September 2007

The Jan. 1951 edition of Trains magazine (Kalmbach Publishing Co.) contained a most attention-grabbing article about the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina (ET&WNC) Railway abandoning the narrow gauge portion of its line.

Writer Jack Alexander had the enviable opportunity to ride “Tweetsie” on Oct. 16, 1950 as it made its last official roundtrip run between Elizabethton and Cranberry, NC. At 10:10 a.m. in near perfect weather, Jack boarded the seven-car train, pulled by Baldwin 4-6-0 engine No. 11. His description of the train’s noisy departure was “with a whistle screaming and a feather (puff of white steam) on the pops (above the safety valves).”

Jack identified train personnel as Walter R. Allison, engineer; C.C. (Brownie) Allison, fireman; Clyde Simmerly and Mack Luttrell, brakemen; and C.G. “Cy” Crumley, conductor. Cy then swung the “highball,” indicating the train had received priority to proceed at safe full speed and began moving uphill at a rapid pace, heading for treacherous 4% elevation grades and 32-degree curves.

“Tweetsie” journeyed across a bridge into Valley Forge, up the valley, over a covered bridge and into a tunnel below Hampton. The wheels seemed to mournfully click out memories of the many hours the riders had spent riding this popular train when there were three daily round-trip passenger runs, traveling over 34 miles of track in two states. A feeling of sadness encompassed Alexander; he felt like he was riding a funeral train with “Tweetsie” being the deceased. Although World War II brought about a demand for more ore, postwar circumstances of depleted mines and declining timber reserves caused a gradual decline in rail traffic.

After briefly stopping in Hampton, the train soon entered the magnificent Doe River Gorge. After additional stops at Blevins and Roan Mountain, “Tweetsie” rested at Elk Park at 12:15 p.m. to give passengers a lunch break. The crew ate with guarded conversations and far away looks in their eyes; a sense of stoic nostalgia had overwhelmed them. After lunch, the crew did some switching in the yard and then boarded the train for its remaining two miles to Cranberry, NC. After spotting Engine No. 11 for water at the Cranberry tank, “Tweetsie” began her final return trip to Elizabethton. It was 1:30 p.m.

As always, the engine was not turned at the east end of the line, but instead, run in reverse at the head end of the train for the remainder of the journey. Alexander climbed upon the tender car and rode the water-hatch cover for a better view of the local terrain. The train then dropped down the hill across the Tennessee border into Shell Creek and on to Roan Mountain and Blevins. As Jack sat there thinking of bountiful past years and pleasurable associations with the crew, Tweetsie bounced through several tunnels and rattled across numerous bridges.

Consistent with a longstanding tradition since 1882, local residents sadly ran out of their modest homes to tearfully wave goodbye to the crew and watch their favorite train chug by one final time. “Tweetsie” suddenly reduced speed as it crept around Pardee Point, dropped down and out of the gorge, crossed the covered bridge, traveled through Hampton, sped across the high bridge over the river and entered Valley Forge.

Alexander abruptly concluded his article with these words: “Extra 11 West entered the yards at Elizabethton at 3:30 p.m. The crew made a Dutch drop to get the cars in the yard, then ran No. 11 over the pit and dropped the fire. Tweetsie’s last ride was over.” 

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Last week’s column featured memories from 104-year-old Pansy Oliver Torbett as related to me by Joann Conner, her daughter. Mrs. Conner also supplied me with information that included a beguiling document dating back to April 1928.

“I read with interest,” said Joann, “your recent column concerning the former waterspout and foxhunts that were frequent occurrences on Buffalo Mountain. My husband, Joel, grew up on the south side of Johnson City and explored this mountain many times as a young boy. Hiking to White Rock was a Sunday afternoon thing to do in the 30s and 40s. Your article made me recall the stories my grandfather, Dave Oliver, used to tell about foxhunts on his farm where I now live in Piney Flats.

“Granddad related how the men and their hunting dogs would initially congregate on the “ridge” at his farm and then go into the connecting woods. My grandmother, Cordelia Oliver, dreaded these planned fox hunts because the ladies had to cook so much cornbread to feed all the dogs. They used all the pans they had and spent hours over small wood fired stove ovens cooking the quantity of bread needed.”

