May 2009

I have been a hamburger connoisseur my entire life. My favorite burger in the late 1940s was cooked by Bill Lawson at his small 302 W. Market Street cafe, The Sandwich Shop, just west down the road from our apartment. After Bill closed his business, my taste buds promptly migrated west to the Apex Barbecue at 604 W. Market where I was became acquainted with the Gurney Burger, a large and tasty burger made from a secret family recipe of the Gurney Campbell family.

Compared to standard burgers of that day, this meaty gastronomic delight was gigantic. It was so big that the joke around town was that if you ate too many of them, you might end up on a hospital gurney. My family made frequent trips to the Apex to get a bagful of burgers, which I seem to recall were individually wrapped in white paper. Several years later, Gurney left the Apex and opened his own restaurant at 1418 E. Main, just beyond Broadway Street. Everybody in town knew Gurney Campbell.

In 1988, Johnson City Press-Chronicle writer, Mark Rutledge, interviewed Gurney and Mary Campbell about their highly popular business. The 84-year-old couple revealed that they initially opened a hamburger and hot dog joint in Hampton about six years after they were married in 1921. After more than 60 years later, they were still flipping burgers with the help of four generations of family members.

Betty Jackson, daughter of the Campbells, is credited for naming the burger after her father. “How many family businesses,” asked Mrs. Jackson, “have you seen with four generations working? We have a few non-family employees working for us, but it’s mostly family members. Anytime anybody says, ‘I need some money,’ I tell them, ‘I’ve got a job for you.’” 

After the Campbells moved their business to Johnson City, their life became saturated with hamburgers. People fell in love with the Gurney Burger and the product became a household name. That is what the public wanted and that is what they got. Mrs. Campbell labored over the grill six days a week flipping meat patties. She told people that her husband paid her “twenty-one fifty a week.” She clarified that statement as meaning twenty-one meals and 50 cents.

Gurney and Mary initially charged a dime each for a cup of coffee and a burger. Over time, the burgers became slightly more expensive, but the coffee remained the same. Mary jokingly explained that she would not let her husband raise the price because “that’s all it’s worth.”

Making Gurney Burgers was more than just a trade with the Campbells; it was a family tradition. Raised in the business, Mrs. Jackson passed the art to her daughter, Ann Lee, who in turn taught the trade to her daughter Jennifer.

The Gurney Burger competed well with the newer kids on the block – Shoney’s “Big Boy,” McDonald’s “Big Mac” and Burger King’s “Whopper.” Aside from its scrumptious taste, the burger’s success was probably due to the fact that the Campbells kept the business simple and did not try to expand it, a concept that obviously worked well.

A highlight of the Campbells’ career occurred when CBS television’s Charles Kuralt cruised by the restaurant in his motor home to verify the existence of the celebrated sandwich. He mentioned the establishment during one of his many “On the Road” segments for the CBS Evening News.

After the Campbells eventually closed their business, several people tried to return it to its former glory, but efforts proved futile. Today, the colossal scrumptious Gurney Burger is but a fleeing lip-smacking memory from yesteryear. 

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Doug Bernardi sent me a copy of his prized 1964 opening day program of Johnson City’s Little League Baseball. The publication celebrates the 14thanniversary of the annual sporting event. Doug played on the First Peoples Bank squad between 1961 and 1965 and today manages the Optimist team.

The 42-page booklet is chocked full of detailed information including photos of 24 teams of young men, ages 9-12, assigned to three leagues – Major, National and American. There are also 11 pages of ads touting local commercial firms, most of which have long closed. One of the more salient features of the syllabus is a one-page history of the sport:

“Little League in Johnson City was organized in the spring of 1951. Red Skelton, director of recreation for the Red Shield Boys Club, visited the various civic clubs showing a film of the World Series of a pre-war year. The result of his effort was sponsors to form two four-team leagues – National and American.

“Play that first year was at Mountain Home Field. The program was so successful that a facility was built at Kiwanis Park the next year and lighted by the Kiwanis Club. In 1955, Little League Field on Legion Street was built and with the addition of that field, it was possible to add another league, making a total of 12 teams of 15 players on each roster.

“From that time until the present (1964), growing pains have been the biggest problem of the organization. The 1959 All Star Team won the state championship and gave a good account of themselves in the Southeastern Regional Playoffs in Florida.

