February 2006

Few Johnson Citians can likely recall Redpath Chautauqua, a cultural traveling circuit that once frequented our city in the early part of this century.

Chautauqua, an Iroquois word meaning, “two moccasins tied together,” began in Chautauqua, New York as a Sunday school summer camp for teachers. It expanded into an annual recreational and learning university.

In 1904, the event became a series of traveling circuits, performing from three to seven days under a large brown tent. It eventually completed 10,000 meetings in 45 states before 45 million people. Redpath (the southern circuit) Chautauqua began on New Street at the former site of the old Leon Ferenbach plant, later relocating to a field between Main and Market streets west of First Christian Church.

Chautauqua served as a platform for issues of the day; over the years, nine U.S. presidents spoke at it. The Chalk Line, a newspaper of the student body of East Tennessee State Teachers College, had this bold headline in its May 19, 1931 edition: “Redpath Chautauqua, Johnson City, Tennessee, May 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, June 1.”

Professor Carson and Dr. Wheeler divided Johnson City into ten districts and directed a massive ticket sales campaign. Teams of students were recruited to sell tickets within the clearly defined districts; the campus was referred to as “a happy hunting ground.” Admission prices were 35 cents, evenings; children, all programs, 25 cents; and season tickets, $2.00.

The six-day event began at 10:00 am or 2:30 pm each day and ran well into the evening hours, presenting some impressive programs: The Children’s Hour; Mystery and Illusion: Reno, the Magician; Play: A New York Comedy Success, “Broken Dishes”; Entertainment: Ball-Brown Company; Prelude: Ball-Brown Company; Lecture: “Government in Gangland,” C. Ray Hansen; Lecture: “Are Kings and Queens Human?” Adrian Wright McCauley; Play: Uproarious Comedy, “Her Husband’s Wife;” Popular Entertainment: Lura Forbes; Musical Comedy: Drama, “The Violin Maker of Cremona;” Main Street Smile Program: Lura Forbes; Grand Concert: Metropolitan Singers; Lecture: “The Old Town In a New World,” Charles H. Plallenburg; Play: Great International Drama, “Grumpy”; Junior Chautauqua Program; and Popular Concert: The Philharmonic Ensemble.

The students concluded their Chalk Line article by offering seven enlightening reasons why students should attend the event. In their own words …

1. “I like music, and at the Redpath Chautauqua, I can hear understandable music of every kind.

2. “I can see some of the most successful comedy-dramas of recent years enacted by splendid casts.

3. “I can hear speakers of recognized ability and experience discussion problems that are worthy of attention.

4. “I enjoy the clean, wholesome entertainment, which is to be found in every program.

5. “I like the neighborliness and community spirit of the assembly and can renew and strengthen old friendships and cultivate new ones.

6. “In reality, it is a summer vacation brought to my door and which I cannot afford to miss.

7. “I may have all this with a season ticket for what I would have to pay in many places for a single attraction.”

In spite of these positive comments, Chautauqua’s demise came within two years, a causality of a lingering poor economy and the increasing popularity of radio into homes. After a 58-year cultural run, the show organizers brought their big brown tent down for the final time; the show was over.  

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My column last week, disclosing the news that some anonymous person has possession of Johnson City’s Boone Trail Marker, spurred several notes to me. As promised, I forwarded each one to the unnamed owner for his consideration. Two of the suggestions grabbed his attention.

I contacted Mr. Gary Marshall, Managing-Director, Boone Trail Highway and Memorial Re-Association and author of a book on the subject, “Rich Man: Daniel Boone.” The organization’s leader was delighted that the marker’s rescuer is coming forward to secure the monument’s return to public service. “What a pleasant announcement you make. Please commend the anonymous caretaker of the Johnson City Boone marker in my behalf. I stand ready and willing to do whatever I can to assist in this significant effort.

Mr. Marshall sent a complimentary copy of his book to the undisclosed marker owner, showing several nationwide designs. He suggested that the city pay particular attention to one in downtown Wytheville, VA.  “I watched a bit of the construction of this monument. I observed that they used an arrowhead shaped metal insert inside the monument, around which the mason constructed the stone and mortar arrowhead.”

I quizzed the managing-director about an old photo of Science Hill High School, depicting a square recessed area above the plate and what appear to be raised bars emitting from it: “The crest-like feature above the metal tablet was distinctive to each monument. The authentic Indian arrowheads, collected from donations received by supporters of the Boone Association, were imbedded in the concrete of the monument in various geometric designs. Sometimes the central square feature was a glass case containing a paper listing of the names of the local contributors to the cost of the monument. I am sure the original monument at Johnson City would have featured authentic arrowheads, for that is what your photo would indicate.”

