John Lee Pratt
John Pratt was a local boy who rose from a modest beginning to become one of the wealthiest persons in America. Born in King George County on October 22, 1879, as a youth he worked in a Fredericksburg farm equipment store. He became interested in mechanics, an interest which led him to attain a civil engineering degree at the University of Virginia in 1902. After graduation, he worked as an engineer for Dupont Corporation between 1905 and 1919. He transferred to General Motors on December 1, 1919, where he rose to become a vice-president of the company on November 16, 1922. He continued in this position until May, 1937. He was elected to the Board of Directors on April 18, 1923 and served until July 9, 1968. Prior to the Second World War, Pratt was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to serve on the War Resources Board. He later continued his public service as a member of the Lend Lease Administration, in which capacity he came into contact with important leaders of his day, including Secretary of State George C. Marshall and General (and later president) Dwight D. Eisenhower who may have been guests at Chatham.
The Pratt's purchased Chatham for $150,000 in 1931. Though a man of wealth and importance, Mr. Pratt was in many ways a simple man. Because he valued his privacy, relatively little is known about his ownership of Chatham. Because the famous Chatham gardens drew too many spectators, in the mid-1950's, he scaled back the gardens in hopes they would attract fewer visitors who infringed on his privacy. Yet, after retirement, he could often be found working in the gardens with his hired help. Rather than use an automobile, he usually walked to town, where it is said, he participated each week in a penny-ante poker game with friends.
The Pratts were known philanthropists. During their lives, and later in their wills, the couple quietly donated millions of dollars to universities (notably the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech), research centers, and other charities. The art world, too, benefited from the Pratts' generosity. The Virginia Fine Arts Museum in Richmond received Mrs. Pratt's collection of Czar Nicholas' jewels, including her famous Faberge' eggs. Mr. Pratt willed Chatham and the surrounding 30 acres to the National Park Service upon his death on December 20, 1975.