“In 1961, Lions Field on Duke Street, one of the best lighted in the South, was dedicated and turned over to the Part and Recreation Board by the Lions Club. The three leagues – National, American and Major – expanded to eight teams each, playing a total of 360 boys.

“Since the records over the years have been lost, we mention only a few of the large number of boys that profited from the lessons learned playing Little League Baseball: John Brooks; the Campbell boys, Jack, Bill and Kenny; Dick Webb; Roy Chatman; Charlie Morris; Wayne Birchfield; Bill Jones; Tony Bowman; Larry Ketcham; and Robert Swisher.

“The League motto was ‘The Boys of Today Will Be Our Men of Tomorrow.’ Their pledge was ‘I trust in God; I love my country and will respect its laws. I will play fair and strive to win; But win or lose, I will always do my best.’”

The 1964 Little League opening day ceremonies were held at 4:00 p.m. followed by ball contests of Civitans vs. American Legion and Hamilton National Bank vs. Tri-State Container. All games that season from May through July were listed in the book. Day games were played at 6 p.m. and night ones two hours later.

Mitchell Thorpe served as the Master of Ceremonies and introduced Rev. Jesse Curtis for the Invocation. The Science Hill High School Color Guard under the direction of Master Sgt. Kenneth Hedrick presented Post Colors. Next, the Junior High School Band, under the leadership of Warren F. Weddle, performed the National Anthem. After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Thorpe introduced Little League officials.

Calvin Frey then noted the league’s sponsors. Thorpe introduced guests and Frey followed by presenting Little League teams, managers and assistant managers. Board chairman, Bud Rutherford awarded pennants to the previous year’s league champions. The ceremonies concluded with the presentation of Miss Johnson City by the President of the Lions Club.

The sponsors and nicknames of the eight teams of the Major League (Harry Garner Range, President and Ralph Dunn, Player Agent) were American Legion – Legionnaires, General Shale – Little Generals, Ben’s Sport Shop – Clippers, Civitan Club – Boys Club, Lions Club – Cubs, Hamilton National Bank – Nationals, Summers-Taylor – Pavers and Tri-State Containers – Boxers.

The National League (Hal Littleford, President and Stan Welch, Player Agent) consisted of Wynwood Mills – Knitters, Interstate Foundry – Steelers, Junior Chamber of Commerce – Jaycees, Bolton Block Co. – Block Busters, ET&WNC – Truckers, Gordon’s, Inc. – Little Yankees, Pepsi-Cola – Sociables and Kiwanis Club – Indians.

The American League (E.J. Lewis, President and James Allen, Player Agent) was comprised of Giant Food Stores – Giants, Thorp & Co. – Scrappers, Optimist Club – Juniors, Pet Dairy – The Pets, First Peoples Bank – Bankers, Rotary Club – Rotary, Press-Chronicle – Pee-Wees and Elks Club – Elks.

The booklet thanked the editor, Mrs. John Tipton, for her many hours of work putting the brochure together.

Bernardi has fond memories of his Little League baseball playing days: “I remember I couldn't wait to get to the ballpark on game day. Back then you would play three rounds of seven games at three different ball fields. When I was 12, I had two younger brothers on the same First Peoples Bank team. My brother, Jim, played two years later on Jack Monroe’s all-star team that was beaten 2 to 1 in the state championship game. Carl Snyder, a bank vice-president, was the manager of the Bankers and Jeep Dye was his assistant.

“One memory took place at the Lions Field. Back then there were no screens to protect the seats on the 1st and 3rd sides of the field. David Taylor, our catcher, hit a rope foul and hit his mother, who was sitting in the 3rd base bleachers, causing her to fall over. I thought he had killed her, but after a few minutes she sat up and appeared to be okay. What are the odds of drilling your own mom with a line drive?”

Doug would like to hear from former Little League players. He also wants to know the names of 1959 All-Star team members who played in the Southeast Regional.  

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My recent Yesteryear column on The Three Stooges from Robert Gardner and William Brown brought quick responses from Lou Thornberry and Don Sluder.

Lou, a retired history teacher who initially taught at Unicoi County High School and later University High School, currently hosts a 3-4 minute Wednesday radio history broadcast titled, “WEMB Looks Back,” ( The series began in 2002 and has aired nearly 400 episodes. Lou published a book bearing the same name that contains 250 of his stories. 

