November 2007

My father grew up on E. Fairview Avenue just two blocks from Martha Wilder School at Myrtle and New, where he attended grammar school. His 2A report card for 1923 shows Alena Woodall as his teacher and Larry Childress the principal.

The building once had a unique large enclosed metal fire-escape chute that extended from the second floor to the ground. My grandmother Cox’s scrapbook contains an undated newspaper clipping with the heading “Martha Wilder Entertains.” The article deals with students giving “one of the most delightful and successful entertainments of all the spring festivities.” The program began with a welcome song by children from all six grades followed by a folk dance of eight girls from Miss Williams’ classroom with each young lady dressed in a snow-white dress.

To quote from the article: “The 'Train to Mauro' was the dramatic feature of the evening in which little Miss Dorothy Remine played the role of Mrs. Buttermilk, a country woman who believed ‘charity to all with her herbs and roots' and who had advice to spare to everybody. Little Buster Barlow as Johnny Buttermilk had come to the conclusion that nothing on earth could keep his mother from talking, especially when he was starving to death for a piece of ginger bread. The station clerk, played by Elbert Whiteside, did not appreciate Mrs. Buttermilk’s advice and was greatly irritated by her insistence on going ‘To Mauro’ today.”

Another routine portrayed Millicent Ffollett as “Springtime,” clad in a dainty white frock, wearing a fairy crown and possessing a magic wand. With each wave of it, she produced an array of lovely spring flowers, represented by little girls dressed in exquisite apparel displaying a wide variety of spring colors. Several small boys wearing white suits followed Springtime and sprinkled frost over the pretty flowers, causing them to wilt and die. Observing the demise of the flowers, Doris Serl, depicting the role of Queen of Sunbeams, appeared with her magic wand and smiled so warmly upon the flowers that they once again raised their graceful little heads and blossomed.

Other acts including “The Sick Doll,” a clever dialogue, and “Swing Song” by Ida Mae Walker were greatly enjoyed. The program finished with a reading by Miss Kate Remine, as she delightfully impersonated a charming yet mischievous little girl known as “Naughty Zell.” The teachers of Martha Wilder were highly commended for producing such a delightful program.

Grandma’s scrapbook also contained a brief death notice for Martha Wilder: “City Founder’s Daughter Dies – Funeral was held yesterday at Chattanooga for Martha Wilder, 88, for whom one of Johnson City’s oldest schools was named. She died Sunday at her home in Media, Pa.” The clipping identified Martha as a daughter of the late Gen. John Thomas Wilder, a founder of Johnson City who gave land for the school in 1892. The property later became the site of a vocational training facility and eventually the city’s Senior Center. Another school, Annie Wilder Stratton, was named for Martha’s sister who married Frank Stratton.

Gen. Wilder was a Union Army officer who led the Union forces against Chattanooga in August 1863. Shortly after the close of the war, he relocated from New York to the Chestoa section of what is now Unicoi County.

During the industrialist’s lifetime, he built several hydroelectric power dams in the area, operated two blast furnaces and constructed two hotels on Roan Mountain, a log building and the popular Cloudland Hotel that was destroyed by fire in 1885. 

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Between 1956 and 1964, I routinely patronized McElyea Shoe Repair and Harness Shop at 127 Spring and Jobe (now State of Franklin Road). The owner, Robert McElyea, repaired my damaged or worn-out shoes while I patiently waited in a chair in my sock feet.

The still-standing two-story white building had never known anything but the harness business. C.W. Seaver built the structure in 1907 after learning the trade in 1896 from his half-brother, George C. Seaver. The businessman previously ran a harness store on Spring Street where the Cherry Street parking lot is now located.

Seaver arrived in Johnson City in 1873, when the population was 250 people. Stepping-stones were positioned at strategic locations on Spring and other streets so pedestrians could cross from one side to the other without trekking through mud or dust. Harness shops were popular sites for social gatherings. Farmers brought produce to town to sell or barter, picked up needed supplies and then assembled at the nearest harness shop, usually congregating around a big pot-bellied stove swapping tall tales and exchanging local gossip. All the while, the ladies shopped in the surrounding downtown stores acquiring sundry items such as calico, ribbons and grocery staples.

During the usual chitchat, Seaver was busy fitting teams of horses with harnesses that would stand the rigors of fully loaded wagons traveling over crude unpaved narrow roads beset with potholes and rocks. The owner was known to occasionally become stern with patrons when he found a horse with blemishes caused by an improperly fitted harness. His distinctive trademark was a circular belt with these words in the middle: “C.W. Seaver, Harness Maker.”

Business opportunities abounded in infant Johnson City from a variety of sources – traveling circuses, young boys with goats hitched to small wagons and downtown peddlers employing dogs to pull their carts. In 1903, the building of Soldiers’ Home (VA Center) brought about a boom in harness business when as many as 100 teams worked on a single grading job.

