October 2006

Recently, I spent an enjoyable afternoon in the home of Frank and Sara Tannewitz, savoring stories of life in downtown Johnson City in the 1930s.

The former SHHS teacher and student counselor related his story: “I sold magazines after school and on Saturdays there. Saturday Evening Post, Collier and Liberty went for a nickel; Woman’s Home Companion and Ladies Home Journal cost a dime. “My supplier was Zimmerman’s News Stand, owned by Carl and J.R. Zimmerman, near the old train depot. They let me pay for my magazines after I sold them, not before. I made about $1.50 a week, being paid an average of about a penny and a half for each copy I sold. That allowed me to buy lunch at school for 15 cents, purchase cola and candy bars for a nickel each and attend a movie for about a dime.

“I made my rounds by walking up and down Main and Market streets from Fountain Square to Colonial Way carrying a bag full of magazines. I knew all the downtown merchants; they graciously let me sell inside their stores. Surprisingly, the store clerks bought more magazines than did their customers. I sold to passengers at the depot as they got on and off trains. I had more sales at the John Sevier Hotel and the Colonial Hotel than any of the others.”

Tannewitz recalled two historical events that occurred during this era. The first took place about 1929 while he was at his mother’s Triangle Tearoom (140.5 E. Market, part of the site that later became S.H. Kress Company). “I overheard somebody shout, ‘There he goes,’ said Tannewitz. “I looked over and saw Herbert Hoover coming out of the Market Street door of the John Sevier Hotel. The President was in Johnson City for the opening of the Bemberg and Glanzstoff plants in Elizabethton.

The second noteworthy incident occurred about 1937, while the youthful peddler was promoting his product line at the Roan Street door of the John Sevier Hotel. “I saw Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt come hurriedly out of the hotel and get in a car,” said Frank. “She was being escorted to the VA.”

Mr. T. recounted several observations of the downtown area while selling magazines there: “There was once a water supply tank standing at Roan Street adjacent to the railroad tracks that was used to load steam engines. Brush Creek ran through that same area. The railroad once brought in a traveling sidecar show that had a whale mounted on it. It was on public display for several days and drew quite a crowd. I remember when the Lady of the Fountain was moved from Fountain Square to Roosevelt (later called Memorial) Stadium. Eventually, I saw the bowl lying on the ground after it had been separated from the statue. It soon vanished.

“During World War II, the city erected a big board in Fountain Square that contained the names of all military personnel who fought in the war. The City Bus Station was located along the railroad tracks opposite the Windsor Hotel. I remember Fields Department Store, Snyder-Jones Drug Store, Anderson’s Drug Store and Sterchi’s Furniture Store. Street peddlers, riding in horse drawn wagons, were plentiful along Railroad Street that ran between the buildings and the train depot. I also recall seeing horse-drawn ice wagons.”

Thanks to Frank Tannewitz’s 1930s downtown employment opportunity, we have been afforded yet another glimpse into the city’s colorful past.   

Read more

I have a family keepsake from World War II that I treasure – a V-Mail sent to my grandmother from my father, a soldier stationed in the Philippines. Long before E- (Electronic) Mails, there were V- (Victory) Mails that grew out of a critical need that developed during the war years.

In the early stages of the conflict, military personnel sent and received sizable quantities of letters, such correspondence greatly boosting troop morale. It was said that morale and mail were one and the same. However, a massive letter jam eventually caused interference on ships and planes that carried critical supplies for the war effort.

Mail was frequently delayed by being temporarily stored in warehouses until space could be acquired on cargo vehicles. To combat this dilemma, the post office and the military jointly devised an innovative process that reduced mail delivery abroad from several weeks to about 12 days.

Between June 15, 1942 and April 1, 1945, the military processed over a billion V-Mails – single 4.25 by 5 inch one-sided sheets of paper, containing a gummed edge along one side, which folded into ready-to-mail letters. The outside envelopes displayed a large “V …- Mail,” the three dots and dash being Morse code for the letter “V.”

These “five-minute furloughs,” as they became known, contained explicit instructions on the back with this caveat: “The only V-Mail that is undeliverable is that which is not properly addressed.” They sold for a dime a dozen and were readily available at post offices and stores – stationery, drug, department and 5 & 10 (cent). The writer’s message could not exceed one page; additional pages had to be sent as separate V-Mails.

The sender was directed to write neatly and, as an extra precaution, to print the “To” and “From” information in the blocks at the top so as to insure readability for delivery. The left top of the letter contained the censor’s stamp. This individual had the authority to cut out or blacken information that was considered classified. After the letter was written, it was folded, licked, sealed and deposited in any regular mailbox.

