October 2011

Jim Bowman provided some treasured memories about his employment at King’s Department Store at S. Roan and E. Main in the late 1950s. Bowman further talked to three long-time employees of the firm: Louise Curtis; Ellen Sells whose husband, Sam Sells, owned the establishment; and Rose Cooper) to tap into their reminiscences. Another source of information was an interview of Mr. Sells conducted by former Press writer, Alice Torbett, just prior to the store closing in 1984.

Bowman commented on the painful days when the once thriving store closed: “When it became obvious that the time had come for King’s to close its doors permanently, Sam R. Sells postponed making the dreaded decision probably much longer than he should have. The employees were close-knit family members who regarded their job site as a second home. Many had been with the company the majority of their adult years.”

(L to R, T to B: King's Department Store under construction in 1928; Ruth Green and Ed Bateman, longtime store employees; Sam Sells at his desk just before he closed his business ; aa;;;;  ; ; ; and   aand    a     hhhh; and Main Street entrance during a busy Christmas holiday in the mid 1950s)

According to Jim: The five-story (including a basement and mezzanine) brick building offered quality merchandise at reasonable prices. Several other traits separated this special marketplace from its nearby competitors, such as a kiosk that adorned the center of the main (first) floor. During holiday seasons, for instance Christmas and Father’s Day, many bargains were offered at a designated location known as ‘the Booth’ for one-hour blocks throughout the day. For years Ida Smith was stationed there daily, but was periodically relieved by someone from another department whose merchandise was being featured.”

The former employee recalled a practice that King’s offered to its customers that is rarely, if ever, seen today: “Merchandise could be taken out on approval from the store and kept for three consecutive days, after which the item was either charged to the buyer or returned to the business. Some of those ‘approval customers’ pretended to own the home furnishings that they kept over the week-end – assumedly fooling” guests when having a party on Friday or Saturday night.”

 Jim’s memories included the once popular pneumatic tube system that was popular in larger department stores of that era: “An interesting feature that intrigued young children was the method by which transactions were made following a sale. Although pneumatic tubes are commonplace now for drive through customers at bank windows, they were a novelty in the late 1950s. The clerk would place the sales slip and tended cash or check in a cylinder and place it in one of two tubes. It would then travel by vacuum in a pipe that ran above the store to a cashier who removed it, counted the money, put in the proper change and returned the missile in a second tube to the salesperson’s station.”

According to Ms. Torbett: “For most of the year, the fourth floor contained children’s clothes and some toys, but right after Thanksgiving a miraculous transformation took place when it became a fabulous Toyland with storybook dolls, electric trains, stuffed animals, games and mechanical toys assembled among fantasy castles and man-sized candy canes.” The floor became an intriguing setting for Santa Claus who, with his “luxuriant whiskers and resounding chuckle,” usually stood near the elevator and greeted youngsters as they sheepishly hid behind their parents.

(L to R, T to B: Cosmetics Department located on the first floor;  The store ready to open to customers on Monday, Sept. 24, 1928; and the popular display window at the corner of Main and Roan streets …

Occasionally, people would head for one of the store’s large windows on an upper floor to watch a parade travel along Main Street. Others might go to the mezzanine and search for members of their family in the store below.

“To the delight of the close-knit sales associates,” said Jim, “two gatherings occurred annually to honor them. A storewide party was held in the administrative suite during the Christmas season and a picnic was scheduled each August at one of the city’s parks. Of necessity, the doors were closed for half a day each year for the latter event.

“King’s was always an extraordinarily clean place. When salespersons wanted cardboard boxes carried away, they communicated this desire to the night janitors by turning the empty containers upside down. Occasionally, a flood in the basement required a clean-up crew. The high water’s wrath brought on unexpected bargains on slightly damaged goods.”

Rose Cooper recalls when “several of us drove from Erwin to work at King's in the early 60s. I was in the book department with Stella Bowers. Customers bought and read Green Eggs and Ham as well as The Cat in the Hat long before the Dr. Seuss classics were popular in schools. The children were excited to get them.”

  When this nonagenarian lady hand-knitted some items for the Sells’ children, their father was so impressed that he established a new department for her products. However, he opened it only after Mrs. Cooper promised to work in the downstairs (basement) store. Ellen Sells recalls a beautiful custodian, Minnie Gilley, who possessed a great personality that was conducive to salesmanship, being transferred to the china department.

 Jim recalled that the nativity scene set up annually in the northwest corner window of East Main and South Roan was displayed years after the store had gone out of business. 

King’s great five-floor department store was a pre-cursor to today’s shopping centers. Customers could locate almost everything they needed conveniently under one roof, park nearby and dialog with clerks who sincerely showed an interest in them.

