February 2007

I received a letter from Lynn Williams, former radio engineer at radio stations WETB and WBEJ, concerning my Berlin “Pecos Ben” Benfield article.

Lynn alleged: “I began my radio career at WBEJ in Elizabethton on April 23, 1948 as transmitter engineer-operator. Berlin came to the station about that same time. Unlike WETB where the studio and transmitter were together, WBEJ’s transmitter was a mile from the studio. My contact with Berlin was mostly via telephone when we would contact each other at station sign-on or sign-off. In addition to our duties, we engineers did a small amount of radio repairs for friends.”

Lynn recalls a humorous event that occurred after Berlin brought a defective console radio to the transmitter for Lynn to examine to see if it was worth fixing. Benfield flipped his microphone switch off and called Lynn at the transmitter to get a prognosis on the repair. The engineer turned the monitor speaker volume down low so the two of them could converse. What both individuals failed to realize was that Berlin’s microphone switch had stuck in the “on” position, allowing their personal chit chat to be broadcast all over Elizabethton and surrounding area.

Mr. Williams continued: “After Berlin went to WJHL-TV with his Pecos Ben show, I seldom saw or heard him except when I would be passing the television on my way to or from work.” Lynn remembers coming home one day and telling his family that he had run into Pecos Ben. His 4-year-old son, Condon, ran up to his dad and asked, “Did he have his horse?”

“Another memory of Berlin,” said Lynn, “is when Vice-President Nixon came to Carter County and the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Festival. WBEJ and WETB each broadcast the event by delayed tape recording. I was elected to take both stations’ recording equipment to the mountaintop, along with a P.A. system belonging to the Elizabethton Star newspaper. '”Curley’ White (WBEJ) and I went on the mountain trip the evening before and spent the night sleeping on an air mattress in my 1953 station wagon.

“The next morning, newsmen Berney Burleson (WETB) and Mack Morriss (WBEJ) came up to do the announcing and recording. A large crowd assembled by mid-morning. I had the equipment connected and feeding the P.A. set with WBEJ’s signal when Nixon’s entourage came through Elizabethton headed for Roan Mountain. Bill Hale (WBEJ) had set up two broadcast points along the route as well as at the studio proper. As he was manning one of the remote broadcast points, (he spotted) none other than Berlin Benfield, who had been gone from the station for five or six years. Berlin’s familiar sonorous tones and sharp wit echoed forth far and wide from atop Roan Mountain, as he gave a very good description of the activity back in Elizabethton.

“Years later, my boyhood next-door neighbor, Bradie Vanhuss, moved to Atlanta and on one of his visits back to the old stomping ground, I learned that he knew and worked with Berlin Benfield. Bradie had been a carrier for the Johnson City Press-Chronicle in 1940. I accompanied him with both of us riding bicycles.”

 Lynn concluded his letter by saying that it was through Brady that he was able to re-connect with Ray Moore, with whom he and Merrill Moore worked at WETB. The former radio engineer blissfully described those bygone days as … “when the air was so pure and the water was so blue.”  


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I mentioned in a previous column that M.I. (Martin Independence) Gump was assistant manager of Jobe’s Opera House and owner of Gump’s clothing emporium, both located at the southwest corner of E. Main and Spring streets. 

I received several inquiries from readers wanting to know more about Gumps, as it became known. According to Joyce and W. Eugene Cox’s History of Washington County Tennessee, A.S. Gump and D.B. Barr established the first store in 1880, four years before Jobe’s Opera House opened upstairs. On June 7, 1884, The Comet revealed that Martin had taken charge of the store that featured “a large stock of Gent's clothing made in the latest styles.”

Subsequent 1880 ads refer to the store as A.S. Gump & Co., Gump & Co. and Gumps. Lucy Gump surmises that Martin moved to town to manage a branch of first cousin Abraham Simon Gump’s Bristol business.