Mr. Unknown previously shared with me a membership receipt issued to Mrs. Justus T. Whitlock, regent of the State of Franklin Chapter of the DAR. The expiration date showed June 1, 1933. “These certificates were issued as receipts for donations to the association in support of its work nationally. The memberships were annual, so I interpret the date of this certificate as one year prior to its noted expiration.”

The historian stated that the Jonesborough monument was dedicated on July 4, 1930 as part of their Sesquicentennial Celebration. Mayor J.T. Whitlock received the Jonesborough monument on behalf of the town.

“The Johnson City tablet, like the Jonesborough one, is a style-3, making it among the later vintage tablets, dating after 1923. “It seems to me that Mr. Rich was active in East Tennessee about 1927 (date of the Elizabethton marker), and 1930 (date of the Jonesborough one). I would suppose that the Johnson City and Kingsport monuments also date from this era. “Every Johnson City patriot should and must rally to the cause of this proud heritage, restore this community artifact, and commend its significance to the generations of citizens yet to come.”

If anyone has any additional suggestions for the marker, please contact me right away so they can be considered before a final decision is made. I will announce in a future column the final decision and details for placing the marker in Johnson City.   

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On Halloween night, October 30, 1938, noted actor, Orson Wells, terrified the nation with his Mercury Theatre on the Air’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast, recounting a purported Martian invasion of earth. Popular WCYB radio personality, Eddie Cowell, displayed similar chicanery on January 23, 1954 by telling his listening audience that an enormous monster was on the loose reaping havoc in downtown Bristol.

The well-liked deejay went on to describe the ominous creature as being 80 feet tall, 40 feet thick and having a 100-foot tail capable of toppling large trees. Cowell employed the same tactic as Wells – unfolding the horror over a period of time to build the suspense as new information was supposedly relayed to the station. Listeners were informed that a bomber containing advanced weaponry was being deployed from Washington DC to eradicate the scary beast. Some 1000 frantic calls from listeners across East Tennessee and southwest Virginia poured into the station; local law enforcement dispatches also received numerous inquiries.

Thanks to Joe and Ida Cowell, the late broadcaster’s son and widow respectively, the Eddie Cowell story can be revisited. The creative prankster began his memorable career as sports broadcaster for WJHL radio in 1939 after winning a contest, eventually becoming sports director and then program director. Ed O’Cowell, as he often called himself on the air, possessed an extensive repertoire of madcap records and sound effects that he routinely incorporated into his broadcasts. One favorite bandleader was Spike Jones and His City Slickers, who offered “dinner music for people who aren’t very hungry.” Another artist was Victor Borge with his “Phonetic Punctuation” routine – reading text and hilariously inserting audible punctuation.

During World War II, businessman Truett Siler, owner of a local furniture and appliance store, became a sponsor of Cowell’s show. The two men made a noble wager to see who could sell the most war bonds in a single week. While the collective total was an impressive $90,000, it was Cowell who prevailed in the bet, resulting in the storeowner pulling his entertainer friend along Main Street in a wagon before a crowd of curious bystanders.

About 1948, Eddie was offered a role in WJHL’s “Man on the Street” broadcast, a clever promotional initiative sponsored by Honey-Krust Bakery. Anna Sue Lacey as “Honey” and Eddie as “Krust” interviewed contestants at 12:15 pm every day, Monday through Saturday, in front of the Majestic Theatre. Ruth Greenway also served in that capacity. The ability of the pair to glean interesting facts from people made the program immensely popular. Sometimes tricky questions were asked, such as how to spell “phthsic” (pronounced “tiz-ik”). Participants were rewarded with a freshly baked loaf of Honey Krust Bread.

Eddie was elected as a Johnson City Commissioner in 1949 after a decisive victory over four competitors. His numerous community service activities earned him the title, “Outstanding Young Man of 1949,” by the Johnson City Junior Chamber of Commerce. Mayor Howard Patrick presented his award at a highly attended banquet at the John Sevier Hotel ballroom. In July 1950, misfortune struck the broadcaster when he was abruptly stricken with crippling polio. He was eventually transported to Duke Hospital in Durham, NC for further treatment.

