December 2008

The downtown Johnson City I fondly remember in the 1950s-60s was a lively place especially on Saturdays. Between 1962 and 1964, I was a full-time student at ETSU with a part-time job at Frick’s Music Mart (403 S. Roan).

I planned my campus schedule each weekday so I could finish my classes by early afternoon and work at the store until closing time at 5:00. I drove downtown usually before 1:30, parked in the municipal lot and grabbed some lunch at one of the many downtown restaurants before reporting for work. In 1964, there were 73 cafes and restaurants in Johnson City with 17 of them within walking distance of Fountain Square.

Let me name a few: Byrd’s Restaurant (101 E. Market), Guy’s Café (126 W. Market), Lecka Restaurant (119 Buffalo), M&L Café (118 Windsor Way), Main Street Café (111 W. Main), Melody Lane (115 Fountain Square), Miller’s Café (137 W. Market), Ed’s Town House (101 Buffalo), The Par (105 Fountain Square), Piedmont Café (116 W. Main), Rich Luncheonette (112 Commerce), Sevier Café (115 Fountain Square), Royal Café (109 Buffalo), The Smoke Shop (109 Spring), Tennessee Snack Bar (148 W. Market), Dinty Moore’s Restaurant (121 E. Market), Tip Top Café (114 W. Main) and  Victor Café (124 E. Market).

My favorites were Byrd’s, Dinty Moore’s and Ed’s. While I ate at all three over time, it was Ed’s Town House that regularly captured my business. I was usually half-starved upon entering the establishment that was located directly across from the old City Bus Station. Ed occupied the former site of the Boston Shoe Shop.

The proprietor, Everett “Ed” Gass, an Elizabethton resident, was a tall blond middle-aged man with a flattop haircut. He opened up for breakfast at the crack of dawn and closed in late afternoon after the lunch crowd had dwindled. There was not enough activity in the downtown area to justify his staying open after mid-afternoon. While Ed served the customary burger and fry fare, it was his daily “Special” that attracted me. His offering included one meat, two vegetables, bread and a drink of choice. The food was unusually good and reasonably priced at less than two dollars, equating to about two hour’s pay. His hamburgers were equally scrumptious as they were cooked on a flat grill. 

The restaurant was small with six to eight tables and a long counter with stools along the left. I usually occupied a seat at the counter. By the time I arrived, the dinner crowd had pretty much moved on. From time to time, I came in late to find that the daily “Special” was depleted, prompting Ed to fix me a delicious meal from scratch.

Gass was a super guy and really appreciated my business. He employed two helpers who waited on customers leaving cooking chores to the boss. Occasionally, the health inspector was there prompting Ed to nervously pace the floor. I frequented Ed's Town House for over two years. After enrolling at the University of Tennessee, I sporadically dropped in on Saturday to eat with him.  On one visit, I regrettably found the Town House door closed and padlocked; Ed had gone out of business. 

Some time later, I ran into the former restaurateur at the downtown General Dollar Store (104 W. Main) where he was then working. He said the long daily hours eventually caused him to pull the plug on his once profitable business.  

I often think back on this restaurant with much fondness, perhaps because I was a famished university student when I entered his place of business each day. Ed’s tasty daily gastronomic “Specials” are firmly deposited in my yesteryear memory bank. 

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I noted in my last column that I acquired an American Flyer train during Christmas of 1947. On Christmas Day in 1952, I received my second one, a Lionel “O” gauge assembly that was the dream of every young boy. I had wanted a Red Rider BB gun that year, but you can readily surmise why I didn’t get one. My parents were afraid I might shoot my eye out.   

The two train products were quite different. American Flyer trains were double track, whereas Lionel ones had three, offering the advantage of some complex track designs without the problems of reverse polarity of electric current. The center track was negative; the two outer ones were positive.


The locomotive came with a bottle of small pills that, when placed in the engine’s smokestack, emitted white smoke as it chugged along. It also bellowed out a mournful steam whistle sound when a lever on the thermostat was activated.

Soon after Thanksgiving, my dad told me he was going to make me something special for Christmas and made me promise to stay out of our basement. I agreed to his request and kept my promise. He spent countless hours at night and on weekends fabricating a complex train layout for his only child.