The Unicoi County native recalls a chance meeting with The Three Stooges at the age of six in downtown Johnson City on Oct. 25, 1947. The encounter was not at the Tennessee Theatre where the Stooges were performing, but instead at a downtown restaurant on the south side of E. Main Street where his mother had taken him.

According to Thornberry: “My family was in Johnson City that evening and I remember crying about something so my mother took me into the restaurant. The Three Stooges were sitting at the lunch counter and my screaming either touched a nerve or caused concern with them. It was either Moe or Shemp who purchased a Coke for me and brought it over to my mother.

“I knew who The Three Stooges were, but I don't recall the conversation between my mother and them or even if I drank the Coke. The three of them finished their meal uninterrupted and left. I do not think there we any fans around the Stooges at the time nor have I found any interviews with them in the newspaper documenting their appearance in town. It wasn't until the television reruns of the 1950s and 60s that I knew of Curly Howard, an earlier member of the Stooges, whom Shemp replaced in 1946.

“Johnson City was a booming city after World War II with city streets packed with cars and people day and night. At this young age, I was already a veteran of Saturday morning westerns at the Capitol Theatre in Erwin and I thoroughly enjoyed the comedy shorts that accompanied the westerns.

 “Research reveals that The Three Stooges made more movies than any other comedy team in history. I agree that those goofy men were the ‘kings of comedy.’ We didn't know which comedy short would play at the theatre on any given Saturday. I can still hear the shouts of approval and applause from the packed theater crowd when the picture of The Three Stooges introduced their 15 minutes of laughter. The Little Rascals and Edgar Kennedy brought a similar reaction, but for my generation, The Three Stooges won the Academy Award for humor.”

Don Sluder (shown above with his heroes) next replied saying that he attended the Stooges’ stage show at the Tennessee Theatre on that Oct. 1947 afternoon when he was ten years old. Afterward, he had his picture taken with the eccentric entertainers. “It's amazing,” said Don, “how many different views of the same event come forth after 60 years or so. Although I don't remember much about the stage performance, I do recall the picture-taking portion of it. Photos, using natural light and very poor processing, were taken outside on the sidewalk. My picture is fading fast and now looks sepia. I was glad to know the date of their visit because I didn't remember it.”

Don recalls the Stooges telling him a yarn about Curly not being there, saying that he had been attacked by a lion while he was filming a movie. That was likely their way of acknowledging his ill-fated absence without revealing the major stroke he suffered several months prior.

Thanks, Lou and Don, for sharing your Stooge memories. 

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York Trivette, a lifelong resident of Johnson City, has something priceless in his possession – an 8”x10” mildly colorized glossy photo made in 1942 that reveals a large clock from Hart’s Jewelers, a business that opened in 1923.

According to York, Mr. H.E. Hart devised a clever advertising promotion for several years during the 1930s and 1940s. His store was located at 214 E. Main, sandwiched between Peoples Drug Store and Goldstein’s Clothing Store.

Mr. Hart ingeniously made use of one of his store clocks by covering the face of it, except for the hands, with a 50” diameter circular piece of thick white cardboard that contained a small hole in the center for the stem. He then superimposed on it a 30” diameter round photo of the face of a clock that appeared to have been used as a cigarette ad. Perched on the long hand of the clock photo, the man was offering the lady, straddling the short one, a cigarette.


Surrounding the photograph were two circles displaying bust photos of the 178 members of the JCHS (Johnson City High School) graduating class of 1942. The 108 girls’ pictures on the outside ring surrounded the 70 boys’ photos on the inside. Mr. Hart even placed his mug shot with the words “Compliments, H.E. Hart” at the bottom just below the “6” on the clock. Completing this project was likely a daunting and time-consuming task.

York further noted that the senior class was divided into two parts; the 12B graduates received their diplomas in December while the 12A ones obtained theirs in May. The clock campaign was separately aimed at both groups.

About five to six weeks before graduation, the storeowner wound the immense timepiece and carefully placed it in his front store window, filling all available space. York was not sure what made the clock run, but alleged it had a windup mechanism. He emphasized that it was not a grandfather clock.

