July 2006

One of the most listened to area radio programs between 1960 and 1966 was “Hap’s House,” a creation of WBEJ Radio in Elizabethton.

“Hap” Harold Henley, alias Ziggy Ziggy Higginbotham, was a popular comedic deejay with a weekday morning eight to noon broadcast. The five-foot five-inch slightly stocky DJ beckoned his faithful listeners to their radios with “good listening, laughs galore and toe tappin’ tunes,” according to an old promotional “Wanted” poster. Those of us who remember his lively program further recall that his favorite recording artist was Elvis.

Cleo Reed, longtime general manager of the station fondly recollects the jovial entertainer: “During a broadcast, Hap put a record on the turntable and played it over and over. I went upstairs to see what was going on. He told me he was going to keep playing that song until people started calling the station. He wanted to see how many people were listening to his program. About that time, the phone began ringing off the wall.”

Given that one of his sponsors was a shoe store, Hap appropriately used as his daily theme song an instrumental recording, “Red Shoes.”

Ms. Reed recalled that the witty disc spinner once conducted a “Man on the Street” program at 12:15 pm in downtown Elizabethton in front of Parks Belk. Hap wore a bright red hard hat, interviewed people and awarded them sponsors’ prizes. The red hat is currently on display at the station’s new location at 510 Broad Street.

Cleo commented with fondness on Hap’s annual Santa Claus program, asking children or their parents to send letters to the station, receiving between 150 and 200 responses.  The clever announcer would then attempt to reach Santa at the North Pole with words like “Calling Santa Claus; come in Santa” and adding line static and wind gust sound effects to achieve even more realism.  After reaching the jolly old man, the DJ switched roles. He imitated Santa by sticking his head into a metal waste can, containing a microphone surrounded by several wadded up papers and reading the youngster’s letters over the air. The kids loved it.

Smithdeal’s Supermarket sponsored a cooking segment on Hap’s House at 10:00 each morning. Hap gave clues to secret recipes and called two fortunate listeners to see if they could identify the gastronomic delight. Prize money often exceeded $100.

 Hap had suffered terrible burns in a plane crash in World War II. Ms. Reed recalled that he was very regimented in his life activities, such as eating a thermos bottle of pea soup and a can of sardines for lunch every day. Hap was a perfectionist. He kept a huge unabridged dictionary 8” thick in the control room with him. Lynn Williams, former station engineer, located a second large dictionary at a book sale and purchased it for his friend.

Cleo summed up her feelings for her former good friend with these succinct words: “If you ever met the man, you would remember him forever.” After working at the station for six years, the well-liked radio entertainer died in October 1966 after a 13-week lingering illness. He was about 52.

The door of Hap’s House at 1240 WBEJ was closed and locked forever; Hap Harold Henley, alias Ziggy Ziggy Higginbotham, had left the building. 

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Billy Jones and Ernest Hare, known as the “Happiness Boys,” recorded a song in 1921 called “Down at the Old Swimming Hole.” “Come along with me, down to the old swimming hole. Come on and be a kid again. It’s great to lie on the bank and look at the sky. And let the rest of the world go by.”

As a youth growing up in Johnson City, I regularly patronized several city and surrounding “swimming holes.” In the late 40s, my family often traveled to the refreshing mountain waters of Hungry Mother Park in Southwest Virginia. It had a homemade beach and a kiddy wading area that was completely surrounded by a white wooden picket fence.

Another cold-water excursion was to Rock Creek Park in Unicoi Country, sporting a rocky natural pool and picnicking facilities. Mom insisted that I wait an hour after eating before entering the chilly streams so as to prevent cramps. I usually cheated on my time, not believing her worries held much water.

A third popular “hole” was the Sur-Joi establishment (formerly Watauga Swimming Pool) once situated on the site of Carver Recreation Center. Mom literally carried me there in the late 40s as a spectator because I was battling rheumatic fever and restricted from physical activities, including walking. I later became a regular active patron of that facility.

Moving to Johnson Avenue in 1950 afforded yet another selection. Mrs. Dorothy Keezel would occasionally load several neighborhood kids into her convertible and escort us on a day’s outing at Willow Park in Erwin.

Munsey Memorial Methodist Church’s natatorium (indoor swimming pool) provided folks with perennial swimming. The pool operated on an hourly basis with lifeguards blowing whistles promptly on the hour to usher in a fresh batch of waiting swimmers. The hourly charge was 50 cents. I usually stopped at their modest snack bar opposite the pool for a bite and to watch the other swimmers. I learned to swim there from an instructor who, strangely enough, stayed dry by tutoring her students from the side of the pool.

