March 2011

Tommy Church, a Johnson City resident, recalled when Homer Harris, a local cowboy star, performed at his school:

“From 1971 until 1975, I attended kindergarten through the second grade at King Springs School. I remember when he and his trick horse, Stardust, came to our school and put on a program. I later attended Happy Valley Elementary School and he also visited there but with a horse that he called Stardust, Jr. Do you know anything about this man?”

Many East Tennessee residents who lived in the area from mid-1940 through the 1970s will likely recall Homer Harris and Stardust. He became known as the “Seven-Foot Smiling Cowboy,” but admitted that the figure also included his hat and boots. He became an instant hit with the area’s youthful “buckaroos and buckarettes.”

Harris was born on May 18, 1909 in Hartford, Tennessee in Cocke County. He acquired his first guitar while still a young boy and learned to sing by listening to old breakable 78-rpm phonograph records by country and western legends such as Mother Maybelle Carter.

In 1937, Homer acquired a job singing and playing his Martin guitar over WBIX in Muskogee, Oklahoma. While there, he won first prize in a radio contest singing, “Little Brown Jug.” A year later, the emerging songster moved to California where he displayed his talent in numerous venues. He was even hired to entertain Shirley Temple at her sixth birthday in Palm Springs.

Harris accepted a job at Monogram Studios in Hollywood doing supporting roles for western movies, but his employment was short-lived; he received his draft notice. While serving in the Army from 1942 to 1945, he participated in numerous GI shows. In 1943, the crooner made a guest shot singing “Little Brown Jug” in the British documentary film, “Welcome To Britain,” starring Bob Hope and Burgess Meredith. In April 1947, he recorded the song for Nation Record Company in New York, but apparently it was never released.

After his discharge from service, Harris used his separation pay to buy a Palomino horse that reportedly was named Prima. It would be the first of several steeds that he would own during his colorful career. He conceived the idea of writing a song that he titled, “I'm Riding My Horse on the Radio.” It became such a hit with youngsters that Homer decided to include his horse in his performances.

Soon after the war, Homer relocated to East Tennessee where he joined Knoxville’s “Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round” over WNOX. The program was comprised of Lowell Blanchard (program director, emcee); Archie “Grandpappy” Campbell (comedian, tenor, Hee Haw fame), Bill and Cliff Carlistle, Burke Barber, Molly O’Day and Homer Harris. In 1949, Homer began appearing on Cas Walker’s radio show over WROL and later WIVK. The savvy entrepreneur and philanthropist learned the financial benefits derived from using radio and later television to sponsor singers and musicians of old-time music to promote his chain of rustic supermarkets.

A photo from 1949 shows Harris sitting on his horse Dolly beside Cas inside one of his country stores. About this time, Homer purchased a 3-year-old trick horse named Stardust from Walker that added a new dimension to his act. The educated horse eventually learned to count by striking his foot on the ground and to strum Homer’s guitar using his nose. The popular cowboy began appearing on radio with three shows a day over Knoxville’s WROL (later renamed WATE). Soon after, a noon hour show was added for WIVK.

On July 16, 1950, Homer and Stardust participated in a remote broadcast sponsored by WIVK. Two 90-minute shows were presented at the Atomic Caverns (now Cherokee Caverns) located on the Oak Ridge Highway. The first show was aired from inside the caverns. At the conclusion, Stardust amazingly climbed 69 steps from 200 feet inside the caverns to the Crystal Ballroom at ground level. The second program followed outside at the caverns’ entrance. Admission for each was 75 cents for adults and 35 cents for children. Other entertainers included Hargis Kelly (trick fiddle), Simon Kelly (guitar), Pee Wee Whaley (mandolin), Puddin’ Head Joe (comedian) and the Kelly Brothers Quartet.

Subsequently, Homer and Stardust joined Bonnie Lou and Buster on WCYB radio. When WJHL television came on the air in 1953, the four of them moved to the new station where they performed with Lloyd Bell for a three-days-a-week program. Other musicians who performed with the group were Guy “Pepe” Pealer (steel guitar), Chuck Henderson (aka the Carolina Indian, guitar, banjo) and Bennie Sims (fiddler). Later, it became a daily morning show.

Homer eventually left WJHL and began touring the south with his guitar and famed trick horse. However in due time, he migrated back to Knoxville and joined Cas Walker again, this time appearing on the grocer’s music shows over WATE and WBIR television.

