(T-G Photo by Mary Reeves) [Order this photo]
"This is the perfect spot," said her daughter, Bettie Edwards, who came all the way from North Carolina with her husband Van just for the occasion. She looked back from the sign to the intersection where Cortner Road meets Knob Creek, and the bridge there.
"She told me when she was a girl, all the neighborhood children would ride their horses to school," said Bettie. "They'd meet at the bridge and race into town. She said it was a miracle they never got killed."
Although her mother spent some years away from her birthplace -- on Knob Creek Road -- she came back to live out the rest of her life in Bedford County.
"Her heart was always here," said Bettie.
Mary Pepper Wells Fort was the daughter of Agatha Osborne Pepper Wells of Wartrace and Herbert John Wells of Shelbyville. She was born in the Pepper house on Knob Creek Road outside of Wartrace on Aug. 7, 1915. She died in July 2008 and, in those 92 years, dedicated her life to making the world -- especially her corner of it, Bedford County -- a better place.
Mary Pepper's mother died in November 1915. She was reared on the Pepper Farm by her maternal grandparents, Mary Ann Osborn Pepper and Henry Pepper. She attended Wartrace schools, Vanderbilt University and graduated from Flora McDonald College in Red Springs, N.C.
After college she taught school for two years in Georgia and then returned to Wartrace. She was employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) setting up hot lunch programs throughout Bedford County. During this time she met and married Robert (Bob) Bridges Fort on Nov. 22, 1940 in Bethsalem Presbyterian
Church in Wartrace. She was later instrumental in saving the chapel and helping to form a non-profit community group to maintain the structure.
Bob was employed at U.S. Rubber Co. in Shelbyville. They were away from Shelbyville during World War II and then returned to Shelbyville until he was transferred by U.S. Rubber in 1950.
After Bob's retirement they moved back to Shelbyville in 1974 and Mary Pepper immersed herself in community affairs.
Almost immediately upon her return to Bedford County, Mary Pepper began working to preserve Jenkins Chapel and Shofner Church. Both of these Lutheran churches were founded by her great-grandfather, William Jenkins. Later Mary Pepper worked with other volunteers to save Bethsalem Presbyterian Church. This group preserved and restored the church to be used as a community chapel for the benefit of the whole Wartrace community.
Mary Pepper was a very active member of First Methodist Church of Shelbyville, where she served in many capacities, including the president of the Women of the Church. She was named a Paul Harris fellow by the Shelbyville Rotary Club. Mary Pepper was a member of the Shelby Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution where she served as the chapter Regent as well as holding statewide DAR offices.
As the chairwoman of the Beautification Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, she originated the campaign for planting crape myrtles all over Shelbyville and Bedford County. For year she worked tirelessly to sell more than 15,000 crape myrtles to beautify her community.
"We called her the Crape Myrtle Lady," said Stanley Smotherman, the county highway superintendant.
"We got to be the best of friends," said County Mayor Eugene Ray. "If I was out of town when the crepe myrtle sale was going on, she'd always save me some."
Her son-in-law laughed as he recalled a story when a woman who called Mary Pepper to complain that her crepe myrtle had died -- and she wanted her dollar back.
"I remember that," said Bettie. "She spent 45 minutes talking to the woman, and talked her into not taking the dollar back."
Mary Pepper received many civic honors including the Deery Eakin Volunteer of the Year Award in 1994, the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council's Award in 1996, the People's Appreciation Award from WHAL Radio in 1996 and the Good Citizen's Award from the Shelbyville Chamber of Commerce in 2001.
Mary Pepper died on July 3, 2008 after an extended illness. Throughout her illness, she never lost her spunk and good humor. There was probably no one who loved Bedford County and its people more than Mary Pepper Wells Fort. She always worked tirelessly on any project that made it a better, more beautiful and stronger community.
The county mayor said when the DaCosta family, who rented her farm for many years, and others suggested the highway be named for her, there was no objection.
"There are not many things that go through court without opposition," he said.
"There was no opposition to this."