April 2007

My Gump businesses column evoked some pleasurable memories for Lewis Brown, a classmate of mine at Science Hill High School, from which we graduated in 1961.

Lewis wrote: “I never knew until this day that the Gump Addition was actually the Hillrise Subdivision. Growing up a ‘Gump Addition Gangster,’ we just thought the place was the Gump Addition. I was raised in the 400 block of East Chilhowie. The street was once called Seventh Avenue (from the 1890 Carnegie Land Company plat designation). I, along with many kids who grew up in the old neighborhood, played baseball and football on Hillrise Boulevard. We also played in the creek, the Gump’s backyard and the woods. Having been born in 1942, I was fortunate enough to see many of the houses on the boulevard and on Forest and Woodland Avenues being built.”

Lewis said that the area between the Baxter and Holston intersection north to Cox's Lake was an area of fun and adventure to about a hundred youngsters who resided in that part of town. “I have a copy of the surveyor’s plat,” said Brown, “ that shows the street names and lot locations of the old “Hunter-Brown” addition that my great grandfather and Dr. Hunter started. “I cannot remember the names of the Gump family, but I can tell you they were very tolerant of the kids who lived in the area. No one in that family ever fussed at us for playing in their yard or in the creek.”

Lewis said he learned to ride a small bike at the Gump home on Hillrise Boulevard.  The driveway fronted Holston Avenue. He said he routinely rode a bike until he joined the service after graduation. “My aunt, Alma Ruth Brown, lived in the old home place on Chilhowie until she died several years ago. I have a picture of my grandfather, E.W. Brown standing along with some unidentified men and boys in front of his first grocery store at the corner of Roan and (144 E.) Market.”

The “Hillrise Hoodlum” then asked me if I remember George's Men’s Shop: “It was owned by George Eiche,” he said. “The family lived on the corner of Chilhowie and Baxter. One of the radio stations, probably WJHL, did a 60-minute live cut-in, which I am sure was pre-recorded for the store. I believe there was a piano in the store because George would play a tune and talk about his store. He had two sons, George and Jon.”

George’s Men’s Shop was located in the early 1950s at 234 E. Main between Beckner’s Jewelers on the west side and the Keys Building (Tunnell’s Studio) on the east. Jo-Ann’s Shop was adjacent to the Keys Building.

Lewis further asked me if I knew the name of the barbeque restaurant that was situated in a ravine on South Roan next to the old Southern Maid Ice Cream plant. Brown added: “The owner of the restaurant also owned a boat dock on Watauga Lake and kept several “Aluma-Craft” boats displayed for sale at the restaurant.” The restaurant in question was Central Barbeque owned by Albert Bosbury. He also operated Central Drive-In and Albermar Marines Sales at that some location.

Lewis ended his note with some reflective words about his growing-up years: “Some of the boys in the old neighborhood that I remember were Rick Jackson, Tommy Hord, Mike Kitts, Mark McCowen, Harmon Duncan, Charles Ellis, Ronny and Freddy Moore and Joe, Tim and Jerry Persinger. What a wonderful time to grow up in a little place like Johnson City!”  

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Chester “Chet” Willis is a man with his heart wrapped up in his work. In 2003, he retired from his job as construction foreman with the City of Johnson City Water and Sewer Services Department and eagerly became involved with preserving Oak Hill Cemetery.

Oak Hill is the oldest cemetery within the city limits and contains the remains of just over 2700 inhabitants. As a member of the Cemetery Survey Team of Northeast Tennessee, this assiduous 80-year old individual assumed numerous laborious tasks that included restoring grave markers, producing and maintaining a massive directory of graves, installing 177 small red brick row markers, opening and closing the two main gates each day (at 6 a.m. and sundown) and helping keep the grounds well-groomed. 

This seven-gated chain length fence necropolis is one block off W. Main Street and surrounded by four streets – Wilson (north), Boone (east), Lamont (south) and Whitney (west).

