June 2009

Johnny and Patsy Starnes own an attention-grabbing brochure titled “Up Salt Creek.” The four pages deal with a prominent lecture that was frequently delivered by then Ex-Governor Alf Taylor at various locations throughout the state of Tennessee. The date is not specified but is known to have occurred between the time he left office in 1923 and his death in 1931.

The cover contains a large photo of Alf Taylor and a caption underneath that reads, ‘The old, old river that runs by the shores of all the yesterdays.’

According to Patsy, “Johnny received the pamphlet from the effects of his great grandfather, John Bunyan Wolfe, who built a furniture factory in Piney Flats around 1888 and was responsible for early electricity and telephones in the area.”

The expression, “Up Salt River,” is believed to have originated in Pike County, Missouri near the mouth of the Salt River in the early 1840s. A political aspirant suffered defeat in an election for a state office. Undaunted, he relocated further up the river, ran for office again and lost the election once more. Later, when people inquired about the persistent candidate, they were told, “he is still moving up Salt River and running for political office.” That was the gist and jest of Alf’s application of the phrasing.

The brochure is a review of Alf’s lecture by eight critics. An excerpt of each is listed below.

DeLong Rice, author of the book, “Old Limber or The Tale of The Taylors,” offered the most eloquent expose: “’Up Salt River’ is the title of the half-humorous, half-serious, all-beautiful discourse of the popular ex-governor who, but a little while ago, caught the attention of the whole country by setting a serious and able campaign speech to the music of running hounds.

“In the political campaign of 1920, when the suffering suffragists of Tennessee were listlessly bracing themselves for the biennial grist of aged platitudes and statistical ‘punk,’ Alf Taylor, keen reader of the minds of men, suddenly rolled his party platform, with Code and Constitution, into a master musician’s baton. And out of the shadows of the Appalachian peaks, came the wraith of ‘Old Limber’ and his flying chorus of Walker dogs and they holed the Tariff and treed the League of Nations as the melody of the chase was written on immortal bars in the forensic history of Tennessee.

The Johnson City Chronicle offered its assessment of the talk: “Folks in this section are glad, though not in the least surprised, that the lecture is being received with such enthusiasm everywhere it is heard. Uncle Alf, as he was popularly known thru the years of his political activity, is always a speaker worth listening to. Blessed with a platform presence which is not the heritage of many men, with perfect command of English, with the power to sway his audience at will through the gamut of emotions from hilarity to tears and, most important of all, with a never-failing basis of sound thought underlying his words, he never fails to captivate his audience and, in doing so, to give it something worth-while to think about.”

The Erwin Weekly Magnet sensed that the Governor shone forth in all of his old-time oratorical splendor: “Reciting much of the early history of Tennessee, ‘Mother of States,’ he told how nearly all of its distinguished men at this time or another had taken the trip ‘Up Salt River.’ He called attention to the fact that Gen. Sam Houston, first president of Texas and later its governor was a native Tennessean, as was David Crockett, hero of the Alamo. He mentioned 50 celebrated names of Tennessee men who became leaders in national affairs.”

The Knoxville Sentinel noted that Alf’s speech sparkled with wit and wisdom, delivered in the inimitable Taylor style: “He appealed to his audience’s sense of humor but sent his hearers away thoughtful. Gov. Taylor is one of the few remaining orators of the old school. For eloquence, diction and word artistry, he has no superior and a few equals. For almost an hour and a half, he held his audience as if in the hollow of his hand. As a prelude to the lecture and as a compliment to a distinguished visitor, the Lafollette Concert Band rendered a musical program of about 30 minutes.”

The Fayetteville Observer commented that Gov. Taylor had the vim and vigor of a 25-year-old man and was a speaker well worth listening to: “The lecture abounded in quips of fun which kept the crowd in a good humor, but underneath it lay of foundation of sound thought; he wore his way through the various stages of success, misfortune and hope and closed with a magnificent tribute to the Christian religion.”

