February 2008

Ms. Louise Bond Alley has a remarkable Civil War story relayed to her by her mother, Edith (Mrs. John) Bond that was passed down from Edith’s mother, Rebecca (Mrs. James) Clark and grandmother, Magdalena (Mrs. Abram) Sherfey.

In the mid 1800s, the Abram Sherfey family owned 300 acres of land along what is today identified as 282 Woodlyn Road in the east section of town. Railroad tracks bordered it on the front and Brush Creek at the back. Abram, a German immigrant, built a two-story house using hand-made brick after initially living on the property in a “soddy” (grass and dirt) house and log cabin. Magdalena rode the horse that tramped the brick before it was cut. 

Between 1862 and 1865, the couple altruistically turned their home into a makeshift Civil War hospital that served soldiers on both sides of the war. Louise attributed this bold move to her family’s anti-slavery belief and deep-rooted Church of the Brethren faith. The East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad played a significant role in the viability of a hospital in that locality. Before the war, it regularly stopped at the Sherfey farm for gratis wood and water.

During the war, train personnel dropped off critically wounded and sick soldiers and picked up recovered ones. Because the conflict, the train might roll by anytime during the day or night, daily or weekly. Keeping track repaired was an ongoing concern. The train’s mournful steam whistle wailing in the distance signaled the approach of the massive locomotive. If a recovered soldier was ready to board, a family member rushed him to the tracks and flagged down the train. 

The two-story house had four 18×18 feet rooms, two upstairs and two downstairs. Up to ten soldiers slept in each room on pallets on the floor. The downstairs had a kitchen and dining room where family members resided. A fireplace was along the back wall. Three porches, one on the front and one on the ends of the kitchen and dining rooms, were used to store and prepare food when the house became unduly crowded with soldiers.

A trapdoor in the kitchen floor near the fireplace was the only access to the dirt cellar. It was covered with a rug when not in use. Hams, bacon, dairy products and other items were stored there. Meat was first cured in the smokehouse and moved to the cellar. The family raised such provisions as garden vegetables and livestock and hunted wild game, obtaining additional supplies wherever it could be found. Grain was ground at local mills, such as nearby St. John’s Milling Co. 

One constant threat was roving renegades from both sides of the war stealing whatever supplies they could confiscate. When the peril became known, family members turned livestock loose and chased them into the woods for their protection. Water was arduously carried to the house from a nearby spring; large rain barrels accumulated runoff for washing purposes. Water was recurrently boiled in the fireplace to treat soldiers’ wounds and to wash and reuse soiled dressings.

When possible, Magdalena sent a letter to the family of each new arrival informing them of their loved one’s location and medical situation. Rebecca, about 9 or 10 at the time, penned letters for her mother utilizing her beautiful handwriting. Sometimes a note prompted a response from a family; often, it did not. Magdalena made use of an 1860 medicine book that is still in the family to prepare remedies for the soldiers. She made poultices, salves and syrups and grew her own herbs.

The family fed and cared for their welcomed guests’ medical needs, bathed them and washed their clothes. Children and adults from nearby farms and soldiers, who were well enough to assist, helped with the chores. Since death was an ever-present unwanted caller, Abram made and kept a supply of handmade pine or poplar coffins ready and buried the deceased in the orchard on the west side of the house, carefully identifying each grave. At war’s end, the government transported the remains to the states where the soldier had resided.

There was rarely any friction at the hospital even with soldiers from both sides of the conflict present. The men wanted to get well enough to return to their homes; for many, the war was over. The Sherfeys received no financial reimbursement from the Union or the Confederacy. The lone exception was an occasional supply of food sent to them from the government by train.

When the hostilities ended in 1865, food supplies had become even scarcer, especially salt and sugar. Salt cost $100 for a 50-lb. barrel and sugar was even more expensive. Payment for goods had to be made in gold coins because merchants would not accept anything else, especially confederate money. Magdalena left behind an old and fragile diary, held together by strings that recorded her 225 midwifery efforts between 1866 and 1873. Louise regularly made notes from stories her mother told her. 

In the 1970s, a family from Indiana located Louise and presented her with one of Magdalena Sherfey’s Civil War letters that had been sent to a soldier in their family. Unfortunately, the young man did not make it home alive. Moved by their gracious gesture, Ms. Alley insisted that the family keep it.

