January 2010

Recently, I spotted an eye-catching news item that I had not heard before that was reported in several 1882 newspapers around the country. Something noteworthy happened in our region 128 years ago this past January 25.

According to the source, the roughly 750 townspeople of Johnson City experienced an event that left them helpless and reeling with fright. That morning, a powerful crash and terrifying rumbling noise was heard coming from Buffalo Mountain, caused by a major rockslide that occurred on the southeast terminus of the mountain. The noise could be heard 30 miles away. Panic-stricken inhabitants living in close proximity to the mountain scampered from their dwellings seeking safety, fearing that an earthquake was besieging the East Tennessee countryside. A number of folks gathered together to pray for deliverance from the falling mountaintop.

After the residents regained their composure, they assembled in small groups and gazed toward Buffalo Mountain, but something was notably different. The massive rock formation known as White Rock Summit, located several hundred feet above the valley, was missing from view. According to the news releases, the picturesque lofty rock, a thing of pride for the mountaineers, was a popular attraction for local residents and visiting travelers who ascended the mountain to view stunning valleys and pristine streams that could be observed from its lofty perch. On Sunday mornings, the massive rock became a church for Reverend Harry Anderson, a local black preacher, who conducted church services there for his congregation. 

Stunned area residents stared at the site where the impressive deference of nature had previously stood and marveled how something so majestic that had stood for eons could descend so abruptly into a heap of strewn trees, rocks and earth. One newspaper picturesquely stated, “The summit around where the clouds loved to gather of their own accord no more holds aloft toward the sky its white-capped peak.” An earthquake was not the cause of the devastation as initially thought. Instead, it resulted from weeks of constant rain that soaked and flooded a large portion of East Tennessee. Weather reports that month indicated that it had rained continuously for all but two days.

Two to four thousand men along the Cumberland River were temporarily forced out of work because of widespread flooding. Johnsonville on the Tennessee River was virtually destroyed by the inundation. Much damage was done to houses and mills along the creeks near Knoxville, including a major landslide east of Knoxville that created worrisome concerns for all nearby mountain roads. Water level in the Tennessee River rose so high that it threatened to obliterate the bridges of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway.

My immediate reaction to this surprising archival news find was to question it. After all, White Rock is still located on the southeast end of the mountain. My dad and his brothers routinely hiked there in their youth for a day of mountainous recreation. Bob Price wrote an article recently concerning his memories of climbing there. How could these reported news accounts possibly be true?

My surmise is that the White Rock we know today atop Buffalo Mountain was once an enormous, impressive rock formation that was clearly visible over a wide area. If all this is true, it is likely the remnant of the 1882 collapse. If anybody can shed further light on this subject, please share it with me for the newspaper. 

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James Garrett shared his memories (band, Buda's burgers, zoot suits) of living in Johnson City from 1939 until he went away to college in 1957.

“My Junior High music instructor was Vernon ‘Sleepy’ Weaver,” said James. “I attended the old downtown Science Hill High School where my major subject was music under the direction of Mr. Warren Weddell. I was one of the drum majors in the school marching band and often twirled a fire baton at football games at half time in Memorial Stadium at night while all the lights were turned off.”

James commented about John's (Buda) Sandwich Shop that operated in the 1950s at 105 Buffalo: “Circa 1951, my family lived near Antioch Baptist Church (Little Cherokee Road). Since we did not have a car, we rode the city bus to A.L. Street's Grocery (2501 W. Walnut) and walked past Bernard School (Old Jonesborough Highway) to home. I often ate at John's before my bus arrived. “I cannot remember eating a hot dog at John's as I always had a hamburger or hot tamale. Both were delicious. I have tried to duplicate John's hamburger and tamale many times but always come up short. Is there any possibility of obtaining the recipe for either?”

I checked with George and Wanda Buda. George is the son of John and Ethel Buda. Wanda sent me the recipe for a John Buda Chili Burger, one that came from Ethel and was used by Patty Smithdeal Fulton in her book, And Garnished with Memories, (The Overmountain Press, 1985). 