With time brought progress. Electric lights, paved streets and fancy automobiles slowly arrived on the scene. Although the primary mode of transportation was altered from four-legged horses pulling buggies to four-wheeled cars, it did offer one distinct advantage for leather workers. People could then travel long distances in modern vehicles to harness shops without having to depend on their animals to get there. Even with reduced demand, there was still enough business to sustain the business, at least for a while.

In 1945, 81-year-old C W. Seaver sold the shop to his nephew, George F. Seaver, who ran it another 10 years. Robert McElyea took over the reins of the operation in 1955. Fittingly, the new owner almost immediately added shoe repair to his menu of services in addition to his harness, saddle and bridle work. He had learned the trade by working at a harness and shoe repair shop in Elizabethton owned by a Mr. Riddle. Robert acquired much of the store equipment as part of the sale agreement, including two old tables that dated back to 1907. 

On Tuesday, March 30, 1976, after nearly 21 years of service to the city, McElyea said “whoa” to his downtown profession, closed and locked the front door of his store for the final time. It symbolically and sadly represented the end of a nostalgic era. 

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My April 2007 article, concerning the J.J. Page Carnival that visited Johnson City each April between about 1930 and 1949, prompted a letter from a reader: “My name is Charles Howell. I now own the J.J. Page home place just off Watauga Ave. where Mr. and Mrs. Page lived when they operated the carnival in the 30s and 40s.”

Charles said that he never attended any of the Page carnival shows because he was not born until several years after it ended its run.

I asked him if he knew much about this family. He responded: “J.J. and Minnie's only daughter, Dorothy Page Samier, lived in the house until age and health concerns forced her into a nursing home. She had two daughters both of whom left Johnson City in the late 70s.”   

Charles explained that a collection of carnival artifacts was left behind in his basement that included several costumes, a sideshow tent, old letters, photos and other related paraphernalia.  

Unfortunately, due to age, moisture, rodents and other harsh conditions, the fabric items were not salvageable. Howell sent me several photos that cover the carnival’s long colorful history: 

1- Minnie Page in the 1920s.

2- J.J. and Minnie Page.

3- $300 Unaka and City Bank check written July 16, 1926 to “Cash” against the Unaka and City National Bank: It contains a picture of the business that once operated from the tall building at E. Main and Spring streets, later becoming the site of the Hamilton National Bank.

4- A $25 personalized check from J.J. Page Exhibition reads “Modern Shows and Up-To-Date Rides” written to the “Red Store” dated Sept. 18, 1941: The financial institution on the check is “The Banking and Trust Company, Jonesboro, Tennessee.” Two retail grocery “Red Stores” were in business that year in Johnson City, one at 266 W. Market at W. Watauga and the other at 210 N. Roan.

5, 6- Two photos of the Page carnival: Can someone identify the location of these two pictures? One site was opposite Memorial Stadium near Tannery Knob and another one east on Main at Broadway within sight of Belle Ridge. 

7- Carnival Admission tickets: The cost was 26 cents per person. “Est. Price 22 cents – Federal Tax 4 cents.”

8- Advertising card containing the words: “J.J. Page Exhibition Shows – Better Class Amusements.”

9- Envelope from a letter written by a carnival worker in Augusta, GA and addressed to Mr. Page in Johnson City on Dec. 25, 1935: The writer first wishes the family a merry Christmas and a happy New Year and then informs his boss that he is out of groceries and wants enough money sent to buy paint because he says that he is “tired of laying around now.” 

The envelope and letter logo each contain the words: “J.J. Page Exhibition Shows; J.J. Page Owner & Manager; Consisting of Shows, Riding Devices, Concessions, Bands and Free Acts; Permanent Address and Winter Quarters, Johnson City, Tenn.”

10- Photo of two carnival cowboys addressed “To our friend, J.J. Page” from “Shot Gun and Jim.”

The last item that Charles sent was an undated article from “Modern Mechanix and Inventions” titled, “You Can’t Win – How Carnival Racketeers Rob the Public of Vast Sums in Carnival Games.” The publication humorously said that it is easier for a three-legged horse to win the Kentucky Derby than for a carnival goer to win a rigged carnival prize.

Charles further whetted my historical appetite with these remarks:  “I still have a couple of boxes full of J.J. Page items. When I get time, I will dig them out and send you more.” Needless to say, I am anxiously waiting. 

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In March 1961, my fellow Science Hill High School students and I began an orderly transfer to a new spacious modern school building located on John Exum Parkway. With the excitement of moving to the new facility, we hardly glanced back to the top of Roan Hill where students, dating back to 1864, had received an education.

