October 2007

Local history can sometimes be found in unlikely places, such as a May 1931 Electric Traction magazine article that provided surprising particulars about the city’s switchover from streetcars to buses. Also included were two photos showing the interior and exterior of the new mass transit vehicles.

It was estimated that between 1892 and 1921, over a million passengers rode the city trolley along nearly a quarter of a million miles of parallel track. However, the next 11 years signaled a significant decline in streetcar usage, caused by a steady increase in the number of private automobiles on the road.

The town was facing a dilemma in 1931: either buy several new pricey streetcars for replacement of older cars and expansion of new routes or switch to buses. Additional trolley lines meant extra track and overhead power cables. While trolley routes were pretty much fixed, bus routes offered flexible itineraries. 

That year, Johnson City Traction Company management proposed to city officials that streetcars be replaced with buses. The city agreed and acquired five new Mack Model BG 21-passenger vehicles. Mr. D.R. Shearer became direct supervisor over the bus system and T.C. Land served as superintendent of operations. 

The city immediately began planning numerous routes and experimented with trial runs so as to offer transport service to as many residents as possible. Fortunately for streetcar motormen, most were redeployed as bus drivers.

Pomp and ceremony heralded the inauguration of bus service for the city’s 25,000 residents. City officials and civic leaders assembled at the John Sevier Market Street bus terminal where the National Soldiers Home band orchestrated a 15-minute band concert.

Charles E. Ide, vice pres. of the East Tennessee Light and Power Co., presented the key of the first official bus to Mayor W. B. Ellison. After the ceremony, the mayor, accompanied by several city officials and executives of the company, boarded the bus.

Ellison placed the key in the ignition, turned it and started the vehicle, thus launching Johnson City’s first bus service. Civic leaders, visitors and educators were then invited to take short trips around town to fully demonstrate the benefits of the new impressive medium.

The Mack buses were well lighted and had seats upholstered in genuine grade leather. Heating was provided by a hot water system and ventilation came from four waterproof ejector-type ventilators in the roof.   

Reduced vibration was realized by employing rubber extensively throughout the chassis and installing rubber shock insulators at all points of spring suspension. Gear operation consisted of first, second, third, fourth, direct and reverse.

The new buses contained Ohmer fare registers that, on demand, calculated and printed out a summary strip of paper showing the number of cash fares, tokens, school fares and transfers received.

Riders were charged 10 cents cash or a token per ride. Four tokens could be purchased for 30 cents; additional ones beyond four were sold in multiples of two at 7.5 cents each. Youngsters under 16 years of age rode for a nickel. 

Customers were treated to services they had not experienced before. With each passing day, the public observed more buses on the streets and fewer trolleys. The endearing little nostalgic streetcar with its ever-familiar “clang, clang, clang” soon rolled off into yesteryear bringing about the end of a colorful era of history. 

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“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley; Ding, ding, ding went the bell.” These familiar words are from “The Trolley Song,” the featured musical composition in the 1944 film classic, “Meet Me In St. Louis.”

In 1887, the first successful electric street railway in the United States began operation in Richmond, Virginia. Five years later, the Johnson City and Carnegie Street Railway became a reality with a four-mile span of metal track. The trolley soon evolved as the city’s chief mode of travel, bridging the distance gap between inner-city dwellers and suburb inhabitants.

People in the outskirts of town could jump on the trolley and ride downtown to shop, watch a flick at a movie theatre, roller-skate at a local rink or attend a concert or lecture at Jobe’s Opera House. Likewise, urban residents could ride a streetcar to Lake Wataussee (later Cox’s Lake) for a fun day of boating, swimming and picnicking or stopover at spacious Soldier’s Home (now V.A. Center).

Trolleys permitted people to affordably commute to their work places. The Blondie newspaper comic strip often showed the always-late-for-work Dagwood Bumstead leaping desperately into the air to grab the trolley end pole just as the vehicle departed. Moreover, streetcars took people to school, church, the doctor, family gatherings, sporting contests and social events. The endearing little cars became a vital influence in the city.

The trolley barn was located at 100-102 N. Roan Street, former site of the Johnson City Power Board. The uniquely designed building contained ample space for storing streetcars that were not in service. After exiting the terminal onto Roan Street, the trolley driver had a choice of turning north to Carnegie Hotel and Lake Wataussee or south to the Normal School (later ETSU) and Soldiers Home.