Dad mounted everything on a 4’x8’ piece of thick plywood and added four legs. He constructed a city along one side; the rest of the board was rural terrain. The back portion had a tunnel where the train would disappear for a few seconds. Two separate loops of track allowed the switching of the train to go to the city or to the country.

Dad even subscribed to Model Railroader Magazine several months prior in order to glean ideas for the project. His biggest challenge came Christmas Eve night when he and Mom had to carry it up the stairs and into our living room. All the weeks of hard work were worth it when he saw the glow on his young son’s face. It made me forget about a Red Ryder BB gun.

An undated Lionel Train ad believed to be from the early 1950s shows a complete “O” gauge outfit for $14.99 that included a 30”x60” oval track, locomotive and button control, tender with automatic couplers, box car with automatic couplers, gondola car, caboose, automatic flagman, train station and 75 watt transformer.

A November, 1948 National Geographic magazine ad declared: “We know of no other gift that offers so many years of fun, excitement, and happiness as a Lionel Train. Thousands are passed on from father to son. They are so real, so true-to-life. Watch them puff smoke. Hear them whistle so realistically. Note the scale-detail perfection of their manufacture. For that boy you love, let it be a Lionel this Christmas.”

Another ad from November, 1949 added, “Here is, undoubtedly, the greatest father/son Christmas gift in the world. With reasonable care they will last a lifetime, therefore, a most economical purchase. They are real trains in everything but size.”

A fourth advertisement proclaimed that a Lionel train allowed every mom to see the boy in her man and man in her boy.

I was permitted to keep the train board in our living room for several weeks after Christmas, but eventually, I had to dismantled it and put it back in our basement. Within a year, the village was taken apart and the train set went into a large cardboard box for a couple years.

My 1952 Christmas present’s demise came when I sold it to an avid neighborhood train enthusiast, Ronald Turner, for a mere five dollars. I only wish that I had kept it for my young son. 

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Ebenezer Scrooge, a wealthy old miser from Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic, underwent a life changing experience on Christmas Eve from three disembodied spirits known as the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Future. Today’s column is a glance back to some of my Christmas pasts in the 1940s and 50s.

In 1947, my family lived in an apartment on W. Watauga Avenue. Our five and a half foot pine Christmas tree was decorated with about 20 paper-thin colored glass balls with glitter sprayed on them. Cotton swabs were placed throughout the branches to give the appearance of ice and snow and then covered with a heavy dose of icicles. Mom was meticulous about her icicles; they had to be strategically placed on the tree one filament at a time. The finishing touch was to thread a long chain of freshly popped popcorn and drape it around the tree. Conspicuously absent from the pine were lights.

My main gift that year was an American Flyer electric train. Other presents included a metal two-story Keystone filling station with an elevator, a xylophone, a blackboard on a folding wooden stand and a Gene Autry outfit that was only visible from the front side. I was a root-n toot-n cowboy as long as I didn’t turn around.

By 1950, we were living on Johnson Avenue. Our Christmas trees then were generally cedar with large colored lights and bubblers that boiled after they got hot. A tree full of these multicolored devices was truly impressive if not somewhat unsafe. Gone by then were cotton swabs and popcorn strings. We usually purchased our trees from vendors on Walnut Street or Market Street at Kiwanis Park. Attendants wore heavy wraps and hovered over a wood fire burning inside a metal drum. We took the tree home and placed it in front of our picture window facing beautiful Buffalo Mountain in the distance. 

A special memory in 1953 occurred at Henry Johnson School when my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Pierce, selected me to go into the basement and bring some Christmas decorations to our room so we could adorn a tree. For a brief few minutes, I was the envy of the class. 

In 1956, I clipped a coupon from a comic book, mailed it to the Wallace Brown Company and began selling Christmas cards to neighbors, family members and friends. This enterprise lasted but one season.


About 1959, nine of us high school students were in the basement at the old downtown Science Hill building. The accompanying photo shows (L to R) me, Frank Moore, Bill Woods, Guy Wilson, Jud Mast, Al Ferguson, Johnny Leach, Joe Biddle and Graham Spurrier. A photographer from the Johnson City Press-Chronicle came by and asked us to pose for a holiday picture for the newspaper by singing Christmas carols.

