April 2008

Old newspapers are a treasure trove of history ranging from significant unforgettable happenings to interesting trivial tidbits. Such was the case of a Saturday, August 14, 1937 Johnson City Chronicle.

As was common then, the front page was reserved for mostly world news and events. The chief story dealt with U.S. battleships speeding to Shanghai where 4,000 Americans were endangered by fighting between the Japanese and Chinese.

An examination of the newspaper’s “funny page” is a journey back to the golden age of comic strips: “Blondie,” still looking as youthful today in the Johnson City Press as when she was a flapper girl, was married to Dagwood Bumstead, a man with a predilection for overeating, couch sleeping, colliding with the mailman, feuding with his boss and leaping for the moving trolley to catch a ride to work.

Other strips were “Popeye” who could transform himself into a muscleman by chunking down a can of raw spinach; “Moon Mullins,” an interesting character with big eyes and a derby hat who stumbled into countless life confrontations; “Alley Oop,” an odd-looking caveman citizen of Moo who wore fur shorts, rode a dinosaur and often traveled the ages in a time machine; “Tim Tyler’s Luck,” the world of an orphan boy who acquired an older sidekick named Spud and traveled the world; “Tillie the Toiler,” adventures of a young working girl; and “Little Annie Rooney,” a takeoff of “Little Orphan Annie,” a young orphaned girl who journeyed about with her companion dog, Zero. 

A glance over the sports page reveals a story about a crucial Appalachian League series opening between the Elizabethton Red Sox and the Johnson City Soldiers. That was before the city’s affiliation with the Cardinals. The contest was at Keystone Field, an early name for what later became Cardinal Park.

Another article dealt with Carl Hubbell winning his 16th game of the season for the New York Giants and Hank Greenberg pounding a home run for Detroit. The Chicago Cubs were shown to have a 6.5 lead in the National League and the Yankees up by 13.5 in the American.

For those interested in taking in a motion picture, the choices included the Sevier Theatre’s (113 Spring Street’) 15-cent double-feature starring Hugh Herbert in “That Man’s Here Again” and Fred Scott in “Romance Rides the Range.” The latter flick was likely aimed at adult audiences because no self-respecting youngster would waste his or her allowance money to see romance on the range unless, of course, it dealt with an alluring cowboy’s love for his faithful palomino.

Three other downtown theatres provided definite juvenile fare with real shoot-em-up action: Buck Jones in “Empty Saddles” at the State (248 E. Main), Hoot Gibson in “The Painted Stallion” at the Tennessee (146 W. Main) and Bob Steele in “Brand of the Outlaws” at the Liberty  (221 E. Main). Johnson City’s fourth movie house, the Majestic (239 E. Main), never catered to low budget westerns, showing instead Alice Faye and Don Ameche in the musical comedy “You Can’t Have Everything.”

Another entertainment attraction was the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus appearing on Aug. 17 at the Main Street Circus Grounds, the current location of the Municipal Building. The major live attraction was Hoot Gibson.

One advertisement was for a 9.5-hour Sunday excursion on the Tweetsie Railroad to Boone, Linville Gap, Roan Mountain, and Linville at a cost of one dollar. Light refreshments were sold on board “at nominal city prices.”

A glance back to life 71 years ago shows how much the city has changed and how much it has remained the same. 

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I received a note from John Salyer saying that my recent Dutch Maid Drive-In column made no mention of his family’s involvement with the restaurant. Mr. Salyer agreed to help me with a follow-up column.

He sent me some written material about the restaurant and asked artist Jerry Honeycutt (“Cruising Down Memory Lane”) to furnish me with some old photos including his wonderful painting of the establishment. The image shows incredible detail including many old cars from the mid 1940s to the late 1950s.

According to John: “My mother and father, John Kent and Dottie Salyer, moved to Elizabethton from Kingsport in 1951 and purchased the Dixie Maid. In 1954, they built a restaurant in Johnson City on property owned by Dayton Pierce. The Dixie Maid was renamed Dutch Maid #1 and the Johnson City location became Dutch Maid #2.”

John said that in its heyday the Elizabethton store featured Curly White, a local WBEJ disc jockey, playing records over the air from the top of the restaurant. Carhops would routinely bring him requests to play records for customers.

Salyer went on to say that his family formed a partnership with Otto Burgner at the Johnson City store. His mother recalled that they introduced pizza to the local area after Otto returned from a trip to Chicago with the unique concept. The co-owner had a reputation for handling rowdy customers. Once, a man on leave from the Navy got into a scuffle with two other fellows. Otto abruptly picked up the Navy man by the nape of his neck and seat of his pants and tossed him into the back seat of a convertible that was cruising by the establishment.

