November 2009

Besse Brown Cooper, former area resident, celebrated her 113th birthday on August 26, making her a super-centenarian (someone over 110) and currently #8 (as of Mar. 3) on the list of the oldest living people in the world (

Her son, Sidney, and daughter, Angie Tharp, shared her story for this column. Besse, a daughter of Richard Brown and Angie Berry Brown, was born in Sullivan County on Aug. 26, 1896, and lived on the banks of the Watauga River for several years. She and her siblings enjoyed the benefits of living near and playing in the river. 

According to Sidney: “In November 1900 while Mother was four years old, her aunt and uncle convinced her parents to move to Arkansas, known as the ‘Land of Opportunity.’ The two families built a large houseboat alongside the river for the journey. It was fabricated upside down, turned over and then placed on the river. This attracted a lot of attention from neighbors and friends.  

“Their journey took them down the Watauga River and into the Tennessee River. They had a rudder and guided the boat with a big pole. They docked at night and traveled by day. Besse remembered being tied around the waist to keep her from falling off the boat.  One night, the weather was so cold that the river froze delaying them for three days.”

When the two families reached Chattanooga, they became stuck on a sandbar at low tide causing Mr. Brown to go into town to get assistance. He was advised against going to Arkansas because of a high number of Yellow Fever cases there. They abandoned their journey, sold the houseboat and rented a house for about a year while Mr. Brown worked in the city as a carpenter.

They decided to return to the Johnson City area. In 1906, the Brown family moved to the Boones Creek community where they built a two-story wood house on 15 acres of land on a hill along what is now called Brown Road. Besse attended Boones Creek School, graduating in 1913.

Miss Brown enrolled at East Tennessee Normal School (which had opened just two years prior). She rode the CC&O train between Gray Station and Johnson City on weekends and boarded with her aunt in Johnson City during the week. She commuted to and from the Normal School on a trolley. She greatly admired school president, Sidney J. Gilbreath, later naming a son after him.

After earning a teacher’s certificate, Besse taught at a school in Tiger Valley, TN, between Hampton and Roan Mountain, and rode the Tweetsie narrow gauge railroad to and from there each weekend. When she exited the train, she had to walk and carry a suitcase another five miles to her boarding house in all kinds of weather. Her next jobs were at Cog Hill School at Etowah, TN where she taught about a year and at Piney Flats.

Besse moved to Georgia in 1918 where she met and married Luther H. Cooper in 1922. This union bore four children: Angie Tharp; L.H. Cooper, Jr.; Sidney Cooper; and Nancy Cooper Morgan.   

Sidney attributes his mother’s long life to her being an outdoor person who loved working in her yard and garden, not worrying about things and eating right. While in Boones Creek, she was a member of Boones Creek Baptist Church. Several family members are buried in the church cemetery. 

Besse’s four brothers: Thomas Cecil Brown (BC storeowner), John Ralph Brown, Edward King Brown (butcher at Copp’s Grocery on Millard Street in JC) and Richard E. Brown) and three sisters: Besse Berry Brown Cooper, Mary Lee Brown (long time BC schoolteacher) and Urcel Brown (Morton Brothers meat producers) were residents in the Boone’s Creek area.

The city of Monroe, GA honored the super-centenarian by proclaiming Aug. 26, 2009 as “Besse Cooper Day.” 

NOTE: Besse Cooper passed away peacefully on Tuesday, December 4, 2012 at the age of 116. I wish to thank her son, Sidney, for the honor of allowing me to write her story for the Johnson City Press.

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Col. Landon Carter Haynes is a familiar name to area history buffs. What is now Johnson City, which began as Johnson’s Tank and Johnson’s Depot, was once briefly identified as Haynesville before officially being renamed Johnson City on Dec. 1, 1869.

Haynes was born in 1816 by the banks of the Watauga River in the Buffalo community of Carter County. During the Civil War, he aligned himself with the Confederate cause. He became a major stockholder in the East Tennessee and Virginia Railway and worked hard to obtain state support for the construction of the rail line.

The well-known lawyer and stump speaker was the brother of Emily Haynes Taylor, wife of Rev. Nathaniel G. Taylor. This celebrated family was the product of “War of the Roses” gubernatorial candidates Bob and Alf Taylor.

An undated Comet newspaper article had lustrous comments to say about Landon: “His celebrated tribute to East Tennessee is a literary gem of such beauty that it bears frequent repetition and should never be forgotten by the local citizens of the Old Volunteer State. It was delivered at a banquet of the local bar (in 1872) at Jackson, Tennessee.”

General Nathan Bedford, toastmaster of the event, introduced Haynes by saying, “I propose the health of Col. Landon C. Haynes of East Tennessee, the country sometimes called God-forsaken.”

Col Haynes, obviously offended by the hurtful remark countered: “Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: I plead guilty to the ‘swot impeachment.’ I was born in East Tennessee on the banks of the Watauga, which in the Indian vernacular is ‘beautiful river,’ and beautiful river it is. I have stood upon its banks in my childhood and looked down through its glassy waters and have seen a heaven below and then looked up and beheld a heaven above, reflecting like two mirrors, each in the other its moons and its planets and its trembling stars.

