December 2006

An old newspaper clipping of yesteryear refers to a dog by the name of Boss who was mascot of the Johnson City Fire Department between 1928 and 1936.

According to the article, Boss became so excited at the prospect of going to a fire that he would occasionally fall off the truck, continuing the journey on paw if he could keep up the pace. Sometimes the canine would “hitchhike” to the fire by turning around and around in the middle of the street until someone stopped and offered him a ride. Everybody knew Boss. Allegedly, the animal used his teeth to help firemen pull hose. The remarkable mutt could ascend a 50-foot ladder and return by coming down the ladder headfirst. The firemen’s best friend routinely trotted from Headquarters Station 3 at E. Main to old Station 4 at 238 W. Market, stopping at various meat markets in the downtown area for tasty morsels from the butchers.

The article alleges that the animal’s final resting place is at Station 3. Chief Paul Greene confirmed that Boss is buried on the east side of the facility at the end of a flagstone walk directly under a small white granite bench monument that bears his name. The chief referred me for further information to department historian, Mike Sagers. Mike’s familiarity and collection of material about this vital department’s colorful history was most impressive.

This column is limited to our discussion about Boss; additional information will be presented in future columns. Mike explained: “Boss is the only mascot that we know of in the history of the fire department since it began operation in 1891. He would either jump on the running board of the chief’s car or ride on the truck with the firemen to a fire.” The animal was not a Dalmatian, the dog most readily identified with fire departments. Sagers continued: “Boss was a pit bull, but he was mixed, having short dark spotty black hair and cropped tail. He was particular friendly to kids, but being of that breed, he had his own character.”

Mike added: “Some of the old timers recalled that Boss would grab a fireman’s pants and pull him away from the fire if he wasn’t properly dressed with coat and helmet.” Sagers described one of Boss’s favorite businesses: “Employees at a small grocery store (probably Samuel Wheelock Grocery) near the Johnson City Press would serve him ice cream on a metal bench outside the store.

“On one occasion, some mischievous boys ran a wire from a nearby power box to the bench and shocked Boss while he was eating. Afterwards, whenever he got within sight of the store, he crossed over to the other side of the street to avoid going by it. One of the few photos of Boss shows him in his familiar stance on top of the fire truck, wearing what appears to be a Maltese cross (symbol of Christian warriors) badge attached to his collar.”

The fireman acknowledged that Boss died in 1936 when he was eight years old: “He was shot and killed by an unknown assailant,” said Mike. “I believe it was when he was either going to or coming from a fire.” The fire crew, distraught over the loss of their faithful four-legged companion, preserved and kept him at the main station. After a few months, he was buried at the same location that had been his home and work.

Today, the little white granite bench at headquarters is a lasting memorial to the beloved mascot that once ruled the Johnson City Fire Department. 

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My cousin, Larry Reaves, and I recently reminisced about a small business opportunity we shared as young boys during the Christmas holidays of the early 1950s.

Larry’s father, Ray, worked for Mullins’ Hardware, owned by the late Tollie and Maxie Mullins. The successful business was located in the Taylor Brothers Building on W. Market Street, diagonally opposite the Southern Railway depot. Just after Thanksgiving each year, the store printed thousands of colorful brochures, advertising Christmas gifts that also included toys. Larry and I were hired to deliver these circulars, as we called them, door to door to potential customers all over town.

We canvassed area neighborhoods on most Saturdays between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The experience, while often a bit demanding, afforded us the opportunity to engage in the merriment of the holidays. Ray served as our driver, route planner, supplier, chaperon, motivator and accountant. He kept a record of the number of advertisements we delivered, eventually rewarding us with two cents for each one dispersed. 

The weather ran the full gamut from wintry rainy or snowy days to cool sunny ones. We preferred gripping cold and light snow because it further enhanced the Christmas spirit. Before we departed to make our deliveries, our driver loaded the back of a covered pickup truck with an ample supply of circulars and several blankets. He then placed three bag lunches and some thermos bottles of hot chocolate in the front seat with him. Oddly enough, we opted to ride in the back of the truck until we became so numb that we gladly joined our driver up front in the comfort of the truck’s heater.