Joann said the dogs were not fed before the hunt because they needed to be agile in order to corner or tree foxes. Since they scurried across more than 100 acres of land during the chase, they returned from the hunt tired and hungry. Joann’s grandfather and the other hunters broke the bread into small chunks for the canines to devour. 

 “I remember Grandfather Oliver speaking of Gov. Alf Taylor,” said Mrs. Conner. “Mother told me several years ago that her father had received a special invitation to join a foxhunt that was to be held in honor of the (80-year-old) former governor. A few months ago, while sorting through some old records, I found the invitation she told me about. It was mailed to my grandfather on March 28, 1928 from Bluff City with a two-cent postage stamp.”

The hand-drawn letterhead at the top left of the invitation depicts Ole Limber hot on the heels of a fox. Below the caricature are these words (written as shown): “Ole’ Limber; The Elizabethton Hunt Club; Request the honor of your presence; at an; Old time East Tennessee Fox Hunt; at Elizabethton, Tennessee; Given in honor of Ex-Governor, Alf A. Taylor; on Friday, April the thirteenth; Nineteen hundred and twenty eight; at three o’clock P.M.; It will be the South’s Greatest Fox Hunt. R.s.v.p.; Alex Shell; Elizabethton, Tenn.”

This was three years before Alf died; it is not known if he participated in the sporting event. The right side of the invitation contains the names of the 15 Elizabethton Hunt Club members, which includes some of Alf Taylor’s sons: Alex L. Shell (Chairman), E.D. Houston (Secretary), Nat B. Taylor, E.C. Alexander, Frank H. Lovette, Winton Chambers, Willard G. Shell, Blaine Taylor, Alf A. Taylor, Jr., Edwin H. Hunter, G.R. Patterson, W.D. Rudy, Walter P. Dungan, Jno. (John) Alf Taylor and J.W. Denny. Piney Flats resident, Mack Houston, believes E.D. Houston to be his grandfather’s brother, Ed.

Thanks to the selflessness of Mrs. Joann Conner, another important historical artifact from the region’s celebrated past has been located and duly preserved for inspection at ETSU’s Archives of Appalachia. 

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Mrs. Joann Conner believes her 104-year-old mother, Pansy Oliver Torbett, may be the oldest living person in Sullivan County. 

“My mother,” said Joann, “was born in 1903 in a log house that stood along (old) Jonesboro (Jonesborough) Road in Piney Flats. This old stagecoach road stretched between Abingdon and Jonesboro, passing through the Rocky Mount estate. “Between 1910 and 1915, the David and Cordelia Smalling Oliver family rode to Johnson City on a farm wagon to attend the carnival. Chairs were placed on the wagon for adults; kids sat on the floor. 

“On the way back most all the kids slept, while the adults talked softly. Mom remembers fording the river and how the moon shimmered in the water as the horses splashed across it. “Sometimes while traveling to Johnson City, they crossed over on a ferry that was located near the current Austin Springs Bridge. People drove their horses up to the riverbank and rang a bell for service. A lady came out of a shed and skillfully operated the ferry; this always impressed my mother.”

Pansy started school at the nearby small two-room Locust Grove School. The Oliver sisters were fortunate to have ponies to ride to school. On rainy, snowy or very cold days, they rode a covered buggy harnessed to a pony. After graduating from Mary Hughes Institute in 1920, Pansy attended the Normal School in Johnson City and boarded at a house at Unaka and Boone. She rode the train to and from Johnson City on weekends and the streetcar to and from the campus each weekday. After obtaining a teaching certificate, Pansy taught at Chinquapin Grove (grammar) School, often walking to and from work.

When the Oliver family moved to a new brick house in 1923, they were fearful that their furniture might get damaged during the move on the old horse-drawn farm wagon, resulting in family members carrying some items on foot. Joann said that the nine-room dwelling was built at a cost of $5000 using lumber harvested from trees on the farm. Telephone service was added about 1930, electricity in 1939 and an indoor bathroom in 1940 using water that gravity flowed from a cistern located on a hill next to the barn.