Well-known Oak Hill residents include Henry Johnson (city founder), Tipton Jobe (landowner), Col. LeRoy Reeves (Tennessee state flag designer), Sam R. Sells (U.S. Congressman), Major Cy Lyle (publisher of the Comet newspaper), George Hardin (supt. of ET&WNC Railroad), Captain William Dickinson (Confederate pioneer and owner of Piedmont Hotel), Rev. John Wright (soldier in War of 1812 and officer for the Confederacy) and others.

Some 141 veterans are buried at Oak Hill  from the Civil War (55 Confederate, 29 Union), Spanish American War (16), Philippine Insurrection (1), Mexican War (1), World War I (30), World War II (5), and regular Army (4).

Mr. Willis produced a notebook full of annual reports from the Oak Hill Cemetery Association. The Jan. 24, 1946 one is particularly significant because it represents the golden anniversary of the society. The report began with a brief history of the cemetery: “Dear Member: On March 2, 1870, a bond was made by Robert Love and Samuel H. Miller to seven trustees – T.A. Faw, James M. Gentry, Wm. H. Taylor, Jm. Johnson, J.W. Seehorn, L.H.P. Lusk and P.P.C. Nelson – giving title to a part of their farms to be used for a cemetery for the growing village of Johnson City.”

Love donated about a half-acre and Miller roughly a quarter-acre. Each man reserved a 25’ x 35’ plot for his family members. Love’s was located in the northeast corner and Miller’s in the southwest sector. The oldest grave is that of Love’s daughter who died as a youngster in 1867. The contract specified that a “good plank fence” be built around the perimeter of the property and that the facility bear the name “Oak Hill Cemetery.” Over the years, additional adjoining land was added expanding the grounds to 6.5 acres. 

By 1888, the downtown cemetery was described as being a wilderness of weeds and briers and nothing less than a pasture for the town cow. When a new fence was needed in 1896, a committee of women from each of the area churches was formed to raise money. Mrs. C.K. Lide served as its first president. The group held oyster and strawberry suppers, sponsored lectures by such notables as Bob and Alf Taylor and hosted numerous musical productions to maintain the venerated downtown property.

A big “thank you” is in order to Chet Willis from the people of Johnson City for his unfaltering efforts toward preserving the final resting place of some of Johnson City’s most prominent citizens. 

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Each April between about 1928 and 1949, an eagerly awaited event transpired in Johnson City; the J.J. Page Carnival had come to town. This popular mobile enterprise of exciting rides, exotic sideshows, tasty food and enticing games generated masses of people, as the show migrated to towns and communities throughout nine southern states.

In 1923, John Page married Minnie Miller, daughter of Johnson City alderman and building contractor, Albert S. Miller. Thus began this family’s affiliation with our city. When the future entrepreneur’s sideshow later became a reality, Mrs. Page convinced her husband to choose Johnson City as its five-month winter headquarters. The first quarters were located in warehouses on West Main Street until land and buildings were purchased at the corner of Watauga and Love Street adjacent to the railroad tracks. It remained here for its approximately 21-year run.

The carnival operated at two separate locations over the years. The first one was the entire block opposite Memorial Stadium where the Municipal Building is now located. The other site was a large field farther east on E. Main and southeast of the intersection with Broadway. Page owned all rides and shows but leased space to food venders to peddle their gastronomic delights at the heavily attended event. The carnival’s presence contributed significantly to the local economy with purchases of food, clothing, lumber, paint, hardware and sundry other supplies. Since there were essentially no amusement parks in those pre-1950 years, the carnival’s sojourn at “Johnson’s Depot” was a divertive occasion for one and all. 

I attended the Page Circus with my parents several times in its waning years of the late 1940s. I recall the powerful spotlight that circled the skies at night over the city, announcing the carnival’s presence in town. The powerful beam came from one of two large luminary devices located along the east end of the grounds.

As a youngster, I found the musical merry-go-round, or hobbyhorses as we called them, to be my ride of choice. At each stop, youngsters scurried on board for a chance to occupy an outside horse. Once the ride was in motion, the outside riders leaned out and attempted to snatch a ring that had been suspended there by the attendant. The winner was later awarded a prize. Only those riding outside steeds had the opportunity to win.

The carnival had a drab almost primitive look compared to today’s colorful fairs and theme parks. The dozen or so rides they operated were plain and simple. Everyone’s favorite was the Ferris wheel. Over time, sideshows became the main focal emphases for management because they attracted more patrons.

