March 2010

Walter Birdwell brought to my attention the fact that, over the years, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission has recognized several local inhabitants for displaying prodigious bravery in attempting to rescue someone from danger. Several lost their lives in doing so.

In 1904, Andrew Carnegie formed the Fund that established a two-fold mission: “To recognize persons who perform acts of heroism in civilian life in the United States and Canada and to provide financial assistance for those disabled and the dependants of those killed helping others.”

The U.S. Steel Company magnate conceived the idea after a massive coalmine explosion on Jan. 25, 1904 at Harwick, PA claimed 181 lives. The number included two brave souls who died after courageously entering the hazardous mine to save people.

Walter shared an unidentified newspaper clipping, “Johnson Citians Noticed by Carnegie,” dated January 23, 1919. It recognized the heroics of 31 people across the country at the organization’s 15thmeeting in Pittsburgh. One of them was his family member.

J. Walter Birdwell, Walter’s grandfather, lost his life on June 17, 1918 attempting to rescue two young girls, Zerena Tinnell and Viola Skutnick from drowning at Taylor Springs, Il. They were playing with two other girls when they accidentally slid into a slough that was eight feet deep. Birdwell who weighed 235 lbs. and could not swim bravely made his way eight feet to the girls but sank and drowned before he could pull them to safety. A 14-year-old girl also died attempting to rescue the pair.

Three additional Johnson Citians received the coveted Carnegie award for their acts of gallantry:

Charles E. Weaver, 39, of 808 E. Fairview Avenue rescued Hezekiah Perry in Johnson City on April 6, 1917. Perry, 33, a laborer, was tearing down the brick lining of a blast furnace when a section of it collapsed, dropping him to the floor of the furnace 42 feet below. Charles lowered himself to the victim using a rope, grabbed Perry and held him while workers pulled the two of them to safety.

William J. McNeese, 35, perished while attempting to save C. Irvin Widener, 16, from drowning on September 12, 1936. The accident took place in the south fork of the Holston River. Widener got into trouble after wading into eight feet of water. William swam out 10 feet to Widener and took hold of his shoulders with both hands. In a moment of panic, Widener threw his arms around McNeese's neck causing both men to submerge and drown.

On Oct. 16, 1987, Guy A. Keally, 36, saved Hester A. Letterman, 37. She became trapped inside her car after it became involved in a highway accident. The heroin ran to the car and noted that the rear was engulfed in flames. About that time, Hester rolled down the passenger window allowing Keally to partially enter the car. He grasped her under her arms and pulled her to safety. Mrs. Letterman required hospital treatment but later recovered.

Other East Tennessee honorees included …

James H. Johnson (Bristol, 1913, kept a man from being struck by a train).

Lawrence C. Simpson (Kingsport, 1917, perished attempting to save a man from drowning).

Dana R. Moody (Elizabethton, 1930, attempted to save a man and a woman from drowning but only able to save the woman).

Nicholas F. Owen (Bristol, 1944, died trying to keep a woman from drowning who was then saved by another person).

James E. Dowell (Bristol, 1950, prevented a woman and her toddler from being hit by an oncoming locomotive).

Farley C. Lane (Kingsport, 1965, saved a man from drowning by performing underwater heroics).

Terry G. Bailey (Jonesborough, 1994, rescued a man from a fire by forcing his way into his home and dragging him to safety).

David B. Bowery (Kingsport, 2003, dived into a river from a restaurant deck and retrieved a two-year-old girl who had fallen into a river upstream).

Lindsey A. Witherspoon (Kingsport, 2007, saved a woman from drowning after observing her inside her car sinking nose first into a frigid lake and swimming 75 feet  to free her).

Mr. Carnegie put into practice John 15:13 when he chose to inscribe the words of the familiar Bible verse on all of the three-inch bronze medals that his foundation awarded to selected heroes or their families: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Additional information about these heroes and others is available at

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A 17-page pamphlet from 1954 titled, “The Johnson City Tennessee Recreation Story – ‘A Story of Community Teamwork,’” owned by Harrison “Frosty” Stout, was shared with me through Larry Ledford and Alan Bridwell.

The city’s recreation story can be traced to a City Basketball League game in 1947 at an unidentified location matching Leon Ferenbach and Gloria Rayon. Ferenbach superintendent, J.J. Jilton commented to someone, “This is a great game. It’s too bad it has to be played in this cracker box.” The location was not specified.