The Nashville Banner said the people of the capital city had the pleasure of hearing Ex-Governor Taylor deliver his new lecture: “It proved to be an excellent one and included a beautiful sermon and magnificent oration pronounced by many to be the best ever heard here.”

The Memphis Commercial Appeal called Uncle Alf “an optimist, whose philosophy is filled with spirit of human kindness: “Governor Taylor is giving a message to the world, which reflects the mellowness of a man who has smiled at adversity. In his jaunt, he gives a review and reminiscences from the mind and heart of a man who was not embittered by political defeat. ‘What I don’t know about Salt River isn’t worth knowing,’ said Uncle Alf. ‘Life is not a dream of ease. There is generally a horrid nightmare with every dream. There are ups and downs. One always finds plenty of company ‘up salt creek.’”

And finally … The Memphis News Scimitar indicated that Uncle Alf Taylor spread a lot of joy, mirth and good feelings wherever he traveled: “He is about the most delightful personage in the state and one of the most beloved. He is young in mind and imagination, buoyant, optimistic and cheerful. The only effect that the years have had on him is to give him wisdom. His faculties are undimmed and he stands a monument to perpetual youth.” 

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A bright spot of my early college years was working part-time for Henry and Mary Lou Frick at the Music Mart at 403 S. Roan Street, just up the block from King’s Department Store.

Henry was a skilled businessman who operated a large well-organized business from a very compact store. He sold a wide variety of items such as band instruments, harmonicas, drumsticks, pads, sheet music, records, consoles, portable record players and reel-to-reel tape recorders.

Henry and Mondel “Montie” Butterfield opened the store on W. Market Street in August 1946. Henry was working at WJHL radio at the time. Dr. Butterfield, ETSC's Music Department director, later retired and sold his portion of the business to the Fricks.

After working at the store during the 1961 Christmas holiday season, I was offered and accepted a part-time job with the couple in May 1962. My hours were Monday through Friday after school and all day Saturdays averaging about 23 hours per week, which provided this college student with some much-needed money.

I recall several coworkers: Gene Young, school band representative (and drummer for the Charlie Goodwin Band); Judy Bell, store supervisor; Willard Blevins, instrument repairman; and five clerks: Betty Gabbert, Nancy Steele, Eddie Washburn, Ken Harris and Linda Ogden.

My duties included the usual janitorial services plus dressing the front store window, preparing mail orders, taking them to the post office, making bank deposits at Peoples Bank, assisting customers during peak hours, occasionally traveling with Gene in the store’s Volkswagen van, taking the Frick's old green and white Pontiac to Direct Oil Service Station at 502 S. Roan Street for servicing and hauling returned defective record players for repair to Johnson City Radio & TV Service, owned by Ray McCrary and Joe Phillips on Spring Street,.

Another occasional responsibility was handling printing needs for Ken Marsh (who worked at WJHL radio) on an old mimeograph machine in the back of the store that looked like it came over on the Mayflower. I had to laboriously insert a scrap “slit sheet” between each page to prevent smearing of good copies.

Henry and Mary Lou had three daughters. One of my imperative duties was sporadically mailing Moon Pies to their oldest daughter and husband who lived in Maryland. I assume they bought their own RC Colas.

Henry always had a witty sense of humor. One day he walked to the back of the store and said, “A man wants to know the price of that dusty record player in the front of the store.” On another occasion, he uttered, “There is a dead bug in the harmonica display case that needs a price tag.” 

Right after the store opened the day after one Christmas, Judy informed me that Mr. Frick wanted me to remove all the store decorations. Thinking the Fricks had not arrived yet, I responded, “Take them down? You’ve got to be kidding. Henry Ebenezer Scrooge Frick.” A deep resonating German voice floated from the rear of the store boldly affirming, “Bah Humbug, take them down.” Henry walked around the corner wearing that characteristic smirk on his face. I took the decorations down.