We worked together from opposite sides of the street. After dropping us off at a given stop, Ray drove to the next corner and waited for us. This afforded us the opportunity to enjoy a hot cocoa drink or replenish our circular carrying bags. Our chauffeur kept us within city limits and targeted neighborhoods with the highest concentration of inhabitants. Larry and I specifically recall working the tree streets of Locust, Maple, Pine and Southwest as well as the parallel avenues between Fairview and Eighth. We covered a good deal of territory in those four weeks.

The two of us loved what we were doing – spreading Christmas cheer all over Johnson City and receiving a heavy dose of it back from some nice congenial folks. We could not recall dogs being a problem for us; perhaps the canines were in the holiday mood and giving us a break. 

Larry and I occasionally played a game to see who could deliver circulars the fastest on any given block, literally running to and from houses, prompting surprised looks from residents. We did this once on E. Fairview.  I became exhausted running up and down steps on the uphill north side, while Larry effortlessly strolled on and off people’s porches on the downhill south end.

Our lucrative little business venture went bankrupt at the beginning of the third year when we boldly and confidently attempted to negotiate higher wages in our contract. We learned the reality of supply and demand firsthand. Our employer answered our ultimatum by replacing us with more affordable deliverers, sending our little door-to-door holiday venture into the archives of yesteryear.  

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Between 1858 and 1920, stereoscopes and an assortment of views were commonplace in middle and upper class parlors across America.

Wannabe travelers could sit in the comfort of their favorite soft chairs and explore unfamiliar foreign and domestic lands in three dimensions, unlike those in two dimensional books and magazines. I fondly recall a late 1940s playtime activity from my early childhood that occurred during visits to my Grandmother Cox’s house. I often removed a shoebox full of photo cards from her living room closet and viewed them in 3D by means of a wooden device known as a stereoscope.

Sir Charles Whetstone developed the technology in 1833, but it was not until the arrival of photography that it became commercialized. Prior to 1850, the viewers were bulky with thick glass plates. In 1859, renowned physician, poet and humorist, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and Joseph Bates perfected a practical and inexpensive compact viewer that quickly became the standard for the industry.

Each card had what appeared to be two identical photographs positioned side-by-side horizontally. In reality, they were shot 2.5 inches apart (the approximate distance between the eyes) using a special camera with duel lenses and shutters. The stereoscope allowed the images to be combined into one picture, giving the illusion of 3D. It was quite impressive for its time and became exceedingly popular with the masses.

The unique gadget consisted of a folding handle, enclosed viewfinder and sliding cardholder. The instructions were straightforward: “1- Place a view card between the metal clips on the side. 2- Hold the stereoscope by the handle. 3- Look into the viewer with your free hand and slowly move the slide containing the view card backward or forward until the view comes into focus.”

 A 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Co. (“Cheapest Supply House on Earth, Chicago”) catalog listed an assortment of scopes, ranging in price from 24 cents for a cherry frame model with medium sized lenses to $1.87 for a polished rosewood one having pure white glass lenses and nickel-plated trimmings. The cost of a dozen views was 54 cents for colored, 36 cents for black and white, and 95 cents for higher quality images. Slide subjects ranged from travelogues to natural disasters to entertainment events.

One mixed box of slides might present the pyramids and tombs of Egypt; Yellowstone Park; hunting, fishing and camping life; building of the Panama Canal, the San Francisco Earthquake, the 1892 Chicago World’s Fair, the Spanish-American War and even some comedic or pun ones.

Johnson City became the subject of at least one stereoscopic view. The card photos show a west-to-east scene of a crowd of bystanders along the railroad track on Main Street. The picture was likely a promotional product since the city at that time boasted of a foundry and machine works, ice factory, two insulator pin factories, a steam flouring mill, a 125-ton capacity furnace and one cannery.

Over the years, many of the millions of stereoscopic views that were manufactured were destroyed, discarded or recycled at paper drives during both World Wars. Those remaining are frequently soiled and faded with age. Fortunately, many were preserved in pristine form.

The prized shoebox containing my grandmother’s viewer and 3D cards disappeared over a half-century ago without any family member recalling what happened to them.  

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