Today, a drive east on Main Street or south on Roan Street always evokes fond memories by area residents who still warmheartedly remember King’s Department Store. 

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Science Hill High School, once located downtown on “The Hill” at Roan and Water streets, opened its 1922-23 school year with plans to establish several “modern methods.” The director of the project was Miss Lucy Hatcher, the principal.

(Science Hill circa 1922 and Miss Lucy Thatcher, principal of the school that year.)

The changes were aimed at keeping the school “up to date” and promoting increased student interest in their schoolwork. Funding was achieved by scheduling radio concerts in the evenings at the school auditorium and from proceeds from the senior class’s moneymaking activities.

Daily instructional sessions began at the school at 2 p.m. thereby reducing the students’ lunch breaks to 20 minutes. Specifics of the meetings were not disclosed.

The cafeteria was supplied with an assortment of groceries and additional equipment that was deemed necessary for the cooking and serving of well-balanced lunches. Miss Edith Basket, domestic science teacher, was put in charge of the cafeteria and was challenged with buying quality food at the best prices obtainable to feed nearly 400 students.

The first Monday’s menu after the school opened that year consisted of four different selections of sandwiches, milk and lemonade, bananas and chocolate candy. The dining room was spruced up with a set of fumed oak furniture, a new set of silverware and new linen for use in home economics for teaching girls how to properly serve dinners.

Miss Hatcher installed a “radio outfit” in the study hall for the entertainment of students. A large Victorola phonograph and a set of records were also purchased for teaching American and English literature.

Students began publishing a high quality monthly magazine, known as The Wataugan. The last edition for the school year became the annual, also known as The Wataugan.

The Rotary Club provided a model for the best lecture during the coming year at an oratorical contest sponsored by the high school. This subject was regarded as one of the most important ones in the high school, as evidenced by the fact that a delegation of students had been sent each year for the previous 10 years to the grand contest at Emory and Henry College. They won the prestigious grand metal several times.

Shrubbery was planted around the high school and grounds that year. Miss Hatcher made over $60 selling books that were donated by students who left the high school the previous year. The money was used for miscellaneous needs of the school.

Miss Hatcher was a unique administrator. She maintained absolute control over her students with very little effort. When the situation required it, she could reverse her friendly but firm demeanor with piercing and icy eyes that often rained sarcasm down on her unfortunate student victim. 

On one humorous occasion in 1920, the senior class decided to liven things up at school by scheduling a secret “Tacky Day,” which meant wearing the oldest, gaudiest and most mismatched clothing they could locate. When the day arrived, students sheepishly congregated at the foot of the steps. Before they could ascend the 88 steps to the school, their stern and visibly upset principal confronted them and immediately expelled them.

Hatcher was infuriated because the students, deliberately or otherwise, chose the very day that William Jennings Bryan was to visit Johnson City and the high school. The distinctively different assemblage was reluctant to go home so they remained on the school steps. When Mr. Bryan arrived, the surprised popular politician was surprised about their attire. The quick thinking principal explained that they were a group of country folks hanging around to get a glimpse of the famous politician.    

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Today’s column is the fulfillment of a column that was initiated with Beverly Smythe Jackson just a few weeks before her passing this summer. Her parents, W.F. Burgess “Shorty” and Florence Smythe, once owned Smythe Electric Company in downtown Johnson City. Three grandchildren of the storeowners, Senter Jackson, Susan Wilson and Carol Burleson, shared treasured memories about the business. Mr. Jackson furnished me with three old city directories containing references to the store’s beginning.

About 1917, Russell Bishop, an electrician residing in Maryland moved to Johnson City and became secretary-treasurer and manager of Tennessee Electrical Supply Company, Inc. (J.W. Ring, president and Thad Cox, vice president) at 109 Spring Street. When construction on the new 10-story John Sevier Hotel began in 1923, Russell contacted his friend, Shorty, who was over six-foot tall and lived in Maryland, about a job opportunity.

Smythe came to Johnson City where he met and married Florence Browder. By 1928, Russell was proprietor of Bishop Electric Company, Inc. at 108 Spring Street, directly across the street from his previous employer. He hired Shorty as secretary-treasurer. Between 1930 and 1935, Bishop sold his business to Mr. Smythe and moved back to Maryland. The new owner relocated his store to 238 E. Main, the former location of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. During the Depression years, Mr. Smythe gave his wife a dollar each morning to cover the day’s expenses.

“The grandchildren fondly recall being at Smythe’s when parades traveled along Main Street. Because large crowds congregated along the street blocking the view from inside the store, tall ladders were moved to the front windows permitting the children to climb them and sit on top where they enjoyed a grandiose view.