Members of the Armed Forces were granted gratis delivery, but others required a 3-cent stamp for ordinary mail or a 6-cent one for airmail. The post office microfilmed each war letter, reducing it to thumbnail size, onto a continuous roll of film containing other V-Mails. The paper copy was then destroyed.

The rolls were summarily sent overseas to one of several processing centers where each letter was converted back to its original paper size and forwarded to the designated military person. This clever process reduced 37 mailbags weighing 2575 pounds to a single one of only 45 pounds. An ad from that era proclaimed that 1700 V-Mails could easily fit inside an empty cigarette pack.

Dad’s 17-line handwritten note expressed his sincere desire for a speedy conclusion to the lingering hostilities: “I am hoping to hear good news about Germany one of these days soon. It seems that everything depends on her surrender. Sometimes I wish I were over there. I’d get a more satisfying feeling about it all.”

On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Forces, bringing both the war and the V-Mail program to a much-celebrated finale. The unique little letter patriotically served our country well. 

Read more

“Winky Dink and you, Winky Dink and me, Always have a lot of fun together. Winky Dink and you, Winky Dink and me, We are pals in fair or stormy weather.” Saturday mornings at 10:00 were reserved for a unique interactive children’s television program, Winky Dink and You.

The popular series made its debut on CBS on October 10, 1953. Jack Berry hosted it for those youngsters whose families were fortunate enough to own a television set or had access to one. Unlike previous television shows that we simply watched on the small screen, this one required us to be an active participant. We were told that our assistance was desperately needed.

The youthful Winky was an unusual looking lad with hair in the shape of a five-pointed star, one point hanging over his right eye. He possessed oversized eyes with equally large pupils. Mr. Dink wore a star around his neck that matched his hair. His playsuit appeared to be multicolored, but we couldn’t be sure since we did not have color televisions. If we had listened closely to Winky’s voice, we would have heard Popeye’s Olive Oyl and Betty Boop from the versatile Mae Questel.

The whole premise of the show was for youngsters to help Winky and his little dog, Woofer, out of frequent precarious situations, usually involving the evil characters, Harem Scarem or Foxey Maxey. To participate on the show, we had to mail the company fifty-cents for a Winky Dink Magic Kit, containing a green plastic “magic” shield to cover the TV screen, four “magic” crayons (red, yellow, blue and green) and a “magic” cotton cleanup towel. Everything was “magic.”

At the beginning of each program, Jack Berry instructed us to carefully place the shield over the television screen and rub it firmly with the towel. It was “magically” held on the TV by static electricity. The host further warned his youthful fans to make sure the shield covered the entire screen before marking on it and to use only the specially designed crayons supplied in the kit. A typical story line involved a heinous villain dynamiting a section of train track. The train, on which Winky was riding, was chugging along toward certain disaster. We were told to quickly repair the track damage using a designated colored crayon to connect a series of consecutive small numbers. Miraculously, we accomplished our important task only seconds before the train arrived.

Some mischievous kids purposely did nothing to help Winky only to find that nothing bad happened, adding doubt to the value of marking on the protective shield.

Each show contained an important secret message that was revealed by connecting the numbers in some alphabetic letters. A typical one was “Eat your vegetables.” Old Wink was ahead of his time; the shield had a small logo of the lad embedded at the bottom center, characteristic of today’s television networks.

The show left the air on April 27, 1957, after a successful three and a half year run. It ran in syndication from 1969 to 1973 and was revived again in the 1990s as digitized cartoons. By this time, poor old Wink had lost his “magic.” The shield and crayons were summarily retired and the once unique popular show went into the television history books.  

Read more

In 1895, H.G. Wells wrote the widely acclaimed novel, The Time Machine, recounting an imaginary avant-garde device that instantly thrust travelers into another age. Climb aboard my Yesteryear Time Machine for a 1910 visit to downtown Johnson City, a picturesque community of about 8500 inhabitants.

After activating the time lever, we find ourselves in Market Square gazing at the Lady of the Fountain, an imposing six-foot solid bronze statue. A nearby watering trough is large enough for six to eight harmonious horses to stand side-by-side and enjoy a refreshing drink after a weary trot to town. We immediately realize that we are in another era when we spot a grocery store sign advertising sirloin steak at 25 cents per pound.

The business district is no longer dusty or muddy. Instead, it has nice pebble block brick streets and concrete sidewalks, resulting from street improvements made about two years prior. Crossing streets in 1910 is less stressful because automobiles are nearly non-existent, having come into limited production only seven years earlier. Even so, we must keep an eye on the modern electric trolleys that constantly travel from the inner city to several remote locations.