I could go on forever with cherished memories of the Music Mart. I worked for Henry and Mary Lou until I transferred to the University of Tennessee in September 1964. My employment at the Music Mart under the Frick dexterous baton was educational, entertaining and memorable. I loved every minute of it.   

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In June 1962, the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce kicked off its first “Tourist of the Week” program, aimed at making out-of-state tourists motoring through the city keenly aware of the many amenities offered to them. 

Each Thursday beginning in June and extending for 13 consecutive weeks, the Chamber surprised travelers by stopping them and inviting them to became guests of the city for 24 hours. Many of these sojourners thought they were about to receive a traffic citation. A committee determined in advance which state would be targeted each week. The members then solicited the help of one or two policemen to patrol the highways in quest of a vehicle bearing license tags from that state.

The seemingly simple plan was not without problems. Often those selected could not participate due to time constraints and had to decline the city’s bighearted offer. The C of C persisted in searching for candidates until they located people who had the time to stay over for a full day. It was common for police to flag down several dozen cars before finding a family who could participate in the offer. 

Those fortunate folks with time on their hands were rewarded with an eventful and interesting 24 hours at the expense of the Chamber. Those who had to decline the invitation were not summarily dismissed; instead, they were informed of the program, given literature about the city and region and invited to return to Johnson City at a future date.

 The day’s festivities began with newspaper, radio and television interviews. The guests of honor were then driven to a motel or hotel where they were presented with a complimentary room. After that, they were carted off for an enjoyable lunch at one of Johnson City’s fine restaurants.

After the meal, the agenda called for a tour of historical, recreational and scenic points of interest throughout the area. That evening, the honorees became guests of the city and were greeted by city and Chamber leaders. During this time, they received honorary certificates of citizenship and several gifts that were native to the area. After a full day of activities, the weary guests were escorted back to their hotel or motel for a night of rest. The following morning they were taken to breakfast and then sent on toward their destination.

In 1971, the Chamber made two significant changes to the “Tourist of the Week” program. The first was to modify the stay-over requirements from 24 hours to three or four hours. The second was to select from two to four carloads of people instead of just one. These adjustments allowed more people to participate in the program and significantly reduced the time and labor requirements by city personnel. At the end of the 13 weeks that year, the Chamber of Commerce had hosted an impressive 78 tourists from 13 different states.

As an added bonus, visitors were later mailed complete copies of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle that contained the article describing their selection and visit and a photograph of them in their automobile. A further benefit was that copies of the newspaper were sent to the tourists’ hometown newspaper, often resulting in additional interviews when they returned home.

Over the years, the response to the “Tourist” event was overwhelming. The files of the Chamber of Commerce became filled with letters of appreciation from grateful honorees. For these people, it was a never-to-be-forgotten once-in-a-lifetime experience.

After the 1973 season was concluded, the “Tourist of the Week” program was cancelled after an 11-year run and faded into yesteryear.

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The July 5, 1888 edition of The Comet newspaper contained a bold headline: “Promptly at 8 o’clock last Friday night, the electricity was turned on for the first time and for Johnson City, night turned to day.”

The announcement was the fulfillment of work that began in April of that same year. Businessman H.H. Corson, representing the Thomas-Houston Electric Company of Boston, was responsible for the momentous happening. He sold stock in an electric plant that ultimately produced the first electricity supplied to the city. Power became available to Johnson Citians 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The Comet further stated, “The private arc light at Jobe’s Livery Stable was the first to light and remain burning and therefore attracted the largest crowd. All the stores in the city have agreed to take lights and are being wired as fast as possible.”

A 1905 advertisement from the files of the old East Tennessee Light and Power Company reveals what appears to be a trade show showing a family of five cooking on a Hotpoint super electric range that featured adjustable electric heat. The unit contained four burners with three of them having heat control. The power cost was just $20 a month.  Another ad dated 1915 showed the cost had dropped to $12 per month for average family cooking.”

