© Jerry F. Couch [Portions of this article originally appeared the CVT in 2014]
MACON MELVILLE LONG, SR. was born April 2, 1885, a son of John M. and Alice C. Long of Rappahannock County, Virginia. His siblings were Ethel, Lelia, Bernard, and Edwin. The family lived on a farm in what was at that time a very rural area. Today, Rappahannock County has become choice real estate thanks to the urban sprawl of the Washington D. C. and Northern Virginia metropolitan areas.
M. M. Long attended Richmond College, graduating in 1910 with a degree in law at age 25. Today, his alma mater is known as The University of Richmond School of Law. Following his graduation, M. M. Long chose St. Paul as the place to begin his career. For the next 60+ years he would maintain a law office on the second floor of the St. Paul National Bank building. After closing this office and ostensibly retiring he continued the practice of law on a limited scale from an office at his home.
In 1910, St. Paul was an excellent location for a bright, aspiring young man on his way up. Unlike its Southwest Virginia neighbors, everyone who lived in St. Paul came from somewhere else. In other local towns the old, established families exercised social, political, and economic control. About the only way an outsider could become an insider was through marriage or inheritance. M. M. Long was unhampered by such constraints in St. Paul.
But…the story is best told in Mr. Long‘s own words. The following excerpts come from an interview by reporter Richard Boyd which was featured in the March 28, 1971 edition of the Bristol Herald Courier:
Well, some of my classmates in law school were from Southwest Virginia and they simply convinced me this was the place to come. They did a great selling job telling me this was the area of great growth.
And for a while, it looked like it. At one time Wise County alone had some 50,000 persons. When I first came here there were many, many coal mines still unopened and as coal boomed, the area grew.
When coal and timber were boom items here we thought this would be the growth area. I remember there were big band mills all over the Southwest manufacturing timber, and train carload after carload of timber was being moved out of Wise County alone. But the coal hit a bust and the timber didn’t last.
It will grow again but the most pressing need now is for better roads. We still have a job to do opening up Southwest Virginia and as we open it, industry will come and with it a reason for our young people to stay here when they finish school. That is still the greatest tragedy…so many of them have to leave this area to find a good job and we must give them enough to stay here.
When I came here I didn’t know anyone in St. Paul. I had some friends in other parts of Southwest Virginia, however. But I discovered it didn’t take me long to get involved in civil and criminal law. And I’ve never really slowed down since.
I was an outsider. I was young and fresh out of law school. But the people in St. Paul accepted me. They have always been friendly. That is why I think this is the friendliest section of the state. I just think mountain people are nicer to each other than in some other areas of Virginia.
When I was first practicing law there weren’t any automobiles at all in St. Paul. I’ve ridden to court in Clintwood on horseback many times and in the beginning the only way I could get to the county seat in Wise was by riding a horse.
I remember one year I took on some extra work in Kentucky and it was necessary to ride a horse to Hazard. Now, that was quite a trip by horseback.
After establishing himself in St. Paul, M. M. Long married Miss Charlotte Tompkins of Bristol, Virginia in 1915. Mr. and Mrs. Long were the parents of five children: Margaret, Macon Melville Jr. (known as “Buddy“), Helen, Virginia, and Charlotte. The large bungalow M. M. Long built for his family is located on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Wise Street. As of this writing it is the home of Janie Horne.
Unless the legislature was in session, Mr. Long could be seen most mornings, rain or shine, walking from his home to his office in the St. Paul National Bank building. It’s possible there were people in St. Paul who addressed Mr. Long by his first name, but I never heard anyone do so. Folks treated him with respect, addressing him as Mr. Long or Senator Long. As a politician, he was neither a glad-hander nor a back-slapper. As a member of the St. Paul community, he was polite without being familiar and was known as one who kept his own counsel. Even so, he always knew exactly what was going on – particularly if money was about to change hands. As the St. Paul National Bank’s long-term president, this made good business sense.
Although he achieved considerable financial success, Mr. Long never forgot his roots. He owned several farms and took an active role in their management and care, often working alongside his hired hands. Many evenings he could be seen around sunset, standing alone in one of his pastures inspecting his fine herd of cattle. His farm buildings were well-kept and his fields were immaculate. He loved his land and made sure there were no run-down fences, no blackberry briers, and no scrub cedars.
After his retirement from active public office, Mr. Long’s considerable influence continued. A minor local politician once committed the blunder of referring to Mr. Long as a “fat cat” in a speech at a Wise County Democratic Party caucus . Though the lion was old, he still had teeth and he could still roar. An apology from the politician appeared forthwith in a local newspaper.