Traveling south took the trolley to E. Main where it turned west and navigated to Fountain Square. Two route options emerged at this location; the trolley could go left onto Buffalo or continue west on Main. The Buffalo choice brought it to Walnut where it bore right and passed Model Mills (later General Mills). According to Ken Harrison, it turned left onto Southwest Avenue and then right onto W. Pine before arriving at the Normal School. The other Fountain Square route was to travel west on Main and eventually head south toward Soldier’s Home.

Leaving the trolley station and going north took it to Watauga where it proceeded east to a short passing section of two parallel tracks that provided a spot for trolleys going in opposite directions to pass. The trolley continued east to Oakland where it turned right and then left onto Fairview to the Carnegie Hotel. On weekends and special occasions, the company offered a trip north on Oakland and northwest toward Lake Wataussee. 

Frank Tannewitz said it cost a nickel to ride the trolley. Many people walked rather than ride because a nickel was a lot of money in those days. A wire on top of the trolley connected it to the main power line. When the trolley got to the end of the line, the attendant switched the main supply wire from the front to the back to reverse the car’s direction. The attendant then flipped the seats over for the return trip.”

In my next column, I will relate how modern comfortable buses arrived in the city in 1931, causing the demise of the nostalgic little streetcars and silencing the familiar “clang, clang, clang” and “ding, ding, ding.”  

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There was a time in Johnson City history when produce stores and stands were bountiful with such names as Burbage, Lowry, Sell, Deck & Noe, Gilmer & Garland, Street & Dougherty, Tittle, B&B, Lacy, Willis, C.W. Lane, McKinney, Tri-City, Garland, Kelly, Bond, Crouch, Miller, E&T, Ben Garrison (bananas) and Hicks (tomatoes).

Without question, the one I recall the most from the 1950s was Earl Hicks Produce, located at 124-126 W. Market at Commerce and adjacent to Guy’s Restaurant. My great uncle, Walter Bowman, and his son, Shirley, worked there for years. Almost every time I strolled past the stand on my journey to town, I stopped and conversed with Walter.

Boones Creek resident John Hughes fondly recalls his association with the businessman: “I never worked directly for Earl,” said Hughes. “I was an independent driver along with Bob Chandley; cousins, Bill Hughes and Lindsey Hughes; and my brother, Raymond. We hauled tomatoes exclusively. Earl employed 30 people plus kept nine smaller store trucks in operation.

“Pat Bryant was Earl’s buyer. He went to Patterson, CA every September 15 for a couple of months and bought tomatoes, eventually working his way south and back east. My job was to follow behind him and bring back to Johnson City the tomatoes he bought. Over the next eight months, I drove to Laredo, TX; Humboldt, TN; Homestead, Fort Pearce and Immokalee, FL; and Beaufort and Lady Island, SC to pick up tomatoes.”

Repacking operation at Hicks Produce, John Hughes is shown at the right

John related how Pat often bought all the tomatoes a farmer had long before they were grown, that being his way of getting quantity and locking in the price. The store needed a minimum of 36,000 pounds of green tomatoes coming in each day between Sept. and July. John alleged how Earl would occasionally go to a fruit auction in Moultrie, GA and bid two or three times the going price, identifying him as a serious buyer and causing sellers to take notice of him.

Earl rented a temperature control storage facility on E. Fairview in the Carnegie section close to the railroad that he used to insure that his tomatoes stayed cool and did not over ripen. Even during truck transports in hot weather, drivers had to frequently stop for ice and use a fan to circulate air in the truck.

 According to John: “Earl had what we called a repack operation at his Market Street store, which separated ripe and partially ripe tomatoes from green ones. As tomatoes were fed onto a conveyor belt, workers positioned on each side of it removed unripe ones and placed them in a storage cooler. The remaining tomatoes continued to the end of the belt where they dropped through one of several different sized holes, allowing tomatoes of the same approximate size to be shipped to customers. These tomatoes were then repacked and delivered to large supermarket chains all over the northeast.

“Earl closed the store every year, between July 4 and Sept. 15, which corresponded to the time homegrown tomatoes were available locally. This gave the workers a much-needed vacation and me the opportunity to make other truck deliveries.”

John fondly recalls the time in 1955 when Press-Chronicle writer, Dorothy Hamill, interviewed him in a back alley off Commerce Street soon after he arrived at the produce stand with a truckload of tomatoes. She had a Press-Chronicle photographer take his picture while in his truck and then featured him in an article for the newspaper.

John concluded: “I really enjoyed hauling tomatoes for Earl Hicks between about 1952 and 1958.” That was a half century ago. 

