July 2007

Recently, a city resident whom I will call Mary revealed two stories to me that evolved around her late father, Frank (assumed name), a once well-known and successful downtown businessman in his day. In 1945, Frank escorted his young daughter to the Windsor Hotel to reveal a long-held secret that would be talked about by family members for years.

Frank lamented that the once magnificent grand hotel had fallen into disarray as evidenced by tattered velvet curtains, cords that had fallen down and dirty windows everywhere, a far cry from its heyday. After walking past the hotel lobby, the pair climbed the steps to the second floor. At the top of the stairs, Frank pointed to a block of private rooms along the north end that he said were once reserved by hotel management for special guests and events.

Mary indicated that her father always had a love for ‘a good card game’ and routinely met at the hotel with three of his closest friends to play cards in one of the private rooms. Frank remembered when some men, discreetly identified as Al Capone’s bodyguards, joined them and became regulars in the card games whenever they were in town. This occurred from about 1921 to 1926.

Mary further explained: “Daddy said ‘Capone’s boys,’ as he called them, came in after dark, played several hands of cards and then left. They were never seen in town in the daytime. Everything was done quietly and with as little fanfare as possible. Daddy believed the ‘boys’ either stayed at the hotel or left in the early morning hours.”

On one memorable evening, Frank got the surprise of his life when Al Capone abruptly walked into the room, sat down at Frank’s table and began playing cards with his group.  Frank emphasized that this was one isolated occurrence and that he established no rapport with the underworld kingpin that night; he simply played cards with him.

Mary later learned from her father that “Scarface” routinely ran alcohol from Newland, NC to Johnson City along a 44-mile stretch of two-lane dirt road. He said the straight section of road between Newland and Elk Park became known as “Smokey Straight.” 

Mary then offered a story of her own: “In the summer of 1946, our family went on vacation to Miami Beach as we often did. During the trip, Daddy and I drove over to Al Capone’s estate (on diminutive Palm Island in nearby Biscayne Bay). Along the way, Daddy told me that because Al was very sick and near death, he had been granted an early release from prison to return to his Miami home. When we arrived at the Capone main gate, Daddy walked over and spoke some words to the guard. I stayed behind in the car.

“Although we were not permitted to go through the entrance to the house, we were allowed to walk around the outside of the metal fence to the pool area. “Daddy pointed through the sparse shrubbery to a frail looking man slumped over in a beach chair. It was Al Capone. He looked terribly sick. “While we were standing there, some men came over to us and began talking to Daddy through the fence. A few of them appeared to know him. I stayed back a short distance.”

Al died at his Palm Island home about six months later on January 25, 1947 at the age of 48. Mary said she has replayed these two events in her mind hundreds of times over the years.

Mary concluded by saying: “It was important to Daddy that his family know about his brief encounter with Al Capone and his ‘boys’ in downtown Johnson City. Now I want to share it with others.” 

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My two columns on Johnson City's Junior High School brought back treasured memories to an area resident. Dr. Jim Bowman, retired ETSU professor, provided me with an assortment of written reminisces covering his attendance at the school between 1949 and 1952, which he described as “three great years”:

 “I recall the perennial ‘coin drop’ when guys would flip a penny in someone's chili or vegetable soup – two staple items of Billy Carpenter (son of the cafeteria manager, Mary Carpenter). The victim had to make a hurried choice: either take a risk by devouring the contaminated substance or leaving the dining room hungry.”

An unusual act by a disgruntled student who assumed he was being punished too severely for playing hooky occasioned a second tale from Bowman: “The youngster retaliated by removing the handles from the water coolers' faucets. However, the brave plumber was smart enough not to tamper with the ones near the principal's office. The perplexed faculty and staff never knew the culprit's identity.”

The retired prof offered a third anecdote: “One of the oddest events involved Mr. Hart, the shop teacher. One day a husky ex-Marine appeared in class. The teacher welcomed the impromptu visitor. Standing by a mound of sawdust, the young man challenged the instructor to a friendly fight. A few seconds later, the able-bodied youth emerged from the room with a mouthful of sawdust.”

A fourth yarn occurred just after basketball practice: “I heard some guys yell for me to run. They related how they had managed to lock one of the coaches in the locker room.  I don't remember who let him out, only that it was far into the night.

“As a newcomer to the seventh grade, I was warned not to cross the path of our mechanical drawing mentor, Mr. Hillenbrand.  When I asked why, I was told his paddling would virtually lift its targets off the ground. When I saw the man's small stature, I doubted their word. Thus, I thought I'd find out for myself; I’d just put Mr. H to the test.  After all, Mr. Presnell, the physical education teacher, had struck me before, and I barely felt a thing. In this case, however, my first-hand experience led me to conclude that my peers were more right than wrong.”

