June 2011

Today’s column is derived from correspondence I received from local residents, Patricia Crowder and Barbara Hobson, daughters of Wm. Roscoe “Ross” Grindstaff who served his country during World War I in France, Germany, Luxemburg and Belgium.

An unidentified soldier from William’s unit penned in beautiful cursive writing a short diary of their division’s travels. When William returned home after the conflict, he placed it in an old trunk in his attic. Years later, Ms. Hobson removed the fragile document, typed it and distributed copies of it to family members. She graciously sent me one. She told me that George Dugger of Elizabethton was in her father’s outfit.   

The following are excerpts from the 43 entries written between Oct. 1 and Dec. 18, 1919. The hardships of war are discreetly depicted, along with an occasional pleasurable occurrence such as an observation of the beautiful countryside. Numerous entries relate to heavy fighting, constant fatigue, incessant rain, cold weather and lingering homesickness:

“Our Last Fight. Co. D, 23 Inf., 2ndDiv.”

“Oct. 1 – Found us on the safe side of a big hill in foxholes. Here we had our last warm meal at dusk in the evening for several days to come. At 7:30 marched toward the front line. Reached there and begin digging in on No Man’s Land at eleven (big shell holes).

“Oct. 2 – New men rather excited, the big barrage on at 5:30 sharp. We are at the Dutchman, very few prisoners. The rifles are kept busy at fleeing Boche on open ground, comical sights watching new men shoot, three batteries captured (18 men and 1 sergeant). 

“Oct 3 – Full pack made up, ordered back to bed, called out again at nine and moved forward through the Marines.  Some excitement here, casualties.

“Oct 4 – Caisson captured and the fun begins, Boshe on all sides and we start cleaning out, 2 batteries, hundred prisoners, several machine guns, heavy artillery play on us all day, several causalities.

 “Oct 5 – Under heavy shell fire, some casualties here, we take no prisoners, too much trouble. Marines pass through again, also 2ndand 3rdBattalion.

“Oct 6 – Into No Man’s Land, line broke, lost, line connected again, very tired. I slept from 8 o’clock until daylight the next day.

Nov. 10 – The day was spent mostly playing cards. Their artillery did not get us spotted until the afternoon. We hear all kinds of reports about the Armistice and hope some are at least true.

Nov. 11 – The Armistice signed at 11:00 a.m.

Nov. 16-23 – (Marches to) Stenay, Montmedy, Ethe, Artour Fressen, Saeul, Musch and Heffingen.)

Nov. 24 – Some very nice (inhabitants), some don’t take (to) us very well. Not many Frenchmen here. And our Dutch is very poor. Heavy frosts every night, sleep in barns.

Nov 25 – Blue Monday, rain and sloppy weather, on short rations, two inspections, everything to make life miserable. No idea of moving, getting homesick.

Dec. 8 – Have been traveling down grade all day now going in the Rhine valley, very pretty country, many villages.

Dec. 15 – We followed the river down past an old moss covered castle ages old. Very pretty scenes.

Dec.18 – Drill in the morning. Rainy sloppy night.”

After returning home from the war, William drove an ambulance for Pouder Funeral Home and then a cab for Red J. Taxi Cab Company (located at the current site of the Trailways Bus Station). The family lived on Afton Street near Maple in Johnson City until Mr. Grindstaff went to work for American Bemberg Corporation and moved his family to a residence about a mile down Sinking Creek Road in Johnson City. 

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Saturday, October 20, 1917 brought news of the death of General John Thomas Wilder, a prominent industrialist who lived in Johnson City between 1884 and 1892. It saddened residents all over the country, especially those in the State of Tennessee.

John T. Wilder As a Young Man

The noted soldier of the Civil War, pioneer in the iron industries of the Chattanooga district and one of the leading drivers of the commercial development of Tennessee, died that morning in Jacksonville, Florida where he went two years prior to spend the winter. His obituary indicated that he was 87 years old and for several years had been in failing health, but retained his devoted interest in the welfare of the Volunteer State. His wife, Dora Lee, four daughters and a son, survived him. He was returned to Chattanooga for burial in Forest Hills Cemetery.