Having spent nearly 30 years building up his law practice and managing his business interests, M. M. Long had made the decision to seek public office in 1939. He had the right local connections and he had confidence in his ability to do the job. He also had the blessing of “The Byrd Machine.” This group of conservative Democrats controlled the politics of rural Virginia from the 1920’s until the late 1960’s.
Mr. Long served in the Virginia General Assembly from 1940 until 1942. Then he served in the Virginia Senate from 1944 until 1971. In 1952, he sought the Ninth District Congressional seat being vacated by Congressman Tom B. Fugate. However, this was not meant to be. Mr. Long lost that race to young William C. Wampler of Bristol. Later, some members of Virginia’s Democratic Party urged him to run for Governor but he was content to remain Senator Long of St. Paul, Wise County, Virginia.
Once again, let’s get the story in Mr. Long’s own words as told to reporter Richard Boyd in an interview featured in the March 28, 1971 edition of the Bristol Herald Courier:
Well, of course, I had been active in politics and the Democratic party while a lawyer but I hadn’t really given public office any thought.
Many of my friends and voters in Wise County invited me to make the race and I was
fortunate enough to win. I might just have served a while in the House of Delegates and stepped down, I don’t know, really, because during my first term in the House, the late Judge Robert R. Parker, who was in the State Senate from Wise County, died during the session. They left the seat vacant for the rest of his term but in 1943 my friends again convinced me I should enter the race.
You know, it’s funny. In some respects it was almost easier to get to Richmond during those early years I was serving than it is now. For one thing, the Norfolk and Western Railroad used to run a sleeper out of Bristol. You could catch it during the evening in Abingdon and wake up the next morning in Richmond at the Broad Street station [now the Science Museum of Virginia] in Richmond – relaxed and ready for work.
I remember that first session I was serving in the House. My wife and I were going to drive. I had an old Buick then and we left St. Paul en route to Richmond. It was icy, raining with sleet. We got as far as Abingdon and I put the car in a garage and we caught that N&W to Richmond.
When I first went to Richmond I stayed in the Richmond Hotel and I stayed there every session and anytime I was in Richmond until they closed it in 1966. Then I moved to the John Marshall and I’ve stayed there ever since.
I have no regrets. It has been a rewarding experience. It has been hard work and, until recently, there was very little pay. When I first went to the House we got $720 for an entire session. Now we get $3,900 for expenses and $35 a day for each day in session. That is more realistic but the way inflation keeps going it is just about enough for a legislator to break even.
When asked about his accomplishments, Mr. Long had this to say:
I’ve been involved in a lot of legislation during these many years. I am especially proud of the role I was able to play in getting Clinch Valley College located in Wise and later getting four year status for it as a division of the University of Virginia.
I feel the creation of the Community College program under Gov. Godwin is one of the most significant developments in our history and I am proud I had a hand in making it come about. I am also happy I was able to help secure one of the colleges for Big Stone Gap. I’m also proud of the creation of Breaks Interstate Park.
During his tenure in Virginia’s Senate, M. M. Long served on various important committees, including the Senate Courts of Justice Committee (Chairman), the Steering Committee, the Rules Committee, the Privileges and Elections Committee, the Finance Committee, the Roads and Navigation Committee, and the Nominations and Confirmations Committee.
In addition, Mr. Long served as president (and later as chairman of the board of directors) of the St. Paul National Bank. He was a president of the Wise County Bar Association, a member of the 33rd Judicial Circuit of the Virginia State Bar, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Richmond. Significantly, Mr. Long was a delegate to the 1940 Democratic National Convention in Chicago where President Franklin Roosevelt received his party’s nomination for an unprecedented third term. At home, he was also an active member of the St. Paul Baptist Church where he taught Sunday School for many years.
Long was one of the driving forces who made Clinch Valley College (now UVA Wise) a reality. He also worked to obtain improved pay for public school teachers and to obtain better roads for our area. Southwest Virginians continue to reap the benefits of Sen. Long’s quiet but single-minded perseverance.
Eventually, age and infirmity caught up with Mr. Long. He spent his final years in an assisted living facility at Abingdon. There, he could be seen conversing with another resident who, along with her late husband, had been his friends for decades. During their long, eventful lives both these people had seen amazing changes in Southwest Virginia and in the world.
On April 24, 1988 Macon Melville Long died, and a life marked by great achievements came to an end. He and his wife Charlotte are buried in Temple Hill Cemetery.