Founding Fathers: O.D. and Ruth McKee

McKee Foods

The businesses that employ members of your family. The scenic spots where you bring your out of town relatives. The route you ride your bike on Saturdays. The hospital that helped your kids get well. What these aspects of our daily lives have in common is that they were all made possible by people who founded not only some of Chattanooga’s most enduring businesses, but a large part of the makeup of our city as we know it today.

The men and women featured here didn’t just create profitable, lasting companies and institutions. They shaped the history, infrastructure, and culture of our city, overcoming challenges such as the Great Depression, personal illness, and shifting economies, to make a positive impact on the lives around them. They might not have known in the early years and the lean years if their businesses would survive, much less change the fate of the little boom town on the river. But by daring to start new business ventures, creating charitable organizations, opening tourist attractions, preserving land, and building iconic buildings, they became not just a part of Chattanooga’s history, but integral to its future.

By Meghan O’Dea

Ruth&ODMcKeeMcKee Foods simply makes Chattanooga a sweeter place – anyone who has driven through Collegedale and caught a whiff of the breeze knows that’s literal as well as figurative. The company is a true homegrown success story. When O.D. and Ruth McKee arrived in Chattanooga during the Great Depression, they were just trying to make ends meet selling sweets. Despite the tough economic times, the couple supported one another and managed not only to keep food on their table, but to save up enough money to buy a bakery of their own.

Throughout the growth of McKee Foods, its start as a little family bakery has always remained a big part of the company, from naming the Little Debbie® snack cake line after O.D. and Ruth’s granddaughter, to innovation in selling snack cakes in “family packs,” to their determination to treat employees like family. Mike McKee is now the third generation to run the company.

That family attitude extends toward their community as well. McKee Foods has donated millions of dollars to support the creation and preservation of outdoor spaces locally including Stringer’s Ridge Park, Bauxite Ridge, Collegedale Greenway and Parks, and the Chattanooga Riverwalk, all places where area families can play and enjoy time (and even a snack cake or two) together.

“My grandparents wanted all of us to work hard and to have stewardship to God, family and our community,” says McKee Foods executive vice president Debbie McKee-Fowler, the famed granddaughter of the founders. “Grammie talked over and over again about treating all people with dignity and respect, including those who try and hurt you. And, of course, Granddad is famous for saying there is always a better way of doing something, and it is our responsibility to find it.”

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To Read About More of Chattanooga’s Founding Fathers, click the following links:

John Lupton

Robert H. Siskin

Thomas Maclellan

Leo & Ruby Lambert

Garnet & Frieda Carter

Jim Berry

Thomas Hooke McCallie and Descendants

Harry S. Probasco & Descendants

Rody Davenport & Sons

O.D. and Ruth McKee

William Emerson Brock & William Emerson Brock Jr.

Adolph Ochs

Zeboim Cartter Patten


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