We rounded up some ROTC training manuals from the drill hall to serve as songbooks and posed for the shot. The next day, our photo was in the newspaper. Our “songbooks” were decorated with musical notes, the background was darkened to give the appearance of nighttime and “snow” was magically added.

The caption stated, “They sing Christmas carols and the scene is one that will be repeated many times over within the next fortnight, snow or no snow. And Christmas caroling is a custom that grew up in the middle ages when beggar and king joined in the observance of Christmas. Carols were sung in the streets and images of the Virgin Christ carried from house to house with feasting and merrymaking to mark the festival time.” 

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The three-story Colonial Hotel that once stood at 215 E. Market Street had six large distinctive white pillars in front, a red brick edifice, a red tiled roof and an open porch at each level on the south end. The large back (north) portion of the complex was built perpendicular to the front section, giving it a “T” shape. In time, 213 E. Market became Colonial Hotel Annex and the property directly across the street turned into the Colonial Hotel Laundry.

The business that opened in 1910 was described in a 1915 Chamber of Commerce report as being “liberally patronized by the best class of the traveling public.” J.L. Murrell was shown as the proprietor. The publication further declared: “The hotel contains 60 rooms, all of which have hot and cold running water, private telephone, private bath connections, electric lights, steam heat and other necessary conveniences of the modern hotel of today.”

An undated penny postcard of the facility described the majestic looking lodge as “Your Home in Our Town.” It showed “Ike Garland – Colonial Hotel – H.C. Seaton, Johnson City, Tenn., in operation for more than 50 years, noted for comfort and hospitality, in the heart of the business district but away from the noise of the railroad.” The latter remark was an obvious jab at the John Sevier, Windsor Hotel and other such establishments that were situated in close proximity to the downtown railroad tracks.

In 1989, Press-Chronicle writer, Tom Hodge, received a letter from Pauline Stone who fondly remembered living in the Colonial Hotel. She recalled seeing the fire wagon coming down Market Street pulled by horses, not powered by a Model A Ford. Likewise, she was living there when the city acquired its first motor driven fire engine.

“I lived in the Colonial Hotel with its stately columns,” said Ms. Stone. “The Boxwood Inn was on the site that is now the John Sevier Hotel. Farther down Market Street was Teilmann’s Greenhouse. I saved newspapers until I had a bundle and took them there and exchanged them for cut flowers. There was a grocery store at the corner across from the Boxwood Inn run by a Mr. Brown.” My April 30, 2007 column contained a photo from Lewis Brown of E.W. Brown standing in front of his 144 E. Market establishment.

Pauline said the manager of the Majestic Theatre lived at the Colonial Hotel and gave her passes to stage shows when the productions came to town. She had recollections of well-known actors staying at the lodge. This was when a person could walk out of the Majestic Theatre, cross Main Street and enter the Edisonia Theatre. 

Ms. Stone further recalled that the big social events of winter were Charity Balls that took place at the hotel. Since it did not have a ballroom, tables were removed from the dining room and the maple floor polished. There was an alcove where the orchestra played.”

A humorous incident transpired when the proprietor, Jim Buck, became dissatisfied with his orchestra. Since another orchestral show was performing in town, he went to their hotel and signed them to play a gig at the Colonial. He returned dressed in white tie, tails, tuxedo and wearing an opera coat (ankle length loose-fitting cloak comprised of velvet, brocade or satin). The musicians literally marched through the front door, down the corridor, into the dining room and began playing music for the gala ball.

By the late 1960s, the once grandiose inn, after becoming fragile and aged, fell victim to a wrecking ball to make room for parking space. Another notable downtown landmark became a vanishing memory of yesteryear.  

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Louise Bond Alley, who previously shared a remarkable story about the Rebecca and Magdalena Sherfey Civil War hospital that once operated in Johnson City in the east section of town, provided me with copies of three old Science Hill High School annuals for years 1915, 1916 and 1917. They once belonged to her mother, Edith Bond.

This is the first of three feature articles that describe one of these valuable old books. The first one is a 43-page paperback book from 1915 titled “The Argonaut,” said to be the first volume issued.  The first page shows the Honorable Frank Blair St. John as President of the Board of Education and Acting Superintendent of Johnson City Public Schools. The publication was dedicated to the principal, Mr. T. E. Utterback.

