September 2008

Sue Carr Eckstein recently shared with me two highly interesting documents: a two-page program, “Science Hill Male and Female Institute, Johnson City, Tenn., May 26, 1871, Closing Exercises” (subject of this column) and an “Annual Catalogue of the Boon’s Creek Male and Female Institute for 1860 and 1861” (to be featured on next week’s History page).

Science Hill’s unpretentious origin can be traced back to 1860 when a debating society in the Oak Grove community of Boones Creek was organized. It soon moved to a “schoolhouse” at Brush Creek Campground in Johnson’s Depot. In 1863, a new hewn log school building was built on Rome Hill in close proximity to city founder Henry Johnson’s train depot. About 1868, a brick one was constructed next to the old one. It was there that the 1871 end-of-school closing exercises were held. 

The program was not a senior graduation. Instead, it was a daylong eight-part event that began at “8½ o’clock a.m.” with visits to predetermined student classrooms before concluding that evening. The school was not as formally structured then as it is today with some students sharing teachers and classrooms. The activities and participating students were as follows:

“I. Examination of Classes: Class in Cicero’s Orations, Class in Arithmetic, Class in Algebra, Class in First Greek Book, Class in Trigonometry and Class in Second Latin Book.

“II. Recitation of Poetry (2 o’clock p.m.): Misses Lelie Gentry, Maggie Crumley, Jennie Berry, Nora Hickey, Carrie Berry, Jennie Crumley, Emma Carroll, Laura Hickey, Mollie Taylor, Sallie Faw and Louis Peters.

“III. Class in Declamation: Masters Dannie O’Brien, Charlie Carr, John Dickson, Charlie Taylor, James Martin, Johnson Pool, Charlie Martin, Willie Clark, Robert Love, Henry Barnes, Charlie Farnsworth, Charlie Seehorn, James Taylor, Nat. Carroll, Henry Landreth, Thomas Taylor and George Hardin.

“IV. Class in Composition: The Social Class, Mollie King; Another Year (original), Mollie Farnsworth; My Mother’s Little Girl, Mollie Love; Is It Any Body’s Business if a Lady Has a Beau? (original), Hassie Nelson; Friendship, Eliza Barnes; Passing Away (original), Jennie Debusk; Female Education, Maggie Bowman; The Sparkling Dewdrop, Rettie Farnsworth and Farewell (original), Cordelia Bowman.

“V. Class in Declamation: Richard N. Gentry, Alfred T. Love, James W. Crumley, Samuel H. Hunt, Samuel S. Crumley, Joseph Clark, Peter Q. Miller, William A. Debusk, George A. Reeves, Abram F. Hoss, David F. Hickey and Robert J. Rankin.

“VI. Oratorical Contest (7½ p.m.): Individual Responsibility, Calving R.J. McInturf, Washington County; The Duty of Educated Young Men, Madison W S. Taylor, Johnson City; The Spirit of Enterprise, Melvin C. Wells, Sullivan County; What Do You Want? William P. Rankin, Johnson City; The Aim of Education, Adam B. Bowman, Johnson City; Man Not What He Professes to Be, Abram H. Collett, Greene County; Evils of Intemperance, Winfield S. Hickey, Johnson City; and Horrors of War, William W. Smith, Virginia.

“VII. Address Before the School: H.H. Carr (Esq.), Washington County.

“VIII. Award of Prizes: (No information was shown pertaining to awards or winners).” 

The all-day closing exercises concluded with a benediction. The number of students participating in the daylong event totaled 58; several of them became prominent citizens. 

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Several months ago, I featured a column from Bobby Harrell about his memories of the John Sevier Hotel. I received two reader responses. The first was from Skip Oldham whose father was president of George Oldham Associates: “Oh what memories that article brought back,” said Skip. “For many years, our family business was in the hotel from the lobby to Roan Street. It was a beehive of activity virtually all the time.

“The various civic clubs met on the mezzanine level daily. The article comments about the dining rooms and ballroom were oh so true. I remember going to my first dance there. I was all dressed up in my first suit that came from King’s Department Store. There was a group of men who regularly had lunch in the hotel dining room. It was known as the roundtable because of the table shape and very large size. City and would-be leaders always frequented it. The tales of the antics of that bunch are far too numerous to tell; they were all pranksters and loved to tease one another.  