John sent me an eat-in menu from probably about 1980 that showed food categories of Eggs & Omelettes, Wheat Cakes, Biscuits & Gravy, Cereals & Toast, Sandwiches, Side Orders, Flavor Crisp Chicken (with Jo Jo Potatoes), Steaks & Chops, Seafood, Salads and Soup.

For breakfast, one egg with potato cake or grits, hot biscuit, cream gravy, butter and jelly and a choice of ham, bacon or sausage cost $2. Three wheat cakes went for $1.75. A quarter-pound jumbo hamburger was $1.25 with $.50 extra for fries.

Attached to the menu was a “Daily Menu for the Week” page showing nine items including Country Style Fried Steak and Gravy ($2.75), Grilled Ham Steak with Pineapple ($3.75) and a Rib Eye Steak ($4.00). The daily specials were $2.50 each: Monday, Pepper Steak; Tuesday, Braised Beef Tips; Wednesday, Meat Loaf; Thursday, Roast Pork and Dressing; and Friday, Grilled Liver and Onions. The daily and special items included a side order of two vegetables.

An analysis of the old restaurant photo really brought back some memories for me. Several ads were visible on the glass window: “Try a Tally Ho, The Sandwich That Melts in Your Mouth; Dip Top Ice Cream Cone; Banana Split; Dutch Ice Cream; Do I Smell Pizza-Burger?; Take a Pizza Home; and We Bake Our Own Pies.”

 A portable sign along the front says “Original Crispy Pizza Baked Fresh to Your Order?” There were two service windows along the front with the one on the left having a fan above it. A speakerphone can be seen suspended from the overhang on the right. I also noticed that my former late neighbor, James Hensley, fabricated the large sign on the roof.

Writing this column evoked some very pleasant culinary feelings for me from the Dutch Maid Drive-In. I only wish this restaurant were still around today so I could go there right now and fetch me a plate of their scrumptious liver and onions. Yum! Yum! 

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My introduction to the fascinating 3-D world of View Master occurred in 1948 when a friend of mine acquired one and showed it to me. This six-year-old boy was immediately awestruck and had to have one. 

Sawyer’s, Inc. manufactured the black bakelite viewer that utilized single 3.5 inch round cards, each containing 14 mini Kodachrome images that produced seven different stereo views. The user inserted one card at a time into the top of the viewer so that the first view number was displayed in the small information window that also contained a brief description of the scene.

Two “V” notches on the card helped align the reel in the viewer for the initial view. The person then looked in it while facing a bright light to examine the 3-D image. Pressing down a lever on the right side rotated the card to the next scene.

Between 1939 and 1950, View Master reels were sold individually, but by the early 1950s, several cards were bunched together and marketed in packets based on subject categories. For instance, reels 251-253 became the Carlsbad Caverns series. View-Masters were quite novel for the time, being an extension of popular stereoscopes that graced people’s parlors between 1858 and 1920. The new devices offered seven high-quality three-dimensional color views on each reel instead of a single one-dimension card.

Later, the company offered consumers viewers with built-in lights, talking reels and even a projector for watching the images on a screen without, of course, the 3-D effect. My preference was the small viewers. Credit for the novelty goes to William Gruber, who in 1939 teamed up with Harold Graves to form the View Master Company, which was introduced to the public in the early 1940’s. Although today aimed primarily at youngsters, View Master began its commercial life targeting people of all ages.

A multiplicity of subject matter ranging from nursery rhymes to domestic and foreign travel to movie stars was introduced. The company placed these words on each reel: “Seven More Wonders of the World.”

 I, being a child, preferred the FT (Fairy Tales) Series, which were introduced between 1946 and 1948. Each reel came in a sleeve along with a small foldout story booklet that gave a complete description of each view. Although the scenes were crudely animated, the detail and 3-D affects in the scenes were quite impressive. The FT series included: “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel & Gretel,” “Jack and The Beanstalk,” “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs,” “Cinderella and The Glass Slipper,” “Goldilocks and The Three Bears,” “The Three Little Pigs,” “Little Black Sambo” and “The Ugly Duckling.”

Like so many other nursery rhymes and fairy tales, they were a bit graphic as noted in the captions for Hansel and Gretel: 1. “Stepmother Plots To Lose Children in the Woods,” 2. “Hansel Drops Breadcrumbs Trail,” 3. “Hansel and Gretel Lost in Dark Forest,” 4. “Hansel and Gretel Led to Candy House,” 5. “Hansel Is Caged by Witch,” 6. “Gretel Pushes Witch into Oven” and 7. “Duck Carries Hansel and Gretel to Father.”

