April 2006

In a previous column, I described Spurgeon’s Island near Gray, TN as having been a popular “lovers’ lane” of yesteryear. Kathy Reed sent me a September 25, 1936 Johnson City Beacon newspaper clipping bearing the title, “Gray Station Folk Hearing Again of Miracle of 1901.” 

The account referenced a yellowed-with-age June 13, 1901 Johnson City Staff newspaper article, saved by Mrs. George Bowser, concerning a May 21 destructive flood around Spurgeon’s Island. On that momentous day, nine people were on the island, including Professor T.C. Garst, who was setting his fishing lines just below the confluence of the Watauga and Holston Rivers.

Those present noticed that the waters of the Holston River were rising quickly but saw little cause for alarm. However, the gravity of the situation soon became apparent when the men became fully encircled on the 25-acre island. One individual, Clinton Woods, had his boat with him. He hastily put his group – Charles Martin, David Denney, Abraham Hale and Alex Berry – into his craft and slowly and treacherously steered it to the mainland.

The four remaining individuals – Garst; Robert Berry and his ten-year-old son, Fuller; and William Hale – made camp, built a fire, ate supper and anxiously waited for the floodwaters to recede. By nightfall, the rising river forced the fishermen to relocate their campsite to higher ground. Before long, they were forced to take sanctuary in nearby trees; the nightmare was about to begin.

The Beacon vividly described the enormity and horror of their precarious tree clinging experience: “The waters continued to rise higher and higher, forcing them to drop into the flood and swim for other trees, which they heard and saw dimly as the raging howling flood swept most of the trees up by the roots and carried them away. They heard the horses neigh – then drift away to their death in the swirling stream. The hack, tied first to a tree, was also washed away. There were deafening crashes; trees sped by; debris, driftwood, logs, even houses, came down with the flood, and crashed against the cliffs opposite them. It was toward morning when a jamb of logs and drift above them broke. It was wedged across the river. With a thundering blast, it broke, but providence intervened, and sent it to the right and left, barely missing the tree where the four men clung.”

Twelve more hours transpired before the river began to recede. A woman standing in the doorway of her mud-splattered home suddenly spotted the exhausted sportsmen. Soon, a crowd of spectators and rescue personnel arrived on the scene; the weary quartet was quickly transported to their homes.

The newspaper continued: “Professor Garst devoutly considers their rescue a miracle. He refers to the prayers they sent up from their perilous perch during the moments when it seemed all was lost. The old legend is still there. There are some other trees growing there, some few that were left from the torrents of that night, in whose branches someway, something – undoubtedly a Divine Providence – found safety through that night of terror – and live to tell the tale.” 

Thanks to Kathy Reed, a miracle that occurred over a century ago at remote Spurgeon’s Island can now be retold to a new generation of area history lovers.  

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A post-WWI song of 1919 contains these old-fashioned courting lyrics: “Lovers’ lane is crowded again; Under ev'ry tree, loving pairs you see; Most ev'ry night lovers come there to woo; The boys teach the girlies how to parlez-vous.”

Melba Jones asked me to do a column about Spurgeon’s Island, a once popular 25-acre “lovers’ lane” hideout that was situated along the Holston River just below the present location of Boone Dam. Mrs. Jones has haunting memories of this idyllic piece of land when it was a popular attraction to the nearby youthful populace.

What made the island so attractive to the younger crowd was that it was situated in “no man’s land.” The area was located in Sullivan County, but there was no direct access to it from that county, requiring deputies to first cross into Washington County. The latter’s patrol force had no jurisdiction over the locale; thus, the region was essentially unsupervised.

Clint Isenberg offered some comments about the island: “Coming from Johnson City on old Kingsport Highway 36, you turned right onto Spurgeon’s Island Road just before you got to the Airport Road (Highway 75). The location of it was about a mile and a quarter down this road. You crossed over Cedar Creek on your way. Water from the upper point of Holston River flowed to the lower part, forming an island or sleuth. The island got its name from a Spurgeon family that once owned the property; a Gray family later acquired it. I remember people taking watermelons there for an outing. We put out trout lines and caught fish. The lower point was an ideal spot for swimming.”

Clint remembers one humorous incident. A boy decked in a suit and wearing a straw hat was showing off in front of a multitude of spectators by swinging on a grapevine over the river. The lad abruptly lost his grip and fell into the river. He quickly swam ashore while his hat floated down the river, all to the amusement of the crowd.

Dot Haugh and her sister, Jean Moore, expressed their fondness for the trendy area. Mrs. Haugh commented: “We would go there on Sunday afternoons for a picnic. Several of us packed a lunch of hot dogs or other food, spread a blanket on the ground and ate dinner there. It was such an enjoyable place. The island was a fun place to go with friends of your own age. I remember that there was a lot of courting going on most of the time. People went there so often that they began to become acquainted with one another.”

TVA had an option on the land, which was eventually exercised in about 1948 to build Boone Dam just above the island. A wastewater treatment facility is now  located where the popular recreational area once stood.

More words from the 1919 song: “Their hugs and their kisses thrill all the misses; As they never did before; Since the doughboys all came back from the trenches; There is not one bit of room on the benches.”

In another column, I will revisit Spurgeon’s Island and relate the “Miracle of 1901,” a highly publicized and long remembered dramatic flood and rescue operation that occurred there in May of that year.  