On June 2, we seniors flipped the tassels on our hats and were blissfully added to the learning institute’s long list of graduates. We hold the distinction of having attended the last classes at the old downtown 88-step building and having graduated from the new one. On Nov. 21 that year, SHHS celebrated its first basketball game in the new gym with a “Dedication Game.” According to an event program, the contest pitted the “Hilltoppers” against the visiting Training School’s “Jr. Bucs.”

Special guests included C. Howard McCorkle, School Superintendent; George Greenwell, Principal; Carl Jones, President of the Chamber of Commerce; and Jack Chinouth, President of the Sports Club. City Commissions were invited as well: Mae Ross McDowell, Mayor; Carroll Long, V. Mayor; David Walker; Ben Crumley; Ross Spears, Jr.; David Burkhalter, City Manager; and Carl Johnson. School Board members included E.T. Brading, Chairman; Viola Mathes; Nat T. Sizemore; Richard T, Haemsch, Jr.; William S. Sells; John F. Lawson; John Seward; George Speed; John C. Howren; Forrest K. Morris and Gerald Goode.

The game was preceded with a 15-minute dedication service at 8:00 pm. Rev. Weldon Estes, pastor of Clark Street Baptist Church, offered the dedicatory prayer, followed by the presentation of colors from the ROTC Color Guard consisting of Hartman Gurley, Jack Onks, Kyle Bulla, Martin Crawford and Tommy Thompson.

Warren Weddle, the Hilltoppers’ colorful band director, guided the musicians as they played the National Anthem. John Seward, chairman of the Athletic Council, offered greetings and concluded the service.

It was then time to sit back and enjoy an exciting sporting event. Coach Elvin Little and Assistant Coach Paul Brewster directed the Toppers; Coach Bob Paynter andAssistant Coach Joe Shipley managed the Jr. Bucs. Players on the Topper squad were Bobby Jones, Lonnie Lowe, Carroll Vance, Steve Spurrier, Al Ferguson, Jimmy Evans, Richard Goode, Donny Bates, Tommy Hager, Choo Tipton, Bill Wilson and Ted Roberts. The Buc roster included Nick Owens, Mack Edmisten, Jerry Morris, Joe Pence, Ron Rodgers, Don Shearin, Wilbur Bond, Howell Sherrod, John Wilson, Wayne Miller, Sonny Treadway, Don York and Nick McCurry.

Not to leave out a key ingredient of any basketball game, the home team cheerleaders, consisting of Sheila Bolding, Mary Alice Gordon, Nancy McCorkle, Ann Meredith, Patti Pitts, Kathleen Wiley and Judy Yeiser, kept the crowd lively. The visiting team’s yells were orchestrated by Nancy Gordon, Janice Volrath, Barbara Vaughn, Carole Mullins and Margaret Taylor.

Under the leadership of Commanding Officer Martin Wright, the ROTC Sponsors entertained at halftime with a precision drill maneuver from Barbara Mann, Diane Cross, Sally Muse, Raylene Arwood, Madelyn Langdon, Jane Montgomery, Sheila McDaniel, Jill Hanselman, Claire Thacker, Marcy Edmonds and Ruth Gobel.

According to Larry Reaves, the basketball contest concluded with a 49-33 win for the Toppers. If you participated in the transfer in 1961 from the old to the new “hill,” drop me a note and share your special remembrances.   

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Mildred Kozsuch, local author of “Historical Reminiscences of Carter County Tennessee,” The Overmountain Press, sent me an informative clipping from the July 9, 1937 edition of the Johnson City Beacon titled “Only One Building Linking City with Stage-Road Days.”

The article lamented the fact that only one downtown building remained as a reminder of the old Civil War era Stage Road (now Market Street) that loped through the city. The two-story building was located at 144 E. Market Street (southwest corner at Roan) made of hand-made brick that had been formed and burned locally. Sadly, it was demolished several years ago. In 1937, it was the site of a barbershop; today, it houses the popular Taste Buds restaurant.

Some early store owners at that spot were Bob and John Rankin; John W. Hunter; Selden Nelson; Christian and Crockett; Christian, Hoss and Hodge; and Hoss, Hodge and Company. In later years, it served as a grocery store, barbershop and bookshop. The upstairs ranged from a storage facility to a beauty parlor.

John Rankin and his descendents lived in a hand-made brick home, built shortly after the Civil War, in the southeast corner of the intersection. Dr. J.C. King whose wife was a daughter of Rankin later occupied the home. The site eventually became a music studio operated by teachers Hunter L. Rhea and Mary L. Lyle. Afterward, it became the Spinning Wheel Tea Room.