An event occurred around 1914 that Pansy’s mother attributes to bringing her daughter and her future husband together. The family was on their way to Piney Flats to sell eggs and shop. Pansy held a basket of eggs on her lap. Clifford Torbett and his father were riding with them. Suddenly, a motorcycle came over the hill making a loud noise. It scared the horses and caused them to run frantically off the dirt road until the wagon eventually hit a stump. The only damage was a broken harness; even the eggs survived the mishap. Mr. Oliver repaired the harness with his belt and they continued their journey.

Pansy and Clifford eventually began “courting.” When the lad visited his sweetheart, he sat on one side of the parlor while she sat on the other. When they walked to church, they were always on opposite sides of the road. The couple married in 1925. “Church was always the center of mother’s life,” said Mrs. Conner. “After serving in Popular Ridge Christian Church, Union Church and Dunkard Church, she joined Edgefield United Methodist Church where she played piano and organ.”

The good-natured Mrs. Torbett was asked to what she attributes her longevity. Her quick and witty reply was “staying out of doctors’ offices.” She continued by saying to “work hard, stay active and take care of yourself.”  

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A lady recently showed me two pre-1915 long narrow tin advertising signs that she found attached to the back of a cabinet that her father built years ago. One contains the words: “Peirce’s Quality Shop, Ready to Wear Garments for Men and Women, Men’s Furnishings, 109 Buffalo Street, Johnson City.” The other one is for “Pedigo Co., Waists That Fit, Shoes, 259 Main Street, Johnson City.”

While brief facts are available for Pedigo Company, Peirce’s Quality Shop is not found in any of the available city directories. I conferred with Norma Myers, resident history sleuth and director of ETSU’s Archives of Appalachia, to see if she had anything to offer regarding the two stores. She replied: “Pedigo’s was listed in the 1911 city directory but not the 1908 one. Edward S. Pedigo was president of the company, his residence shown to be Bluefield, WV. L.W. Oaks was Vice President and J.T. Hall was Secretary-Treasurer. Mr. Oaks’ home address was also listed at 259 E. Main, indicating that he lived upstairs over the enterprise.”

Although 259 E. Main does not exist today, older city directories reveal a renumbering of the businesses along the north side of Main at Roan, indicating some building changes occurred along that end of the block. According to a 1915 Chamber of Commerce publication, Mr. Pedigo owned the early Johnson City business and another one in Bluefield, WV. He managed the West Virginia operation while Oaks and Hall operated the Johnson City one.

The Chamber’s report further states: “Pedigo Company is one of the good firms of Johnson City, the location being at 208 E. Main Street (second location and future site of the Hollywood Shop). The business has been established for some six years. The Pedigo Company handles all kinds of men’s and boys’ clothing, shoes, hats and gents’ furnishings. Goods of high quality and the best manufacture only, are handled, and the prices are altogether reasonable. There is genuine satisfaction in dealing with the firm, and Messrs. Oak and Hall, who are always to be found in the store, take a kindly interest in customers and desire to please each and every patron.”

The garment business was in operation between approximately 1909 and 1928, closing probably as a casualty of the Great Depression. Ms. Myers then directed her comments to Peirce’s Quality Shop: “The first time that anything shows up in the city directory about ‘Pierce’ (different spelling) is 1921. In that directory, it shows ‘Pierce & Pierce, first class shoemakers and repairers, 106 Buffalo.’ The owners are listed as William C. Pierce and Rex D. Pierce. The company was still on Buffalo in 1931.”

In 1921, 106 Buffalo reveals Pierce & Pierce and 107-109 Buffalo housed the New York Bargain House (clothiers). In 1928 and 1932, 109 Buffalo was shown to be A&P Tea Company with Pierce & Pierce still doing business at 106 Buffalo. In 1935, the shoe firm was still in business with Rex listed as the sole owner of the establishment.”

Norma was perplexed that the tin sign shows Peirce’s Quality Shop at 109 Buffalo and the directory reveals Pierce & Pierce at 106 Buffalo. The Archives director and I conclude that the two businesses were separate and that “Peirce’s” was short-lived and not shown in available city directories.

Thanks to a local lady’s generosity in sharing two old tin signs, another chunk of Johnson City’s nearly forgotten colorful past has been spotlighted and examined.  

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