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In early 2005, I wrote two articles concerning Johnson City’s charming “Lady of the Fountain.” This bronze statue stood in Fountain Square atop a water fountain between 1909 and 1937 and at Roosevelt (Memorial) Stadium for about six additional years.

In 1943, the Lady began a 40-year residency in a garden at the Zollicoffer family home in Henderson, NC. On Sept. 20, 1983, it made a heralded return to the city. I recently received correspondence from Carol Grissom, Senior Objects Conservator of the Smithsonian Institute, who shed new light on our prized artifact that represents a large chunk of Johnson City’s history.

Ms. Grissom stated that while writing a book, Zinc Sculpture in America: 1850-1950, she located the two Johnson City Press articles on my website: “I immediately recognized it as a statue sold as the ‘Greek Water Carrier.’ The Lenoir City foundry mentioned in your article may have made the cast iron fountain base, but I can guarantee that the statue was made in New York.”

Carol was delighted to learn that Johnson City possesses a rare essentially intact statue. She hopes to make a trip here soon to examine it. Ms. Grissom’s forthcoming publication contains this entry: “Greek Water Carrier with an urn held in both hands above her head and drapery flaring outward from her shoulders on each side. Water issued from the mouth of the urn and ran down the figure. This elegant figure was sculptured by Alan George Newman (1875–1940) and copyrighted in 1905 by the J.L. Mott Iron Works (118-120 Fifth Avenue, NY).”

According to Carol: “This company was known mostly for bathroom fixtures, but had a fairly active production of ornamental cast-iron fountains during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” She attached a Mott advertisement from a 1909 edition of “The Monumental News,” a sculpture journal that operated between 1889 and 1938. The publication carries a picture of a “Greek Water Carrier,” which appears to be identical to our “Lady.”

Ms. Grissom further avowed: “The firm probably did not actually make the zinc statues, but instead subcontracted them to M.J. Seelig & Co., a zinc foundry in Williamsburg, New York, an area now part of Brooklyn and fashionable among young people and artists. Mr. Newman was probably best known for his statue of a Spanish-American Soldier, available from several foundries in bronze but also sold by Mott in zinc. The ‘Greek Water Carrier’ is one of the few statues introduced in the twentieth century, as generally the company sold replicas of the same statues from about 1875 onward.”

Only three “Carrier” statues, including the one in Johnson City, are believed to be in existence today. Milton Hershey, founder of the Hershey chocolate empire, purchased one in 1913 for the front of his home. It was subsequently moved from Hershey, PA to nearby Harrisburg. The magnate also procured a Spanish-American Soldier statue. The cast zinc sculpture, known as “Rebecca Fountain,” was painted gray and installed on a concrete pedestal. Today, it sits on a concrete block with the portion below the knees missing.

A second statue once stood at the National Park Seminary, a school for young women established in 1894 in Silver Spring, MD. It stood atop a low pedestal in a garden between a sorority house known as Chiopi and the Chapel.  It was stolen in 1996, prompting a reward for its return.

Ms. Grissom offered some concluding comments: “As far as I know, your city’s statue is the only one of its kind that remains in public hands intact, discounting the damaged one in Hershey Park. Your ‘Lady’ is also important from an art historical standpoint because a known artist modeled it. In many ways, your copy is unique. Personally, I find it a rather charming statue and something of a period piece, evocative of the early 20th century.”

Let me extend a heartfelt “thank you” from Johnson Citians to Ms. Grissom for sharing the Lady of the Fountain’s birthright with us. 

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Imagine attending a lecture in 1910 at the Hippodrome Opera House at W. Main and Whitney streets. The speaker is Dr. Alvin Davison of Lafayette College lecturing from his latest textbook, Health Lessons, Book 2, American Book Company. His address would likely go something like this: 

“Let me commence by presenting some sobering mortality figures from my book. Although Americans now live twice as long as their forefathers did, only two people out of 100 die of old age; the other 98 perish from disease or accidents. One-fourth of children born in this country die within 12 months and less than half of our population lives beyond 55 years of age. Fortunately, we can now identify the germs associated with such common deadly illnesses as typhoid fever, tuberculosis, malaria, pneumonia, diphtheria, grippe (influenza) and plague.

“However, our ongoing challenge is to prevent these often-lethal microorganisms from attacking and ravaging our bodies. Our delicate living machine can be seriously damaged and even destroyed by negligence. In 1885, just 25 years ago, polluted water was regularly supplied to our cities and towns from sewage-laced upstream sources. Today, this has essentially been corrected; most municipalities now furnish safe clean water. As individuals, we can improve our health by striving to augment the nutritional value of the meals we consume. This effort can have a bonus advantage of lowering our grocery bills.