The dirt Stage Road became a popular travel route of covered wagons, horsemen and even troupes and artillery that passed through the diminutive Johnson City, referred to then as “Brush Creek Flats.” The Tipton Jobe home (at Tipton and Jobe streets) was alleged to be the first one in Johnson City. City founder, Henry Johnson, built a store on the old Stage Road. In 1937, the Square Drug Company (101 W. Market) occupied the site. Older residents will remember that location as being on the east side of the Skippers Shop.

The next store, that of T.A. Faw, was on the artery at the railroad where the Southern Café (101 E. Market, later Byrd’s Restaurant) was located. Eventually, a newsstand and an upstairs rooming hotel opened there. The Faw home and spring was situated at Market and Roan where the John Sevier Hotel would be built.

Those establishments were about the only ones on the old highway at that time. Farther “out in the country” on the northwest side of Watauga Avenue and Market Street was “the old Methodist camp meeting ground, beside the Harrington Spring, then marked by a filling station and the swimming pool, plus a few residences.” Locals will remember the station as becoming Collins’ ESSO Service Center and the pool having multiple names – Watauga, Sur Joi and Carver.

Businesses flourished along old Stage Road with its nucleus on Fountain Square. The thoroughfare became the principal business street of the village for many years north of Johnson’s railroad depot (between Main and Market streets).

The article concluded by saying that the pedestrian foot log across Brush Creek at about the present location of McClure Street was replaced by a footbridge. However, passing vehicles had to ford the creek.

On one side of the road, a Hale family ran a large handsome livery stable. Opposite it was Eli McNees Blacksmith Shop (future site of the Arcade Building). Their residence was near the rear of the old Tennessee Theatre. A loom house was said to be close to it.

I wish to thank Mildred Kozsuch for sharing such an interesting article with Press readers. 

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During the early 1950s, I hurried home after school each weekday afternoon to complete my homework and chores in time to watch “The Howdy Doody Show.” The opening theme song contained these memorable words: “It’s Howdy Doody Time, It’s Howdy Doody Time, Bob Smith and Howdy Do, Say Howdy Do to you.”

NBC affiliate WBTV television in Charlotte beamed Buffalo Bob’s popular television extravaganza into Johnson City television sets at about 5:30, aiming primarily at youngsters between the ages of 2 and 11.

I routinely found my way into the living room of our next-door neighbors, the Gaines Johnson family, to watch the antics of Mr. Doody and his colorful cast of zany Doodyville characters on their small fuzzy black and white TV screen. The program would later become the first network program to be broadcast in color. The show’s lineup included the voiceless Clarabell (Hornblower) the Clown, Chief (Kowabonga) Thunderthud, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, (Sea) Captain Scuttlebutt, the amalgamated Flub-a-Dub, Mayor Phineas T. Bluster and Dilly Dally (a carpenter).

Clarabell pantomimed his way through the show, honked his belt horn and squirted people in the face with a seltzer bottle. We kids loved it. Bob Keeshan, the show’s first Clarabell, later became TV’s “Captain Kangaroo.” Judy Tyler, a pretty brunette, portrayed the beloved Princess of the Tinka Tonka tribe, the role initially introduced as a puppet and later transformed into a real person. Smith prerecorded Howdy’s voice on 16-inch acetate discs. A station attendant manually stopped and started them on a turntable as conversation flip-flopped between the pair.

The guests’ viewing area, known as the Peanut Gallery, began with just 12 youngsters but soon expanded to almost 100. The few available tickets were in constant demand. Buffalo Bob Smith introduced the 11-stringed wooden Howdy Doody marionette, first on radio in 1947 and then on television in “Puppet Playhouse.” It was subsequently renamed “The Howdy Doody Show.” The freckled faced all-American mannequin was not seen until the third episode because his fabrication was not yet finished. Only his shy sounding voice could be heard emitting from a partially opened drawer.


Legal hassling brought a change in the puppet’s overall appearance, depicting him with red hair and 48 freckles (one for each state then). American Magazine endorsed the dangling dapper for President, proclaiming him “President of All the Kids in the U.S.” Howdy and Buffalo participated in such notable events as lighting New York’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and leading the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. The show’s bosses launched a massive marketing campaign that consisted of such items as drink glasses, comic books, T-shirts, lunchboxes, beanie caps and wind-up toys.

After a 13-year run, escalating production costs eroded the program’s profitability causing the show that began in 1947 to be cancelled in 1960 after 2543 episodes. The most heartrending moment on the air came just seconds before the final broadcast when the once-speechless Clarabell surprised his grieving viewing audience by saying in a choked up and almost inaudible voice, “Good-bye, kids.”

Efforts to launch “The New Howdy Doody Show” proved futile. With the once-noisy Peanut Gallery now deathly silent, the little freckle-faced former personality was officially laid to rest at DC’s Smithsonian Institute.  

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