As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, November 8, 2009
By Greg Tucker, President of the Rutherford County Historical Society
“There is no more familiar figure in Murfreesboro than Ambrose Crass,” observed Herndon McCain, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in 1944. “His patriotism is an example to everyone…If a few more of our citizens were as intent on winning a war as he, Hitler would have come to an end many months ago.”
Shortly after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, an Office of Civilian Defense was established in Tennessee. The purpose was to prepare the civilian population for possible military attack. County offices were staffed with full-time employees charged with recruiting, organizing and training local volunteers for wartime roles.
When the Rutherford County Citizens for Civilian Defense office opened in early 1942, 70-year-old Ambrose “Brosie” Crass was the first Rutherford citizen to register as a volunteer. When the government announced that waste paper salvage was needed to further the war effort, Brosie launched a one-man paper drive. He went door to door at businesses during his lunch hour and after work pulling a four-wheel cart.
When the drive concluded, Brosie received a War Production Board commendation and was recognized nationally for his effort — almost 94,000 pounds of paper, 6 1/2 train carloads.
But the war effort also needed cash. The government borrowed from citizens through the sale of War Bonds, and sought cash contributions through War Fund drives. Brosie became a “bell-ringer” for both efforts. Ringing his own small goat bell and wearing posters, he walked the business and residential streets soliciting for the cause.
He was the top individual fundraiser in the county for every year during the war, and each year he raised more than his record
for the previous year. In 1946, as the debt-burdened country slid into a postwar recession, Brosie was named county chairman for the War Fund. With his tireless leadership, the county drive raised nearly double its goal.
Brosie settled into a journalism career in the 1890s. After three years with the short-lived Murfreesboro Free Press, Brosie went to work for the Home Journal in 1898.
“Our type was all handset, and we printed on an old hand press,” Brosie remembered 50 years later. When the Home Journal moved into new offices at 116 W. College in 1916, Brosie was serving as advertising and circulation manager, and as “job printing solicitor and collector.”
When the local News Banner consolidated with the Home Journal to form The Daily News Journal, Brosie continued with the paper. In 1948 he was recognized for 50 years of service to The Daily News Journal and its predecessors. He retired from journalism in 1950 at the age of 79. Just a few years before his retirement he was given the honor of personally breaking ground for the new Daily News Journal building on North Walnut.
Brosie was not only a newspaperman and tireless American patriot, he was also an incomparable worker on behalf of the Red Cross, Heart Fund and the March of Dimes.
The fight against infantile paralysis (polio) was perhaps the most significant beneficiary of this Murfreesboro bell-ringer.
The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was established by President Roosevelt (a polio victim) in 1938 to initiate a grassroots campaign. Local volunteers were to solicit small donations for care of polio victims, and for research into prevention and treatment. In an early “radiothon” singer/comedian Eddie Cantor observed that 10-cent donations from across the country could become a “march of dimes,” a play on words based on the popular March of Time newsreels of the era. Thereafter, the organization was called the March of Dimes.
Inspired by the idea of thousands of local volunteers soliciting small donations, Brosie hung a March of Dimes poster around his neck, got a fruit jar and a small goat bell, and went to work on the street. For 12 years, including the war years, Brosie was the county’s top fundraiser, and every year he broke his own record set the year before. In 1949, for example, his individual collection accounted for more than a third of the total for the entire county campaign.
Brosie was also a family man, raising three children as a single parent after the death of his first wife. In 1928 he married Mattie Leathers Poplin, widow of Midland physician Thomas A. Poplin, and became an indulgent “Poppa Crass” to her brood of children and grandchildren.
Bobby Modrall, a step-grandson, recalls that Brosie enjoyed playing “ol’ sol'” on a lapboard and smoking Prince Albert tobacco and cigars. “My cousin and I once put a load in his cigar,” confesses Modrall. “When he lit the cigar it blew up. He just relit the stub like nothing had happened.”
Son of a German-born, Confederate war captain, Brosie was the proud owner of a French-made pistol, inscribed “1803.” His father, Fred Crass, had carried the pistol through the Civil War. Brosie also enjoyed showing a cedar wood canteen that had belonged to Sam Davis. “Both of these relics were exhibited at the Tennessee Centennial in Nashville in 1897,” according to C.C. Henderson, one of Brosie’s newspaper contemporaries.
Modrall remembers his step-grandfather’s old pistol. “It hung over the mantle in his home on Spring Street,” recalls Modrall. “It was a heavy piece with a ring on the handle butt, and fired by striking the side of the shell casing.”
Brosie also initiated the “second harvest” concept during the difficult depression and war years. “Poppa Crass would go to Cannon’s Grocery on the square several times a week to gather and salvage all the unsold produce which he then would clean up and distribute around the neighborhood,” said Modrall. Shortly before his death in 1954, Brosie announced that he was “quitting” retirement. “I will be on the street with my jar and bell soliciting donations,” he announced, “to aid Tennessee tornado victims.”
Memorializing his death, The Daily News Journal concluded with a simple phrase: “Well done, thy good and faithful servant.”
Greg Tucker can be reached at email@example.com.