Rufus Wills Cobb was born in Ashville, St. Clair County, Alabama. He was the son of John W. and Catherine (Stevens) Leak Cobb, who lived on a plantation at Ashville. Cobb was educated at an academy in Ashville and graduated from the University of Tennessee, at Knoxville, in 1850. Returning to Ashville, he read law in the office of John C. Thomasson and was admitted to the bar in 1855 . He practiced law in St. Clair until he moved to Shelby County, Alabama, in 1867 and became a law partner of B. B. Lewis.
When war was proclaimed in 1861, Cobb joined the Confederate Army as captain of Co. C., Tenth Alabama Infantry Regiment, Forney's brigade, and went to Virginia with that regiment. He remained there until, in 1863, he was assigned to General Joseph Wheeler's cavalry in Tennessee and placed in charge of a scouting party. At the end of the war Cobb resumed his law practice.
Cobb was elected to the Alabama state senate in 1872 and in 1876. During his term in the state senate, he collaborated with Peter Hamilton of Mobile on a plan for readjusting the state debt, a plan subsequently adopted by the legislature. Cobb was a friend and advisor of Governor George Smith Houston during Houston's administration.
Cobb was elected governor in 1878 and reelected in 1880. "He had a quiet administration, without striking events." (Owen, p. 357) The population of Alabama was growing, by 1880 the federal census recorded 1,262,505, and the problems of administrative finance and control of the railroads fell to Cobb. "His administration made improvements in tax assessment and reduced the cost of surplus in the state treasury." (Stewart, p. 127)
Also during Cobb's two terms, the State Railroad Commission, the State Bar Association, and the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute were created. The records of Governor Cobb's administration reflect that a major controversy during his last term was prohibition. The prohibition forces attempted to pass a statewide local option law but were unsuccessful.
After his term as governor had expired, he retired to private life for a time, but in 1888 accepted the appointment to the office of probate judge of Shelby County. Cobb also served as president of the Central Iron Works at Helena from 1873 to 1891, continuing to hold his title while serving as governor. He was also an attorney for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad; and was involved in cotton planting and in developing an iron mine, the Delmar, in northern Alabama.
Cobb belonged to all the branches of the York Rite Masons and was grand master of the grand lodge of Alabama in 1879 and 1880. He was the only man who was grand master and governor at the same time. He was a member of all the lodges of the Scottish Rite Masonry up to and including the thirty-second degree. Cobb's last residence was Birmingham. His grave is located in Birmingham's Forest Hill Cemetery.
- Owen, Thomas McAdory. History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography Vol. III, 1978.
- Stewart, John Craig. The Governors of Alabama, 1975.