I infrequently dipped in the Franklin Pool in Elizabethton at an early age, so my recollection of that enterprise is a bit blurred. I can, however, recall visiting Woodland Lake near Jonesboro, an establishment offering two large pools – a normal one and another containing all deep water for lap swimmers.

Unquestionably, my favorite aquatic location was Cox’s Lake (formerly Lake Wataussee). Its remoteness made it further desirable. In the late 1940s, Baxter Street was paved only as far north as Woodland Avenue.

Cox’s Lake had it all – swimming, picnicking, canoeing on the pond, a large screened in recreation area over the water, a jukebox and dime pinball machines, offering the potential for free games. The elongated towering wooden sliding board along the west side of the pool was thrilling, as was the high diving board at the deep end. Patrons entering the murky pool had to contend with a chlorine footbath with its strong trenchant odor.

When the city opened the municipal pool in the early 1960s, I became attracted to its dual low and high diving boards.

Oh how I long for those carefree days of yesteryear when this boy went “down at the old swimming hole” and “let the rest of the world go by.”  

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Few things are more nostalgic than the thought of an old schoolhouse with its resounding bell, tin ceilings, rough-hewn wood floors, black potbellied stove, desks with inkwells and slate blackboards. The rope or hand-operated bell’s toll echoed across the vast countryside each weekday, beckoning youngsters to and from school.

A 1912 poem, “Song of the School Bell,” by John Everett says: “Each day at nine are loudly sung, Clear greetings from my iron tongue, While children rush with romp and race, As though to meet my fond embrace.” This device’s distinctive wistful sound caused scurrying little feet to react each time it interrupted the silence. Community schools served the learning needs of rural children until farms grew larger and families became fewer.

When my great grandfather, Samuel Bowman, died in 1905, his obituary notice acknowledged that he once attended Swadley's Schoolhouse and “obtained what, at that time, was a fair education.” Not being familiar with this center of learning, I found reference to it in a 1969 Johnson City Press-Chronicle article by the late Dorothy Hamill.

The original school was built about 1870 by Henry Swadley on land along Oakland Avenue near the base of Master Knob. Noah Sherfey was principal and teacher; he was also a local minister. Four years later, a larger building, carrying the identical name, was erected on land just a few yards from the former school.

About this same time, Pastor Sherfey purchaseda hand-operated bell for the new facility. Noah’s son, Paul Sherfey, later inherited the bell from his father, describing it as being slightly larger than 4×7 inches. The solid brass bell, according to Sherfey, had a distinct tone, was clear, loud and commanding; it could be heard across a fairly wide vicinity.

During the 1875-76 school year, students in the advanced history class were engaged in a study about Princeton University in New Jersey. The youngsters were so engrossed by the Ivy League institution’s name that they successfully convinced school officials to change the name of their school to Princeton School.

Noah taught at the newly named school for two years and then became employed at Union School on the Bristol Highway. The educator returned to his former institution about a year later. Sherfey served at Union School for another stint, eventually becoming a teacher in Sullivan County until shortly before his death in 1918.

Paul acquired the program for the closing of school in 1879, written in his father’s handwriting. The ceremony began with music, an address of welcome and a series of declamations and recitations by students. Mrs. Leighton wrote and read an essay on “The Beauties of Nature” and J.W. Scalf made a presentation on Indians. Another interesting relic was an 1883 contract for Noah to teach penmanship at Princeton during a 10-day summer period. The agreed upon pay was one dollar.

Paul Sherfey also inherited a collection of 13 pens from his father; some had broad, flat, serrated points and were termed shading pens, being of varying widths. An additional possession was a speech written by the senior Sherfey and delivered before a group of educators asking for “Uniformity of Textbooks.”

Although the old school bell’s metallic tongue no longer articulates for the students, the old building continues in service today as Princeton Arts Center.  

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Throughout its magnificent history, Johnson City has had numerous hotels to serve the lodging needs of the downtown area, especially around bustling Fountain Square.

A few establishments maintained the same identity throughout most, if not all, of their existence; others were short lived, usually selling to a buyer with a new name for their enterprise.

Here is a trivia question for you devoted history buffs. Which three of the 20 hotels listed below occupied the same downtown location between 1928 and 1953?

The building in question was located at 103 E. Market adjacent to a very popular eatery from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s. Choices range from the highly publicized to the totally unfamiliar: Colonial, Dixie, Fountain Square, Grant, Grand, John Sevier, Franklin, Piedmont, Windsor, Belmont, Arlington, Gateway, Travelers Inn, Savoy, Ramona, Lee, Commercial, Brown, Western and Martha Washington. The answer is revealed below.

Norma Myers, curator of ETSU’s Archives of Appalachia, recently shared with me an old photo from their Hotel Windsor Collection. The accumulated works contain many interesting items, including an old floor plan of the Fountain Square Hotel that once stood at 109 W. Fountain Square (also known as Windsor Way).