Former Press correspondent John Moss once recalled the Page Carnival in an article titled “Traveling Fantasyland.” He wrote: “No fewer than nine shows rounded out the midway. These included a large sideshow featuring about 10 acts, a minstrel show, a burlesque revue and an illusion show. A motor dome thrilled crowds as they watched daredevils ride motorcycles around a vertical wall. The athletic show, usually referred to simply as the ‘at show,’ featured wrestlers who challenged local men to stay in the ring with them for a specified length of time. The few who succeeded were awarded cash prizes. Another attraction titled “Congo” featured a wild man who frightened spectators as he presided over a pit of snakes and chickens.”

I recall attending one “freak show,” billed as a horrendous looking “bearded lady.” This “physical oddity” turned out to be a rather normal looking woman with slightly more than a hint of facial hair. For this, I wasted my entire weekly allowance of a dime. A 1948 photo from our family album shows three Page Carnival attractions: “Circus Sideshow,” “Electra” and “Punch and Judy Family.” The latter was a puppet program. The Page traveling show eventually grew in size to employ over 200 people, with about 40 of them returning in late fall to refurbish ride equipment during the winter break. During 1947, a tornado ripped through the city, damaging rides and slashing tent canvas. Since this malady occurred before the gates opened, there were no reported injuries.

The J.J. Page chronicle began in 1889 in rural southeast Virginia. After running away from home at age 12 and joining a traveling circus, John later switched to a carnival, which he believed offered a more diverse offering of attractions. The carnival came into existence around the turn of the century when performers became convinced that an agglomerate of simultaneous sideshow acts would be more profitable than one continuous show with entertainers waiting their turn. Page worked his way up through the ranks until 1925 when he and a partner formed the Page and Wilson Shows, traveling by rail across the Southeast.

After serving an apprenticeship for two years, the businessman formed his own show that he appropriately named the J.J. Page Shows and Exposition. The new aggregation traveled by truck and initially wintered in Augusta and Rome, Georgia. After J.J. Page died in 1945, his widow ran the carnival four more years, until she leased and eventually sold most of the rides to other carnivals and amusement parks. The carnival’s “first lady” died in 1975. The Pages fondness for Johnson City and its people is borne out in the fact that they chose Monte Vista Cemetery as their final resting place.

The giant barn and smaller buildings that once housed the carnival equipment during its winter retreat stood for several years as an aide-memoire of that cherished annual event of yesteryear.  

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Hacker Martin (1895-1970) was a legendary former resident of the Gray community with some pretty impressive credentials – old-time fiddler, gristmill owner/operator and expert gunsmith.

Hacker and Maude Martin raised a daughter, Betty, and two sons, Raphael and Donis, the latter being longtime owner of Martin’s Jewelers in downtown Johnson City. Betty Thompson recalled that her father learned to play the fiddle from a mail-order correspondence course. His musical prowess inspired her to use music as a hobby and sing in church choirs over the years.

Mrs. Thompson remembered some of the tunes Hacker and friends played: “Turkey in the Straw,” “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “Billy Boy,” “Goodbye Liza Jane,” “Red River Valley,” “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane,” “Little Brown Jug,” “Oh Dem Golden Slippers,” “Old Gray Mare,” “Coming ‘Round the Mountain” and “Wait for the Wagon.”

Betty discussed Hacker’s gristmill business: “Dad had such a love for cheap power and waterpower was the least expensive form of energy available. Dad’s first investment was the Cedar Creek Mill that he purchased from Grover and Dolly Campbell in 1940. We were living seven miles west in Pleasant Valley at the time. The old mill was in need of repair so Dad and some of his friends put it in operation again. My brothers and I helped build the dam that supplied water to the big wheel. My dad used the mill for corn and wheat. It had two sets of French burr (or buhr) grinding stones. One set was used for animal feed and the other for human needs. Mom used to say: ‘now Dad, when someone comes in with that good hickory cane corn, save me the toll (small amount of product charged as a fee) out of it.’ It made awfully good cornbread.