“The mention of Monroe McArthur was of particular interest to me. I always heard him called Mr. Mac or Tank. Now I know his full name was Monroe Tankherstly McArthur. “In addition to the hotel, his raison d’etre was a campaign to rid downtown of the rail tracks which caused all sorts of trouble when parked at the station. He proposed that the tracks be buried right where they were. The fact that Brush Creek would have flooded them was something he felt would take care of itself. That situation was greatly ameliorated when the Clinchfield built the “High Line” in the late sixties.”

Skip noted that Adelaide Richardson, Mr. McArthur’s sister, was a widow who resided in a big home on one of the tree streets. She too had a big car and Obie Belton was also her chauffeur.  In her later life, after Obie and Mr. Mac had passed away, she spent most of her days sitting in the lobby of the John Sevier. I clearly recall,” said Skip, “her coming into our travel agency office just to say hello; then she would sit down and go to sleep in the chair. My father would awaken her, and escort her to one of the overstuffed chairs in the lobby, saying that our hard chairs were not good for her back. It was quite common for hotel tenants to drive her home and almost before they got back to their office in the hotel, Mrs. Richardson was back in the lobby. I have witnessed this as many as three times in a day. She would get out on Maple Street and hail a car or cab by waving her cane in the air.

“I do recall a very nice young man who was a student at ETSU who was retained, by what family members were living, to live in her home and try to keep her in check. I could ramble on for hours with stories of the John Sevier Hotel and the people around there. I look forward to the Monday Press so that I can read the articles.”

I received a second e-mail from Lester Roberts II who wrote: “I read with interest the old John Sevier Hotel piece in the Monday paper. The older stories my father-in-law, Crawford Rogers, tells is of cleaning frogs for the hotel when he was a young boy. He was paid 25 cents per frog and, yes, frog legs were on the menu. He sold the frogs from the early to mid 1930s.”

Today, it is nice to look south over the downtown area and see the tall John Sevier Hotel building still majestically standing guard over the city against the outline of the beautiful Buffalo Mountain range. 

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On August 9, Johnson City lost one its crown jewels, 79-year-old Chester “Chet” Willis, who was born in Washington County and moved away for several years before returning to the city. He retired from the City of Johnson City’s Department of Services and Water Department, became a member of the Cemetery Survey Team of Northeast Tennessee and had recently worked for the Oak Hill Cemetery Friends and Volunteers.

Alan Bridwell introduced me to Chet about a year ago. We drove to the cemetery one afternoon and found the kind unassuming gentleman going about his work of maintaining and restoring the historic old graveyard. He faithfully opened the gates each day at sunrise and closed them at sunset. His impressive contributions to Oak Hill can best be noted from an excerpt of comments made by Bridwell at his friend’s funeral:

“I have known Chet Willis for the past three years. I met him while wandering around Oak Hill Cemetery one afternoon looking for a gravesite. I saw a gentleman with a cowboy hat working around a gravestone. I asked him if he had ever seen the grave of Ted Laws, the noted artist who painted railroad scenes. He walked over to a white pickup truck, pulled out a large cemetery registry and took me right to the grave that I had been trying to find for several weeks. This was the beginning of a rewarding friendship.

“Let me describe Oak Hill Cemetery before Chet Willis started working there. It is a very old cemetery in Johnson City with burials starting around 1870, shortly after the town was incorporated. It includes the graves of Henry Johnson and several founders of Johnson City. Over time it was essentially abandoned and frequently vandalized. Weeds and vines had overtaken the perimeter fences and many people likely did not even realize that a large city cemetery was located there.  A small colony of homeless people was actually living in a lower portion of the property. 

“Chet basically adopted the cemetery to clean and restore it. He repaired over 100 gravestones that had either been vandalized or deteriorated with age and cleaned around 2,700 gravesites. In addition, he transcribed and created a detailed registry of all people buried there and developed a grave numbering system complete with stenciled markers denoting each row of graves. This was a tedious and painstaking task to accomplish. 

