July 2010

Johnson City once boasted of having two prominent and competing foundries. The Johnson City Foundry and Machine Works, Inc. (1883-1987) operated at 920 W. Walnut Street, the Inter-State Foundry and Machine Company (1924-early 1980s) at 343 Love Street. Ironically, the same two founders started both businesses.

In 1963, JCF&MWI had the distinction of being the oldest industrial plant still operating in Johnson City. That year the company celebrated its 80thanniversary of the original company and the 17thanniversary of the new one. Its principal officers (and positions) were George H. McDowell (President-Treasurer), May A. Ross (later McDowell, Vice-President and Secretary), J. Frank Lamons (Sales Manager), R.O. Wood, Jr. (Chief Draftsman), Sabe W. Hawkins (Office Manager), Robert F. McNeil (Plant Superintendent), Willard McInturff (Foreman of Structural Steel Department), M. Guy Lane (Foreman of Ornamental and Light Steel Department), Vernon Eads (Foreman of the Foundry and Pattern Shop) and Gilbert Ingle (Foreman of the Machine Shop).

A foundry is defined as a business where metal is melted and poured into molds. The new venture formed in 1883 was initially known as the Miller and Crumley Foundry. It was situated on the tracks of the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad (later the Southern Railway). The Ash Street Courthouse would later occupy the site. Over years, the business would carry three names: Johnson City Foundry and Machine Works, Johnson City Foundry and Machine Company and Johnson City Foundry and Machine Works, Inc.

The next year, Colonel Thomas E. Matson purchased the Miller and Crumley Foundry and converted it into a large store and hollowware (hollow metal utensils) plant. Colonel Columbus Powell of Knoxville became a partner with Matson and the plant was incorporated with a capital of $20,000. Matson served as president.

The company erected two buildings at the junction of the ETV&G and ET&WNC railroads. One was a 5000 square foot two-story structure, the other a 12,500 one-story one. Matson acquired machinery for them from a firm in Philadelphia. Beginning in 1885, the Foundry repaired and rebuilt locomotives for the “Tweetsie” Railroad and specialized in custom ironwork.

 In 1907, the plant was rebuilt on the western half of its Walnut Street property in order to make room for the expansion of the Clinchfield Railroad. The plant consisted of a machine shop, a foundry and a blacksmith shop. They provided service and repairs for the “Tweetsie” Railroad, which had just completed construction of a railroad line from Cranberry, North Carolina to Johnson City, Tennessee.

In 1914, the company faced a foreclosure crisis. Glen Setzer, a former machinist who received his apprenticeship at the plant and completed his training on the Southern Railway in Bristol, became manager of the organization. He successfully ran the Foundry until his death in 1935, when the job befell his widow.

The Foundry was a jobbing plant, meaning its products were mostly made to specific customer orders. The one exception was the standard veneer slicing machine used in the lumber and furniture manufacturing industries. George Sitton, an early plant manager, developed the device that initially bore the name, the Sitton Slicer. It later became known as the Johnson City Slicer after several improvements were made to it.

 The business was always geared up to accepting new challenges to sustain or acquire new customers. That was never more important than when customers began asking for products fabricated from aluminum, a lighter metal. The company’s responsiveness to change helped keep the foundry in operation throughout its long history.  As early as 1943, the Aluminum Company of America became the Foundry's largest customer and continued to be so until the 1970s.

During World War II, the Johnson City Foundry became one of the nation's leading producers of military equipment and hardware. The company received the “Distinguished Army-Navy E Award” in 1943 as recognition for impressive production achievements.

In March 1946, Mr. George McDowell became the company’s president and treasurer. Mrs. McDowell was vice-president and general counsel. She was a sister of Mrs. Setzer and had worked at the company before becoming an attorney. George offered a concise explanation of the nature of their work by saying, “If it's made of iron or steel, draw a picture of it and we'll build it. As a matter of fact, you can now add brass or aluminum to that list.”

According to McDowell, the reason the plant was able to operate for such a long time without specific products was because of the diversification of its manufacturing facilities and its highly skilled workforce, which enabled the plant to continue even during hard times.

Fierce competition and a profit squeeze made it essential that each department become sufficient in its operations. The constant improvement of facilities was another important factor in its success. The Company increased its plate storage and added cranes to improve the handling of metal products. It enlarged the Ornamental Shop, added several new machines and rearranged all departments for better flow of raw materials and final products.

JCF&MWI continued to expand under the leadership of the McDowells, filling a wide range of regional business and construction needs. It fabricated steel for small building projects and large construction jobs, such as 750 tons of steel supplied to East Tennessee State College for the building of Memorial Gymnasium. With the advent of aluminum manufacturing, the Foundry began moving away from cast iron and steel production.

During the early 1980s, the company soon fell prey to declining demands for aluminum castings, inflation and a gradual shrinking of the coal industry to which the the company was a major supplier. In 1984, a Knoxville firm, Tenetek, bought the business, but it faced foreclosure in 1987. When the end finally came, approximately 133 employees from Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina were left without employment.

