November 2005

Saturday afternoons in the 1950s often meant a trip to downtown Johnson City for a neighborhood buddy, Hagan Reed, and me. We walked east on West Market Street from Johnson Avenue, a distance of about a mile.

The main department stores then were S.H. Kress, McLellans, Woolworths, Charles Stores, Sears Roebuck, Powells, J.C. Penney, Dosser’s, Kings and Parks-Belk. Our first stop was Earl Hicks’ Produce, where my great uncle, Walter Bowman, would offer us a sample of fresh fruit. We initially walked the entire length of Main Street, entering whatever stores suited our fancy. If our shoes needed repair, that necessitated a stop at the Arcade Shoe Shop for a Cat’s Paw heel or sole. The staff gave us a sheet of white paper to rest our stocking feet on while we waited.

Wallace’s Shoe Store had a new x-ray machine used to fit shoes. We inserted our foot into a bottom slot, glanced into the top viewfinder, wiggled our toes and watched the bones in our foot move. Kings Department Store’s attraction was an open-cage elevator ride, traveling from the basement to the fifth floor and back. This excursion, with its creepy looking fully exposed shaft, was as exciting as any carnival ride. The attendant often had to move the elevator up and down to align it with the floor, negating a tripping hazard for customers.

Another stopover was Pat Watson’s Trading Post to exchange some of my dad’s paperback books for comic books. Our choice for lunch was often John’s Sandwich Shop; a couple of dime hot dogs and a nickel coke would send us on our way. Sometimes, we patronized Kress’s food counter, usually consuming a hamburger, French fries and a soft drink for under a half dollar. Before departing, we spent several minutes gazing into their tropical fish tanks.

Henry Frick’s Music Mart and Burgess Smythe’s Electric allowed us to preview some records in one of their enclosed sound booths. The Southern Railroad Depot afforded us the excitement of watching trains being loaded and unloaded. It also included a brief pause at Zimmerman’s News Stand next door. Saturdays were always enhanced by a chance encounter with John Kilby, a comedic person frequently seen in the downtown district. This hilarious old chap was a delight to his many fans.

If we needed a haircut, we could choose between fifteen barbershops within walking distance of Fountain Square. We usually patronized Primus Dees at the Majestic Barber Shop or Boyd Purdy at the Palace Barber Shop, paying 50 cents for a trim, all the while listening to Paul Harvey on the radio. The highlight of the afternoon was watching a movie at the Liberty, Tennessee, Majestic or Sevier Theatre, the first two establishments being our favorites.

Before trekking home, we stopped at Market Street Drug Store to purchase any needed three-cent stamps or penny post cards from their small post office in the back. Our final digression was the Red Shield Boy's Club for some brief recreational activity, accompanied by a free bottle of Pepsi.

Today, I cannot drive downtown and walk the streets without thinking of those simple carefree days of yesteryear when our parents, without worry, permitted two pre-teenage boys to enjoy an entire Saturday in the heart of Johnson City.

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Between 1945 and 1956, the traditional annual Thanksgiving Day dinner was sandwiched tightly between two separate Burley Bowl celebrations. This much anticipated event consisted of a parade held in downtown Johnson City in mid-morning, followed by a football game at Memorial Stadium in the afternoon.

Both heavily attended proceedings originated soon after the close of World War II as a way to celebrate the opening of the upcoming tobacco market season. I have warmhearted memories of this parade, attending it with my father for as far back as I can recall. Almost without exception, the weather was cold and blustery, occasionally with light snow or flurries and requiring us to dress appropriately. A thermos of hot chocolate was a necessary ingredient in our survival kit.

Dad and I always left early that morning, usually parking our car along Boone Street between King and Millard streets. The downtown portion of Main Street had previously closed to vehicle traffic, restricting it for pedestrian use. Such action allowed sufficient space for the massive parade and sprawling crowd.

The parade route originated in front of City Hall at Main and Boone streets, with stationary floats and school bands positioned bumper-to-bumper for a distance extending west, well beyond West Side School. Each of the numerous community clubs in the county sponsored a float and simultaneously entered a pretty contestant in the Burley Bowl queen competition. Dad and I claimed our favorite spot in front of the Tennessee Theatre, a location that permitted us to view the parade at its point of origin while it was “fresh.”

