June 2006

Several folks responded to my Biff-Burger column, revering the tasty little saucy burgers to this day.

William Dyer replied first: “I read with interest your recent column about the Biff-Burger once located on (West) Market Street. I suppose it was appealing to me because my nickname is ‘Biff’ and to this day some people still call me ‘Biff-Burger.’ My mother tells me that I did not derive my name from the well-known eatery; instead, she got her brilliant idea from a popular soap opera star, Biff McGuire, on ‘Another World.’ I can only picture my beautiful mother, Ruby Evelyn, sitting in front of her black and white TV, devouring a delicious roto-broiled hamburger with 27 secret spices, watching some suave ladies’ man make his move on a poor unsuspecting damsel.”

Harriet Baker dropped me this note: “You will probably be delighted to know that our employee, Jim Nave, was a former manager of Biff-Burger and has the recipe in his brain. One of the points that he made was that the meat patties have to be really thin and the buns toasted. Jim made them for SHHS graduates at a picnic a couple of years ago; maybe we could get him to cook some for lunch one day.” 

Bill Durham offered this correspondence: “Thanks to your column, I've been craving a Biff-Burger since 6:30 this morning. I can still think about them and my taste buds go into overdrive. Thanks for reminding me of yet another intangible I long for but can no longer have.  We've lost so much of what we used to take for granted, haven't we?”

Bill Ledford submitted this most welcomed news: “I thought you might enjoy knowing that the Biff-Burger is still in St. Petersburg, Florida.  I am also an old fan of that great burger and plan on stopping by for one shortly when we go to Florida.”  

After receiving Ledford’s note, I contacted my second cousin, Jean Moore, who lives in St. Petersburg and beseeched her to find the place and consume a Biff-Burger. When Jean drove to the establishment, she immediately recognized the distinctive architecture: “Most of the employees were too young to remember when the restaurant was in its heyday. However, one old timer did, fondly recalling the 1950s business. I went to the order window and glanced at their huge menu. I quickly spotted ‘Biff’ as the first item of several charbroiled burger selections. The price of the Biff has increased from the half-century ago price of 15 cents to 99 cents. I was not sure it was the same burger I remembered, but I was about to find out. I placed my order for a Biff and waited patiently. Unlike the original restaurants, this one did not allow me to see the burger being prepared. I held my breath hoping that I would not be disappointed.”

Jean said she knew it was the real thing just by observing the petite patty on a sesame seed bun and smelling the tantalizing spicy aroma. She confirmed her suspicions when she munched into it. She said for a few brief pleasurable moments, it was like stepping back into the 1950s.

I will feature the remembrances of former Johnson City Biff-Burger manager, Jim Nave, in a future column. 

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A distinguishing vestige of the era between 1908 and 1927 is the image of a black Model T Ford slowly chugging along a narrow city potholed dusty road, honking its distinctive “ahooga, ahooga” sounding horn.

In 1925, Johnson City’s Ford dealership, Universal Motor Corporation, was located at the corner of King and Boone streets, having previously resided on Ash Street. After the turn of the century, the emergence of motorized vehicles brought a significant decline in the horse-drawn buggy as being the principal means of transportation. A Model T roadster sold for under $400, traveled at 45 mph maximum speed, possessed a 10-gallon gas tank and achieved 27 mpg. Gas cost eight cents a gallon.

I recently acquired a 1926 automobile road guide that displayed a Model T Ford on the cover. The publication lamented the fact that many roads around the country were still unpaved, making it difficult for vehicular travel. Ownership and maintenance of this esteemed auto 80 years ago was no small endeavor.

Travelers planning a vacation were advised to carry an astonishing list of spare parts and tools with them: Open-end wrenches; adjustable (monkey) wrench; Stillson wrench; spark plug socket wrench; pair of pliers; chair repair pliers; mechanic’s hammer; large and small screwdrivers; assortment of files; spool of soft iron wire; box of assorted nuts, bolts and cotter pins; box of extra tire valves; tire pressure gauge; extra spark plugs and rim lugs; box of talcum power; several feet of high and low tension cable; roll of tape; extra valve and spring; grease gun, extra clip and bolts; extra fan belt; sheet of cork for emergency gaskets; and a small bottle of shellac; two extra tires with covers, preferably inflated on rims; three extra tubes, carefully rolled and packed in burlap to keep from chafing; a tube patching outfit for punctures and a blow-out patch or inner boot; tire pump in good working order; jack; 2”x8”x18” wooden plank to allow lifting the car on soft ground; tire chains for winter driving; extra cross chains; rope for towing a collapsible bucket; one upper and one lower rubber hose connection for radiator with clamps; box of cup grease, a spout oil can; and an extra can of oil.

The publication strongly urged proper lubrication efforts, including turning down grease cups and filling oil cups and oil holes daily. Crankcase oil was to be replaced every 1000 miles, universal joint grease every 500 miles. The guide offered these amusing and dated admonitions: “Keep your windshield clear of mist by rubbing sliced onion over the glass.” “Always stop for streetcars unloading or taking on passengers.” “While driving through large cities, watch the signals of the traffic officer on busy corners.” “A few (penny) postcards are much more practical to take along than postage stamps, which will gum together when damp.” And finally this attention-grabbing item … “Women drivers of motor vehicles should be given special consideration – and watching.”

After reading this old road guide, one has to wonder how a large family and the recommended spare parts and tools could possibly fit into a cramped Model T Ford for an extended journey. No one really minded this inconvenience though; this was the exciting era of the roaring twenties. 

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The end of each high school year signals the distribution of much anticipated annuals. I purchased a 1925 Science Hill High School yearbook, The Wataugan, having belonged to Billy Joe Crouch, a senior with impressive student credits.

