December 2005

Wolford B. Watson owned and operated a used clothing business at 109 W. Main Street in 1939, three doors west of the Windsor Hotel. Johnson Citians won’t remember him as “Wolford”; everybody called him “Pat.”

The businessman later opened Pat’s Trading Post in the building at 126 Spring Street, focusing more on used books, magazines and other paper products, offering something for both adults and juveniles. Watson had a railroad background, having previously been employed in the 1920s by the Southern Railway Company. His father and grandfather were also railroad men.

Anybody who ever strolled into Pat’s store will fondly remember it as a treasure trove of yesteryear; you never knew what gems you might uncover as you traversed each jam-packed aisle. The post had items stacked high off the floor, but nobody minded; such clutter added to its appeal and charm.

Pat’s business stratagem was to offer his patrons the options of buying, selling and trading, the same technique used by earlier frontier trading posts. This arrangement made it convenient for customers who did not have the cash for purchases. All they needed was a stack of books or magazines for bartering purposes.

Upon entering the establishment, his clientele first encountered a long table along the right side, stacked with piles of used comic books. Being an avid “funny book” fan, I always spent some time at this table. For every two comic books you brought Pat, he would permit you to select one from the table. Should you desire cash, he would offer you a nickel for two. Most of the comics on his table were for sale at a nickel apiece, half the original cover price.

This was the essence of Watson’s business, using a similar approach with books, magazines and other items. The businessman carried a large supply of worldwide postage stamps and mostly United States coins, which he stored in a couple of discarded refrigerators.

About 1953, my dad introduced me to a new hobby, philately (stamp collecting), thus beginning a pastime that I enjoy to this day. Stamp collectors would sometimes tire of their collections and bring them to Pat for trading purposes. As a result, I acquired a large number of stamps by exchanging my dad’s used paperback books. I then began filling the pages of my large 1250-page album from these collections, licking clear “hinges” to append each stamp to the album.

To the dismay of his many fans, Pat closed his trading post around 1960 and went to work, ironically, next door as a salesman for DeVault & Devault Real Estate Company. A few years later, I visited Pat and his wife, Herstyne, at their Holston Avenue residence. He escorted me into his basement where, to my astonishment, I found the remnants of Pat’s Trading Post, literally crammed into every nook and cranny of his cellar.

Not long after that pleasant visit, the popular downtown trader moved to Gadsen, Alabama. Sadly, he passed away in early 1986 at the age of 90.

Today, each time I open my mammoth stamp album, I cannot help but think of Wolford B. “Pat” Watson and his marvelous downtown trading post. Thanks for all the memories, Pat.  

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The much-anticipated new ultra-modern Penney’s department store opened its doors at 305 E. Main Street in August 1948. The business moved from 240 E. Main, which later became the residence of Nettie Lee Ladies Shop.

Penney’s took over a site previously occupied by the Maryland Beauty Salon, The Hat Box, Sam’s Haberdashery, the Orchid Beauty Shoppe and the Avalon Apartments. Mac and George Langford, sons of Penney’s new store manager, Norris Langford and his wife, Sarah, provided some interesting facts about the new facility.

According to Mac, James Cash Penney developed a marketing strategy in 1902 when he opened his first store in Wyoming: “It was named the ‘Golden Rule’ store and was aimed at small towns of 10,000 to 15,000 as a cash and carry retail outlet. No credit or charging was permitted.” Mac fondly remembers his mother taking her two young boys downtown to watch the construction of the 36,564 square feet facility, the product of Abernathy Architectural Firm and J.E. Green Construction Company: “We would stand on the sidewalk at Kings department store to see the steel workers throw red hot rivets up two stories and hammer them into place.”

George Langford added: “It was the first of the 1,600 stores at that time to drop the J.C. Penney Co. logo and black and yellow signage and use just ‘Penney's.’” After opening speeches and a ribbon cutting ceremony, the two Langford siblings pulled back the curtains of the Main street entrance, allowing patrons their first view of the impressive store. Mac said the event received full media exposure: “WETB radio covered the opening ceremonies and interviewed department heads and customers during three half-hour ‘public interest’ broadcasts that day.”

The announcers were well known area personalities: Harry Snook, Herb Howard, Bill Shell, Stan Barron, Alice Friberg and Fred Lockett. One of the first people interviewed was Jenny Sells, the longest working Penney’s employee of Johnson City, having been employed with the firm since 1923. Throughout the opening day, Mrs. Clarence Ring, long-time organist for Central Baptist Church, played songs on the Hammond organ from the mezzanine level, commencing with the very beautiful “My Tennessee, My Tennessee.”

The store consisted of three and a half floors: street floor (ladies’ accessories, candy, jewelry, cosmetics, men’s and boys’ furnishings and dress shoes), mezzanine floor (infants’ and girls’ wear), second floor (women’s apparel, foundation garments, millinery, gowns, slips and the cotton shop) and downstairs (work clothing, work shoes, piece goods, notions and home furnishings). The prices were a reflection of the times: men's waistband overalls- $2.49, suits- $10.00, dress shoes- $6.90, dress shirts- $2.98, ladies' nylon hose- $0.98, cotton dresses- $2.00, fall coats- $24.75, children's shoes- $3.98, dungarees- $1.59 and sheets- $1.67.

The front entrance consisted of six thermo-pane 200-pound doors, installed by Holston Glass of Kingsport; the back entrance had four. The air was cooled every six and a half minutes by an air conditioning system, utilizing a huge water-cooling tower on the roof. An unusual six-inch pool of water across the entire roof provided year-round insulation.

The store had two adjacent high-speed, self-leveling, operator-driven elevators. A third person, identified as Mrs. Miller, served as elevator hostess. Should one elevator inadvertently stop during transit, the other could be deployed alongside it, allowing stranded passengers to pass through interconnecting doors from one unit to the other. George said the self–service elevators had attendants much of the time because “Dad thought it was more convenient for the customers who were not used to manning the elevators themselves.”