Edith Bond lived in the old historic house until she married in 1920. According to Louise: “She walked the railroad tracks from her home to the streetcar stop at Fairview and Broadway in Carnegie, a distance of three miles. She then hopped on a streetcar and rode to Science Hill High School downtown.

“Mother died in 1978, she said. “That old house played a long and pivotal role in our family’s history. Hopefully, a state historical marker will one day be placed at the site.” 

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Press readers regularly tell me that they save Monday’s History/Heritage page. That is encouraging to those of us who inscribe these weekly articles because it indicates people’s love of olden times and their desire to personally archive it.

I saved an article written in 1986 by the late Tom Hodge concerning a 1921 Chamber of Commerce booklet, “Membership and Classified Directory.” Ted Thomas brought him the publication, which reads like a “Who’s Who of the city’s historied past.” In it, Johnson City was known as “The Switzerland of America.”

Chamber officers that year were S.R. Jennings, president; C.L. Marshall, vice president; and William G. Mathes, secretary-manager. Club directors were George T. Wofford, James A. Summers, H.D. Gump, Allen Harris, J.E. Brading, E.C. Lockett, Lee F. Miller, L.H. Shumate, J.W. Ring and B.W. Horner.

Members were assigned a job classification from a list of 150 groups. Oddly enough, only seven doctors were shown: Dr. H.M. Cass, Dr. Elmore Estes, Dr. Lee K. Gibson, Dr. E.M. Loyd, Dr. W.J. Matthews, Dr. John Gaines Moss and Dr. E.T. West. Other members included such names as A.H. Abernathy, W.A. Allison, T.F. Beckner, D.R. Beeson, C.L. Bolton, John P. Rhea, Guy L. Smith, Thad A. Cox, R.N. Dosser, W.T. Swoyer, George W. Hardin, Dan B. Wexler, Harry Faw, Bert Gump, L.D. Gump and George W. Keys.

The city limits encompassed 7.2 square miles containing a population of 12,442 residents. There were 22 miles of asphalt-paved roads, 50 miles of graded and macadamized streets, 60 miles of cement sidewalks and 22 miles of sewer line.

An impressive municipal building referred to as City Hall contained a large auditorium and a well-kept market house at the corner of Boone and W. Main streets. Two newspapers, the Chronicle (Guy Smith) and the Staff (Clyde Hodge and Munsey Slack) served as the city’s news media.

The booklet provided a colorful description of Johnson City and its environs: “Situated in Washington County, the third county from the extreme northeast corner of the state; at the head of the fertile Valley of East Tennessee; the Switzerland of America; among the foothills of, and in fact the gateway to, the Appalachians and almost midway between the Cumberland Mountains and the wonderful Blue Ridge …” Two highways were under construction that year: Memphis to Bristol (State Route 1) and Asheville-Moccasin Gap (U.S. 11E and 23).

The booklet declared Johnson City’s environment to be superior to that of nearby Asheville by having an equable climate without temperature extremes, yielding a mean summer temperature of 72 degrees and a mean winter one of 39. The city was described as “delightful, healthful and conducive to longevity and the joy of living.”

Johnson City also boasted of “a well-organized and splendid system of elementary and high schools with one superintendent, nine principals and 79 teachers.” It also bragged about its Normal School with a staff of 35 officers, teachers and assistants, an annual enrollment of 1300 students and an administrative cost of $490,000. Milligan College had a faculty of 14 and a student body of 142 at an investment of about $350,000.

The Chamber’s publication lastly identified four city hotels with a total of 185 rooms, said to be inadequate to meet the present requirements of the traveling public. Thanks to Ted and Tom’s efforts 22 years ago, we are privileged to again steal a look at the “Switzerland of America” of 1921. 

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One year ago yesterday, Johnson City lost one of its crown jewels. Mrs. Ida Miller Cowell, widow of former city commissioner and radio and television legend Eddie Cowell passed away after a lingering illness.

I frequently conversed with Ida during research of her husband’s illustrious career for a Johnson City Press feature story. I enjoyed Mrs. Cowell’s lively and energetic phone calls; her voice always swelled with pride every time I mentioned Eddie’s name. Ida’s son, Joe, loaned me her 1938 high school annual, The Wataugan. Today’s column is a brief review of this school publication and a tribute to this fine lady.