Wilder was born in Hunter Villages, Greene County, New York on January 13, 1813. He served seven years as an apprentice in the iron businesses as a draughtsman, machinist, pattern maker and millwright.

The industrialist entered the war as a lieutenant-colonial in the Indiana Infantry, becoming a full colonial in 1862 and a brigadier general of volunteers two years later. His Civil War service was especially noteworthy in such battles as “Hoover’s Gap,” “Chickamauga” and “Chattanooga.” Ironically, he once shelled Chattanooga, the city that he would later call home.

After the war, Wilder settled in Rockwood, Tennessee, and later in Chattanooga. In 1867, he founded an ironworks in the Chattanooga region, then built and operated the first two blast furnaces in the South at Rockwood, Tennessee. In 1870, he established a company to manufacture rails for the railroads.

Wilder entered politics and was elected mayor of Chattanooga in 1871, but resigned a year later to pursue his business interests. He unsuccessfully ran for the United States Congress in 1876. In 1877, he accepted the position of city postmaster, serving until 1882.

In 1884, Wilder relocated to Johnson City and lived here until 1892. He helped promote and construct the Charleston, Cincinnati & Chicago (3Cs) Railroad. He also developed the booming industrial suburb of Carnegie along the east side of the city. He named it in honor of fellow industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, which included the lavish Carnegie Hotel at E. Fairview and Broadway and a host of iron making and railroad-related manufacturing facilities. Iron ore was brought to Johnson City via the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad (ET&WNC known as “Tweetsie”). Wilder constructed the popular 166-room Cloudland Hotel near the summit of Roan Mountain to serve tourists via the scenic narrow gauge railway line.

In 1887, the tycoon organized the Roan Iron Works and built and operated two blast furnaces at Rockwood, Tennessee. He became active in the mineral development of Tennessee.

In 1897, Wilder moved to Knoxville, Tennessee after receiving an appointment from President William McKinley as a Federal pension agent. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft later granted reappoints. The general eventually became commissioner of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

General Wilder did more, perhaps, to develop the resources of Tennessee than any one man in the state. To him is due much credit, especially for the development of the iron resources of East Tennessee. In Chickamauga Park stands a magnificent monument erected as a fitting tribute to General Wilder’s “Iron Brigade.” 

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A 1909 newspaper clipping speaks of a “serene section of East Tennessee lying beyond the Watauga River near the base of the loftiest mountains east of the Rockies.” The article states that no purer air or more lovely scenery could be found than the local region affords. It b ecame immortalized after Bob Taylor expressed it in his writing and speeches as “Happy Valley.”

At the entrance to the valley, about a mile from Senator Taylor’s birthplace and only a stone’s throw from the present home of Alf Taylor, his brother and political competitor, stood Milligan College. It was the Alma Mater of both Bob and Alf and scores of other men who achieved future prominence.

Milligan College Young Ladies Home 

Surrounded by a thick grove of maple trees, the old campus seemed to fit in naturally as an integral part of the landscape. Nature was observed here at its finest with Milligan College as its favorite shrine. According to the school’s early catalogue, Milligan was devoted to character building as its number one priority. No better place for such an institution could be found than in the healthy environment of Happy Valley.

Around the turn of the century, student enrollment was averaging from 175 to 250 students for the school year. In 1909, 213 students signed up for classes bringing expectations that the number could total 250 to 300 classmates by year-end. Immediate concerns were housing. A new brick dormitory, completed in 1908, became filled with students, prompting school officials to petition the board of trustees for more housing.

In 1881, the founding school, known as the Buffalo Male and Female Institute, was elevated to collegiate level through the efforts of Dr. Josephus Hopwood and renamed Milligan College after a favorite former teacher of his.

Prior to the Civil War, educational needs between the North and the South differed greatly. In the majority of the Northern States, social rank did not exist; settlers lived together in small farms clustered within a village. Each village eventually acquired a school.

In the South, the manner of living was substantially different. Each landowner had a sizable tract of land causing neighbors to be located miles apart. Often, it took one property-owner the better part of a day on horseback to reach the dwelling of another. Thus the country had no clustered towns like the North. There were many plantations stretched over a sparsely settled area of country. It was impossible for the South to have “town schools” as they were known in New England.