My research shows that this hostelry was built sometime between 1929 and 1935 along the historic west side of the railroad tracks linking Main and Market. A floor plan map of the 29-room facility gives amazing details about this old lodge. The two-story 3904 square foot brick building stretched 32 feet along the front and 122 feet to the rear. Upon entering the left side of the lobby, the customer encountered a set of stairs on the far left and the office and service desk straight ahead. There was no elevator.

To the right of the lobby was a business, the World News Store, appearing to be a hotel-owned newsstand. Customers accessed the store without going through the lobby; a hallway along the far north side connected with the merchant. The ground floor contained 11 rooms for rent and two public toilets with baths. The ground floor had a 14¼-foot ceiling.

The second floor plan displayed a smaller lobby at the top of the stairs, 18 rooms and 4 public toilets with baths. A window at the rear west wall provided the only means for fire escape from the upper level. The upstairs ceiling was 10 foot. The six bathrooms and bath facilities were designated on the drawing as “public,” meaning the guests had to share these facilities.

It is almost unfathomable today to visualize patrons in 29 rooms sharing six bath amenities until we realize that many folks of that era were accustomed to outdoor facilities at home. The common use of indoor plumbing would have been a sheer luxury. As mentioned in my Windsor Hotel column, the Fountain Square Hotel was also razed in the summer of 1971 after serving the downtown’s guest housing needs for about 40 years. If anyone has any memories of this largely forgotten hotel, please let me hear from you.

Now let me answer the trivia question. The building was located adjacent to the popular Byrd’s Restaurant situated near the Southern Railway Depot. The three hotels once operating at 103 E. Market were the Commercial, Martha Washington and Gateway. 

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It is 7:00 pm on a balmy July 7, 1953 Tuesday evening in Johnson City. The four members of the John Doe family have decided to attend a local drive-in movie, having several motion picture choices:

Van Johnson and Paul Douglas in “When In Rome” at Family Drive-In, John Derrek and Donna Reed in ‘Saturday’s Hero” at Tri-City Drive-in, Anthony Dexter and Eleanor Parker in ‘Valentino’ at Twin-City Drive-In, and Edmond O’Brien and Joanne Dru in ‘711 Ocean Drive” at King Springs Drive-In.

They choose the Family Drive-In with two nightly showings, 8:45 and 10:45, opting for the earlier one. The ticket booth attendant charges them $1.25 (a quarter per person and a quarter per vehicle), giving little thought to anyone hiding in their trunk, an occurrence commonplace with the younger crowd.

Upon entering the establishment, the Does search for the most favorable viewing location, directly in front of the big screen without being too close or too far from it. They next remove the gray-colored speaker box from the outside post and hang it on the driver’s side window. Just prior to the start of the movie and while it is still light, the Doe children visit the playground and stop by the concession stand before returning to their vehicle. The family is now ready to enjoy, “When In Rome.”

About halfway into the picture, an intermission “trailer” comes on the big screen, further enticing people to visit the snack bar: “It’s Intermission Time, Folks. Time For a Delicious Snack in Our Sparkling Refreshment Building.”

Drive-in movies had good and bad aspects to them. On the positive side, patrons could enjoy a motion picture in the privacy of their automobile. That meant making it a family affair, talking and eating without disturbing others around them. Those who owned convertibles could let the top down and literally enjoy movies under the stars.

On the negative side, drive-ins featured mostly second-run movies that required total darkness, yielding a picture quality inferior to that found at indoor theatres. Also, customers had to contend with bugs in the summer and chilly air in the winter, prompting some theatres to issue small heaters for patron use. The speaker’s monophonic sound quality was poor with just one knob for level control. People would sometimes intentionally or inadvertently drive off with the speaker still attached to their vehicles, leaving a snapped cord dangling behind. This prompted theatre management to flash these words on the screen before customers left: “Please Remember to Replace the Speaker on the Post When You Leave the Theatre.”

At the conclusion of the first showing, there was a flurry of activity, as patrons began leaving the premises, making room for those coming to the second showing.

Drive-in theatres began with just a handful of establishments in 1933 and peaked at 5000 in 1955. Their demise occurred in 1980, victimized by cable television and VCRs. Today, fewer than 900 are still in operation for diehard nostalgists. Many of the old drive-ins have been razed for urbanization. A few sit idly with dilapidated decomposing buildings, cracking discolored asphalt, waist high weeds and a screen either gone or falling apart.

Fortunately, some establishments have been reopened, preserving this unique film genre and allowing a new generation of moviegoers to enjoy cinemas “under the stars.”  

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