Between 1912 and 1945, Johnson City was supplied with hydroelectric light and power by the Tennessee Eastern Electric Company, located 42 miles from the city on the Nolachucky River with a local office situated at 100 N. Roan. The plant had a capacity of 5,000 kilowatts produced by two units. The company also maintained an 1100-kilowatt steam reserve plant in the city.

Power consumption rates were based on a graduated usage scale of eight, seven and six cents per kilowatt-hour. Manufacturing plants were given a sizable cost advantage with charges as low as three-fourths of a cent per kilowatt-hour when purchased in specified quantities.

Prior to 1930, a large water wheel costing $1500 supplied electricity to three farmers on Knob Creek Road offering each family a minimum charge of $6 per month for lighting that produced little more visibility than the old traditional old kerosene lamps.

For many years, city residents, but not those dwelling in rural areas, enjoyed the advantages of electrical service. The latter did not have the conveniences afforded them, thus they labored much in the same manner as their forebears, rising in the morning with the roosters and retiring at night with the chickens. Lighting for them came from kerosene lanterns and a stove fueled by wood or coal.

The scenario changed dramatically in May 1935 when President Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Rural Electrification Administration, aimed at bringing electric power to rural America. Getting power lines to these outlying houses took time. Anxious customers watched progress as poles edged closer to their farms with each passing day until that joyous occasion when a power connection could be made.

In 1945, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) purchased the Tennessee Eastern Electric Company. Johnson City then organized its own electric company known as the Johnson City Power Board and purchased power from TVA.

Today, a drive to a higher elevation in Johnson City at night dazzlingly and luminously reveals how technology has advanced significantly in the past 121 years since that light bulb lit up on a summer night at Jobe’s Livery Stable. 

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Old newspapers fascinate me, even perusing events that were casually reported in the paper and then rapidly forgotten by readers. The Dec. 14, 1926 Johnson City Staff-News carried three interesting transportation news items.

The first one exclaimed, “Two Autos and Wagon Damaged in Collision.” The triple wreck occurred on the previous day near Okolona just south of town.

T.C. Runyon, driving a Studebaker toward Johnson City, attempted to pass a covered wagon, driven by J.H. Gouge and in doing so encountered a Ford roadster owned by Roy Shoun going in the opposite direction. The driver of the Studebaker erroneously thought he could navigate around the wagon and still leave enough room for the Ford to pass.  

Due to the narrowness of the road, Runyon was forced to strike the slow-moving wagon on the right to avoid a head on collision with the speeding Ford. Simultaneously, Shoun steered his automobile to his right and down a seven-foot embankment. Fortunately, no parties were injured. The wagon experienced breakage to one wheel, the tongue and several other parts. The cars were only slightly damaged.

Another newsy item in that same paper carried the title, “Officers Tag One ‘Foreign’ Car Every Twelve Minutes in Test Period of Johnson City.”

The city instigated a program to estimate the number of visitors driving through the city. On a designated Saturday afternoon, traffic officers stood at predetermined locations to place a welcome tag on the car of every visitor motoring through the city. They averaged one “foreign automobile,” as they called it, every 12 minutes. The word “foreign” was not defined in the article.”

The tags were attached to vehicles when they came to a stop at specified intersections. It was acknowledged that many cars were overlooked because they drove through the city at unmanned locations.

Final results revealed that southbound traffic was the heaviest ever recorded in the city at that time of the year. Opening of the north and south highways had much to do with increased traffic flow through the region. The Appalachian Scenic Highway that cut through the area was recognized as the greatest arterial road from Canada to Florida.

A third item in the newspaper stated, “Few Motor Tags Have Been Sold – Less Than One Hundred Secured From Clerk.”

With only about 60 new motor license tags for 1927 sold in Johnson City on opening day of the sale, County Court clerk, Jess G. Smith stated that total sales to date were fewer than 100 and those were mostly for new cars. The deadline was Feb. 1, after which a penalty was to be assessed.