While still at this medical facility, Eddie experienced something on October 7 that few people can boast. General Robert Neyland, University of Tennessee head football coach, arranged for the wheelchair bound radio personality to sit on the sidelines with his favorite team. The visiting Volunteers honored their special guest with a 28-7 victory over the Duke Blue Devils.

In 1953, Eddie left WJHL and, after a brief stint at WBEJ in Elizabethton, joined Bristol's WCYB Radio, where he produced an afternoon show and an evening sports program. It was during this stint that the zany airman is best remembered for his creative unusual broadcasts. Eddie once reported that an airplane carrying 200 passengers was stuck by its landing gear on a cloud over Tri-Cities Airport and that extrication efforts were underway. Another widely remembered prank involved a submarine sighting at South Holston Lake. The sultan of surprise once aired the news that actress Marilyn Monroe and then husband, Joe DiMaggio, Yankee Hall of Fame baseball legend, were visiting Bristol and became lost. A host of volunteers searched for the celebrated couple without success.

Merrill Moore, former WCYB Television anchorman, recalls when his good friend told his radio fans that a man was going to toss currency from the roof of Bristol's General Shale building at a designated time. A sizeable and disappointed crowd arrived to witness the non-event. The rascally conniving deejay then invited listeners to join him on the banks of the nearby Holston River to observe the annual polar bear club members plunge into the icy waters. Several gullible shivering spectators gobbled his witty bait.

Ida Cowell recalls when her husband asked listeners to come to the WCYB building and watch him tap dance on a narrow fifth floor ledge – quite a feat for someone with polio. The practical joker tapped two quarters together on his broadcast table to simulate the desired sound effect. Other Cowell shenanigans include reports of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill staying at a nearby hotel and diamond mines being discovered in Abington, Virginia. Once in response to a scheduled visit by President Eisenhower to the area, the uninhibited jester actually phoned the White House during a broadcast to see if the nation's leader and his staff might stop by Mrs. Cowell's kitchen to enjoy some of her delicious cherry pie. Eddie’s bag of trickery appeared to be endless. This rebel with a cause had the uncanny ability to project realism into his broadcasts even when logic suggested otherwise.

The end of Eddie’s on-the-air shenanigans came to an abrupt halt soon after the monster scare when a local resident filed a complaint with the FCC, asking that such on-the-air tomfoolery be halted immediately. The station eventually complied with the request against a storm of protest. The good-natured showman’s involvement with the station was later expanded to television, which included hosting such television quiz shows as Kiddie College and Club Quiz.

The funnyman retired in 1970 and, after several years of declining health, passed away in 1988 at age 70. East Tennessee State University's College of Arts and Sciences honored him by instigating an annual “Eddie Cowell Broadcast Journalism Scholarship” for deserving students.

Eddie's funeral in 1988 included a brief moment of merriment that symbolized his illustrious life. Merrill Moore recalls the event while serving as pallbearer: “While we were bringing his casket down the steps of St. Mary's Catholic Church on Market Street, several police cars and fire engines zoomed by with sirens blaring.” Perhaps they were heading toward Bristol to deal with a menacing monster, to Tri-Cities Airport to assist with a cloud stuck aircraft or to South Holston Lake to investigate sightings of a submarine. Another pallbearer turned to Merrill and whispered, “Can't you just imagine Ed grinning right now and saying, 'You don't really need to make all this fuss over me.'”  Both men fought back laughter.

This sudden spontaneous disruption of an emotional solemn event was just as Eddie Cowell would have orchestrated it. Looking back over this unique and highly creative announcer’s career, one has to conclude that this radio genius was truly ahead of his time.


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Between 1958 and 1961, I made a daily jaunt up 88 steps to the old Science Hill High School, scarcely noticing the unusual vertical concrete arrowhead to my left near the bottom of “the hill.”

The Daniel Boone Trail Marker, containing a large bronze plate showing the pioneer trailblazer and his dog, stood there from about 1930 to early 1979.

Beginning in 1913 and extending for 25 years, J. Hampton Rich and his North Carolina Boone Trail Highway and Memorial Association erected 358 such markers across America. The organization’s stated mission was “to build a trans-continental highway in honor of Daniel Boone,” placing markers throughout this country, including a few in the regions where the frontiersman was known to have trekked.

Tennessee had nine such units: in Johnson City, Cumberland Gap, Elizabethton, Harrogate, Jonesborough, Kingsport (2), Laurel Bloomery and Mountain City. As a bonus historical gesture, a small piece of metal from the U.S.S. Maine, a Spanish-American War vessel that was raised in 1912 from the floor of Havana Harbor, was added to each relic’s molten mix. In early 1979 during demolition of the old high school, the city’s once treasured artifact abruptly disappeared without a trace.