During the 1960s, the cowboy and his horse were busy appearing at area grammar schools and theatres. A July 3, 1969 theatre flyer promotes a 1965 movie and a western stage show with several music stars: “Showing on Screen- 'Buffalo Bill' – Ridin', Shootin', Singing TV Stars Coming In Person – Homer Harris, 7-Foot Cowboy; Carl Story, RCA Recording Star; Trick Horse, Stardust, A Real Live Oklahoma Educated Horse; Recording Stars: The Saddle Pals, Lloyd Bell and Bobby Thompson; and Ray Myers, The Armless Musician Who Leads a Normal Life.” The ad contained a photo of Homer and Stardust doing the “camel stretch.”

When Stardust passed away in 1973 at age 29, Homer had three-year-old Stardust, Jr. trained and ready to fill his hoofs. By 1978, Homer was forced to retire due to health reasons. Even then, the aging cowpoke occasionally performed at John Rice Irwin’s Museum of Appalachia near Norris, Tennessee and at local senior citizen centers and charity shows.

The end of the winding dusty trail for the towering “Seven-Foot Smiling Cowboy” came on September 7, 1998, concluding an entertainment career that is still fondly recalled by Tommy Church and many other area residents.  

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In 1943, there arose a need for increased production of quality gloves brought about by the war effort and increasing civilian demands.

Tom Lee, in his excellent book, The Tennessee-Virginia Tri-Cities (U.T. Press, 2005) noted that during World War II  “while wartime demand increased manufacturing activity across the Tri-Cities area, the distribution of major new employers during the war reflected a growing disparity among the urban centers that made up the Tri-Cities. Elizabethton continued to rely on the rayon industry. Johnson City recruited only one new firm, the Artcraft Glove Company of Tennessee.”

The big news came from Mr. Patrick Crocetta, president of the Artcraft Glove Company of New York with several factories in operation there. He announced that his company was expanding operations to Johnson City. The plant became a reality for our city after five years of negotiations between Artcraft officials and the local Chamber of Commerce headed by Norris Langford, manager of the J.C. Penney store.

Artcraft chose to remodel an existing building, the vacant Columbus Powell School at 901 S. Roan, for its facility rather than construct a new one. Remodeling efforts went into high gear on September 15 that year with ambitious plans to have it operational by early November. Machinery units soon arrived at the new business. Training of production line workers was assigned to Mr. William Warren “Doc” Simmons of the Johnson City Vocational School. The United States Employment Service hired personnel from the area’s local labor pool, excluding foremen positions.

According to estimates, between 165 and 290 people worked in the factory with 80% of them being women since a goodly number of men were serving their country. My cousin, Mrs. Jean Bowman Moore, who lived on Myrtle Avenue at the time was one of them.

The plant started up as planned and capacity soon rose to between 3,000 and 4,000 pairs of gloves a day. Nearly all of them went into the various branches of the military – a wool-lined leather glove for the Navy, a wool glove with a leather palm for the Army and Marines and a leather mitten, as seen in “Memphis Belle,” for the Air Force. The latter was a 1943 documentary film directed by William Wyler that told about the 25th and last mission of an American B-17 bomber, which was based in England during World War II.

Surprisingly, Artcraft made no work gloves, choosing instead to produce multi-purpose ones for both military and civilian needs using a wide variety of material available for glove construction. Retail cost for the gloves ranged from $2 to $3.

One stipulation of the effort was that the plant would be utilized for government contracts if available. Mr. Crocetta emphasized that the plant was not considered to be temporary with full expectations that production would continue long after the war. Indeed, it did.

The glove factory operated two shifts a day, six days a week. Paul Sechrest was chosen plant manager. His daughter, Mrs. Charles E. Allen, remembers that every day from 6 p.m. to midnight, she was with her father, mother and sister laboriously packing the day’s production output into boxes for shipment to military units around the world.

According to historian Ray Stahl, the plant was one of the first new industries to come to Johnson City after the Depression of the 1930s. It stayed around for 30 years, ceasing operations in 1973.  It served our country well. 

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My fascination for stories about Daniel Boone and his famous trek through East Tennessee in 1760 have me constantly searching for new information about him. Recently, I found something in a 1918 “Wisconsin Magazine of History” that merits sharing with Press readers.


Mr. C. A. Rafter once donated a most interesting firearm, a flintlock Kentucky rifle of the kind used by hardy pioneers of the 18thcentury, to Wisconsin’s State Historical Museum.  