“Away from its banks of rocks and cliffs, hemlock and laurel, pine and cedar stretch a vale back to the distant mountain as beautiful and exquisite as any in Italy or Switzerland. There stands the great Unicorn, the Great Roan, the Great Black and the Great Smoky Mountains, among the loftiest in the United States of North America on whose summits the clouds gather of their own accord in the brightest day.

“There I have seen the great spirit of the storm, after noon-tide, take his nap in the pavilion of darkness and clouds. I have then seen him arise at midnight as a giant refreshed with slumber and cover the heavens with gloom and darkness. I have seen him awake the tempest, and let loose the red lightnings that run among the mountain tops for a thousand miles, swifter than an eagle’s flight in the heaven.

“Then I have seen them stand up and dance like angels of light in the clouds to the music of that grand organ of nature, whose keys seemed touched by the fingers of divinity in the hall of eternity, that responded in notes of thunder, which resounded through the universe.

“Then I have seen the darkness drift away beyond the horizon and the morn get up from her saffron bed, like a queen put on her robes of light, come forth from her palace in the sun, and stand up tiptoe on the misty mountain top, and while night fled before her glorious face to his bed chamber at the pole, she lighted the green vale and beautiful river where I was born and played in my childhood with a smile of sunshine. Oh! beautiful land of the mountains, with sun-painted cliff, how can I ever forget thee!”

The Comet concluded by stating that Haynes’ speech left Gen. Forrest in a state of sheer amazement. 

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Science Hill High School, after using a variety of names for its school annual, permanently settled on one designation in 1921 – The Wataugan. The name was also used for the student’s monthly publication. The Nov. 1928 edition contained an eye-catching article, “Why Hoover Came to Johnson City.”

Herbert Hoover, the Republican candidate and future one-term (1929-33) 31stpresident, conferred with hundreds of Southern leaders in our city on October 6. It was said to be the most important gathering of Republicans ever held in the South. Hoover delivered an address at National Soldiers Home in the afternoon and then attended a gala all-southern banquet at the John Sevier Hotel.

The students’ wording of the article showed their overt pride for the school orchestra in the opening words of the periodical: “It may have taken Mr. Lovette to bring Mr. Hoover to Elizabethton, but it took Mr. Hoover only a very few minutes to decide to stop in Johnson City when he became aware of the fact that this is the home of the ‘Famous Johnson City High School Little Symphony Orchestra.’ It would be hard to say just who was the most excited on October 6 – Mr. Hoover at the prospect of at last realizing his life long ambition to hear the orchestra play or the members of the orchestra when they realized that they were playing music for most likely the next president of the United States.”

The students deemed Oct. 6 as one of the two most memorable occasions in the career of the orchestra, the other being the night they appeared in a grand concert in Erwin, Tennessee. On that particular night, they all felt as though the impression they would make would become a vital part of area history. consequently, they devoted superfluous attention to their instruments in various and sundry ways.

One student, Mary Emma, “was afraid that Mr. Hoover wouldn’t see and admire Ray.” It was noted that Georgie May and Mr. Hoover had something in common (their ‘figgers’) so they became fast friends on the spot. Margaret Pouder was interested in finding out if Mrs. Hoover was as dignified as a president’s wife should be. Therefore, she humorously demonstrated the fact that a certain port of the body is sometimes made of rubber and rubbernecked to her heart’s content. Hasseltyne Oakes seemed to be instantly smitten by the charms of Allen Hoover, the future president’s son and asked another student, Wilma, if she didn’t esteem the name ‘Allen.’ Wilma concurred, but personally favored the name ‘Harry.”

Mr. Hoover asked many questions about the school orchestra, especially concerning their experience in playing before large crowds and if they had ever made any overnight trips on the train. The somewhat partial students alleged the supreme hit of the evening that caused reporters to buzz and cameras to click repeatedly was the orchestra’s stunning performance featuring 14 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, 1 string bass, 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 clarinets, 2 saxophones, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 1 French horn, 1 tuba, drums, tympani, bells, organ, 2 harps and a piano.

The student article concluded with a declaration from the students: “The reporters were also astounded at the difficulty of the pieces rendered, which were way beyond most high school orchestras. However, all orchestras are not fortunate in having a Miss Wright and such talented personnel as we.”

That must have been quite a show. 

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An undated Johnson City Staff newspaper article, dealing with Tennessee’s highly popular “War of the Roses” governor Bob Taylor, is titled “Spotlights on Senator Taylor – Many Stories Are Told of Bob Taylor as Were of Lincoln.”

One man recalled when Taylor introduced president William McKinley at a political function. He spoke very softly and eloquently to an immense audience. After a few minutes, a mildly agitated gentleman in the gallery leaned forward and uttered: “Speak louder, Bob.” Although Governor Taylor did not hear his admonition, the honored guest did and smiled approvingly. As Bob continued in his quiet, easy manner, the countryman again leaned forward and repeated his request, this time with a trifle more volume.