This was enough to give any normal child nightmares. Even the scenes were displayed in gory detail. For instance, the Little Red Riding Hood card showed the dead wolf’s carcass being drug into the woods by a rescuing woodman.

My love for View Masters continues to this day when I occasionally retrieve my old viewer and worn-out collection of cards and spend some quality time with my old favorite fairy tale characters, briefly returning to my peaceful world of yesteryear for a few minutes of sheer contentment.  

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Over the years, my parents patronized Beckners’ Jewelers in downtown Johnson City, so I suppose it was only natural for me to buy my wife’s engagement and wedding rings from Buddy Beckner in 1970.

A 1927 Johnson City Chronicle article gave the history of this now defunct business, reading almost like an advertisement. The clipping’s title was “Jewelry Story Established in 1886, Still Going Strong and Now One of Leading Emporiums of the Section.” Mr. I.N. Beckner opened “The Red Front Jewelry Store” in the small village of Johnson City in 1886; it remained in operation for nearly a century. The location was said to be near what is now Fountain Square, which at that time was occupied partially by the railroad station and the jeweler. Beckner occupied a small section of a building used as a livery stable.”

Some old city directories show that the company was initially located at 202 E. Main, future site of the Hamilton National Bank building, and later moved east to 232 E. Main, where it remained until its closing. According to a 1913 city business brochure: “This business has been successfully established for 27 years, surely long enough for everyone to know the absolute trustworthiness of the house. The public has always taken a kindly interest in this good old house.”

A 1915 Chamber of Commerce book further stated: “The stock carried (in the store) consists of the best selections of watches of all makes, sterling and plated silver, fashionable jewelry and other goods usually found in high class enterprises of the character. They do fine repairing and engraving and are the time inspectors for the Southern and CC&O railroads.”

The Chronicle article went on to say that T.F. Beckner, eldest son of I.N., grew up in his father’s business doing minor work and soon became proficient in all departments. Over time, the Main Street business bore three similar designations: I.N. Beckner Jewelers, I.N. Beckner and Son Jewelers, I.N Becker’s Son Jewelers and lastly, Beckners’ Jewelers. James Beckner, another son, joined his brother in 1919, becoming a partner and actively engaged in its operation. The article mentioned C.C. Mullins and Delno E. Diddle, Jr., two store employees from that era.

Upon the senior Beckner’s retirement, the business was assumed by T.F., who continued it using the name of I.N. Beckner’s Son. The senior Beckner remained associated with the store until his death about 1926.

The store’s ideal location in the heart of the retail business center made it a convenient place for shoppers. It became known for its elaborate and eye-appealing window displays that attracted many patrons. The store carried the famous old line of Seth Thomas clocks and had two models in the store that were over 100 years old and still running, confirming the longevity of the product. Hamilton, Gruen and Elgin watches were also featured brands, as well as many other nationally known makes of jewelry, cut glass and similar lines.

An ad from 1936 says “A Best Seller – The Hamilton Dixon – 17 jewel Hamilton accuracy and dependability in a case of 10K filled gold for only $37.50. No wonder the Dixon is a best seller.”

Beckners’ Jewelers closed its store in late 1985 when the owners, who were approaching retirement age, decided to call it quits. The decline of the downtown area and an uncertain business climate were dominating factors in their likely painful decision.

Ironically, the store’s demise was just months shy of its 100thbirthday. 

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Dr. James Bowman is proud of his late brother, Billy Bowman, a native of Washington County and former resident of Johnson City, whose career as a professional musician was outstanding. According to Jim … “After playing Dobro in his early teens in and around Bristol, especially for fiddler Jack Pierce who had been in Jimmie Rodgers’ 1920’s band, Billy moved to Knoxville for his initial full-time employment as a steel guitarist.

On WNOX radio’s Midday Merry-Go-Round and Tennessee Barn Dance, he joined a group co-led by Johnny Wright (of Johnny and Jack fame and husband of legendary Kitty Wells) and Eddie Hill. 