Teachers that year (and subjects) included J.L. Gilbert (Commercial), Miss Hale (Algebra), M.A. Crary (Manual Training), Miss Lucy Hatcher (Mathematics), Miss Jones (Modern Languages), Miss Harris (Latin), Miss Mills (Domestic Science), Joe D. Clark (English), Miss Cherrie Mae Preston (Music), Miss Mildred Eager (Science), Miss Louise Cooper (Domestic Art)  and Miss Carr (History).

Page 5 contained a concise history of Science Hill High School since its humble beginning as the Science Hill Debating Society in the Oak Grove community of Boone’s (Boon’s) Creek.

The editorial staff was comprised of Edward F. Peoples (Editor in Chief), Morris Cooper (Assistant Editor), William Earl Hotalen (Business Manager), Howard Clark (Literary Editor), Sam C. Smith (Editor of Wit and Humor), Mae Ross (a familiar name, Society Editor), Martha Goode (Alumni Editor), Edna Vance (Art Editor) and Max Lusk (Athletic Editor).

The senior class consisted of 52 students. Louise Avery St. John was Valedictorian; John Campbell Parsons was Salutatorian. The Senior Class’s motto was “Non summo sed ascendeus”; the class colors were green and white; and the class flower was a white rose.

A popular school cheer was “Strawberry shortcake, Huckleberry pie; V-I-C-T-O-R-Y. Are we it? Well I guess; Seniors, Seniors, Yes, Yes, Yes.” Class officers were Gerald Good (President), Louise St. John (Vice-President), Helen Vance (Secretary) and Martha Good (Treasurer).

One page identified as “Horoscope” listed five facts about each senior. Examples are “Better Known As” (Linoleum, Lowbar, Boo, Jug Head, Dimples, Fatty, Piggy and Slimy Mirah), Favorite Expression (Ain’t I cute?, with graveyard solemnity, land-a-mercy), “Favorite Pastime” (reading magazines at Crouch’s, snipe hunting, playing roly holy, going with the girls and quarreling), “Wants to Be” (black headed, noticed, let along, court reporter, governor, a second Ty Cobb and a farmer) and “Will Be” (a suffragette, married, satisfied, spinster, hobo, maker of false teeth, heavyweight pugilist and an old maid).

The Junior Class had separate colors – black and gold. The class flower was heliotrope. Their motto was “Multum in parvo” (“Much in Little”). Their unique sporting yell was “Yea 1, Yea 9, Yea 1, Year 6. Yea, Yea, 19, Yea, Yea 16. Yea, Yea, Yea, Yea, 1916.”

A clever poem from the Junior Class offered 15 stanzas each with four lines similar to Ten Little Indians. Examples are “Fifteen little juniors, At the High School were seen, Edith took her violin to Germany, Then there were fourteen. … Seven little juniors, Still Alive, Helen planned her trousseau, Then there were five. … Four little Juniors, Waiting to be free, William paged for the Senate, Then there were three. … One little Junior, Was having loads of fun, Until Fitshugh sneezed, Then there were none.”

The Sophomore Class containing 71 students chose class colors as sky blue and white. Their motto was “We launch tonight, where shall we anchor?” They apparently did not know Latin. Their cheer was “ Happy Hooligan, Gloomy Gus; What in the dunce is the matter with us?; Strychnine, quinine, power and dust; Sophomore Class will win or bust.”

The Freshman Class that year boasted of 137 pupils with class colors of pink and green. Their adopted flower was the pink carnation; and their motto was “Green but Gay.”

A witty transfixing article written by Frances Byrd titled “Class History” reviewed the events of their long didactic journey: “The road to knowledge is indeed long and irksome. Reflect upon the pleasant hours spent resting in the groves of summer vacations and in the ‘shady’ dells of cut recitation hours. Think of the joyous companionship of kindred spirits marching shoulder to shoulder along this educational highway and remember the glorious brilliance of the great intellectual lights, which have burst upon their visions in the persons of some of their splendid teachers.”

Sam Smith, the class poet, penned an eight stanza, four line poem titled Class Poem. The first and last verses read, “We’re not an army of visitors, As the Greeks at Thermoplae Pass, But we assemble tonight for the last time, Just an old and worn-out Senior Class. We give each other a word and a smile, And to each a parting handclasp, Goodbye to this body forever, This old and worn-out Senior Class.”

