Businessman Bill Patterson: "Jack of All Trades, Master of All"
Dianne Barker, former Johnson City Press-Chronicle “Cabbages and Kings” columnist, altered an old cliché when she described her late businessman father, W.M. (Bill) Patterson, calling him a “jack of all trades, master of all.”
Bill’s employment pursuits over his 102-year life span ranged from horse trader to shoemaker, grocery store owner to confectioner, taxi proprietor to dry cleaner and restaurateur to watermelon peddler. Even with little formal education, he was successful in each pursued endeavor, selling or trading while it was profitable.
Bill Patterson was born on May 15, 1888 in Redhill, NC, the son of William Hicks and Nancy Arwood Patterson. After the passing of his first wife, Bill married Nell Blackburn and reared a second family: Kenneth, Ronald, Charles and Mrs. Dianne Barker. Another daughter, Mrs. Virginia Staten, is the only surviving child from his first marriage.
Bill’s initial employment was in a furniture factory in Marion, NC earning 25 cents for a 10-hour workday. In addition, he helped his father and brothers haul rock used to build concrete pillars for the CC&O Railroad. He also assisted in delivering rock to pave Main Street in Marion. In 1912, Patterson entered the upholstery business after working on buggies and hacks at an Iowa carriage company.
On July 4, 1914, Bill moved to Johnson City where he opened a shoe making and repair shop, utilizing a skill he learned from his father’s livelihood. His shoes cost three dollars a pair and were made to last over a year. That same year, Bill bought a horse and began horse-trading. He rented a stable that was large enough for six horses. The “jack of all trades” later exchanged his horse business with a Don Wheelock for a small grocery store on Claiborne Street. Soon afterward, he swapped his enterprise for a service station and then soon traded back again. Prolific Patterson was on a roll.
According to Mrs. Barker, her father’s trade turned “sweet” in 1917 when he ventured into the candy business. He learned his skill from a man who made homemade fudge on Afton Street and peddled it around town in a horse-drawn vehicle under the name, Lambert Candy Company. The confectioner sold his sugary delight through a small two-room store on Grover Street during World War I, preparing it in one room and selling it in the other. He also marketed two-pound boxes of candy that sold for a dollar a box to stores in Johnson City, Erwin, Elizabethton, Stoney Creek, Watauga, Gray Station and Jonesboro.
About 1918, the winds of change began blowing again. Patterson gave up his candy business but retained the grocery store, soon trading it for two horses and some cash. Once again, the “master of all trades” was back to his love of trading horses. Bill obtained his first automobile by exchanging a horse for it, but after being driven only 10-15 miles, it overheated and left him on the side of the road. A man came riding by on his horse and offered to trade the animal for Bill’s broken down car. This expedient encounter netted Bill $25 profit.
The next item on Bill’s plate of opportunities was a taxi service. In the early 1920s, he obtained a four-door Overland touring car, parked it on Johnson City streets and waited for customers to come along. He charged 50 cents for town trips and a dollar for longer ones.
Bill was able to obtain the franchise on a bus line from Johnson City to Elk Park. He had four cars at the time with Hack Smithdeal being one of his drivers. Hack later acquired his own taxi business, the Yellow Cab Company, on E. Market Street. “I charged $4.50 to drive from here to Ashville,” Patterson recalled, “and $3.00 more to travel on to Spruce Pine. There were stops along the way and if anyone came out and flagged us down, we took them on too. In those days, the roads were all dirt and many times we had to borrow horses from farmers to pull us out of the mud or a ditch.”
Around 1920, Noah Glover, a local car trader, persuaded Patterson to start a city bus line, which was the first in Johnson City. His one large bus ran from the Windsor Hotel to the Normal School (ETSU), to Soldiers’ Home (VA Center) and north on Roan to Watauga and to the Carnegie Iron Works on E. Fairview and back again. Electrically powered streetcars on metal tracks offered competition by traveling essentially the same route as the bus line. Patterson charged five cents for short rides and a dime for longer ones.
By then, another change was brewing on the horizon. A Jim Ferguson offered to swap his restaurant for Bill’s transportation service. Patterson opened the American Café on Fountain Square, employing two cooks and two waiters and serving three meals a day and short orders. A meat, three vegetables, dessert and drink – cost $.35 on weekdays and $.40 on Sundays. Bill also once owned a dry cleaning establishment and a grill appropriately named Bill’s Place that was located on Market Street adjacent to the Arcade Building. He sold hamburgers for five cents each.
Unlike Patterson’s former exploits, his final enterprise spanned 24 years. He bought a truck and a fruit stand called Farmers Market and began hauling fruit and vegetables from farms all over the area as well as making frequent trips to South Carolina and Florida. In the summer months, locals affectionately hailed him “The Watermelon King.”
During Bill’s “retirement years,” he cultivated a large garden behind his home on Cherokee Road where he raised fruit and vegetables and sold them from a stand in his front yard. The industrialist passed away on June 8, 1990. His entrepreneurial spirit kept him going well into old age. Bill Patterson was truly a remarkable man.