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The dense and overgrown lot at the northeast corner of Johnson Avenue and Knob Creek Road once contained one of the best blackberry patches in the vicinity.

The area was also my summer lair where I could vanish into a momentary world of peace and quiet. In 1956, much to my chagrin, this field became the residence of the George McCroskey family. George soon opened a new fast-food restaurant with the curious name of Biff- (acronym for “Best in Fast Food”) Burger at 1000 W. Market Street, about one block west of the old Pepsi Cola Plant.

The food chain originated in Florida in the mid-1950s, eventually providing investors with a prefabricated “Port-A-Unit” structure that contained the necessary apparatus needed to operate the new-fangled business. The restaurant later had a distinctive “W” shaped roofline containing a series of red, blue and yellow elongated diamonds along the middle front.

As I recall, there were no inside dining facilities or drive-thru provisions at the Johnson City business. The food chain was in close proximity to our house, allowing me to quickly pedal my bicycle there to purchase carryout food from their diminutive menu that included … Broiled Burgers 19¢, Cheese Burgers 24¢, Golden French Fries 14¢, Chicken ‘n Box $1.00, Shrimp and French Fries $1.00 and Thick Milk Shakes 19¢.

I generally ordered a burger, fries and a drink, occasionally plunking down an extra nickel to embellish my meat patty with a slice of American cheese. After munching down my very first Biff-Burger, I became captivated by the distinctive taste. What made these unique tasting burgers so delectable?

The enterprise utilized a “Roto-Broiler,” a small patented dual rack metal rotisserie. Its immediate success was rooted in a two-step process for cooking its signature product. The top rack, containing infrared heat coils above and below it, allowed about three or four 100% ground beef patties to cook evenly on both sides as it slowly rotated clockwise from left to right through the unit. Hot juices from the meat dripped onto the open-faced sesame seed buns on the rotating rack below, capturing the full taste of the burgers.

After a few minutes, the meat and buns concurrently exited the right side of the rotisserie, fully cooked and ready for a refreshing dip in the hot tomato sauce containing 27 secret spices. The product was then placed onto a hot bun, after which the order was fully assembled and dispensed to the impatient hungry customer. 

The operation appeared anything but high tech, but it worked to sheer perfection.The restaurant’s intent was to be more functional than aesthetic, focusing on what people wanted – reasonably priced tasty food. Patrons could observe the entire operation as their order slowly traversed the broiler. Watching the burger cook and being assembled was almost as enjoyable as consuming the broiled treat.

By the early 1960s, the Biff-Burger sizzle began to fizzle; most restaurants were sold to another fast-food franchise, Burger King. The sole survivor is a Greensboro, NC restaurant bearing the slightly altered name, Beef Burger.

The little flavorful saucy sesame bun burger might have rotated into that big rotisserie in the sky, but it is forever embedded in the taste bud memories of many area residents.  

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I received numerous responses from my Eddie Cowell article a few weeks ago. A few folks shared their memories of the once popular funnyman.

Don Sluder said he could write about the jovial jester for weeks, calling him the best radioman to ever hit the air in this part of the country: “We always started our mornings at home by listening to Eddie on WJHL; he was always entertaining. I remember his daily march around the breakfast table (similar to network radio’s Don McNeal’s “The Breakfast Club”). You could picture in your mind thousands of people pushing back their chairs and keeping time to the music.”

Merrill Moore said the clever jokester used this as a diversion tactic, allowing him to take a brief yet much needed break: “Eddie liked to alter record titles. One example was ‘To Each His Own,’ introducing it as the long-underwear song, “To Itch His Own.”

Don further recalled that one of Eddie's most requested records was a 1942 Spike Jones ditty: “Horsey, Keep Your Tail Up – Keep the Sun Out of My Eyes.” “Another reason for listening each morning (during icy weather) was to find out if area schools would be closed. There were times when, just for fun, Eddie would announce that they were closed when they really were not.”

Don further related that he later pursued a radio career and became a staff member for WCYB Radio in Bristol: “Was I ever surprised when I learned that Eddie Cowell was another staff announcer. At last, I had the privilege to get to know my radio hero. One thing he brought with him to Bristol was his famous fanfare recording that he would play before a big announcement. “Eddie had taken an old 78-rpm sound effects’ record that contained a normal short fanfare with trumpets. He recorded it over and over on an audiotape, making it last as long as he wanted.

“Many will remember his invitation to watch from the street as he told about sitting on the window ledge of the Reynolds Arcade Building where our sixth floor studios were located to eat lunch or stop at the bridge in Bluff City for a swim on the way to work.” 

Johnny Humphreys made a deposit from his memory bank: “I fondly recall him; all our family looked forward to his program in the early mornings. I can remember his machine gun sound effects. He would often have to (supposedly) use his gun on the large rats in the studio before he could begin his program. “My older brother Fred took me downtown one day, and I was fortunate to be interviewed (on the “Man on the Street” program) in front of the Majestic Theater. I was awarded a coupon for a free loaf of that wonderful smelling Honey Krust Bread.”

Phil White offered his memory of the famed airman: “I will always remember him carrying on a conversation over the air with a “cow” (a Cowell conversing with a cow). He would tip over a small round cardboard box to get a “moo” sound from it.”

The imaginative Eddie Cowell saga seems to be endless. If you have additional memories of this long-remembered radio humorist, please share them. 

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