Jim’s most vivid memory is of a newcomer to the faculty ranks, Mr. Terrell Ponder: “About all I had heard about the lanky teacher's past was that he was a good left-handed baseball pitcher. That set well with me. After all, Don Akers, Jack Parks and Marion Winebarger were three baseball gurus who captured my attention every day at lunchtime. But Mr. Ponder was more to me than a gifted athlete. Every day I noticed that he stayed at the rear of the line when his students filed in to the cafeteria, refusing to eat until all of his boys and girls had acquired their tray of food.  

“Terrell Ponder stayed in the education profession throughout his career. Eventually, the ‘you-first, me-last’ gentleman became superintendent of the Johnson City schools.  He had an uncanny knowledge of curriculum and an undeniable love for children. However, the economy took its toll on some of our other male teachers.  To make a decent living, four of them chose to estrange themselves from us, going to work with Tennessee Eastman Co., the FBI, Tri-Cities Airport and General Shale.”

Jim concluded his remarks with a positive recollection of the educational facility: “Our teachers always forgot our misdeeds at school and never entertained the thought of telling our parents about our silly misdemeanors.”  

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In 1948, I was weak and frail after recovering from rheumatic fever that had confined me to bed or a chair for almost a year. Now I was finally permitted to engage in limited outside activities. I soon had a chance encounter behind our apartment with the neighborhood bully whom I will call Billy. This little obnoxious terror quickly branded me as easy prey for his shoving and tough talk. 

I quickly found myself turning into a “Walter Mitty,” the main character of James Thurber’s short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” This timid individual spent much time daydreaming about what he could never carry out in real life. In his fantasy world, the protagonist was a daring fighter pilot one moment and a football star the next. I soon began seeing appealing advertisements in comic books and magazines promoting the Charles Atlas bodybuilding course. Atlas was billed as “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.”

Two separate ads from that era stick in my mind. Perhaps the most memorable one was titled “The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac,” consisting of seven comic strip frames. Atlas is shown along the right side of the ad flexing his bulging muscles, while wearing a pair of short leopard skin briefs.

The first frame depicts Mack, a skinny young man, and his pretty girlfriend sitting at the beach on a blanket under an umbrella. A bully muscleman runs past them and slings sand into their faces. Mac tells the intruder to stop kicking sand on them. The brawny intruder informs Mac that he would smash his face were it not for the fact that he was so skinny that he would dry up and blow away.

To add insult to injury, the girlfriend says to him in frame 3, “Oh, don’t let it bother you, little boy.” Frame 4 displays an angry Mac who is sick and tired of looking like a scarecrow. He abruptly sends off for the Charles Atlas bodybuilding course. In frame 5, a muscular Mac stands in front of a mirror admiring his newly acquired physique. This means another trip to the beach and another encounter with the bully. The outcome is quite predictable. The final frame shows the now well-built Mac walking along the beach with his girlfriend and being admired by beachgoers. He has become an instant hero.

Another advertisement is a five-frame version of the first, but with identical results. Joe overpowers the bully and receives praise from his girl: “Oh Joe, you are a real he-man, after all.”   

Charles Atlas, whose real name was Angelo Siciliano, was born in Italy in 1892 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1903. Supposedly, Angelo experienced a “sand in the face” experience while he and a lady friend were at Coney Island. The embarrassed 97-pound weakling vowed to become a muscle man. Thus began a lucrative career for him and another entrepreneur by selling their Dynamic Tension bodybuilding course to millions. The business continues to this day.

In my Mittyesque fantasy world of 1948, I pictured myself as a very young fully developed Charles Atlas, wearing leopard skin briefs and unmercifully beating the stuffing out of Billy, all the while receiving a thunderous appreciative ovation from my neighborhood buddies.

In reality, my Bully Billy problem was corrected over time without throwing a punch. The two of us got older, eventually rendering us friends. My once pressing need for Walter Mitty or Charles Atlas became passé. 

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East Tennessee has produced a few area residents with a special knack for originality that resulted in clever laborsaving inventions. Some aspiring inventors fostered their unique creations past storms of adversity until they eventually rained profits for them. Others met with overwhelming difficulties causing them and their innovation to drift into obscurity.

As reported by the Johnson City Press-Chronicle in 1969, one successful local resident, Sam Guinn, made his mark on history in the early to mid part of the century. Although Louis V. Aronson (“Ronson”) is credited for designing and patenting the first mechanical lighter in 1910, allegedly the patent for the first flint lighter went to Sam in 1917. Sam’s brother, Tom, and a nephew, Tom Mitchell, once vouched for the claim. 

About 1904, the two brothers owned a store in Johnson City that sold tobacco products, soft drinks and fine candies. The two of them, along with four sisters and four other brothers, grew up on a farm in the Sulphur Springs community. Within a few years, they closed their store. Tom went back to farming while Sam moved to Cincinnati and began traveling for Detroit Stove Works. It was during this time that he began working on a design for a flint lighter.