“For instance, ten cents worth of corn meal furnishes as much nourishment as $2 worth of oysters. A dime spent for stewing beef or 12 cents for two quarts of milk will produce more food value than a one-pound 24-cent sirloin steak. The daily cost of feeding wholesome meals to a family of five need not exceed 75 cents. Healthful yet inexpensive choices include wheat bread, corn meal mush, beef stew, small dried beans, potatoes, oatmeal, milk and in-season fruits and green vegetables.

“Also, food should be chewed more than a dozen times before swallowing. Two thirds of a pound of properly chewed victuals offers the same dietary benefit as one pound of carelessly consumed fare. Dyspepsia (indigestion) is a common ailment caused by swallowing food before it has been crushed into very fine particles.

“Milk, an essential element of our diet, must be handled with extreme care. Bad milk is responsible for sickness and death of young children. More than twice as many people die from bacterial tainted milk as from old age. Milk of questionable quality should be pasteurized by heating it to just below the boiling temperature, stirring it frequently for 20 minutes and then cooling it rapidly with additional stirring. The product must then be consumed within 24 hours.

“On another subject, it is healthier to sleep at night with one bedroom window open at least a foot at the top and bottom. This insures adequate breathing of fresh air and should be done even in the coldest weather.

“In recent years, health sentinels have become quite commonplace is most cities and towns. Their job is to detect contagious diseases and isolate them from other households. It is imperative that we obey their directives. These guards have the authority to restrict people from having visitors or mandate compulsory detention, known as quarantines, inside their homes until the health threat has been eradicated.

“Let me conclude by addressing the health teachers in the audience. Imparting instruction that invites health and happiness will bless not only those of today, but generations yet unborn.”  

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Ray Reaves, a charter member of the Johnson City Rescue Squad, is proud of his approximately seven-year affiliation with the decisive organization.

“Our unit was about the first one established in these parts,” said Ray. “The squad was organized sometime in the mid-1940s with 15 to 20 of us. We wore distinctive looking white coveralls. The people whose names I remember were George Livingston, Bill Prevette, Elihu Widener and S.S. Jones, our unit head.”

Mr. Reaves went on to say that the squad met every two weeks upstairs at the Main Street fire station. This facility offered adequate room for them because they had very little equipment then. Ray continued: “Meetings usually consisted of a guest doctor who instructed us how to assist with various types of emergencies. Surprisingly, we had no prior formal training before joining the squad.” 

Primary services included dragging area lakes for drowning victims, responding to automobile wrecks and setting up oxygen tents in people’s homes. They were also required to respond to plane crashes, but Ray could not recall any such disasters. “We were a volunteer organization,” said Reaves, “even furnishing our own vehicles and gasoline. All of us had regular jobs. I worked for Mullins Hardware on Market Street near the Southern Train Depot at the time.”

Squad members’ work bosses had to agree to let them respond to emergencies with short notice. Also, their respective employers paid them while on serving with the Squad during normal work hours. That commitment took some very understanding business owners.

Ray went on to say: “When we got the call to go to an emergency, we went directly to the crisis location. We kept a list of each others’ phone numbers handy and would call whoever was available. We were often shorthanded. We averaged about two calls a week, although I can recall times when we were needed twice in one day.”

Ray noted the difficulty of dragging a lake: “The squad had three boats for use. One boat pulled as many as three lines at a time. Each line had a board at the end of it about 18 inches long containing ten hooks that were each 3-4 inches long. Each hook was attached to a small chain, giving it some leave way. On occasion, we were called into Virginia and North Carolina, especially around the French Broad River. We seemed to be about the only ones around who could perform this kind of work. Sometimes we hooked something only to find out it was a limb, log or stump.

“Sometimes, we had to break a hook to free the line. Hooking debris was a recurring aggravation for us. Sometimes we started dragging early in the morning and continued until late that night. The use of lights allowed us to work through the night. I recall one occasion when a man abandoned his car along an area lake and vanished. We dragged for about 40 days before learning that he had been spotted in Florida. Over time, nearby cities formed a rescue squad. Greeneville, Kingsport and Elizabethton soon had one. We began pooling our resources and assisting each other in a cooperative effort.”

Eventually, the members became more specialized and the work more complicated and regulated. The Johnson City squad eventually acquired a paid manager and a new office. Ray concluded with these words:

“I feel really good about my service with the Rescue Squad. It always gave me a good feeling to be able to assist people with emergencies. Even dragging operations usually brought closure to a tragic event.” 

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