In the early 1890s, two younger Gump family members – Harry D. and Louis D. joined the enterprise. The business was renamed Gump Brothers by 1891 and operated until about 1921.

Big news in the July 8, 1909 Comet was the upcoming demolition of the front side of the Gumps and Opry House building, construction of a new one and remodeling of the interior. The stated reason for the project was “to make suitable background for the new fountain,” likely referring to the Lady of the Fountain statue across the street.

In that same edition, Gumps announced a “Re-Building Sale” that included furnishings, shoes, hats, trunks and bags: “Our business was established in Johnson City 29 years ago and this is our first sale.” Named brands included Hart, Schaffner and Marx; Schloss Bros. & Co. clothing; Hanan, Ralston & Bostonian shoes; John B Stetson & Young Bros hats. Carhartt overalls were excluded.

A July 16, 1903 Comet says that M.I. Gump established a wholesale grocery house in 1898 that served Tennessee and North Carolina. In 1903, the company moved into a new building on Roan Street; the Southern Railway constructed a sidetrack to it. Mrs. Louis D. Gump etched her name in local history by becoming a pioneer in the Parent-Teachers Association that originated in 1910, serving as first president of the Martha Wilder School PTA. 

A 1989 reprint of the 1909 J.O. Lewis book titled Johnson City, Tennessee (Overmountain Press) mentions two Gump stores located in the downtown district – Gump Brothers Clothing and Gump’s Wholesale Grocery. The book offered a flattering assessment of the clothing business: “Probably in the history of representative houses of Johnson City, no more worthy example can be found of what can be accomplished by energy, industry and well-directed efforts, than is so strikingly exemplified in the successful career of the big and influential house known as Gumps.”

Two members of the firm, H.D. Gump and L.D. Gump, were said to be “gentlemen of excellent high standing in business and social circles.” Later, the Gump name was attached to other Johnson City enterprises. About 1921, Louie, Harry and Jay Gump (Louie’s oldest son), formed Gump Investment Co. The younger son, Alan, soon joined the firm.

In 1927, Harry Gump filed plans in Jonesborough for a subdivision to be developed on Hillrise Farm, land he had owned since 1907. While the subdivision was officially called Hillrise Park, it was and is commonly called the Gump Addition  

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In 1966, I was a senior at the University of Tennessee in the era of slide rules, large heavy simplistic desktop calculators and no PCs. Computers were relatively slow oversized machines, driven by stacks of labor consuming keypunched cards.

As I made my daily pilgrimage early each morning from Old Melrose Hall to “The Hill,” I began seeing posters advertising “Operation Match,” a university-sponsored computer dating service, developed by a group of Harvard University students. The much-ballyhooed happening was to be held on Saturday, February 19 in the old gym, featuring a band known as The True Tones. I hastily concluded that this evening would be one of definite delight or absolute annoyance for daring participants, dismissing any thought of my involvement.

My dorm buddy, Terry Thompson, desired to participate and wanted me to do the same. He surmised that it would be fun to let a computer select our ideal dates. He further reasoned that if we took this venture seriously, we just might be meeting our future brides. I was not so sure. After insistent prodding, Terry persuaded me to give it a try. The two of us walked to the Student Center and enrolled in the program.

We were given an eight-page questionnaire containing 105 rather personal questions, ranging from absolute requirements to semantic preferences. The instructions emphasized that questions be answered accurately and spontaneously. I received mild heartburn when I read this sentence in the questionnaire: “It should be stressed that a match between individuals cannot be guaranteed because of the possibility of an uneven number of boys and girls participating in the project, or a possibility of extremes not finding a match.”

When the big evening arrived, Terry and I agreed that the one with the best-matched date would pay the other a dollar as a consolation gesture. The long awaited shindig began at 7:30 pm with the first order of business being to match individuals. This activity was carried out with surprising speed and efficiency. I held my breath as I was introduced to Janet, a petite nice looking brunette from West Tennessee; Terry’s mate was a very attractive blond.

