John Oglesby Winston Gravely

J.O.W. Gravely, known widely as Captain Jack, was a formative leader in establishing Rocky Mount as a major center for tobacco cultivation, processing and sales in the first half of the 20th century. Having grown up on a farm in Henry County, VA, where tobacco was the money crop, Mr. Gravely had first-hand experience with cultivation and curing. He learned marketing in Danville, VA, and, in 1890, drawn by the confluence of river, railroad and productive farmland. he moved to Rocky Mount, NC, then a small town of fewer than 3,000 people.

Mr. Gravely immediately established his first company, a brokerage and warehouse business; it was so successful that, by 1892, he was shipping 50,000 pounds of leaf tobacco to Baltimore, the largest single shipment made from Rocky Mount at the time. His success was mirrored by Rocky Mount’s: in 1890, less than a million pounds of tobacco was sold. Five years later, sales had increased to seven million pounds and in the following ten years, to more than 100 million pounds.


As his company continued to grow, Mr. Gravely developed an export trade, shipping tobacco throughout the world, ultimately focusing on the huge Chinese market. On September 16, 1918, he founded China-American Tobacco Company (CATCO), which grew into an export business of over $10M annual sales, with branches from Shanghai to Valdosta to New York and representatives traveling the world over.


Mr. Gravely created opportunities for farmers to sell their product locally, inaugurating Rocky Mount Expositions in 1891. He urged farmers to organize for better prices from local sales, in opposition to the monopoly American Tobacco Company (the Tobacco Trust). By 1908, the Association comprised 3,000 members. The Tobacco Trust was indicted and broken up in 1911 and the Eastern Carolina industry blossomed. His own firm saw its business expand by 500% in a matter of months.


A business, church and political leader, he donated time and money to civic improvement and advancement: schools, sports, community celebrations. When he died in 1932, he had helped build a thriving town of more than 21,000 that was firmly set in its path to prosperity.

Leadership Roles & Accomplishments:

  • Founder, China-American Tobacco Company (CATCO) in 1918
  • Founder, North Carolina Tobacco Farmers Protection Association

Inducted in 2021