That causal statement was taken as a challenge to Recreation Director Howard Johnson who replied to Jilton, “Are you willing to help build a better place?” The same query was put to Bill Jenkins, coach and manager of the Gloria Rayon team, and other participants of the league. Several men met on January 12, 1947 for the purpose of forming a club for people interested in building a community recreation center for the city. 

Charter members were J.M. Carter (president), Robert F. Smith (vice-president), Howard Johnson (secretary-treasurer), Ted Jilton, Roy Feathers, Lawrence Owens, William Whittimore, Kent Neufer, J.J. Jilton, Eric Herrin, Mrs. and Mrs. Jimmy Smyth, Edna Frances, J.R. Jilton, Sells Blevins, Sam Cooper, William Jenkins, Bill Billings, Kathleen Goodin, Mr. and Mrs. Eddie Cowell, Nelson Burris, Roy Well, Joe Walker, Ted Burton and Nathan Thorp.

The group approved a 3-phase campaign to raise funds for the construction of a new sports facility: selling memberships in a recreation club; sponsoring athletic events, carnivals and other money-raising activities; and soliciting financial contributions.

On January 28, 1947, the organizers met with the Park and Recreation Board (C. Howard McCorkle, chairman; P.W. Alexander; W.J. “Dub” Smith; Mrs. H.C. Black; and M.U. Snodderly) and received a “thumbs up” for the club. 

Phase 1 began by netting $5,190.92 from 919 memberships, several sizable donations and numerous contributions resulting in part from the promotional efforts of Jimmy Smyth of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle and Eddie Cowell, host of  WJHL radio’s “Sports Parade.”

Phase 2 was launched with a dance by noted bandleader Tony Pastor and his group on Friday, March 28, 1947. During that gathering, the Junior Chamber of Commerce raffled off an automobile. Unfortunately, attendance was sparse due to a record snowfall and cold temperatures. The club also held a “Buy-A-Brick for One Dollar” campaign and awarded an automobile at a 4-Star Motorcycle Race at Memorial Stadium on July 5, 1947. This and several other fundraisers increased the fund total to $6,336.47.

When the endowment reached $15,000, the club decided to break ground for the new building. The plan, drawn up by Bob Woods, called for a 160’ by 80’ building on Legion Street. The Park and Recreation Board maintenance crew, headed by Dewey Stout and supervised by Howard Jenkins, commenced construction work on July 8, 1948. 

Footings were poured for the walls and afterward Southern Welding Company erected structural steel. General Shale Corporation graciously donated 10,000 cinderblocks and several suppliers of materials offered substantial discounts. The walls went up block-by-block and work proceeded on installing the roof until funds were exhausted, bringing a momentary pause to the project.

To the rescue came the Junior Service Auxiliary (Mrs. William G. Preas, general chairperson), donating funds from their September 28-29, 1949 “First Annual Johnson City Horse Show.” This effort added $2,663.49 into the fund allowing work to resume.

Phase 3 endeavors to solicit financial contributions to the building were not as promising, the main drawback being that three other significant money-raising efforts were occurring simultaneously in the city.

Fortunately, two organizations came forward – the National Federation of Employees (through the efforts of Vic Larmer and Charles Roller) and the Model Maniacs (Charles Hawkins and Caroline Muse). These two groups, along with former contributors of the Recreation Club, backed a highly successful Halloween Festival on Oct. 29-31, 1949, generating $991. About this time, City Commission approved a $10,000 loan for the recreation project.

With renewed funding, final work on the building proceeded with the pouring of a four-inch concrete floor, laying four by four creosote boards as sub-flooring and installing 16,000 square feet of hardwood flooring attached with 1000 pounds of nails. After completion, Allen Harris, Jr., a prominent local flooring businessman, commented, “I think this is one of the most beautiful floors I have ever seen.”

The long-awaited Recreation Building opened to the public on January 5, 1950, appropriately featuring a basketball game by the City Basketball League. The town no longer had to play the game in a “cracker box.” In early 1952, the balconies to the building were completed bringing total floor space to 24,000 square feet. Early1953 saw a modern entrance to the building along with a skate room, the installation of 2,000 seats, glass backboards and steel steps.

Over time, the city’s other playgrounds were improved and collectively began offering a variety of programs (sandbox, tennis, swimming, square dancing, roller-skating and baseball), each under the supervision of two or more trained leaders.