I find it heartrending that what was once a priceless possession of Ethie, as he was called, became an object of financial gain eighty-one years later. This was the fifth volume of the Wataugan. The school year began on Monday, September 8, 1924 and concluded on Tuesday, May 26, 1925.

This educational institution is alternately referred to in the periodical as Johnson City High School and Science Hill High School. Two students, Ada Gray and Mallie Martin died that year and were each honored with a four-verse memorial poem. The senior class motto, color and flower were “Post proelium praemium” (After the battle, the reward) and “Purple Iris” respectively.

Surprisingly, the 70 senior photographs were not alphabetized. The sophomores and juniors had their photos displayed but without their names. I recognized one prominent individual, Howard McCorkle, the president of the sophomore class. He later became superintendent of Johnson City public schools. Of the 27 faculty members listed, I recall three: E.E. Hawkins, A.C. Graybeal and Margaret King. The latter was my principal at Henry Johnson School when I attended there between 1950 and 1956.

The library had bookcases that were attractive pieces of furniture, each containing five shelves and placed side by side. A view of one wall shows seven such units.

Men’s sports included football, basketball and baseball; the ladies had only basketball. The cheerleading squad comprised three ladies and two men. Two unusual photos were made of the baseball team. The first shows them facing the camera with “Johnson City” embedded on their shirts. The second is an unflattering posterior view containing the names of their sponsors: Quick Service Tire Company, Hotel John Sevier, Free Service Tire Company, Joe Summers Agency, Masengills, Harrison’s Studio, Tenn. Nat’l Bank, Busy Bee Cafe, Tenn. Trust Co., Unaka City Nat’l Bank, Vee Bee Grocery and J.C. Steam Laundry.

The senior class’s play, “The Charm School,” was presented in three acts. Billy Joe Crouch had the part of George Boyd, “an expert accountant.” Another page contained jokes, personalized with the names of both teachers and students. Even the superintendent got into the act: “Supt. Rogers (addressing the student body): ‘Never be sure of yourself, students; no one but a fool or a hypocrite is sure of himself.’ Jordan: ‘Are you sure, Professor?’ Prof. Rogers: ‘Absolutely sure, my boy, absolutely sure.’”

The last several pages of the annual contained old ads, one purchased by 13 well-known area doctors: Dr. E.T. West, Dr. H.R. Miller, Dr. Ward Friberg (my delivery room doctor), Dr. L.K. Gibson, Dr. G.E. Campbell, Dr. J.W. Wallace, Dr. N.E. Hartsook, Dr. W.E. Swan, Dr. J.G. Moss, Dr. H.M. Cass, Dr. R.C. Miller, Dr. C.R. Smathers and Dr. W.S. Weaver.

A page near the end of the yearbook had these poignant words: “If this little volume does nothing more than bind you a little closer to the school we all love, and in later years, become a source of happy reminiscences of high school days, we shall not have worked in vain.”

Mr. Crouch, your work was certainly not in vain.  

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No program was so enduring to the hearts of area housewives in the 1940s and 1950s, as was “Ma Perkins,” a quarter-hour “soap opera” broadcast over radio station WJHL every weekday afternoon at 1:15.

Each segment opened with these memorable words:  “And now … Oxydol's own Ma Perkins,” followed by an organ theme song, appropriately titled “Ma Perkins,” a slight variation of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Our small apartment radio never missed an episode; my mom was an ardent fan of the widow Ma and her simplistic radio gang – John, Evey, Fay, Willie, Junior and Shuffle. Over time, some 68 unique characters were introduced over this much-listened-to radio production. Being a child, I was less ecstatic about the popular program, but usually listened inattentively to the story plots due to the smallness of our apartment.

Virginia Payne assumed the title role of Ma, a pleasant soft-spoken lady, who was co-owner of a lumber company in the fictitious town of Rushville Center.  The series began in 1933 over NBC radio with the 23-year old Payne sustaining the title role for an amazing 27 years, without missing a single broadcast. Ma’s distinctive motherly voice preserved her longevity over the entire series; she could be heard by radio listeners but not seen. The nifty actress would later become affectionately known as Oxidol’s “Mother of the Air.”

Over the golden years of radio, more than 50 radio “soaps” floated across the radio stage including: “One Man's Family” (dedicated to the mothers and fathers of the younger generation and to their bewildering offspring), “The Romance of Helen Trent” (just because a woman is 35 or more, romance in life need not be over), “Stella Dallas” (the true-to-life story of mother love and sacrifice), “Portia Faces Life” (reflecting the courage, spirit and integrity of American women everywhere) and “When A Girl Marries” (dedicated to everyone who has ever been in love).

These shows were aimed primarily at working housewives, allowing them to concurrently perform their routine domestic chores while listening to their radios. These weekday serialized melodramas were so-named because their sponsors generally sold cleansing products – soaps, detergents, cleaning agents and toothpaste. Unlike modern day television soaps, the story lines were as squeaky clean as the products they advertised, with plots focusing predominantly on didactic family values.

The mild mannered Ma was a homespun philosopher, always ready to dispense needed guidance on sundry issues to her family members and friends. Her life emulated the Golden Rule. Since the programs were only 15 minutes (including commercials), some scenes took weeks to fully develop as if being broadcast in slow motion.

Radio began to transform heavily by 1960, as TV became the dominating medium. Sadly, Ma and her gang ran out of soapsuds on November 25, 1960 after 7065 broadcasts. Another popular soap, Young Doctor Malone, performed its last operation that same afternoon. On the last show, Ma spoke resolutely to her tearful radio audience, telling them goodbye and assuring them that the characters they had grown to know and love would “live happily ever after.”

Virginia Paine parted the airways forever with these final words: “Goodbye and may God bless you.” With that, the lumber company co-owner and her group closed their factory and faded into radio history. 

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