Tags were initially sold only at county seats, but Mr. Smith offered concessions by making several trips to Johnson City to accommodate motorists here. He even furnished bolts and washers at no additional cost.

Tags were described as being light blue with raised white lettering and fabricated in the shape of the state, the only one in the Union with that unique feature. In those days, license plates were issued in pairs, one to be placed on the front bumper and the other on the rear. The fee remained the same as it had been in the previous year. The assigned numbers for Washington County were between 148,001 and 154,000, allowing tags for 5999 vehicles.

When was the last time you read about a car and wagon collision in Johnson City, heard someone speak of driving on the Appalachian Scenic Highway or received two automobile license plates in the shape of the State of Tennessee? Things were certainly different in 1926. 

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Lynn Williams wrote me a letter saying, “Bob … At long last, I find time to comment on your column about the Dutch Maid Drive-In that operated in Elizabethton between about 1956 and 1964. The remote broadcast was heard on Monday through Saturday nights, 7 p.m. until station sign-off at midnight.”

WBEJ's #2 Transmitter

In that column, I noted that the announcers then were Curley White; Jim Berry; Ed Howze; E. Lee “Leaping Lee” Brown; Larry Hinkle; and “Hap” Harold Henley Ziggy Ziggy Higgenbottom, host of the very popular radio show, “Hap’s House.”

“I received telephone calls from Billy Hale and Bob Coffman,” said Lynn. “Billy, son of Bill Hale, former WBEJ Program Director and eventually Station Manager, remembered the remote broadcast. Billy was appreciative of the comments made about his father.

“Bob Coffman was one of the kids who was at the WBEJ studio frequently during many of the musical penthouse broadcasts. His sister told him of your article. At the time and for many years afterward, Bob’s uncle ran the Southern Restaurant in downtown Elizabethton, a popular eatery where I ate many good dinners.”

Lynn relayed to me an interesting tidbit of area history that he obtained from Bob’s aunt’s mom: “She once operated a boarding house at Whitetop, Virginia for construction workers. Lynn believed his dad had been one of her renters. He said that workers from Stoney Creek would on Friday or Saturday evenings walk through the mountain to where the railroad ended, get a lever car and ride down the railroad track to their homes for the weekend. They would then return to the car on Sunday afternoons, ‘lever’ it back up the track, walk through the mountain to Whitetop and be ready to go to work early on Monday morning.”

Lynn sketched a floor plan of the first WBEJ studio that was located at 626.5 Elk Avenue as it appeared from 1946 to about 1950. It was situated upstairs facing north over Childress Hatchery, a farm supply business.

Entrance to the radio station was obtained by climbing steps along the east side of the building and entering a large room used as a hallway and audience room. Lynn recalled that on special occasions about 50people would cram into it.Upon entry, an office attendant on your right greeted visitors. Directly behind her was the sales office staff.

A noisy United Press News Machine that constantly printed paper from the news wire was in a small room directly ahead. Down the hallway that ran to the right of the news machine were the offices of Station Manager Bob Woods and Program Director Bill Lowery.

Two studios were used to air live broadcasts. The large Main Studio containing a piano was located diagonally to the left of the entrance door. The Small Studio about half the size of the main one was farther left in the corner of the building. Both had soundproof glass windows that permitted guests to watch performances without being heard.

The Control Room, adjacent to both studios, also had soundproof glass windows. An additional floor of about eight inches was specifically built for the control console and announcer. It served two primary purposes; it elevated the announcer allowing him to see well into the studios and it provided space for the many wires that ran to and from the console.

Lynn concluded by saying that there was no air conditioning in the building until about 1953 when two electric fans were installed. The studio often got very warm with 15-20 musicians in there at one time.

Thanks Lynn, Billy and Bob for giving us a quick look back to Elizabethton history of about 50 years ago. 

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