According to Wanda: “Obtain one pound of ground round or sirloin; two eggs, beaten; one roll chili, water; two tablespoon dry bread crumbs; salt and pepper to taste; and sliced onion and tomato, mustard and mayo. Beat the eggs and mix with breadcrumbs into the ground beef. Mix thoroughly with hands and then pat into desired thickness. Grill until done, turning only once. Do not mash down with spatula. To make chili, use a roll from a grocery store and mix with one tablespoon of water. Keep thick. Put chili on top of hamburger, then tomato, onion, mayo and mustard and salt and pepper. Get a bib, open wide and enjoy.” George and Wanda said that John didn’t make the hot tamales; instead, he bought them from an older black gentleman named Will Cope who delivered them on a bicycle. I often hear people speak of him and his terrific tamales.

“I worked at the Majestic Theatre (237 E. Main) as an usher.” continued James. “The popcorn sold at the Majestic was made by the Liberty Theatre. I took two empty sacks about the size of a kitchen garbage bag to the Liberty where the concession girl filled them. I then took them back to the Majestic. At one time, I recall making the popcorn in a machine under the stage at the Majestic and taking it in bags to the Liberty.

“The ushers at the Majestic wore ‘Zoot Suits’ to work. We got tired of wearing them so we jointly asked the manager if we could buy some real suits from Hannah's, Inc. (‘Fashions for Men,’ 213 E. Main) if we paid for them. He agreed. The song, “A Pink Sport Coat and a White Carnation” (sung by country singer, Marty Robbins) was on the top ten list of popular songs at the time so we all bought pink sport jackets and black slacks.”

Zoot Suits were a fashion fad in the 1940s. They consisted of baggy men’s suits; tight-cuffed pegged trousers; usually high waisted; an oversized jacket with inflated broad, padded shoulders and wide lapels; and an equally exaggerated wide-brim hat. They were worn with suspenders and a long watch chain. Big band leader, Cab Callaway, often donned one when he performed his novelty hit song, “Minnie the Moocher,” (“Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi, Ho-de-ho-de-ho-de-ho”).

Ah, what great memories from yesteryear. Keep them coming, folks. 

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The recent college football bowl games may bring to mind an incident that occurred on Thursday afternoon, Jan. 1, 1948 while area football devotees were huddled around their radios.

Those were the days when the medium of television had not yet arrived in most households; therefore, sports enthusiasts had to rely on radio to receive play-by-play game action. Since the University of Tennessee did not receive a bowl invitation that year, WETB AM 790 was broadcasting a bowl game believed to be the Sugar Bowl, matching the sixth-ranked Crimson Tide of Alabama with the fifth-ranked Texas Longhorns.

The game site that year was Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. The (Texas-Alabama) scoring by quarter was 7-0, 0-7, 7-0 and 13-0. The Longhorns prevailed by 27-7. During the final two minutes of the contest, diehard fans still clinging to their radios were flabbergasted to hear the words:

“And as we conclude our broadcasting schedule for today, WETB, Johnson City, Tennessee, operates on 790 kilocycles with a daytime power of 1000 watts by authorization of the Federal Communication Commission. WETB is owned and operated by East Tennessee Broadcasting Company, affiliated with Johnson City Press-Chronicle. Transmitter and temporary studios are located on the Erwin Highway. We invite you to join us again tomorrow morning at 7:15 when we return to the air. Thank you for listening and a very pleasant good evening to you all.”

To the chagrin of area sports fans, the station summarily went off the air without broadcasting the final two minutes of play. This occurred because the station was strictly mandated by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to be off the air at 5:15 p.m. The fact that the game was still being played was not an issue with the FCC. The rules had to be followed or the station could lose its license.

Carl Jones, Jr., owner of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle and WETB took action prior to the 1948 regular football season to prevent a recurrence of a game being cut off. He composed a carefully worded letter to FCC’s T.J. Slowie with a proposal. Jones noted that the radio station had contracted to carry all of the University of Tennessee’s 1948 football games.