“When the two leaders parted, young Billy faced a decision: accompany Wright to Nashville and play country or go with Hill to WMPS in Memphis and play jazz and pop.  Billy chose the latter. For a while, two of my brothers were his fellow band members: Dalton (Buddy) in Knoxville and Al (Jake) in Knoxville and Memphis. Soon Billy moved to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, joining Paul Howard’s Arkansas Cotton Pickers, a slick western swing band whose drummer was jazz great Joe Morello. Shortly thereafter, Billy achieved national exposure; as an eighteen-year-old, he played plaintive (as demanded) steel guitar on a million seller, “Shenandoah Waltz,” for Clyde Moody, on the King label in 1947. 

“Another hit on which Billy was a significant participant occurred less than three years later. Ironically, on it his guitar was silent; he sang on ‘Faded Love,’ recorded   in Hollywood, California, by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. By this time Billy had begun an unprecedented eight-year tenure as this premier western swing band’s steel guitarist and occasional vocalist. Some critics credit his high tenor voice as a primary factor that made ‘Faded Love’ a classic as well as Oklahoma’s state song.

“In addition to singing in various Texas Playboy trios, Billy was lead vocalist for Wills on ‘With Tears in My Eyes’ (MGM, 1953), penned by his ex-boss, Paul Howard.  Uncharacteristically, Wills allowed him to record four songs under his own name, backed by the Playboys. After leaving Wills in 1958, during rock-and-roll’s ultra-explosive advent, Billy had brief stints with Hank Thompson and other western swing artists. Before long, his career was relegated to semi-retired status and a return to his native east Tennessee where he appeared weekly on television.

“Billy came by his trade honestly; from his infancy, he was surrounded by music of various genres. Our father (the late Elbert Bowman, Sr.), a guitarist, banjoist, and tenor vocalist, and three of our paternal uncles were professional musicians who recorded for the Columbia label. I think Billy translated some of Dad’s licks to his steel. “Our father and his brother, Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman (late North American Fiddlers Hall of Fame 2001 winner), recorded for Vocalion and Brunswick as members of Al Hopkins’ band, the Hill Billies, based in Washington, DC. These pioneers could boast of a command performance at the White House among other significant honors.

“My brother, Buddy, was guitarist for the U. S. Navy Band. He and two of our older brothers, Weldon and Al, toured with the popular blind evangelist, J. Bazzel Mull, veteran Knoxville radio host of a gospel music program. One of our younger brothers, Tony, sang on national television’s ‘Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour.’ After Billy mastered the instrument's complex pedal system, Marlen Guitar Company hired him as consultant. Because aspiring and skilled players alike still seek his copedents (tablatures of chord-pedal relationships), Billy is a featured model in many popular instruction books.

“Although Billy’s full-time playing was confined to little more than a dozen years, two of the songs he wrote endure through the recordings of many steel guitar players. ‘B. Bowman Hop’ and ‘Midnight in Old Amarillo,’ have been recorded in sixteen countries by more than two-dozen stylists. Billy’s long-time friend, Barbara Mandrell, performed them on her syndicated television show. More recently, his compositions have been aired on Garrison Keillor’s weekly radio show, ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ by American Public Media. Until becoming physically unable, Billy performed in three annual events: Bob Wills Days in Turkey, Texas; the International Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis, Missouri; and the Smoky Mountain Steel Guitar Jamboree in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

“After a six-month battle with cancer, Billy passed away on August 6, 1989 in Columbia, South Carolina. Six fellow steel guitarists and two fiddlers were among his honorary pallbearers. Steel players included former Texas Playboys Bobby Koefer and Maurice Anderson; Roy Wiggins (Eddy Arnold’s steel player); crash-bar wizard Speedy West; and convention hosts DeWitt ‘Scotty’ Scott and William ‘Stoney’ Stonecipher. The fiddlers were Johnny Gimble, another former Playboy; and Dale Potter, Billy’s friend of more than four decades.


“Professional musicians still marvel at his improvisational riffs with the Playboys. Whenever Wills was the band’s only fiddler, team player Billy cleverly emulated the instrument, blending smooth harmony parts. He harmonized likewise with the group’s trumpets and tenor saxophones. “In spite of the brevity of Billy’s full-time career, he was recipient of many other distinctive honors, four of which were awarded posthumously. Included were induction into the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame and the Western Swing Society Hall of Fame. The state legislatures of Oklahoma and California also acknowledged Billy's contributions to music.”  

I wish to thank Dr. Bowman for providing a synopsis of his brother’s career. Many Johnson Citians still remember Billy as a modest gentleman, always maintaining an infectious smile, whether playing the kind of music he cherished or greeting loyal fans in a crowded venue. Although he died relatively young, his music lives on. As long as western swing exists, he will be remembered for his contributions to the genre.

 (Note: Bob Cox is a cousin of Billy Bowman.) 

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