According to historian Emory Hamilton, Long Hunters (aka Longhunters) were brave explorers and huntsman peculiar to Southwest Virginia. Most hunts originated on the Holston River in the vicinity of present day Chilhowie, but were comprised of hunters who lived on both the Clinch and Holston rivers.

These courageous souls were native landowners and residents who settled along the banks of the two rivers. Later when pioneer settlers moved toward the extreme frontier, Long Hunters had long since preceded them. They endured rigorous winters in rudimentary shelters with the ever-present dangers of Indians, sickness, hardships, exposure to the elements and accidents. Over time, the term became loosely used to describe any American explorer from that period.

The interesting fact about this firearm is the inscription carved on the stock, “Boons True Fren” (Boone’s True Friend). In another location on the weapon are the letters “D.B.” The stock contained a row of five grim notches, each representing the sending of a redskin to the “happy hunting grounds.” What little is known of the rifle came from a letter written by Mr. Rafter:

“Dr. Norcop or Count DuBois, as he used to be called, came to the mountains of Northeast Georgia years ago and built a rustic castle in which he lived very much by himself and collected relics. He was well educated, much traveled and altogether a very interesting character. The Boone rifle hung over his fireplace. It was my pleasure to call upon him whenever in his vicinity and upon one of these visits, I asked him to will the old rifle to me when he was through with it.

“Shortly after this, he brought it to me. He claimed that he purchased it from a Tennessee mountaineer about 40 years ago and that the marks now on it were then on it. The doctor is getting old now and I had a letter from him the other day in which he said, ‘My health if failing fast and I am about to take my great adventure.’ I expect to hear any day of his death.”

Within a few days after writing the letter, Mr. Rafter suddenly and unexpectedly perished in a fire, thus preceding his aged friend in embarking on the “great adventure.”

Additional details on the old gun were afforded by a letter written to the Society by the superintendent of schools of Johnson City, Tennessee. No name was provided. “It was within a few miles of Johnson City,” he writes, “that Daniel Boone killed a bear in the year 1760. The tree stood till two years ago. Older people recall the distinct words: ‘D. Boon cillED a Bar on tree in year 1760.’ A marker has been placed there. It is quite evident that it was the same rifle that you have that Daniel Boone used in killing the bear and we would like very much to have a good distinct picture of the gun showing the words and notches supposed to represent number of Indians killed.”

The Society concluded: “We do not think the evidence is conclusive that “D. Boon cillED a Bar” in 1760 with the gun now in our possession, although it is not at all improbable that such is the fact.  At any rate, the gun is a highly interesting weapon and one can hardly look upon it without having the imagination stirred by pictures of far-away scenes through which it must have passed.” 

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A large 1928 map identified as “Johnson City General Plan” reveals a wealth of information, some of it surprising. The legend identifies symbols for proposed and actual streets, parks and parkways, schools, semi-public properties, public properties, cemeteries, railroad property, industrial property and business property. John Nolan was listed as the city planner.

I immediately spotted something very interesting. I attended West Side School at 304 W. Main at Watauga in the first grade. Printed on the map just west of Peachtree Street across Sidney Avenue (renamed Knob Creek Road) were the words, “Proposed West Side School.” Did the city plan to replace the old one? That did not happen because it was in use until 1961.

The answer lies in the fact that the city needed another grammar school in the rapidly expanding west end of town. City officials apparently had a change of heart and later build it at 812 W. Market (across from Kiwanis Park). Between 1930 and 1934, the Main Street school was known as Old West Side School and the new one became New West Side School. In 1934, the new school’s designation was changed to Henry Johnson School. No school was ever built opposite Peachtree.

Another interesting tidbit was a reference to a “High School Site” on a sizable plot of land sandwiched between Elm Street, Eighth Avenue, Baxter Street and a proposed North Skyline Parkway along the north side. Was this site researched for a new Science Hill (201 S. Roan Street) or Langston (226 E. Myrtle), the city’s black high school? Obviously, no educational facility was ever constructed there.

Other schools displayed on the map were East Tennessee Normal School, Junior High, Martha Wilder, Columbus Powell, Keystone, Douglas (black), Dunbar (black), Piney Grove, Roan Hill, North Side and South Side. Notably absent was New Martha Wilder (renamed Stratton). Another sizeable parcel of land situated south of the intersection of Buffalo and Highland was marked, “Special School Site.” No additional information was offered.

As I further perused the map, I spotted four more anticipated parkways in addition to the aforementioned North Skyline one: Country Club, Cherokee, Woodland and Sinking Creek.