Another doting memory pertained to the small wooden sound booths with doors on them that permitted customers to play store records (breakable and later non-breakable) to determine if they wanted to purchase them, something ideal for music lovers. Mrs. Smythe was depicted as a wonderful person with an incredibly loving heart who never got angry with anyone. She often walked across the street to Kress’s and brought back an oversized bag of popcorn, enough for the entire family to enjoy. 

Florence waited on customers in the front of the store while Shorty worked in the back with his electricians. The grandchildren remembered one in particular – Jackson Cornett, who specialized in home and commercial wiring. The rear area was crammed full of equipment with boxes stacked from floor to ceiling. The back door opened into a parking lot that faced Jobe Street (now State of Franklin Road). The area upstairs was a storage area.

In later years, businesses were closed on Sundays and Wednesday afternoons. The latter time was usually reserved for family activities such as going to see a movie or taking an exhilarating ride around the countryside in Shorty’s World War II Willis open-top jeep. 

Christmas at Smythe Electric was a festive time that meant decorating the store profusely with colored lights, holly and artificial snow. One favorite item that customers looked forward to and expected each season was a life-size replica of the RCA Victor’s (“His Master’s Voice”) dog, a fox terrier. 

Since Shorty was in the electrical appliance business, he always had instant access to new products. He built the first radio that appeared in Johnson City. He located the antenna on top of the John Sevier Hotel and positioned the speakers out front, causing a steady line of cars circling the hotel as people came from far and wide to hear the new product. He initially sold radios and then marketed the first televisions in the city. The family enjoyed TV in the store before it became available to the public.

When the store closed in the early 1960s after serving the community for about 30 years, Mr. Smythe opted not to locate a buyer for the business; instead, he sold the merchandise leaving the building empty. Today, Smyth Electric Company is just a pleasant but fading memory from Johnson City’s yesteryear. 

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Today’s column pays homage to my Aunt Ween, Pauline Bowman Huggans, who spent most of her life in Gray (Station) and Johnson City. She acquired the moniker from a young family member who had trouble pronouncing her first name. We called her Aunt Ween until she died in 2003.


The Bowman Sisters: Pauline Bowman Huggans (left) and Jennie Bowman Cain

Pauline traveled with her legendary father, Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman, and sister, Jennie Bowman Cain, with a group known as the Blue Ridge Ramblers on the Loews Metropolitan Theatre Vaudeville Circuit in 1931-32. They performed on stages all across the east that included New York City. The sisters were billed as part of the 12-member Ramblers and separately as the “Bowman Sisters.” The group later switched to the Smalley Time Vaudeville Circuit.

After arriving in vaudeville, Aunt Ween developed a crush on Jack Pierce, a fiddler who played in several bands including the Tenneva (Tenne for Tennessee and va for Virginia) Ramblers that once teamed up with The Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers (a.k.a. The Singing Brakeman and The Blue Yodeler).

In the mid 1920s, Charlie and three of his brothers, Elbert, Walter and Argil, participated in political rallies in East Tennessee for the Honorable B. Carroll Reece, a U.S. Representative from the first district of Tennessee who served three terms (1921-31, 1933-47 and 1951-61). After the couple died, Pauline routinely put flowers and maintained an American flag on their graves at Monte Vista Cemetery.

Pauline did something surprising in 1934. She took a break from vaudeville and returned to Gray to visit her mother, Fannie Bowman, who lived with several of her children in a rustic two-story log house on Roscoe Fitz Road. She arrived unannounced and peeked into the kitchen to see her mother laboring over the old wood stove preparing a meal. She was stirred at Fannie’s dedication to her family but saddened by the excessive wrinkles in her weary face. At that moment, she vowed never to return to vaudeville. She would honor that commitment.

Pauline’s husband, Jimmy James (stage name), was playing trombone with the Frankie Carle Orchestra and came to Johnson City to convince his pretty wife to return with him on the road tour. Pauline later commented how difficult it was to give up the man whom she dearly loved to be with her mother, but she knew it was the right thing to do. Also, she was thankful to be back in the serene beautiful mountains of East Tennessee.

In 1954, Pauline owned the Green Bean Restaurant at 514 W. Market Street. It was less than a half-mile from my home so I frequently went there to eat. My standard fare was a hamburger and French fries, so when I came through the front door, she immediately threw a beef patty on the grill. Her café had a jukebox along the right side that contained mostly country and western selections such as, Ernest Tubb’s “ I’m Walking the Floor Over You,” and Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time).”