The attractive brunette’s senior picture is shown on page 30, along with her impressive accolades: “It is better to be lucky than wise. Dramatic, 2 3, 4; J. Janes Club, 2; Home Economics, 3; French, 3, 4; J club, Secretary, 4; Hilltop Staff and Honor Society, 4.”


The Foreword spoke of the seniors’ desire to preserve memories of their high school life: “If we have contributed to a fuller interpretation of the values of high school experiences, we the seniors of ’38 ask no greater reward.”

The publication was dedicated to two individuals, Miss Una Harris and Mr. J.F. Copp, for their “active interest and enthusiastic support.” One student, Ann King, wrote a four-verse poem titled “To Science Hill.” The first verse read: “We sing a song of Science Hill, Of bricks and stones and lumber, Terraces of vivid green, And steps of countless number.” The last line is in reference to the 88 steps that lead up “The Hill” from Roan Street to the building.

The principal and superintendent in 1938 were N.E. Hodges and Roy Bigelow respectively. Tom Peterson served as editor of The Wataugan, the school annual, and Annie Lauderdale was editor-in-chief of The Hilltop, a student publication.

A “Senior Class Wills” page of attributes and objects left behind by graduating seniors began with these clever words: “We the Sitting Bulls and Many Ha Ha’s of ’38, before departing for the Happy Hunting Ground, do pause to bestow our papooses treasures inherited, acquired and captured.” The list of 36 bestowed items included the “dug-out” left by the WPA, hope of a new gym, correct answers for getting admits, “hole-in-one” golf card, war whoop, excess jewelry, hours spent in the library, chemistry knowledge, popularity and good looks.

The page creatively concluded with: “Now dear papooses, we feel that if you use correctly, carefully and intelligently, the wild game and scalps which we have left you that you too may depart ere long on that journey to the Happy Hunting Ground by way of ‘swim or sink creek.’”

One page “Keeping Up With Our Alumni of ’36 and ‘37” paused to look into the present to see what alumni of the previous two years were doing: “Science Hill does produce some good citizens. What would Sevier Drug be without Bill Darden, King’s Dept. Store without Howard Miller, Southern Shoe Store without Bobbie Neal, Hannah’s without Jimmy, Bolton Coal Co. without Charles, Majestic Theatre without Cline Holtsclaw and Appalachian Funeral Home without Paul Dyer?”

Several students were enrolled in local colleges. One student, Mac Bigelow, was said to be in Italy teaching Mussolini a few tricks. Another, Bobbie Piston, resided at Vanderbilt studying to be a doctor.

The annual’s final 16 pages contained 68 advertisements. Some of the lesser known ones were Miss Reece Holloway’s Dancing School, The Bypath, Sam S. Fain Grocery, Lyle Candy Co. and Ruth Andrews Florist. 

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An old diary that I kept in 1957 shows this entry for Feb. 10: “Today, the Preaching Mission starts out at the college.” That brief memoir reminded me of the annual February event that I attended at ETSU’s Memorial Gym for several years in the 1950s.

The inspiration for the Preaching Mission was conceived in 1955 at the Snack Bar at 146 W. Main, next to the Tennessee Theatre and opposite First Presbyterian Church. The eatery was a favorite with downtown workers and shoppers. Dr. Ferguson Wood, pastor of First Presbyterian Church and George Kelly, editor of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle, were among the regulars on that heavy overcast 1954 wintry morning. The men discussed what they perceived to be a wave of skepticism hovering over the city, causing a lack of cooperation among civic leaders.

The chat soon switched to the subject of Bristol’s “Preaching Mission,” a citywide revival meeting not aligned with any specific church or denomination. A special committee selected well-known clergymen and laymen as speakers. The two men felt that Johnson City sorely needed something comparable. Dr. Wood and Mr. Kelly envisioned a mission that encompassed three cities instead of one with speakers simultaneously rotating among Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol. The 8-day Sunday-to-Sunday affair would be named the “Tri-Cities Preaching Mission.”

Kelly returned to his newspaper office and penned an article for the paper that introduced and promoted the concept, which he deemed would have a profound inspirational effect on citizens of the surrounding community. Dr. Wood left the café and scheduled a meeting to present the concept to the Johnson City Ministerial Association. He won instant approval with the group and then approached the Bristol mission officers to get their reaction to the expanded idea. They too were in favor of it.