The Johnson City Foundry and Machine Works, Inc. had a 104-year successful reign in Johnson City. 

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A few weeks ago, about 200 SHHS alumni from the classes of 1959-60-61 celebrated a milestone “50-year” reunion. The dinner meeting was held at the Johnson City Country Club. Tim Jones, moderator of the event, had me give a short history talk. Several classmates requested that I reproduce it in my column. This is the text from my talk:

“We are about to embark on a sad yet nostalgic memory tour of the old downtown Science Hill High School. It is early 1979 and the big building on “The Hill” is just days from demolition. As we ascend the 88 steps between Roan Street and the front door, our minds drift back to 1960. We initially observe the Daniel Boone Trail Marker to our left and the school’s Tennessee Historical Marker on our right.

“Just before entering the school, we respectfully pause long enough to observe a group of ROTC students raising the American flag on the flagpole while the National Anthem is played over loud speakers. We enter the creaky front door and stroll down the quiet, chilly, musty, hallways.

“As we amble along the ground floor, we glance into the ROTC drill hall where we see Captain John Culpepper. He recently replaced Captain Charles East as PMS&T. One company is practicing drill formations. We recall the time when Willie Muston, the school’s jovial custodian, entered the drill hall just as a volley of M-1 rifle blanks were being fired. It took him ten minutes to recover from the blast. The students never let him forget it. Everybody loved Willie.

“Moving forward, we approach Thomas Boles’ classroom 18 and detect music being played. Then, we smell the aroma of food being prepared in home economics room 16 under the direction of Hattie Hunt. The next stop is Paul Slonaker’s room 10, which is used to teach industrial arts and mechanical drawing. Adjacent rooms, 12 and 13, are intended for English, languages and ROTC.

“We enter the cafeteria and find Mary DeGroat and her staff preparing lunch. We grab a tray of food. We can eat in the cafeteria, drill hall or gym. Maybe during lunch, we will hear Bill Sell bellow out his famous Tarzan yell to the delight of students and the chagrin of teachers.

“We go up the stairs to the second or main floor and immediately pass C. Howard McCorkle’s (Superintendent) and George Greenwell’s (Principal) offices. Across the hall are Dessie Payne’s Library, the auditorium and study hall. We peek in room 26 where Grace Bradshaw (world history) is attempting to make the subject palatable to her students. Room 25 reveals the presence of Howard Dyer (math, general business). Room 23, overlooking the grassy courtyard between the school and gym, belongs to petite Mary Crocker (English). Next, we see J.F. Copp (math) walking around assisting students. Who is that teacher standing beside his door looking in? It is Pauline Ritchie (English).

“Let’s mosey into the gym where we spot Sidney Smallwood (Athletic Director). Coaches are Bill Wilkins (basketball), Kermit Tipton (football) and John Broyles (baseball). Dick Ellis offers play-by-play broadcasts of many Topper games over WJHL radio. Before leaving the gym, let’s not forget the ROTC ball. It is a night of company rivalry, enjoyment for cadets and their dates and a time of promotions for selected cadets entering their senior year.

“Additional classrooms are located on the third floor: Earl Lane (geography, business arithmetic, boys’ gym), Cot Presnell (biology, football, golf), Dorothy Broyles (English), Juanita Jones (English), Ruth McPherson (biology, physics), Bill Wilkins (economics, sociology), Bob Evans (driver’s education), Nona Siler (History), Estelle Thompson (Spanish), Frank Tannewitz (typing), Zeb Presnell (chemistry), Louise Huddle (art) and Warren Weddle (band).

“Sadly, it is time for us to say goodbye to ‘The Hill’ one final time. The building we cherish so much is soon coming down. The city can raze our favorite school, but they cannot destroy our beloved memories of it. After 50 years, we still miss you, old Science Hill. You served us well.”  

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Comparing an early 1940s modern kitchen with those of today reveals how far technology has advanced in 70 years. In that wartime era, someone speaking of a dishwasher was likely referring to a person, not an automated machine.

Back then, family members assisted with numerous household chores such as washing dishes. Most homes had a definite sequence to this ritual: cleaning glasses first, silverware second, dishes third and pots and pans fourth. Since water was often conserved at rural homes, it was necessary to avoid changing dishwater too often. Therefore, the least greasy items were generally washed first.

The Doe family members have just finished their evening meal. Mary and Jane are assigned the responsibility of cleaning up after supper. The girls bring dirty dishes, drinking glasses and eating utensils from the dining table to the kitchen. Initially, they fill a dishpan half full of water and add a small quantity of soap to it. They wash glasses and dry and polish them, making sure no lint is present. They then put the clean glasses in the kitchen closet.

Dirty silverware is next placed in the water that was used to clean the glasses. They add additional soap as needed. Each piece of silverware is thoroughly cleaned, rinsed, dried and put away.

The girls then remove food from plates and after that scrub them to get rid of any remaining particles stuck to them. Afterward, they take the accumulated slop to an outside covered garbage can for disposal.