Again, Bob failed to take notice of the respondent and once more the president grinned appreciatively. Not to be daunted by the incident, the persistent fellow called out with more intensity and sharpness, “Speak louder Bob! Speak louder!” This time Bob heard him and spoke with increased volume. The president was highly impressed with the beautiful tribute presented to him from a beloved “volunteer state” governor known by residents as “Our Bob.” Both McKinley and Taylor were said to be “pilgrims on the same strange journey.”

Another man told this story: “I was at a political meeting when Bob was speaking for the democratic candidate. I am a republican and our candidate was speaking just across the grove from where Bob was holding forth. Our man was simply talking to empty air, but Bob had the woods full of people to hear him. As soon as I got there with a stanch republican friend and took in the situation, my friend made a break for Bob’s neck of the woods saying, ‘I’m going to vote for our man all right, but by George, I want to hear what Bob has to say.”

Another observer offered these remarks: “Perhaps greatness is a thing the world does not always understand. Some men achieve it in spite of this, but the greatness belongs in him who can best serve his fellow men. And this is surely what Bob Taylor accomplished. And more truly that of any man of his generation, may it be written of him.”

A poem from that era speaks of the governor: “Write me as one who loved his fellowman. His flowers and he hav’n vanished, yet who knows. Through white fair fields unwitnessed of the sun. He wanders among blossoms red and white. Fostered of joy where never chill blast blows. And the kind year is just begun. Nor time, nor death, immortal youth can blight.”

Bob Taylor was reported to be President William Howard Taft’s favorite storyteller. Once the president wanted to escape from his official duties for a few days of vacation and invited a dozen senators to join him. One invitee was Bob Taylor who spun one humorous yarn after another.

One anecdote involved an incident when Bob was having lunch at his home. His servitor, known as Sam, came to inform him that a delegation of important politicians was waiting for him below. “Tell them that I’ll be down in a minute, Sam,” said the governor. Mrs. Taylor abruptly corrected her husband by saying, “Sam, tell them that the governor will be down in half an hour.”

Bob, not to be outdone by his wife, further responded, “Sam, tell them I’ll be down immediately.” Mrs. Taylor countered with more words: “Tell them, Sam, that the governor will be there in half an hour.” The now irritated governor turned to Sam and asked, “Do you know who the governor of Tennessee is?” The servant, wittily understanding the implication of the governor’s question, responded with “I’ll tell ‘em you’ll be down in half an hour.”   

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I fondly recall going to basketball games in the old Science Hill High School gymnasium that stood atop “The Hill” in downtown Johnson City. I attended the last games held at that site before the school moved to the John Exum Parkway location. Coach Bill Wilkins’ starters were Steve Wilson, Gary Scheuerman, Finley Cook, Graham Spurrier and Bobby France.

A Nov. 22, 1939 issue of the school’s monthly student newspaper, The Hilltop, had some exciting news for faculty and staff. A new gym had been built on the east side of the school and plans were underway for its use. Under the heading “Grads to Return for Dedication,” the publication noted that the new addition was ready for its very first official event by alumni.

Former living graduates were invited to the special homecoming and urged to “come with bells on.” The invitation humorously said that “old-timers of multitudinous descriptions – tall, short, fat, skinny, cross-eyed, bowlegged, pigeon-toed, freckled, pretty, ugly, baldheaded, smart and many dumb – would overrun the facility on December 15.”

The Toppers were scheduled to play their first home basketball game against Bristol. Prior to the tip-off, a dedication ceremony was planned. The paper assured both current seniors and former graduates that they would find the occasion to be one of much enjoyment. “So students, take heed”, it said, “and be sure and come to the ballgame, but don’t believe all the stories that those alumni are sure to tell.”

A group of class representatives and PTA members served on the committee and were charged with planning the festivities to insure that the interests of all parties were represented. They stressed the fact that the event would be entirely a school affair and therefore would feature games that everyone enjoyed.

A decision was made to use both the school cafeteria and the gym in order to provide table games such as ping-pong. Refreshments were described as “simple yet plentiful, which is, after all, what counts.”

The student body stressed again, as it had many times before, that it wanted an active social program at the school. The students were reassured to know that the committee was composed of students, parents and teachers, all working toward the goal of producing a social program of merit comparable to the educational and athletic excellency that marked their school.

Football season was over and basketball was about to begin. Coach Denver Dyer was back at the helm after an absence of a year. Dyer had wrestled with the huge task of shaping a group of promising yet inexperienced athletes into an effective team. He had only one letterman, Allen Chandler, returning from the previous year. The Topper fans looked on the bright side and saw plenty of promising material on the current squad.

Joe Summers and Charles Roller returned from the previous year’s squad and a new group of players had entered the school from Junior High School. Adding to this group were performers from the Training School, giving the team a fighting chance to show up favorably that year.

 The schedule through Christmas was Happy Valley, Dec. 5 (away); Mountain City, Dec. 8 (away); Blountville, Dec. 12 (away); Bristol, Dec. 15 (home); and Blountville, Dec. 19 (home).

When the old school was demolished in early 1979, the gym complex was spared the same fate. But after standing idle for several years, it sadly met its fate in 2000 after an encounter with a wrecking ball. 

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