Col. Lee B. Harr, director of the VA Center, known for his ability to get things accomplished, was added to the team and immediately lived up to expectations by eagerly promoting the idea with area folks. The next step was a meeting of Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol leaders. In attendance from Johnson City were Rev. E.B. Jeffers, president of the Ministerial Association and pastor of Otterbine Church of the Brethren; Rev. M.S. Kinchloe, First Methodist Church; Rev. Howard T. Rich, Unaka Avenue Baptist Church; and Dr. Wood.

Dr. Thomas A. Fry, pastor of Bristol’s’ First Presbyterian Church, presented the concept to the group and obtained their approval. They further agreed that each city would have a committee to direct local activities. Dr. Fry was elected area chairman.

The well thought out plan called for two speakers in each of the three cities for evening services and one for noon ones. The night speakers would move from city to city, while the noon ones would remain stationary at one location. Evening services in Johnson City were held at ETSC’s Memorial Gym and midday ones at the Tennessee Theater, adjacent to the café where the idea was conceived.

The Preaching Mission opened its doors on Feb. 13, 1955 at the same time that a cold wave of frigid air blanketed the area bringing snow and limiting attendance. Adverse weather conditions in the city would soon become known as “Preaching Mission Weather.”

The annual religious meetings drew large crowds between 1955 and 1980, but in the early 1980s attendance began to wane significantly. After attempts to revive it that included changing venues failed, the organizers closed the book on it following the Feb. 1986 meeting, ending a 31-year run.   

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Imagine looking in on a one-room school in 1880 infant Johnson City with one teacher instructing six grades. Miss Stern, a strict, priggish schoolmarm is sitting at her desk with a shiny red apple positioned to her right.

The old institution of lower education is reflective of the times: a school bell regimenting the students’ activities, potbellied stove nearby, water bucket in one corner, slate chalkboard along the front wall, dunce stool and wooden paddle present – all necessary instructional tools. Notably absent is an inside bathroom.

Miss Stern beckons her impish class to get out their McGuffey’s Second Eclectic Reader, Revised Edition, for the day’s lesson. The smallish 160-page glossy page reader contains 71 short lessons, most containing an impressive black and white detailed illustration. The preface instructs the educator to look closely at each picture and include such observations with the lesson.  

Teacher Stern next asks her pupils to turn to lesson 14, “Henry the Bootblack.” She commences by going over the pronunciation and meaning of 17 new words contained in the text. Included are “support,” “money,” “blacking,” “boots,” “belong” and “manage.” The storyline entails Henry, a kind young boy whose widowed mother must labor hard to care for her son and daughter. After Henry finds a wallet stuffed full of money and returns it to the rightful owner, he is rewarded with a dollar.

The currency allows him to buy a bootblack box, three brushes and blacking. His acute politeness to customers in his new job earns him much business, which greatly supplements his mother’s meager income. The sketch in the lesson shows the shabbily dressed Henry and an immaculately attired male customer wearing a derby hat. The lad’s box and contents can be seen laying on the sidewalk next to the curb.

McGuffey readers appeared on the scene in 1836 when a Cincinnati publishing house released the first four Eclectic Readers that were selected by an Ohio schoolteacher and a teacher/ preacher named William Holmes McGuffey. Eventually, there were six readers, a primer and a spelling book.

Although McGuffey is credited for authoring the first four Readers in 1836 and 1837, his brother Alexander produced the last two volumes during the 1840s. The Readers emphasized spelling, vocabulary, and formal public speaking. An estimated 120 million readers sold between 1836 and 1960.

The product dominated the elementary textbook scene through the turn of the last century, undergoing numerous edition changes. The primary focus of the authors seemed to be stressing life’s values. The carefully chosen selections of prose and poetry from such masters of literature as John Milton, Daniel Webster and Lord Byron, as well as others, taught youngsters true patriotism, integrity, honesty, industry, temperance, courage, politeness and other moral and intellectual virtues.”

McGuffey's Readers were among the first textbooks in America that were designed to become progressively more challenging with each edition. The readers employed repetition in the text as a learning tool, which built strong reading skills through challenging reading. McGuffey died in 1873. Although the little books went out of vogue in the educational community many years ago, about 30 thousand books are sold annually to public, private and home schools. 

These little quaint nostalgic didactic reminders of rural 19th century Americana are a significant part of our rich heritage.  

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