“One day in October 2007, I found Chet very downhearted after some kids had knocked over and damaged about 20 markers that he had earlier spent days repairing. Later that week, I saw him back at the cemetery quietly repairing the damaged graves.

“I once asked Chet why he worked so hard at Oak Hill, knowing that he had no family member buried there or other obvious connection to the graveyard. He said that his reward was seeing more people visit the cemetery, put flowers on graves and express gratitude for finding an ancestor’s grave with the registry he developed. Chet never sought publicity; he simply saw work that needed to be done and set out to make a difference by getting it done.”

“Chet was a spiritual man. His Bible was evident and close by his chair in his living room. As Chet was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment, he would hold up his hand for prayer and pray for strength to go through the next phase. There is no doubt to me that his work in the cemeteries was an inspired work that gave him a spiritual lift.”

Alan ended his eulogy appropriately with a quote from 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” The passing of Chester Willis left some very large shoes to fill at Oak Hill Cemetery. 

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Johnson City resident, Peggy Harvey Street, a member of the Harvey Family Singers, called the Press recently to remind readers that Paul Anderson, a former Elizabethton weightlifter, won a gold medal in the 1956 Olympic games held in Melbourne, Australia.

Paul was born on October 17, 1932 in Toccoa, Georgia. After winning a football scholarship to Furman University in 1950, he returned to his parents’ home in Elizabethton one year later with a strong desire to become a weightlifter.

Paul began developing innovative ways to lift weights and increase his strength. For example, he would squat all day every other day and on alternate days, work on the bench press. He placed objects in concrete to lift them and would sift through junkyards in search of heavy objects to use. 

In 1955, the muscleman broke two world records at the World Championships in Munich, Germany and became world champion in his weight class. Upon his return home, then vice-president, Richard Nixon, thanked him for being a goodwill ambassador for the United States.

In 1956, the 304-pound contender became an Olympic gold medal winner, beating Humberto Selvetti of Argentina. Although both men lifted the identical amount of weight, Paul won because he weighed less than his competitor. It was during this time that he turned professional.

Mrs. Street said her husband, the late A.J. Street, became acquainted with Anderson about 1954: “A.J. liked to skate a lot back then and spent a lot of time at the Recreation Building. I believe it was there where they first met.

“When my husband and I were dating, we often took in a movie at the Majestic or Sevier Theater. Frequently while attending the theatre, we would meet Paul and his date, a pretty petite blond lady. Back then, people dressed up when going on dates. I remember seeing Paul dressed in a beige suit and a shirt with a pointed collar. His neck was so big that he probably couldn’t get a tie around it so he just left his collar open.”

Peggy said that soon after Paul won the 1956 Olympics, she and A.J. saw him again at the Majestic Theatre, not in person, but on the big screen during a Movietone Newsreel. When news of Paul’s winning an Olympic gold metal was announced, the crowd whooped and hollered; this was their local hero from neighboring Elizabethton.

In one Newsreel scene, Paul is shown with his hands and feet bound so as to keep them from bursting under the tremendous amount of weight he was lifting. 

Paul was invited to appear on the hit quiz show “I’ve Got a Secret,” emceed by Garry Moore, He amazingly lifted the panel, consisting of Faye Emerson, Bill Cullen, Jayne Meadows and Henry Morgan. He also appeared on the popular Ed Sullivan Show. A Johnson City Press-Chronicle newspaper showed a picture of him lifting his wife into the air with one hand. In a movie clip, he was seen carrying a large cow around on his back. Paul was even able to lift the front end of an automobile. An impromptu visit to his garage in Elizabethton often found him doing squats with 800-900 pound motor blocks.

In 1961, Paul and Glenda, his wife became devout Christians and took the gospel message inside prison walls. Later, he founded the Paul Anderson Youth Home for troubled youngsters in Vidalia, Georgia. Over time, he received many letters from appreciative fans, including one in 1963 from J. Edgar Hoover.

The “World’s Strongest Man” died in 1994 at the age of 61, but not before leaving an impressive mark on the world of sports. Thank you, Mrs. Street for reminding us of him. 

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