In 1917, Sam secured a patent for his innovation. Initially, he fabricated the lighters in Cincinnati, but at the urging of the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce, he began producing them here. Guinn obtained an elongated brick building on E. Maple Street and established his business, eventually acquiring a workforce of about 20 employees.

All lighters of his design had a handle that when lowered struck a piece of flint and ignited. The inventor crafted three types of brass lighters. The cheapest one was small enough to be carried in a pocket or purse. A mid-sized model satisfied those patrons who wanted a stationary one for their desk, table or stand. It measured 5.25” x 3” wide and weighed 1.9 pounds. A third heavy-duty lighter was larger and designed for use in such public places as hotel lobbies. 

A tag on the bottom of the desk model (shown with this column) contains these words: “A Guinco Product, Pats. App. For U.S. and Foreign, S.E. Guinn Mfg. Co., 617 E. Maple Street, Johnson City, Tenn.”

A 1928 City Directory offers more information about the venture: “S.E. Guinn Manufacturing Co.; brass and bronze novelties; S.E. Guinn, pres.; E.J. Wagner, v-pres.; V.B. Guinn, sec.” Sam’s ingenuity was not confined to flint lighters. He also invented a pilot light for gas stoves that was heralded by the public because it could be lighted without matches. By flipping a lever on the cord that was attached to the stove, the stove would be lit.

Tom once displayed a copy of the April 1919 “Popular Science Monthly” that featured the new invention and carried a picture of his brother. He recalled when a company offered to buy Sam’s lighter patent for a staggering $100,000, but he refused the offer. 

Several factors led to the demise of the once profitable business in the early 1930s. The Great Depression was starting to hover over the financial horizon. Soon, raw materials became difficult to obtain, substantially slowing production. About this same time, Sam became ill.

The lucrative E. Maple Street business that had been spawned in the late teens soon turned to bankruptcy. The entrepreneur passed away in 1935.  

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July 4thholidays of yesteryear were observed with colorful flag displays, community synchronized events and wholesome family get-togethers. The one for 1897 was no exception with festivities being held the following day on Monday.

The 1897 Comet newspaper revealed 42 city merchants and individuals donating $90.55 for the city’s festivities. Some of the businesses (and their contributions) included the following: Ward & Friberg ($5); M.P. Dyer & Co. ($5); McFarland & Bolton ($2.50); Kirkpatrick, Williams & Bowman ($1); Webb & Worley ($2); J.A. Mathes & Co. ($1); Piedmont Hotel ($2); Whitlow & Co. ($3); Gump Brothers ($2); Hart & Smith ($2); City Grocery ($1); Wofford Brothers ($2); Wofford & Co. ($2.50); and Wolfe & Co. ($1.55).

Expenditures included two Spaulding balls ($2.50); general labor ($3.15); railway fare ($12.80); lumber/labor ($5.80); brass band ($20); meals ($4.10); prize money ($17.60); printing ($18.25); advertising $7.98, which included telegrams and drayage (wagon rental for hauling goods); dynamite ($1.18); and carriage rental ($1). The final tally was $94.36, leaving a deficit of $3.81.

The day was kicked off at Fountain Square with a gun salute at sunrise. Mayor W.W. Faw welcomed the crowd at 9:30 followed by an oration by Gov. Bob Taylor at 9:45. The guest of honor spoke for 10 minutes, telling his constituents that America was the greatest country on earth. He humorously expressed his delight to look into the faces of those among whom he was born and among whom he expected to die.

In his characteristic witty style, Taylor told a few amusing stories, but wound up with a solemn admonition to keep the fires of patriotism perpetually burning as the country was threatened by “the money power.” After chiding the people of Washington County in a pleasurable way for loving him so much and voting so hard against him, he concluded his speech. People then crowded around their idol to shake his warm hand and get a glimpse of the “merry twinkle of that bright eye.”

The ensuing day’s events were well attended. John Lusk won first prize in the obstacle race on Market Street and Garner Range finished second. Norman White of Boones Creek carried away first honor in the hurdle race with Garner Range placing second. Will Caldwell took first accolade in the foot race and Norman White second. Earl Smith of Bristol won the bicycle race and Maxwell Willoughby of Washington College came in second. Finishing the morning’s activities was an exhibition by the city fire department.

The afternoon entertainment moved to Lake Wataussee with picnicking, a swimming race and a tub race. Norman White was first prizewinner in the swimming competition with Charles Collett finishing second. At 3:30, a baseball game was played between Johnson City and Greeneville. After seven innings, the game was called because of darkness with the score 10 to 2 in favor of the home team. Frank Hart umpired and was highly complimented for his unbiased calls.

The Jonesboro brass band, described as the handsomest band in the nation and composed of young men of about the same age and size, was on hand and furnished some good music for the occasion.

At the conclusion of the long day, a fatigued but contented patriotic crowd journeyed back to their respective abodes on foot, horses, wagons, streetcars and trains, having celebrated yet another of our nation’s birthday. The Comet complimented the streetcar system for providing excellent service throughout the day. 

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