Our casual dress appears to be out of step with local residents; the ladies are adorned in long dresses and the men are decked out in coats and ties. A much-ballyhooed discussion around town is the forthcoming relocation of the remains of city founder, Henry Johnson, and his wife, Mary, from a residence off Fairview Avenue to Oak Hill Cemetery.

Street vendors are everywhere, peddling their wares from wagons, positioned at strategic locations for attracting customers. Fountain Square appears to have the highest concentration of them. Shoppers park their wagons anywhere they desire without fear of receiving a ticket from a meter attendant meandering down the street on a mule.

A brochure from the Commerce Club (later renamed Chamber of Commerce) indicates a profitable business opportunity for wooden casket manufacturers. This need is generated by a growing populace and an abundance of low-grade chestnut and other suitable timbers in the area.

The Bee-Hive, a large variety department store occupying three stories and a basement at 209 E. Main (later the site of Parks-Belk), is a favorite among locals. Another attention grabbing shop is the ever-growing New York Bargain House (111 Buffalo), advertising “Good Merchandise Cheap.”

Two banks, the City National and the Unaka National and two twice a week newspapers, The Comet and The Staff, serve the town’s needs. Interestingly, tax rates are said to be high at $3.40 per hundred, but property is assessed at no more that 25% of its actual value.

Before returning to 2006, let’s patronize one of the downtown eateries – the American Restaurant (111 W. Market), Silver Moon Restaurant (113 Railroad Street), Greek Restaurant (117 W. Main) and Idol Inn Café (future site of Byrd’s Restaurant). One tempting menu option offers two pork chops, beans, potatoes and baked apples, topped off with coffee and cake – all for only a quarter.

As we embark the Yesteryear Time Machine for our return to the present, we ponder what we would have found had we instead chosen to travel downtown … in the year 2110.  

Read more

It is a joy to receive correspondence from those who bring to mind long-deceased unique individuals from yesteryear. Stan Barlow, a former resident of our city who taught at ETSU, Columbia University, City University (New York) and was dean at the University of Minnesota, sent me a note.

The educator responded to my previous Junior High School column, sharing cherished memories of an era long since passed. Mr. Barlow said he received a copy of my article about the old school that was designed by the father of his brother-in-law, Dick Beeson.

Stan indicated that he once lived at 102 W. Watauga Avenue and later at 705 N. Roan Street: “I could see the windows of (Pearl) Archer's homeroom when I was in the 8th grade and getting ready to walk the two blocks to it. I was a proud graduate of North Side School and in another two years would be running down Roan Street and up the hill of stairs to twin-towered Science Hill, all too often hearing the 8 o'clock tardy bell as I climbed.”

Stan lamented that the three schools he once attended have all been razed, saying that they once seemed eternal to him. Also gone are the two houses where he lived. His sole consolation is that a new North Side School now stands in the location of the former educational building.

Mr. Barlow further stated: “A.E. Sherrod, our Junior High hands-on principal, was a symbol to me. I never lost sight of him. He ran a tight ship, but he knew what he was doing – he was educating – as were most of the teachers who served with him. I remember how, every year in assembly, Mr. Sherrod would read us a poem with the refrain, ‘Just keep a-going?’”

Stan singled out four teachers from that era – Miss (Hettie) Ewalt, (Miss) Mabel Anderson, Mr. (Miller) Bray and Mr. MaGuren. The latter taught band and eventually formed a musical ensemble. “We had orchestra, band, shop, drama and other ‘learning’ with a wonderful mix of kids. Too bad we were not yet integrated, or the mix would have been even richer. I started Junior High in 1936, the year the 'voice' in your article 'graduated' there.  You reminded us that the school opened in 1922, two years before I was born. Regina Eisemann was the first principal. She was a dear friend of our family. I kept in close touch with her throughout her life. Anna Laurie Conley, older sister of my friend John, was Regina's efficient nurse in Johnson City.”

Mr. Barlow penned a personal tribute to Ms. Eisemann in, as he called it, “those magic free verse lines” titled, “While I'm Shaving,” (Swimming Laps, August 2001) that shows homage for his favorite principal. Here is an excerpt: “I helped roll Regina Eisemann, in her wheelchair up the long hill in the snow. She had been school principal. She focused our minds, as we pushed along to our house, from the big hotel where she lived, past the lamp-lit service station, up and over the curbs. She bounced about in the chair like a ball, with flashing eyes and vocabulary. She never talked down to us. Made us think deep.”

Junior High’s first principal died while still in her seventies. Despite her suffering, Stan related that “she was always wide-awake to the world; she loved it.”

Thanks to Stan Barlow, we have been permitted to bring two former Junior High School Principals briefly to center stage and shine the big Yesteryear spotlight on them. Well done, Mr. Sherrod and Ms. Eisemann. 

Read more