27 February 1905. After a honeymoon trip to Europe, the couple settled in a mansion at 666 West Fifth Street in Winston near the Reynolds tobacco factories. Between 1906 and 1911, the couple had four children: Richard Joshua Jr. “Dick” Reynolds(1906-1964), Mary Katharine Reynolds Babcock (1908-1953), Nancy Susan Reynolds (1910-1985), and Zachary Smith Reynolds (1911-1932).
Proving herself to be equal to her husband’s business acumen, Katharine Reynolds began buying land after her first year of marriage. Over the next several years Katharine would purchase 27 tracts of land that would become the 1,000-acre Reynolda estate. Building and landscape work at Reynolda began in 1912; its creation was part of the American Country Place movement. Katharine hired Philadelphia-based architect Charles Barton Keen to design the family’s home and all of the buildings on the working farm. New York landscape designers Buckenham & Miller drew up the master landscaping plan but were soon replaced by another Philadelphian practicing landscape architecture, Thomas W. Sears. The final estate consisted of a 60-room bungalow; formal gardens; 16-acre Lake Katharine; recreational facilities; Reynolda Village, home to the estate’s workers; Five Row, resident houses for African American workers; Reynolda School, and a model farm where local farmers could learn progressive techniques in agriculture, dairying, livestock raising, and horticulture.
The Reynolds family moved to Reynolda upon the house’s completion in December 1917, when R.J. was already seriously ill of what is now believed to have been pancreatic cancer. R.J. died on 29 July 1918, and his funeral would be the first public event held at Reynolda. After her husband’s death, Katharine donated land to be turned into a high school to be named after R.J. Reynolds and paid for a new auditorium, all designed by Reynolda’s architect and landscape designer Charles Barton Keen and Thomas Sears.
In 1921, Katharine married her second husband J. Edward Johnston (1893-1951), whom she had hired as principal for the Reynolda School. During this time Reynolda continued as a working farm and dairy with the addition of a polo field. Katharine gave birth to two children during her second marriage--Lola Katharine Johnston, who died at birth, and J. Edward Johnston Jr. (1924-2005). A few days after the birth of her son with Johnston, Katharine died in New York from a blood clot.
Following Katharine’s death, Reynolda was held in trust for the next ten years. In 1935, oldest daughter Mary Reynolds Babcock purchased the estate from her siblings. Together with her husband Charles H. Babcock Sr., Mary modernized the estate adding a sunken garden to the bungalow’s main entrance, an indoor swimming pool, and a recreation themed basement with a modern bar, game room, floors for skating, a shooting gallery, and bowling alley. Initially the Babcocks spent only holidays and vacations at Reynolda, living primarily at their home in Greenwich, Connecticut. During World War II, while her husband Charlie was serving with the United States Army, Mary moved her four children to Reynolda, where the family would relocate year round in 1948.
During the Babcock’s tenure, Reynolda slowly ceased being a working farm, and the family donated or sold much of the estate’s acreage. The most notable donation was the 350 acres given to Wake Forest College in 1946 for the school’s relocation from Wake Forest, North Carolina. Ultimately, the Babcocks would give 605 acres to Wake Forest University, including Reynolda Gardens and Reynolda Village.
After Mary Reynolds Babcock’s death in 1953, Charlie Babcock remained at Reynolda with his second wife Winnifred Penn Knies, whom he married in 1954. In 1964, Babcock established Reynolda, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to arts and education. The Babcocks’ oldest daughter, Barbara Babcock Millhouse, became its first president, and under her leadership it became Reynolda House Museum of American Art in 1967.