The social event was then kicked off, lasting from 8:00 until midnight. Regrettably, Janet and I promptly realized that we had little in common. Surprisingly, there was a “grievance table” where students could literally swap incompatible dates. I was too dignified for that action; Janet showed no indication of dumping me either. We were now committed to four hours of absolute annoyance.

We mutually agreed to leave the crowded noisy gym and drive to Shoney’s “Big Boy” drive-in restaurant on Kingston Pike. We sat in my “sooped up” 1960 solid red Chevrolet Corvair, listened to the radio and talked for quite a while. Admittedly, we became somewhat more attuned to one another.

After returning Janet to her campus dorm, I went back to Old Melrose Hall. Upon approaching my room, I spotted Terry sitting alone in a chair just outside my door with his head down and holding up a dollar bill in one hand. Without uttering a word, I snatched my solace offering from his loose grip and abruptly went into my room. My first and last computer-dating venture was history.

Four years later, I married my perfect mate, a pretty redhead, accomplishing it without the aid of an imprudent computer. It has been a journey of absolute delight.

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My Tennessee Silk Mill column prompted Geneva Feathers to send me a letter concerning a comment I made in it.  I indicated that the milling operation once increased its production capability after expanding to property along its east side.

Mrs. Feathers fondly recalled working at that site: “I want to add to Mrs. Rader’s memories – not about Leon-Ferenbach, though the company did have an impact on my life indirectly. “While I don’t remember the Livery Stable you mentioned, I recall that Tennessee Motors, the local Ford dealership, was once located between the silk mill and the Fire Hall.” A 1937 city directory authenticates Geneva’s memory; the main lot was at 232-234 W. Market next to the fire station. The used car lot was directly across the street.

Geneva said that her father, Dave Duncan, bought his first car, a Ford, in Erwin in 1917. She continued: “I went to work at Tennessee Motors in the office around January 1940. Gates Kidd was owner and Sherwood Hindley was office manager.”

Mrs. Feathers related the dramatic almost overnight changes to the automobile business that occurred after the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor: “After (the war) started, sales of cars to the public were frozen. We had nine cars in inventory then and they were slowly sold to those people who met the Rationing Board’s certificate of need. “I believe the last car was sold to Miss Margaret Hayes and her sister. They lived on Knob Creek Road, which then was considered to be far out in the country. “These ladies were able to get a certificate because they needed a car to carry out critical farm work for the war effort. They came by and purchased an aqua colored coupe for $900. There was no sales tax then.”

Geneva further commented how the war impacted her personally: “Tennessee Motors continued to repair cars and do some body work, but there wasn’t enough work to keep all of us busy. Being the newest member of the office staff, I was the first to be laid off. I worked in the office of Johnson City Steam Laundry for three to four months until I had an opportunity to go to Tennessee Eastman Company’s Accounting Department. After several months, Mr. Hindley left Tennessee Motors and I was offered the position of Office Manager, which made me very happy.I no longer had to spend long hours commuting over the congested two-lane highway to and from Kingsport. When Leon-Ferenbach bought our building so they could expand, Tennessee Motors moved to 415 W. Market. The body shop was eliminated then and efforts were confined to keeping cars and a few trucks. After the war, the dealership once again operated in a new building at 401 W. Market. I left the business shortly before they moved to this new building.”

Geneva concluded her letter with some remembrances of the Fire Department next door. “There was a small white short-haired dog with black markings on its ears that lived there. I believe he belonged to Fire Chief George Wilson. This was about four years after ‘Boss,’ the city mascot, died. As trucks were being prepared to go to a fire, the dog ran out onto the front sidewalk and charged back and forth, barking furiously to stop pedestrian traffic so the trucks would not be detained in any way.”

It is nice to hear from people like Geneva Feathers, who lived and breathed some of Johnson City’s diverse colorful history. 

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