At the request of the senior class, Bryan Woodruff inscribed the Class Song comprised of four stanzas, each with four lines. Two verses read “Should our dear school days be forgot, And cast aside until, Our old acquaintances are forgot, And days at dear Science Hill? So here’s a shout and here’s a tear, All given with a right good will, Three cheers, three cheers of memory yet, For dear old Science Hill.”

Ed Peoples, class orator, could feel the looming World War in aserious well-written composition titled “War is Hell”: “Not in the history of the world is there such a time as the world not witnesses. In its whirlwind of destruction, it carries death in its broad pathway, cutting as with a scythe a multitude of men in the prime of life and is now ready to envelope in its merciless sweep those just emerging from childhood and those who have passed far beyond the meridian of life’s day.”

Other sections of “The Argonaut” were Class Prophesy, Giftorian (puns, jokes, and takeoffs issued to seniors as they depart), Class Will (things to be left behind by graduating seniors) and several student organizations: YMCA, Landon C. Haynes Literary Society, Der Deutsche Spachuerein (The German Club), Officers Jeffersonian Literary Society and the Daniel Webster Literary Society.

Notably absent from “The Argonaut” of 1915 were advertisements at the end, so familiar with most school yearbooks. This profitable tradition would not commence until the 1917 annual.  

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The 2008 World Series has come and gone. Area residents mature enough to remember the Oct. 2-10, 1926 event may recall it for what happened in Johnson City rather than what transpired in New York and St. Louis. The Yankees and Cardinals squared off in a seven-day contest that concluded with the Gateway City taking the coveted crown four games to three.

The Sept. 29 sports headlines of the Johnson City Staff-News boldly stated, “World Series Games to Be Played In Johnson City; Begin Saturday.” The largest crowds to ever attend a city amusement event watched a simulation of the World Series games on a large magnetic player board mounted on the roof along the Main Street side of the one-story Appalachian Publishers newspaper building office, the same location as today’s Johnson City Press.

According to several news articles, the game was reproduced exactly as it was being played during the series with a delay of 1-10 seconds. The newspaper furnished play-by-play service at no cost to the public, offering in miniature representation every imaginable movement of the players in the game.

Even team practice prior to the game and warming up of pitchers in the bullpen were shown in addition to the exact movement of the ball and players as the game progressed. The outdoor crowd stared with interest at the minutest movements that included “winding up” of the pitcher, the specifics of curve balls thrown and close plays at the bases. Recreating the game was an amazing feat for that era that was void of home television sets.

A strong magnet weighing ten pounds that was balanced by window weights on wires powered the electric board. It ran over pulleys at the top and was capable of being moved to any position on the board. The field was fabricated of a very thin non-magnetic composition. The steel ball was drawn to follow the magnet on the other side, which was marked with player positions and heavily oiled.

The popular creation required a nine-man crew to reproduce the whole ballgame. Three were at the playing field end of the wires, four operated the board and two were in the telegraph room. The plays were received in code over the United Press wires the instant they occurred in the ballpark from one operator and two baseball experts in the press box. As soon as it was received in the telegraph room, the play was immediately read by telephone to those at the back of the player board. 

The three people handling the operation of the board were said to be former baseball players, official scorers and sport writers. Their detailed familiarity of the sport was of immense value in operating the board. Watching the simulation was the next best thing to being in the actual ballparks.

Through the courtesy of J.A. Parsons, O.E. Miller and J.H. Miller of the White City Laundry and John Anderson of Anderson Service Station, the large vacant space immediately opposite (south of) the Appalachian Publishers building was made available for parking.  

In addition, approximately 300 cars were parked on both sides along two miles of road that included Main, Market, Wilson, from the Southern Railway tracks almost to Watauga Avenue and along Boone and Whitney streets. During the seven games, the crowd fluctuated between six and nine thousand. The paper complimented Captain Jensen and the patrolmen of the Johnson City Police Department for their competent handling of traffic.

After the series ended, the final article concluded with the words: “Well, it will happen again next year.” The sports treat continued for a few years before fading into yesteryear.   

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