August 2008

As a huge fan of old cowboy flicks, I regularly attended the Liberty and Tennessee theatres as a young boy. The films were low budget productions, but most were anything but second rate; they made a profound impact on the youth of my generation.  

Bill Durham sent me two good Internet resources on the subject: Boyd Magers’ “Western Clippings” and Chuck Anderson’s “The Old Corral.” He also gave me a DVD movie, “Song of the Drifter,” by cowboy singing star, Jimmy Wakely, my favorite western crooner. In one scene, Jimmy offers his horse, “Lucky,” a drink from a wooden pail and then proceeds to swig from the same bucket. (Don’t try this at home.) Wakely made 28 westerns for Monogram Pictures between 1944 and 1949.

I acquired my fondness for Wakely’s singing in 1950 after my grandmother, Ethel Carroll, bought me a 78-rpm record containing two songs, “When a Speck in the Sky is a Bluebird” and “On the Strings of my Lonesome Guitar.” I now possess a fairly large collection of Wakely songs, many having been copied from breakable old dusty discs.

Some time ago, Mack Houston mailed me a copy of Bobby Copeland’s “B-Western Boot Hill – A Final Tribute to the Cowboys and Cowgirls Who Rode the Saturday Matinee Movie Range.” Sadly, most of the western heroes who once galloped across the big theatre screens in downtown Johnson City are deceased and residing in a “Boot Hill.” The lone exception (as of this writing) is 89-year-old Monte Hale (“Shoot low; they might be crawlin’”).

The book chronicles the people who helped make B-westerns a reality – cowboy stars, sidekicks, favorite heroines and supporting actors. The compilation also includes those actors who starred in serials (“Don’t miss the next exciting chapter of … at this theatre next week”).

Copeland’s paperback book provides newspaper reports of the passing of 66 “shoot-em-up” heroes; Gene Autry, Charles Starrett, Hopalong Cassidy, Johnny Mack Brown, Rod Cameron, Sunset Carson, “Wild” Bill Elliott, Allan “Rocky” Lane, Lash LaRue, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, Charles Starrett and Bob Steele were among them.

Another section documents 23 deceased sidekicks, the likes of Pat Brady (Rogers), Smiley Burnette (Autry), Pat Buttram (Autry), Andy Devine (Hickok) and three who appeared with numerous cowboys – Gabby Hayes, Fuzzy Knight and Al “Fuzzy” St. John.

Not to be excluded were 47 leading ladies, the most recognizable being Gail Davis (later guest starred on the Andy Griffith Show), Patsy Montana (yodeler, member of the National Barn Dance) and Linda Stirling (remembered for her “The Tiger Woman” cliffhanger serial).

“Boot Hill” also provides honorable mention to 60 B-western contributors such as songsters Johnny Bond (guitarist, country songwriter), Spade Cooley (western swing fiddler, singer, band leader), Bob Nolan (Canadian born singer, songwriter, member of the Sons of the Pioneers), Foy Willing (singer, teamed with the Riders of the Purple Sage) and Bob Wills (“King of Western Swing”).

The book likewise credits several desperados whose weekly dastardly deeds provided the good guys with someone to pursue. Every Saturday matinee idol probably “killed” bad hombre, Roy Barcroft, a dozen times, but after “dying” in one flick, he amazingly appeared in good health in the next one. I was surprised to see his name in “Boot Hill.”

Most of those who masterfully orchestrated the B-western films of yesteryear are now buried “on the lone prairie,” but they still firmly reside in the memories of us hard-core cowboy devotees. As Roy Rogers would say: “Happy trails to you until we meet again.”  

Read more

Paul Gill, a former resident of Johnson City, sent me a package chocked full of documentation about his family history that has numerous links to the city’s past. One story in particular caught my attention; it deals with the 93rdbirthday of Tenna Sherfey Leighton, Paul’s aunt, on August 17, 1957. She was born on August 17, 1864, eight months before the Civil War ended. 

This was a memorable occasion for the 1410 East Unaka Avenue resident. While opening her many congratulatory cards that arrived in the mailbox that week, she was astonished to find one with a return address of “The White House, Washington.” The sender of the correspondence was Mamie Eisenhower, wife of the 34thpresident of the United States. The First Lady penned the letter just prior to her entering a DC hospital.