Since the dishpan water is not too dirty, it can be used to wash the plates and saucers. The youngsters submerge each item in the water and clean it meticulously. As with most cleaning operations, a reasonable amount of “elbow grease” is required to get things completely sanitized. Once clean, they transfer each item to the metal drainer. After all plates have been cleaned and placed in the drainer, they empty the dishpan water and place the loaded drainer in it. Clean water is next poured over the dishes to remove any soap residue.

Now comes the most important step in the cleaning process. A couple pots of fresh water are heated on the stove and allowed to come to a boil. The scalding water is slowly and cautiously poured over everything in the drainer to destroy any remaining bacteria. Hot water quickly dries the plates, therefore eliminating the need for drying with a dishrag.

Now that the glasses, utensils and plates are clean, Mary and Jane take the dirty pots and pans to the kitchen where they are washed, dried and stored for the next meal. The young ladies conclude their routine chore by washing dishtowels, rinsing and drying the dishpan and dish drainer and putting everything in storage.

Research data from that era revealed that dishes washed only in cold water contained an abundance of bacteria; those washed in warm soapy water had fewer bacteria; the ones cleaned in hot soapy water and rinsed thoroughly with boiling water became essentially germ free. 

A helpful hint from the 1940s advised people to not wastefully dump in a large quantity of soap flakes or chips to the water in the dishpan. Instead, it recommended using a small amount of water in the pan and dissolving a modest quantity of soap in it. Another money saver was to accumulate small pieces of bar soap in a mesh strainer resembling a small corn popper and then dissolving them in the dishpan water.

Today, most homes have automated dishwashers that clean dishes in five easy steps: load the washer, add soap, close the door, push a button and unload it after it runs its full cycle. Oldsters can readily recall yesteryear when cleaning chores in the kitchen was long and laborious. 

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John Sevier (1745-1815), noted Tennessee history frontiersman, became known as “Chucky Jack.” His accolades were fearless Indian fighter, hero of the Battle of Kings Mountain and other Revolutionary War encounters, first governor of the short-lived State of Franklin and the new State of Tennessee and a U.S. Representative.

In 1955, the R.L. Maples family, Gatlinburg hotel owners, built Hunter Hills Theatre on 24.57 acres of land to feature an outdoor drama that accurately personified the life of Sevier. The 2500-seat facility was located about four miles outside the heart of Gatlinburg. It was named after Kermit Hunter, a successful drama writer who taught history on a stage under the stars. It was Hunter’s third drama, the other two being “Unto These Hills” (1949, Cherokee, NC) and “Horn in the West” (1951, Boone, NC). He later added several more productions.

The Maples’ aim was to attract tourists who routinely traveled 35 miles across a narrow, winding mountain road to see the popular drama in Cherokee. The play opened in 1956 with performances scheduled from late June to early September. Viewing “Chucky Jack” was described as a painless, pleasurable way to learn early Tennessee history in the coolness of pristine mountain air.

The play employed 92 actors, some of whom had previously worked on Broadway. Others were college drama students and local residents. The main stage was 55 feet wide and equipped with two 30-foot revolving stages that allowed speedy set changes.

Promoters of the event devised a clever attention-grabbing stunt to draw attention to the new enterprise. They purchased what appeared to be a train for $13,000 from an amusement Company in Dayton, Ohio. The vehicle, comprised of a Diesel-looking locomotive and two cars, ran on the road rather than a rail. The word “Tennessee” appeared across the front of it. The new owners drove it from Dayton to Gatlinburg to draw media attention along the 350-mile stretch of highway. Local newspapers and television stations were curious about them.

Accompanying the train on its overland trek were Mr. and Mrs. Maples; their son, Jack, who piloted the train; and Bart Leiper, a director of public relations for Gatlinburg and “Chucky Jack.” When the train finally arrived at its mountainous destination, it assumed a new role – providing sightseeing around the city for tourists and rides to and from the theatre. During the 1957 season, major script changes were made to the play. Also, an organ and a special trained chorus replaced tape recordings.

In 1958, a 24-page brightly illustrated comic book titled, “Chucky Jack’s A-Comin’” was published that was aimed primarily at youngsters. Bill Dyer, well-known cartoonist for the Knoxville News-Sentinel (famous for his “Dyergrams” of the Tennessee Volunteer football games), provided the artwork. Bill modestly commented that all he had to do was let history tell its own story. He simply supplied the pictures and released the imprints for it.

Over time, attendance at “Chucky Jack” performances began to wane in spite of efforts to publicize it. John Sevier, as impressive as he was in Tennessee history, was not as recognized to the general public as were other Volunteer State notables such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston. Another problem was the three-hours length of the play, but Hunter refused to shorten it by even one word.

In 1959 after a brief three-year run, “Chucky Jack” was chucked. The early pioneer left the open-air stage and returned to history books. In December 1965, the Maples’ family donated the theatre to the University of Tennessee.  

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