“When gas rationing went into effect during World War II, traveling back and forth from the mill each day became a problem. Mom made Dad a bed upstairs in the mill where he stayed 5½ days a week. He bicycled home on Saturday afternoons to help with farm chores and then returned Monday mornings. In 1947, my father built a large cinderblock building beside the mill. It has eyebrow windows with arches above each one. He knew that arches were very strong. In 1951, Mom and Dad moved to Appomattox, VA, where Dad purchased the Stonewall Milling Company, a large mill. He and Raphael later bought the Flourville Mill.”

Mrs. Thompson’s conversation then turned to Hacker’s gunsmith trade: “Dad stored large slabs of curly maple tree stock in the top of the mill. “He first sawed it in the general shape of a rifle using a band saw and then rasped it down. It took several months to make each of his beautifully crafted guns. “The mill’s waterpower allowed him to grind the flats on the barrels. The cinderblock building became used as a shop for his gunsmith work and our family’s apartment.”

Hacker was the embodiment of old-time gunsmiths; his stunning looking muzzle loading rifles and pistols appeared to be 200 years old. Today, they are collectors’ items. “Dad loved to sit around with his friends and tell one tall tale after another,” said Betty. “I loved to listen to them and wish I could remember some of their yarns.”

The Smithsonian Institute recognized Hacker for continuing to make rifles for muzzle loading hobbyists during the depression. Daniel Boone High School further honored him by including him on a mural located in the commons area at the school.   

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In 1965, songwriter and recording artist, Billy Edd Wheeler, hit the pop charts with the novelty tune, “Ode To The Little Brown Shack Out Back,” referring to outhouses. In the amusing song lyrics, Wheeler begs for the traditional little brown building to be spared its rapidly approaching demise.

Many Johnson Citians can recall these little icons of the American backyard, affectionately dubbed by additional names as privy, necessary house, shanty, backhouse, throne and john. The little pine shed with its sloped roof was about 4x4x7 feet, positioned over a hole that was 4-5 feet deep. A quarter moon cutout along the top of the door allowed some light and ventilation.

Outhouses stood about 100 feet behind a family’s primary residence, which in the winter was 100 feet too far (bitter cold), but in the summer was 100 feet too near (lingering fragrance). The specified distance was a decided compromise. The average privy was a one or two “holer.” Some had one seat for adults and another modified for toddlers. Those at churches, schools and public places had additional amenities to handle crowds.

A Sears and Roebuck catalog was a standard fixture inside an outhouse, but the number of pages in the big book seemed to decrease with each passing visitor. Also present in many backhouses were spent corncobs and a bucket of lime. Every 1-2 years, the evocative little shack needed to be moved and centered over a nearby freshly dug pit. The old hole was promptly covered and packed down with dirt from the new one.

Most outhouses were unpainted and seemed to unassumingly blend in with the surroundings. The little sheds became the targets of Halloween pranksters who would move them, sometimes with some poor hapless soul sitting inside. Others would have signs painted on them that read “Sitty Hall,” “Half Moon Inn,” “Rest Home” and “The Establishment.” People learned to keep the door closed when not in use. Many a hound dog found solace from adverse weather by curling up inside a privy with an opened door.

Slop jars, or chamber pots as they were alternately called, were used in tandem with outhouses. These were three-gallon metal pots with lids that conveniently sat at night under the bed or in a nearby closet. A person waking up in the middle of the night with that certain urge had a decision to make. He or she could go to the privy outside or utilize the slop jar inside. Choosing the privy meant exiting the house and traveling to the john in the darkness of night and whatever weather conditions might exist. This choice occasionally resulted in a chance encounter with a mouse, rat, snake spider or even a colony of ferocious bees or hornets. Conversely, selecting the slop jar at night meant having to “live with it” until morning, after which it had to be taken outside, emptied, cleaned and dried for the next night's exploit.

The universal desire for in-house facilities led to numerous patents over the years, including several from 19thcentury Chelsea, England plumber, Thomas Crapper. (I am not making this up.) Billy Edd Wheeler’s worst fears in the song were realized when health regulations outlawed the familiar little sheds, leaving behind a lingering thick green vegetated plot of land.  

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