The jewelry store’s goal was to attract students, families, friends, townspeople and other interested parties to stop by the business frequently to observe if the clock was still ticking. The ultimate intent was for customers to come in and buy something. When the device finally stopped running just days before graduation, two fortunate students were rewarded a wristwatch.

When the 1942 clock stopped running at 4:33, the long hand pointed to Betty Jean Simmons and the small one to Bernie Andrews. She received a Tavannes watch and he accepted a Longines one. If the short hand had moved clockwise 20 more people (about 4.5 hours), York Trivette would have been declared a winner. He explained that getting a top-of-the-line watch in those days was pretty exciting for a young high school student. Also, it was a big deal then to get to go to downtown Johnson City.

“About 80-90% of the boys on that 1941-42 clock went into the military soon after graduation,” said York. “Several months after I received my diploma, I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps;some of my classmates went into service before I did.

“One classmate, Jim Tomblin, distinguished himself in the Air Force, earning several medals. He later spent quite some time in a prisoner of war camp. Because of the war effort, I do not think the clock promotion was done for the 1942-43 school year.” 

The witty advertising campaign’s well-known and much anticipated clock contest eventually wound down and stopped, becoming another entry in the city’s business history. After Hart’s Jewelers closed sometime between 1965 and 1970, Zale’s Jewelers took over that location. Let me hear from you if you remember this unique campaign. 

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In a previous column, I reviewed an April 7, 1960 edition of “Tri-Cities Shopping News & TV Guide” that featured an article about the early history of the city. Page 2 contained a column titled, “Norton’s Notions.” As I read it, I began to realize the writer was the well-known businessman of the city’s past – J. Norton Arney.


1939 (top) and 1950 Advertisements

The colorful car dealer noted that in the spring of 1924 he was employed as a salesman for Kyle Auto Sales (Paige, Jewett, Oakland dealer) located on Market Street at Montgomery. Shortly thereafter, Oakland Motor Company came out with a new automobile bearing the name Pontiac. Arney helped unload the first shipment of new cars and sold the first one.

The car was “fully equipped” with a spare tire and two bumpers and sold for $895. There was no tax, no title and not even a bill of sale to reckon with. You bought it and then drove it home. The dealership graciously put five gallons of $.48/gallon gas in the tank.

Mr. Arney related how different cars were back then: “In those days, owners never complained about their cars if they would run at all. If it would go halfway up Roan Hill in high (gear), she was a good ‘en. If she’d do 48 (miles/hour) wide open on level ground, she was a fast baby. If it would run a year without a complete overhaul, she was tops in quality. If all the screws in the old wooden body didn’t come out in six months, she was well constructed.

“If you hit a chug hole at 20 mph and could still hold on to the steering wheel, she rode like a cradle. If you could make a 25-degree curve at 10 mph and not turn over, she was well balanced and steered good. If you could go from Johnson City to Jonesboro and back without a flat tire, you had a real set of tires. If you could go to Roan Mountain without adding water more than three times, you had an automobile with a cooling system second to none.”

“When Oakland Motors came out with the Pontiac, they had just such a car and I was a proud young salesman for having the opportunity to offer that kind of an automobile to the buying public. We had plenty of competition then. In the lower price field, we had Ford and Chevrolet to contend with. In our price field, we had Essex, Durant and Overland. All dealers were aggressive and hard workers.”

Arney said he gathered copious literature so as to be well informed about his and his competition’s product. He read salesmen’s bulletins the factory published and studied the mechanism of the cars in order to answer any questions a prospective buyer might ask him. He knew all the weak points in the competitors’ automobiles and was able to convince people that his was worth a little extra money to get a better product. He made quality an important issue to mull over along with price.

J. Norton praised Bill Kyle as being a wonderful salesman, good businessman, very honest and a fine fellow, but he said that without question, he was the toughest boss any young salesman could ever have. After five years of employment with Kyle Auto Sales, Arney was offered and accepted a sales manager’s position with Preston Motor Company, his competition making twice what he was earning.

When Arney Motors came into being, the businessman adopted the slogan, “A Square Deal or No Deal.” I recall the time when a customer purchased a car from his dealership and became disgruntled over the transaction. The buyer capitalized on the business’s famous tag line by driving around town with a large sign attached to his car proclaiming, “Arney Got the Square deal and I Got the No Deal.” J. Norton Arney stands tall in Johnson City business history.  

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