“Your attention,” he said, “is respectfully called to the fact that we are broadcasting these games in response to great demand by the people in this area. “As football games normally are concluded within two hours, presently scheduled starting times of eight games at 2:30 p.m. and two games at 3:00 p.m. should enable us to compete each broadcast prior to signing off the air at 5:15 p.m. during the month of November. We request authorization from the (FCC) for an extended period not to exceed 15 minutes after regularly licensed sign-off in order to compensate for unexpected delays during games. While it may not be necessary to use the extended period whatsoever, authorization for such an extension in case of necessity will enable WETB to perform its obligations to the radio audience in this area. We are attempting to avoid a reoccurrence of the last New Year’s Day game when we were prevented from carrying the final two minutes of the event because of sign-off. Very truly yours, East Tennessee Broadcasting Company, Carl A. Jones, Jr., President.”

I conferred with Bud Kelsey, former program director of the station. Although he did not recall the specific event, he was highly skeptical that the FCC granted an extension. Although quite amusing today, missing the final moments of a major sporting event was anything but humorous 62 years ago.  

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In January 1961, five young local men, ranging in age from 16 to 23, went to New York City to participate in a nationally televised program, “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour.”

Mr. Mack brought America’s talent to television audiences and invited viewers to vote for their favorite act by calling or sending postcards to the network, similar to today’s talent reality shows. The Faircloth Chevrolet Co. sponsored the quintet that initially consisted of Tony Bowman (lead singer, upright bass), Avery Blevins (high tenor, trumpet), Bill Williams (baritone), Eddie Broyles (bass) and Buddy Fox (piano).

According to Bowman: “In 1959, we formed a Southern Gospel music group known as the Crusaders and frequently sang in the nearby area. A year later, we made a 45-rpm double-sided record containing four songs: ‘Lord, I'm Coming Home,’ ‘Walk Them Golden Stairs,’ ‘Fling Wide the Gates’ and ‘Jesus Lifted Me.’ For the Ted Mack show appearance, we changed our name to the Corvairs, the name of Chevrolet’s newly introduced rear engine air-cooled automobile. Mr. Faircloth provided two Chevrolet cars and rode with us to Orlando, Florida to audition for the show. We were invited to come to New York City in January 1961 to film the show.

“We chose the song, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand” because we wanted to sing something befitting of the Southern Gospel music we loved. We sent a reel-to-reel tape containing our rendition of the song so the studio orchestra could practice backing us up. “Mr. Faircloth again supplied us with two Chevys to drive, but this time, he chose to fly there. Also, Eddie and Bill did not make the trip and were replaced by Mickey Crawford (bass, ukulele) and Willard Blevins (baritone, clarinet). When we arrived in Manhattan, we checked in at the Hilton Hotel and later ate at the famous Toots Schorr Restaurant near Central Park.

“Our group arrived at the 254 West 54thStreet studio wearing matching outfits, consisting of a bronze coat, black pants, white shirt and matching tie. Mr. Mack was not present when we initially arrived. Since the set musicians had received a tape of our singing, they were ready for us. During the taping of our act, we began by singing and playing, but 30 seconds into the song, the orchestra joined us, elevating the music to a much fuller sound. It was then that Mr. Mack entered the studio. While he was talking to us and asking us questions, the crew filmed the conversation. Ted Mack had a nice personality, an upbeat demeanor and showed politeness to his employees. After we left the studio, the stagehands combined the two tapes into one. Our act was ready for television.”

The show aired in March. The group’s 85-second segment began with Mr. Mack introducing them: “We have two high school students, two college students and an automobile parts salesman for the Faircloth Chevrolet Company; call themselves the Corvairs. Ok, let’s hear it.” When the performance concluded, Mack reminded viewers: “They are the Corvairs from Johnson City, Tennessee and that voting address is Box 191, Radio City Station here in New York.” The group came in second place after being edged out by a grandmother playing a trumpet.

When the young men returned home, they became known as the Crusaders again. They received coverage in the Johnson City Press-Chronicle and were scheduled for 19 consecutive Sunday singing concerts. The group disbanded in the fall of 1962 when some of them went back to school.

“Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour” ran from 1948 until 1970. During its 22-year span, it had the distinction of being carried by all four television networks – CBS, NBC, ABC and Dumont.  

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