The Civil War did much to rearrange social conditions. The breaking up of the large plantations into many smaller homes, the freeing of slaves and passage of compulsory education laws created an efficient network of public schools. The natural noble pride of the South led to the establishment of a large number of private schools such as Milligan, many of which became phenomenally successful.

In. 1909, a general education law was passed that provided 25% of the gross state revenue to be devoted to the cause of education. Milligan was one of 19 state colleges that became recipients of proceeds:

University of Nashville (1785), The University of Tennessee (1794, Knoxville), Washington and Tusculum College (1794, Greenville), Maryville College (1819, Maryville), Cumberland University (1842, Lebanon), Burritt College (1848, Spencer), Hiwassee College (1849, Sweetwater), Bethel College (1850, Mackenzie), Carson and Newman College (1851, Jefferson City), Walden University (1866, Nashville), Fisk University (1866, Nashville), University of Chattanooga (1867, Chattanooga), University of the South (1868, Sewanee), King College (1869, Bristol), Christian Brothers College (1871, Memphis), Knoxville College (1875, Knoxville), Milligan College (1881, Milligan), Southwestern Presbyterian College (1885, Clarksville) and Lincoln Memorial University (1895, Cumberland Gap/ Harrogate). 

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Davy Crockett’s tales – truthful, enhanced or fabricated – have perpetuated the antics of Tennessee’s colorful history maker. Brush aside the accumulated cobwebs of tall tales and he still emerges as a fascinating folk hero.

Many of us remember the thrilling “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier” television era of the mid 1950s. We watched him on our small snowy TV sets as a brave, witty hero that was bigger than life because, after all, he killed a bear) when he was only three?

Crockett competed with such compelling figures as Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston who were also well-known fellow Tennesseans. He set the formula for humorous political campaigning, which Senator Alben Barkley and other colorful politicians eventually employed in their heyday.

While Crockett held Andrew Jackson as his hero in his early political life, he later fell out with “Old Hickory” and thereafter referred to him sarcastically as “The Hero.” Davy was equally gifted in handling himself in hunting affairs and in congressional debates. He once shouted: “Sirs, I do not consider it good sense to be sitting here passing laws for Andrew Jackson to laugh at; it is not even good nonsense.”

Perhaps the most fascinating of Crockett’s lore is the occasion that made him and the coonskin cap synonymous. It happened during Davy's first campaign for Congress when the mountain man was trudging from one crossroad to another stumping for votes. Voters welcomed the candidates because of the traditional treats expected and, according to Crockett, found political discussions very dry without refreshments. For understandable reasons, stumps in the vicinity of taverns attracted the largest crowds.

As Davy told it, he approached the tavern owned by a Yankee gentleman whose name was Job Snelling where a fair crowd of people had accumulated anxiously waiting for him. Crockett mounted the stump and spoke only briefly before his listeners’ tongues became parched and they demanded the traditional refreshment.

Davy led the crowd into the tavern completely aware that he did not have enough money in his buckskin jeans to cover the indulgence. He depended on receiving credit from Snelling until he learned that Snelling supported his opponent. After refusing to put the drinks on the cuff, the politician plunged into the woods where he spotted, took down and skinned a raccoon. Knowing that the skin was legal tender and the accepted exchange value was a quart of the beverage known as “panther juice,” Crockett returned to the tavern. He tossed the coonskin on the bar and commanded his quart. The reluctant tavern keeper was forced to comply with his request and Davy's potential voters quenched their thirst. Davy returned to the stomp and renewed his speech.

It wasn't long before the cry of indulgence once again interrupted the proceedings. Returning to the tavern, Crockett spied the tail of the coonskin sticking out between the logs of the crude bar. In Crockett’s words, “I touched the tail and it seemed to follow my hand.” Crockett slapped the skin on the bar and called for another quart of the brew. Unaware that he had been scammed, the tavern keeper complied again. In his autobiography, Crockett wrote that he successfully repeated the trick several times. The caper delighted his backwoods audience when they learned what had happened.

The story of the coonskin trick permeated the hills like wildfire, probably being embellished with each utterance. Crockett attributed his poll victory to the mirth the story caused. In later years, the remorseful frontiersman offered to pay Snelllng for the beverages, but the tavern keeper generously declined compensation. 

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