Mrs. Eisenhower congratulated the elderly citizen on her milestone: “Dear Mrs. Leighton: It is a pleasure for me to extend warm and cordial congratulations on your approaching birthday on August 17. May peace and happiness be yours in abundance in the years to come.”

The president’s wife learned of Tenna’s accomplishment from Sherfey Hodges, a great-nephew of hers and retired Naval officer. He wrote Mrs. Eisenhower and made the request of her. Mrs. Leighton was so delighted with the letter that she took it to her church, the First Church of the Brethren, and showed it to her pastor, the Rev. B.J. Wampler, who, in turn, read it to his congregation.

Not to overlook this act of kindness by Mrs. Eisenhower, Mrs. Leighton sent a “thank you” note to the White House. When asked what she wrote, she responded: “I thanked her and sent her my best wishes and I enclosed a pretty ‘Get Well’ card too.” Tenna, a stanch Republican, always admired Mrs. Eisenhower, a fact she insisted had nothing to do with her political affiliation. “She is a fine woman,” she said, “and I respect her, regardless of politics.”

The elderly lady lived alone in the home that she had occupied since 1940, cooking her own meals, doing the daily cleaning and washing all but heavy articles. She canned tomatoes, peaches, corn, beans, apples and prunes.

The Sherfey family once lived on a farm along what in now Austin Springs Road. Her father named her “Tennessee” because her mother had the privilege of naming their first child, “Virginia,” the home state of the mother.

The family later moved closer to Johnson City. “Tennessee” had many fascinating memories of the days when the city was a village and the population was sparse. She recalled that it a grand occasion to come to town, riding behind her mother on a horse. They brought butter and eggs with them to sell, after which they would use the money to buy groceries before returning home.

During the 1896-97 school year, a grownup Tenna taught third grade at Martha Wilder School on Myrtle Avenue, then considered to be the newest and finest of educational institutions in the area. She married Charles D. Leighton in 1898 and went with him to live on a farm near Lawrenceburg, TN. In 1919, the family relocated to California. They returned to Johnson City after the death of her husband.

“Tennessee” was an avid reader of newspapers and magazines. She commented that her favorite book was the Bible. She kept records in the back of it that showed where she had read it from cover to cover 24 times.  

The 93-year-old’s special birthday came and went with little fanfare, which is the way she wanted it. Her many well wishes extended from as nearby as her household and as far away as Washington, DC. The hardy Johnson Citian lived another 12 years, departing this life at the age of 105.  

Read more

East Tennessee has been blessed with capable leaders who helped shape the Volunteer State into what it is today. Test your knowledge of the region’s pioneers by matching their names with their contributions. The answers are located at the end.

Choices: A- Daniel Boone, B- Tidence Lane, C- Andrew Jackson, D- Elihu Embree, E- William Bean, F- John Sevier, G- Katherine Sherrill, H- William Blount, I- Samuel Doak, J- Henry Johnson, K- Andrew Johnson, L- David Crockett and M- Bob Taylor.

1. This individual was among the first Baptists to set foot on Tennessee soil, having the distinction of pastoring the first permanent church organization of any denomination in the state of Tennessee, Buffalo Ridge Baptist Church in the Gray community.

2. President George Washington appointed this veteran of the Revolutionary War to serve as governor of the Southwest Territory and superintendent of Indian affairs. He later became the first U.S. senator to be impeached.

3. Reported to be the first white settler west of the Alleghenies, this person became a companion of Daniel Boone in 1760. In 1768, he and his family settled at Boone's Creek, a small tributary of the Watauga River.

4. Known as “Bonnie Kate,” this hardy and adventurous woman became the wife of John Sevier after he bravely pulled her to safety during an Indian attack at Fort Watauga at Sycamore Shoals.

5. This trailblazer, pathfinder and Indian fighter gave pioneers and settlers courage to penetrate the vast wilderness regions. He left his mark on the area by carving his initials in a large beech tree north of the city.

6. The American Presbyterian clergyman and educator who became an advocate for the abolition of slavery. Later he established an academy that became known as Washington College, the first one west of the Appalachians.

7. This Washington County native, son of a Quaker minister, abolitionist leader and publisher of the first abolitionist paper in the United States, “The Manu-mission Intelligence,” became an ardent anti-slavery advocate and remained so until his death.