Special weeks were featured that focused on an activity such as “Tournament Week” (competition in paddle tennis, aerial tennis, horseshoes, checkers, croquet and others), “Fair Week” (displays of outstanding arts and crafts and hobby creations), “Sportsmanship Week” (special recognition to those who display good sportsmanship in games and contests), “’Citizenship Week” (special recognition of those who made the park more attractive and interesting) and others.

Various events were three-legged races, sack races, dashes, broad jumps, softball throw, basketball goal shooting contests and bicycle derbies were also held. Spring and summer brought softball and baseball leagues (Pee Wee, Midgets, Little League, Pony, Junior and Twilight Softball Leagues at the various ball fields. Fall and winter activities featured boxing and bodybuilding programs for boys and men.

The recreation brochure concluded by revealing “A Typical Day on a city Park & Recreation Playground” that opened at 9 a.m. and closed at 10 p.m. The city had something of which to be proud. 

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I received a letter from Pauline Asbury Miller of Erwin saying my recent article concerning the collapse of White Rock Summit on Buffalo Mountain brought back so many fond memories of her teenage years.

Mrs. Miller was born in 1918 in Bluefield, WV and moved to Johnson City in 1932. She married Robert H. Miller who was one of five maintenance supervisors on the Clinchfield Railroad. They were wed in Erwin on October 22, 1942 (which coincidentally was the day I was born).

“I belonged to Calvary Presbyterian Church on Harrison Street,” said Pauline, “where we had about 25 very special young people in our Christian Endeavor group. Mr. D.R. Beeson, a prominent architect in Johnson City, was a mentor to our group. Once each spring for about four years, he took us on a day outing to White Rock.” 

The assemblage made an entire day of it, leaving about 9 a.m. and returning around 5 p.m. They parked in a big field at the foot of the mountain and began their steep ascent to the rock. Pauline had particularly weak ankles and had to be assisted, as did some of the others, as they approached the top.

During the climb, Mr. Beeson encouraged his youthful entourage to keep moving by telling them to endure for a few more minutes and they would arrive at the spring near the summit for a refreshing cool drink of clean water and fill their thermos containers.

Pauline said the first order of business after arriving at the big white rock was to get some much-needed rest. They sat around and talked, enjoyed the spectacular view, ate their lunches, drank the cool mountain water and took photographs. It was a dream place to be.

Pauline indicated that the rock was relatively small for a large group with heavy growth around it that prevented very much movement for games or other outdoor activities. They were content to simply sit and converse with one another. She commented that White Rock was potentially dangerous with no guardrails; you had to stay sufficiently back from the edge or risk the chance of falling off. She indicated that the times they went there, she couldn’t recall seeing anyone else present. 

Mrs. Miller sent me two photos that were taken in the spring of 1936. The left one shows Mr. Beeson standing on the left wearing a cap. Pauline is sitting on the front row, third from the right wearing a sailor’s outfit. She was 18-years-old and had just landed her first job at S.H. Kress Department Store in downtown Johnson City. The girl on her left was Marjorie Manning, her best friend.

The right photo is that of Conrad “Connie” Girdner sitting precariously on the edge of the rock near a steep drop-off. He worked for Western Union when mail was delivered by bicycle. Sadly, he was struck by a car and killed not long after this outing.

Mrs. Miller said the view from White Rock was breathtaking especially on a clear sunny day because you could seemingly see forever. Every time she went there she was reminded of a quote from Psalms 123:1, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

Pauline laughingly commented that the downhill trip from the rock back to the car was much easier than the journey to the top of the mountain.

The most heartrending moment of my interview with her occurred when she lamented, “I often sit and look at my old photos and think about my memories of White Rock and all the fun we all had up there on our church outings. I get in such a mood that I think about going to the phone and calling some of my friends until I realize that most of them are long gone.”       

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Tennessee celebrates Arbor Day on the first Friday in March, but originally it was observed in the fall. The holiday, which began with a mission to plant trees across the nation, traces its origin to the 1870s. Each state soon chose a date for its observance that corresponded with the ideal tree-planting time for that region.

The October 31, 1905 edition of the Johnson City Staff newspaper featured an article with three headings: “Will Celebrate Arbor Day – November 14 Will Be Celebrated at Home – Revolutionary Heroes to Be Remembered and Every State in the Union to be Honored.”