Recently, I became acquainted with the individual who has possession of the long lost Boone marker. He agreed to an interview, provided I would not disclose his identity: “While they were tearing the school down, I went up there one day to watch. I noticed that the Boone Trail Marker had been knocked over by a front-end loader and had broken into two large crumbling pieces.

“I asked one of the workers if I could have the bronze plate that had separated from it. He said ‘yes.’ I was shocked that the city had no further plans for it. I put it in the trunk of my car, took it home and located it in my basement, where it has resided for 27 years. “I have often wondered what would have become of it had I not saved it. It was another 10 to 15 years before people began wondering what happened to it.”

The mysterious gentleman told me that the city’s overall track record for preserving landmarks and artifacts was not favorable, specifically mentioning the Southern Railway Depot, Tennessee Theatre, the Lady of the Fountain and the globes at East Tennessee State University: ““When the university redid their main entrance, those globes ended up in a sinkhole. Fortunately, they were later found and relocated to the Chamber of Commerce building.”

The undisclosed owner considered several options over the years – donating the marker to the new public library, mounting it in a coffee table for use at City Hall and soliciting the assistance of the late Tom Hodge. “I am willing to give it back to the city, provided I have full assurance that it will be placed in a safe location – somewhere like a Winged Deer Park – without worry that it will later be disposed of or sold.”

The possessor hopes that people will respond to this column with carefully thought-out suggestions, which he promises to give serious consideration. Are Johnson Citians interested in reviving the Daniel Boone Trail Marker or will it reside in a cellar for another 27 years? We shall see.  

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Bowling alleys had a very modest beginning. Prior to 1958, only a handful of such establishments existed in Johnson City, which included Johnson City Recreation Center, originally known as Royal Club Recreation (106-108 Spring Street), R&L Bowling Lanes (808 Buffalo Street) and Bowling Palace (84-86 Wilson Avenue).

My Junior High School friends and I routinely patronized the business on Spring Street opposite Hamilton National Bank; several of us boys would gather there after school. The bowling portion of the operation was located directly above the pool hall. Without realizing it, we were just a stone’s throw from the former site of Jobe’s Opera House, the city’s first public entertainment venue.

As I recall, there were only three or four lanes; surprisingly, we were often the lone customers. After securing a paper scorecard and pencil, we each searched their limited selection of balls for one that comfortably fit our finger spacing. There were no special bowling shoes to rent; patrons simply played in their regular footwear. None of us had perfected the art of bowling. We awkwardly glided the ball to the lane, rolled it forward and hoped it would knock over most, if not all, of the pins. Often, the gutter was its destination.

Next came the interesting part. Instead of an automatic pinsetter removing and resetting the downed pins, the machine required manual labor. One or two boys hastily shifted back and forth between the operating lanes to service them physically. With each toss of the ball, the worker rolled it back to the bowler and reinserted the toppled pins down into the device. After the second ball was rolled and the remaining pins placed back into the setter, the worker operated a lever that lowered the ten pins upright onto the floor for the next bowler, that being the only automatic step.

It was not unusual to arrive at the leisure center to find no one available to reset pins. That meant we had to assume this task ourselves, affording us a unique behind-the-scenes experience. The desk attendant always strongly warned us to stay well behind the wall when the ball was being tossed down the alley lest we be injured by it or by flying pins. While this somewhat unsafe activity was pleasurable initially, it eventually became fatiguing, and we were quite willing to let the next person take his turn.

Although, bowling has existed since 5200 B.C. in Egypt, it was not until 1895 that the rules were standardized. In 1958, the Professional Bowlers Association was organized to promote bowling to the status of a major sport. 

About this same time, Nance Lanes opened its doors at Main, Market and Division streets, opposite Paty Lumber Company and at a site vacated by Dan Plank Oldsmobile. The new business had 12 lanes, automatic AMF pinsetters and a snack bar. Bowlers were required to rent or bring their own bowling shoes.

A few months later, several of us joined our first bowling league – the Johnson City High School Boys Bowling League – with George Finchum, an instructor at ETSC (later ETSU) Training School (now University School), as our league manager and coach.

Today’s bowlers can enjoy state of the art facilities at such local locations as Holiday Lanes and Leisure Lanes.  

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