8. This pioneer arrived in the area in 1856 and established a city that would later bear his name. Over time, he built a combination residence and merchant store, train depot and water tank.

9. “Old Hickory,” so named because of his robustness, was a colorful Jonesboro lawyer, Indian fighter and leader of the “Tennessee Volunteers” in the Battle of New Orleans. He became the first United States president from west of the Appalachians.

10. This 17thpresident of the United States assumed office upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He led the nation during the Reconstruction era and became the first president to be impeached.

11. The witty Democratic contender for governor of Tennessee during the famous 1886 “War of the Roses” campaign served one term in the U.S. House, three as governor and one in the U.S. Senate. He co-founded The Comet, an early Johnson City newspaper.

12. The Tennessee hero of the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina became governor of the State of Franklin, first governor of the State of Tennessee, Indian fighter and state-builder.

13. This celebrated 19th-century American folk hero, frontiersman, soldier and politician was born on the Nolichucky River near Limestone, Tennessee and died fighting the Battle of the Alamo in Texas.

Answers: 1B, 2H, 3E, 4G, 5A, 6I, 7D, 8J, 9C, 10K, 11M, 12F and 13L. 

Read more

A Monday, July 27, 1925 Johnson City Press-Chronicle contained a unique full-page advertisement that caught my attention. The main title said, “Try The Drug Store First.” The premise of the ad was to get patrons to subscribe to the idea that a drug store sold much more than drugs, a concept that carries well over to today. 

Downtown Johnson City had its share of pharmaceutical dispensaries. In addition, most of them had fountain service where the customer could sit down at a counter or some small booths. I recall numerous such establishments from the late 1940s thought the 1950s. People were not for lack of choices of druggists within a short distance of the downtown business district.

One of the most popular was Liggetts (257 E. Main at Roan). This two-story brick building was known as the King Building with “King” and “1907” visibly engraved across the top of it. Farther west down the block was Cole Rexall Drug Store (233 E. Main), later becoming Revco. Opposite this business on the south side of the street was Peoples Drug (216 E. Main). Going west from Peoples Drug was Jones Vance Drug (Main and Spring). Diagonally across from it on Fountain Square was Anderson's Drug (201 E. Main, advertised as “The Convenient Corner”).

Just around the corner from Jones Vance was Snyder Jones Drug (100 Main). Traveling west on Market across the railroad tracks was Market Street Drug (134 W. Market, “Your Rexall Store”). Further down the block was Chambers Williams Drug (200 W. Market at Boone). Continuing west several blocks brought you to Wilson Pharmacy (273 W. Market at Watauga). Motoring up Roan Street past Junior High on the right revealed Hospital Pharmacy (602 N. Roan).

One of the last holdout survivors in the downtown area after the business district fell on hard times was Liggett's, but it too eventually closed its doors. Wilson Pharmacy successfully moved to Walnut Street and Revco relocated to North Johnson City.

Each firm had its specialty. My favorite spot in Liggetts was the candy counter just inside the store to the left. Cole had really good hamburgers with the option of adding slaw to them. They also made good malts and delicious milk shakes. I vividly recall a smiling Guy Wilson and a large comic rack at Wilson Drug. 

There is a story from my family that proved the essentiality of these early establishments. It involved a good deed performed by my great uncle, Elbert Bowman, in the late 1920s as recalled by one of his sons, Weldon. My uncle, Stanley Carroll, a young boy living along Gray Station Road in Gray Station, once contacted a bad case of the flu that rendered him very sick and weak physically. 

Late one evening, Dr. McCollum, a well-known local country doctor, was called to the Bowman home to examine the lad. After finishing his examination, the doctor pushed back from the bed where the sick boy lay and just sat there in deep thought. He then proceeded to write a prescription, handed it to Elbert and told him to get Stan some much-needed medicine as soon as possible.

The nearest drug store was in Johnson City so Elbert and Weldon got in the family’s Model A Ford and drove to the nearby town. When they got there, it was approaching midnight. In spite of the late hour, they were able to locate a pharmacist, get him to open his store, obtain the medicine and expeditiously return to Gray Station and a sick little boy. According to Weldon, Stanley “snapped right out of it,” thanks to Elbert Bowman and an unknown Johnson City pharmacist of yesteryear.  

Read more