The text began with the words, “Arbor Day, created by the several states and directly for the purpose of planting trees to beautify the earth’s surface, is at once a beautification that in the future will have a tendency to call forth favorable comment on the perfecters of this excellent work. In keeping with this thought and at the same time to additionally encompass the well-being of our surroundings, our excellent Governor (John I. Cox) has set aside Saturday, November 14 as Arbor Day at this (Soldiers Home) Branch. Sergeant Major Charles Troutnun directed the festivities. On that occasion, about 500 trees will be planted on the reservation, which will grow apace until the future will present a wilderness forest whose leaves will shade and comfort those who will take the place of the present membership in the years to come. The program as mapped out will be representative of every state within the united galaxy.”

One group of trees was planted on the south front of the President Andrew Johnson Barrack to commemorate the two regiments of brave East Tennesseans who met at Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton and honored themselves and the Continental Array in the historic battle of Kings Mountain in the Revolutionary War.

The Daughters of the American Revolution of Bristol, Tennessee, in keeping with the patriotic spirit of the occasion, dedicated the Revolutionary group with patriotic ceremonies. Johnson City, represented by its foremost citizens, planted a section of trees interspersed with speeches appropriate for the occasion. Another assemblage of persons known as the Watauga Settlement Group made their apt contributions to the soil to fitly commemorate the heroic deeds accomplished by those fighting in the revolution.

An individual was chosen to represent every state of the union. For every star that emblazoned Old Glory, the selectors paid homage to the cause by planting a tree. Each state was allowed to plant from six to eight trees; all but one was planted prior to the Arbor Day ceremonies. For the remaining lone tree, it was the wish of the governor that members of the Soldiers Home branch club and state appointees form an organization and select from their numbers a spokesman who, upon planting the remaining tree, would enlarge upon the honor in a carefully worded speech that befit the occasion.

It was the first time in the history of the National Home that such an honor was conferred on its members, behooving them to take an interest in the furtherance of the project that would demonstrate in the years to come that they had been moved by what the survivors of the Civil War, Spanish American War and veterans of the Philippians did for the beautification of those who were to follow.

During the day, the Soldiers Home band provided a wide range of music that spanned the gamut from “Reveille” to “Taps.” The occasion was described as being “fruitful of all that is patriotic and joyful.” The fruits of that tree-planting labor are still being enjoyed over a hundred years later.  

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An announcement in the June 8, 1914 edition of The Johnson City Staff contained an advertisement proclaiming, “Commencing Today the Grand Renamed The Majestic Theatre.”

The ad went on to say, “The Majestic Theatre will Open Its Doors Every Day at 11 a.m. and Run Without Stop until 10:30 p.m. Admission from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., 5 Cents Any Seat in the House – From 6:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., 5 and 10 Cent Seats – Coolest Spot in the City, Best Pictures, Finest Music.”

In that same edition of the newspaper, the theatre’s management defined its future operating policies aimed at attracting new business. The change was initially aimed at ladies who came downtown shopping and wanted to spend time at a good, cool place and have an opportunity to see a first class motion picture at a nominal price of five cents. The modification likewise afforded farmers and their families and anyone coming to the city from nearby towns to likewise have access to a relaxing luxury.

The strategy developed by management was to combine convenience with comfort. Popular playhouses throughout the South, including Atlanta, Augusta, Chattanooga, Asheville and Jacksonville had found this policy to be popular and believed that it would meet with identical approval in Johnson City. In a nutshell, the Majestic wanted to make its theatre a memorable stopover experience for people.

The managing team secured for the public a Lubin masterpiece, “The Lion and the Mouse,” which had proven to be a phenomenal success in all the larger cities of Europe and America and had enjoyed an extended run in New York City. The story centered on an investigation of Standard Oil with the main character being a poorly disguised John D. Rockefeller. The production was billed as “but a foretaste of the really great features that are being booked by the Majestic.”

The administration desired that the people of Johnson City always feel assured that whenever a special feature was announced at the Majestic Theatre that it would be something worthwhile for them to attend.

To contrast the old Grand with the new Majestic, just three weeks prior to the renaming of the theatre, two quality plays were offered. A newspaper ad stated, “The Grand Theatre, Johnson City, Tennessee – The Frank Lea Short Company, Management of Russell Kanney, Presenting “Pomander Walk,” (Matinee) by Louis N. Parker and “Robin Hood and his Merrie Men” (Evening) – Saturday, May 16.