The flooring of the downstairs and main floors was terrazzo (marble chips on concrete). The balcony and third floors had ice blue, fatigue proof carpet. Modern ‘theatrical lighting” was deployed throughout the store to add visual effects for promotional events. There were 28 fitting rooms. The second floor ladies’ apparel rooms were quite luxurious for the time, utilizing three-way adjustable full-length mirrors.

Mac described Penney’s unique method for identifying sale items: “Most marked down special event merchandise had a price ending in “88”, such as $5.88.” Just prior to opening day, Mr. Langford went to Hamilton National Bank to obtain a supply of shiny new coins (half dollars, quarters, dimes, nickels and, of course, pennies) to be used for making change. 

The store employed an “auto call” xylophone chime system for paging key personnel. The number of chimes specified the person being summoned; for example, Mr. Langford’s call was one chime. Mac was amazed at the store’s massive labor force, employing between 64 and 106 workers, depending on the anticipated crowd.

Penney’s used the suction tube system prevalent in department stores of that era. If a sales clerk needed extra cash or a customer receipt, he or she put money or a sales slip into a tube, placed it in the suction pipe and sent it to the main cashier on the mezzanine level. The person at the other end would fill the request, put it back in a tube, insert it in the suction pipe and return it to the appropriate counter. The merchandise was then wrapped in brown paper, tied with a string and handed to the customer.

According to Mac, the store did something unheard of today: “Merchandise could be taken out of the store ‘on approval’ without paying for it.” He further commented: “Ladies back then wore corsets, and the foundation department had a professional corsetiere who could fit any female shape known to exist. “The store also had an alterations department with two large steam pressing machines, which could press men’s suits, felt hats, pants and ladies dresses after alterations while the customer waited.” Patrons could sit at their leather padded glove-fitting counter and have an expert fit them with just the right gloves.

Mac once served as an after-school roving store “detective,’” being on the lookout for shoplifters. His role was to stand on the mezzanine and report any suspicious persons to the store’s security person.

Mac recalled the occasion when Mr. Penney visited their home in Johnson City. The top executive was traveling with his valet from New York and wanted to stop by and visit his new store. Norris secured reservations for them at the John Sevier Hotel. Just two hours prior to their arrival, the New York office called and informed him that Mr. Penney wanted to stay at the Langford house. Norris met them at the train station, astutely tipped their baggage handler and escorted his important guests to his home. At Mr. Penney’s insistence, they ate breakfast promptly at seven the next morning, walked around the neighborhood at eight and were downtown ready to enter the new store punctually at nine.

During Norris Langford’s 21-year tenure as manager of Penney’s, he once served as director of the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce. After managing the new store for ten years, he was transferred in 1958 to another Penney’s store in Madisonville, Kentucky. Over time, the downtown area became a financial burden on the store’s operation. They moved to the Johnson City Mall on N. Roan Street in 1990.

Thanks to Mac and George Langford, we have been afforded a nostalgic look at a once bright spot in Johnson City’s business history.  

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I have vivid memories of each December during the 1950s when downtown Johnson City was magnificently transformed into a winter wonderland of holiday enchantment, thanks to city officials, storeowners and eager shoppers.

The recognized commencement of the Christmas season was launched at the conclusion of the Thanksgiving Day parade, with the appearance of Santa Claus sitting on a big colorful float and throwing out candy to youngsters. Should some persons not be in the holiday mood, all they had to do was spend some time within a half-mile radius of Fountain Square.

I recall making several trips downtown with my parents each Christmas season to savor the festive atmosphere. Moving through traffic and finding parking was a challenge, especially at nights and on Saturdays. Main and Market Streets were profusely decorated with large colorful decorations, perhaps gaudy by today’s standards. Storeowners decorated inside and outside their lively establishments.

It was imperative that Christmas be cold, not cool and certainly not hot. Cold air and Christmas seemed to blend together wonderfully. Occasionally, things got even better when snow blanketed the area, adding even more winter wonderland realism. As kids, we cheered the icy covering, leaving worries about the slippery roads in the hands of grownups. The town was heavily adorned with large colored lights, unlike the miniature white ones so prevalent today. Such illumination was magnified by the darkness of the night.

A dilemma for some parents was explaining to their youngsters how Santa could be at several downtown stores at the same time. My mom’s explanation was that one was the real Santa and the others were his helpers. My next question was quite predictable: “Which one is the real one?” Santa did not charge us to have our picture taken with him; instead, he freely gave us candy and special holiday comic books.

Kings’ Department Store appropriately placed Santa on the fourth floor between the toy department and the elevator. Penney’s Department Store located him in the basement where youngsters could sit on his lap, tell him what they wanted for Christmas and simultaneously be broadcast over a local radio station.

Businesses stayed open late at night, adding more excitement to shopping. You could feel the exhilaration in the air as a host of shoppers navigated from store to store. Merchants offered several choices of merchandise but not an abundance of them. Self-service had not yet arrived on the scene; each counter had one or more attendants waiting on customers.

Kings Department Store was, without question, the winner for their store window decorations, reserving one section of their wrap around window for the Nativity Scene. People from neighboring cities came just to see this highly inspirational display.




 Christmas chimes floated melodiously through the air, being played from Home Federal Savings and Loan. The steady ringing of bells was heard all over town as the Salvation Army manned their big pots, collecting money for the needy.

After Christmas, a trip downtown just wasn’t the same. The city seemed to lose something after the decorations were taken down and the crowds diminished. It was time to think about the approaching New Year, which at its conclusion would once again bring back the festive holiday spirit with all its holiday enchantment.  

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