At the precise designated start time, the procession began to the accompanying cheer of the crowd. It journeyed east to Memorial Stadium, a pilgrimage of nearly a mile. What followed was a volley of police and fire vehicles with sirens blaring and lights flashing, city officials riding in convertibles, colorfully decorated floats (usually with a hint of tobacco displayed), area school bands and outrageously dressed clowns.

One year, a family member invited us to join them in viewing the parade from their second story Franklin Apartments residence at the corner of Division Street. While I enjoyed the warm unobstructed view of the spectacle while kneeling at a window, I missed the exhilaration of being part of the shivering crowd below. The parade always concluded with jolly old Saint Nick, perched high on a fire engine, waving and tossing goodies to his enthusiastic youthful congregation below.

After the pageant ended, Dad and I navigated through the dense, almost impenetrable, mob to our car. We then drove home to feast on the scrumptious Thanksgiving dinner that Mom had prepared for us.

The Burley Bowl football game began in early afternoon, with the previously selected homecoming queen crowned during halftime. According to the late Ray Stahl’s book, “Greater Johnson City: A Pictorial History,” twelve colleges and universities participated in the event during its relatively short history: East Tennessee State College, Milligan College, Emory and Henry College, Carson-Newman College, High Point (North Carolina) College, Southeastern Louisiana College, West Chester (Pennsylvania) College, Appalachian State University, Hanover (Indiana) College, Morris Harvey (West Virginia) College, Lebanon Valley (Pennsylvania) College and Memphis State University. East Tennessee State College joined the competition in 1952, playing in the last five games and winning three of them.

After the 1956 Burley Bowl tobacco market celebration concluded, the event went up in smoke and quickly vanished into yesteryear.  

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I love a good mystery, especially when it concerns Johnson City’s history. Earl Buchanan sent me a very interesting advertisement, in the form of a letter, dated April 23, 1918, of the Farmers’ Exchange. The business sold an extensive assortment of agricultural supplies: “wagons, plows, mowers, rakes, harrows, mills, drills, gasoline engines, silage cutters, seed cleaners and other farm items.” While the ad contained no street address, the letterhead showed a small photo of the exchange building, which slightly resembled the Arcade building. 

The letter was dated five years before the Arcade was constructed in 1923, ruling out that possibility. Where then was this large business of yesteryear located? The depiction showed a road flanking the left side of the building and a train on the right, billowing black smoke from its stack as it chugged along.


After some research, I determined the address of the Farmers’ Exchange to be at 106-110 West Market Street, in close proximity of the future Arcade Building. The London-Kirkpatrick Hardware occupied the site in 1928, becoming known two years later as London Hardware Company. The road in question was Commerce Street and the train was leaving the Southern Railway Depot, suggesting that the exchange building was built before the Taylor Brothers Building next door.

The advertisement identified the officers of the business as W.F. Carter (president), E.L. Anderson (secretary and manager) and R.S. Pritchett (treasurer). The letter illustrates the strong male influence of the early 1900s, containing some unusual language: “We hereby extend to you a cordial invitation to our anniversary May 4, 1918.

“The enclosed button may be worth several dollars as there are five hundred duplicate numbers, and if you will find the fellow wearing the same number you have and bring him to our store, we will give each of you a silver dollar.” Another benefit of wearing the button was receiving an additional 5% of all cash sales. The letter cautioned the receiver not to lose it, lest both parties miss an opportunity to win a dollar coin.

Not to be completely excluded, the farmers’ wives were addressed in the letter in a rather impersonal manner: “For the convenience of our farm women and other visitors, we have just completed a Ladies Rest Room on the second floor of our building where we will be glad to have them leave their bundles, eat their lunch or rest while they wait for trains or friends. Bring the women along.”

The brochure announced some quality improvements made to their product line: “We no longer sell you pea hulls, sticks and trash in your millet, for we have installed a seed cleaning plant and all peas, millet, cane seed, buckwheat, etc. are put in first-class condition before we send them to the farm. We have a power sheller and can handle your corn in the ear. We will also make corn meal and chop for you while you wait.”

The ad concluded by promoting their Sharples Suction Feed Separators, which they proclaimed to be “the most perfect separator on the face of the earth.”

The exchange either closed or moved to another location sometime between 1918 and 1928. One has to wonder if they took the Ladies Rest Room with them when they closed.

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