According to the newspaper, “‘Pomander Walk” ran for an entire year at Wallack’s Theatre in New York and was proclaimed to be the most charming play of the generation. The 3-act comedy was said to rout its audience out of the busy day and set them in a dream world. It said, “The sun comes out on Pomander Walk, the sun goes down on Pomander Walk, the moon beams o’er Pomander Walk; the lamp is lighted sentinel-like o’er Pomander Walk. You too are in Pomander Walk, one of its happy dreamers – irresistibly lured to its ingenious dreaminess. It is a delight.”

A description of the other play claimed, “’Robin Hood and His Merrie Men’ had universal appeal of the romantic story of the nobleman outlaw and his band. Robin Hood, Maid Marion, Alan-A-Dale, the valiant High Sheriff of Nottingham, Friar Tuck and King Richard of the Lion Heart himself were placed in a stirring romantic comedy.” It was said to be “alive with laughter and action and thrills and brilliant in pageantry costuming and setting.”

On that June 8 morning of 1914, a new theatre marquee was seen on Main Street, beginning a run that would continue for 67 years. The theatre closed its doors in 1981. 

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Joann Cress sent me a letter and a photograph pertaining to the career of her father, Wendell D. Snapp, who once worked for the Johnson City Police Department.

According to Joann: “Dad was born in Limestone, Tennessee in 1929 near the banks of the Nolichuckey River. After farming for several years, in 1949 he headed out for Johnson City looking for work. He was employed about seven months as a fireman before taking a job with the Police Department.”

Joann indicated her dad was ideal for police work because he was easygoing and was good at jumping in and diffusing a potentially dangerous situation. In 1950, the department had but two police cruisers – one for the chief and the other one usually in the shop for repairs. That meant the 10-12 city police officers had to patrol on foot.

Ms. Cress remembered one route that her father traversed twice each shift. He began at Boone and Main at the old Tennessee Theatre and made his way east toward Fountain Square and the Windsor Hotel area. His job required that he stop and meander through the many shops, cafes and other businesses along Main Street, conversing with citizens and storeowners. Over time, he became so familiar with people that he began calling them by their first name.

Wendell enjoyed stopping by John Buda’s “hole in the wall” eatery on Buffalo across from the City Bus Station and chatting with him. He then made his way up E. Main, crossed Roan at King’s Department Store and on to the old Post Office (now WJHL-TV) where he took a short break on the steps.

The officer continued his beat by going east on Main Street, passing Nance Lanes, the Spot Steakhouse and the Dixie Drive-In. Those restaurants were the real “hot spots” in Johnson City. Patrons usually had to wait for a table or booth but it was well worth it. After a walk through one of the restaurants and circling both parking areas, he headed to Legion Street, the halfway point on his beat. Snapp next circled back to his point of origin by walking west on Market, passing St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Munsey Memorial Church, John Sevier Hotel and Fountain Square before ending back on Boone. Again, he circulated his personality frequently.

Joann recently came across some old notepads that were used to jot down shift information and later transfer to the main police journal. They are dated 1949 to 1953. A sampling of the entries is as follows: “White male, age 21, theft of a radio and an electric iron from London’s Hardware (106 W. Market), breaking and entering at Williams’ Restaurant (“Y” section), two men arrested at the Franklin Apartments (360 E. Main) for possession of 16 quarts of white whiskey, theft of three suits of clothing from Woods’ Second Hand Store  (Market), report of a break-in at Cochran’s Jewelry Store (109.5 W. Market), white male arrested at Curtis Beer Parlor (308 W. Market) for being drunk and disorderly, two males arrested for shoplifting at Hopkins’ Store (1500 Buffalo), theft of a bolt of cloth from Parks Belk (207 E. Main, valued at $18.62), female assaulted at railroad tracks near the brickyard and drunk and disorderly conduct at M & L Café  (109 W. Main) and at Earl’s Grill (907 W. Market) and White male, age 23, charged with highway robbery near Walnut and Buffalo on June 12, 1951.”

Joann explained that “highway robbery” was a term meaning a mugging that took place outside in a public place such as on a sidewalk, street or parking lot. 

Joann concluded her letter to me by saying, “It was a different world back then but one that Dad thrived in and survived for 32 wonderful years. Dad passed away in 1993.”  

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