While most of Johnson City’s street identifications in 1928 were identical to those of today, a few changed names over the years. Case-in-point is the group of ten parallel streets running east and west from Tannery Knob toward North Johnson City. Remnants of a failed attempt by wealthy steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to build an imposing new town named Carnegie along the northeast end of the city were visibly evident. The Carnegie avenues (and today’s names) were First (Millard/Railroad), Second (Fairview), Third (Myrtle), Fourth (Watauga), Fifth (Unaka), Sixth (Holston), Seventh (Chilhowie), Eighth, Ninth and Tenth. The names on the 1928 map showed First, Fairview, Myrtle, Watauga, Unaka, Holston, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth.

Other observations from the plan revealed a future City Mountain Park on what is now known as Tannery Knob, the main Post Office located on Ashe Street (later became the Ashe Street Courthouse), a Jewish Cemetery adjacent to Oak Hill Cemetery at the intersection of Whitney and Wilson, the VA referred to as National Sanitorium and several planned roads the length of the south end of E. Main. One in particular, Glanzstoff Road, was named for the American Glanzstoff plant in Elizabethton (renamed North American Rayon Corporation). It became the new Johnson City/Elizabethton Highway.

The 1928 city-planning map offers another glimpse of vintage Johnson City and adds additional pieces to the city’s “history mystery” puzzle. 

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In October 1900, five nationally noted speakers participated in a lecture course at the Academy of Music for the Travelers’ Protective Association in Richmond, Virginia. Among those giving talks were East Tennessee’s homespun heroes, Bob and Alf Taylor.

Tickets were sold for each of five evening sessions. A $3.50 combination pass for all five sessions was the best deal with two admissions being offered to each event. An advertisement stated that although there had been an expected heavy demand for the course, some choice seats were still available.

Money collected went into a fund to compensate entertainers who would appear at the Academy the following year. The organizers took particular pride in the fact that they were offering the public a truly first-rate group of recognized talent who would command instant and hearty recognition from the attendees.

Hon. Alfred Taylor kicked off the series on Thursday, Oct. 11 with his celebrated “Life’s Poetry and Pearls,” a speech he had delivered in nearly a hundred cities around the South. He immediately offered his listeners a serious metaphor of human life: “There are heavens of poetry to which no imagination has ever soared; there are firmaments of beauty whose airs no wing has ever tried. Poets have sung since time began – painters, sculptors, and musicians have transferred their dreams to marble, and canvass, and harp strings, yet they have not so much as dipped an oar beneath the surface of that vast ocean of the beautiful whose silvery surf forever breaks on the shadowy shores of human life.”

Bob Taylor brought with him a brand new lecture that he titled, “Sentiment.” It was highly anticipated because attendees knew of Bob’s reputation for powers of pathos, word painting, anecdotes and mimicry: “(Sentiment) hangs a bow in every cloud and sets a star on every horizon. Its morning is a smile; its noon is a joy, its evening a tear. It sweeps the harp strings of human hearts and they thrill with every human passion.”

Bob further amused the crowd with a lighthearted tale: “An old poet of the flowing bowl (punch bowl) came down the village street one bright afternoon swearing he could climb a thorn tree a hundred feet high with a wildcat under each arm and never get a scratch. But the next morning he appeared with a bandage over one eye and a blue knot on his nose and his right arm in a sling. ‘Hello!’ shouted one of his pals. ‘I thought you could climb a thorn tree a hundred feet high and never get a scratch.’ ‘Yes,’ he said in a subdued tone, ‘but I got this comin’ down.’”

The other three presenters were Hon. George R. Wendling (well known in Richmond, speaking on the subject “Mirabeau and the French Revolution”), Dr. Homer T. Wilson (brilliant Texas natural born orator and humorist presenting a talk titled, “Sparks from the Anvil”) and Hon. Luther Manship (versatile, magnetic and amusing orator lecturing on “Dialects of the Nations”). 

Twenty-one of the speeches that Bob and Alf delivered during their illustrious careers, including the two presented at the Association in 1900, can be read in their entirety in the book, Bob and Alf Taylor – Their Lives and Lectures (Paul Deresco Augsburg, Morristown Book Company, 1925). This is a fascinating work that demonstrates the verbal versatility of the famed brothers.

Two colorful local boys, who always had a warm spot in their hearts for their beloved “Happy Valley,” etched their mark in politics and music and made East Tennesseans especially proud of them. I am categorically one of them. 

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