In later years, Pauline would occasionally call me and tell me she had just made a big pot of my favorite pinto beans seasoned with a Smithfield hambone. Once, I drove to Johnson City and consumed several plates of beans that were complemented with some tasty cornbread and cold milk. Pauline was 90 years old and in declining health, but her memory was sharp. With each visit, I quizzed her about her vaudeville experiences. She sometimes repeated herself, but she never contradicted anything she had previously said. Her recall of names and groups was remarkable.

I miss my Aunt Ween. I also miss her hamburgers and French-fries from the Green Bean, her entertaining and informative vaudeville stories, her singing with Jennie in her living room and especially that big pot of Smithfield hambone flavored pinto beans and cornbread. 

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As a commuting pre-engineering student at East Tennessee State College/University in the early 1960s, I found the school library to be a convenient haven for study between classes. A half century later, I now visit the beautiful and well-stocked Charles C. Sherrod Library that opened in 1998 to research local history.

The school opened in 1911 as a normal school, became a teachers college in 1925 and was elevated to university status in 1963. The first school library was situated in the administration building, a 40-room, three-story modern brick and marble structure that included space for offices, a laboratory, recitation rooms, society halls and an auditorium. The library occupied one of the larger rooms. There was no permanent librarian per se; instead, the individual in charge was designated as teacher-librarian.

By spring 1912, the library, which used the Dewey Decimal System, contained about 1200 volumes and a collection of books pertaining to science, agriculture, industrial arts, education, history and literature. From its beginning, the number of volumes increased rapidly, eventually outgrowing its space. In 1914, the college hired a full-time librarian, Miss Olive Taylor, who utilized student help as needed.

During 1922, the library was moved to a separate building on campus, prompting officials to cleverly excuse students from classes that week to transport books to pre-labeled shelves in the new facility. Shortly thereafter, a second person, Miss Florence Wilkie, was hired as a cataloguer. Soon, the library had expanded to more then 15,000 books, 200 periodicals and a sizable assortment of newspapers.

In May 1931, students eagerly awaited the opening of its third library that was to be a decided improvement over the existing one. Construction began early that year and was completed by early summer.

The new building was modern and a bit unusual compared to the previous ones. It had the usual stack rooms: work and receiving rooms, rooms for conferences, rooms for cataloguing, seminar halls, library science, children’s library, rooms for reserve books, a periodical room and offices for staff headquarters. The reading area was on one floor and measured 119’ long, 32’ wide and 50’ high. A 36’ extension brought the total length to 155’. Just above this room on the second floor was a large room, which was designated for a museum. It measured 121’ long, 36’ wide and had an arched ceiling 12’ on the side and running up considerably higher in the center. It too was beautifully lighted, having 21 windows. The school already had a rare collection of mostly East Tennessee historical relics making it apparent that this area would become one of the most interesting and outstanding features of anything on campus.

The new library contained a large fireproof vault, a number of spacious classrooms and a librarian’s office with telephone connection to various parts of the building. There was also a small assembly room for various activities.

The beautiful new library was deemed to be a living memorial to Dr. C.C. Sherrod, the school’s beloved president who spent much time visiting library buildings on other campuses and working closely with the architects before the final plan was approved. 

The building itself was incombustible, being of concrete, brick and stone structure with matching fumed oak finish furniture. The floors were terrazzo and concrete overlaid with rubber tile and battleship linoleum, making it essentially noise proof. There was shelving space for 130,000 volumes with meeting space to accommodate 300 students. The cost of the building was approximately $150,000.

Through the efficient and untiring efforts of the two librarians and the ever-progressive president, the library became the outstanding feature on campus for aiding knowledge-seeking students on a journey to a higher and better education. 

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When I was about 10 years old, my friends and I often walked from our Henry Johnson School neighborhood on the west side of town along Market Street to the downtown district. We occasionally stopped at Fire Station #4 adjacent to the Leon Ferenbach plant to chat with our fire fighting heroes. These courageous men took time to befriend us rather than shoo us away as pests (which we were).

During one visit, we met a young nice looking fireman, whose name I would later learn was Clarence Eades. I believe he worked at the Walnut Street station. Over the years, I followed his climb up the advancement ladder to driver, captain, assistant chief and fire training instructor for the Vocational School before being named to the top job. He succeeded Ed Seaton in 1972 and held that position for 13 years.

Clarence’s accolades included being appointed by Governor Winfield Dunn to the state’s first Commission on Firefighting Personnel Standards and Education in 1974, honored as the “Most Dedicated City Employee” in 1975, established the local Public Safety Officer Program and had the public safety station at the corner of Cherokee Road and University Parkway named for him in 1980.

On the occasion of his retirement on December 14, 1985, Robin Cochran, a Johnson City Press-Chronicle staff writer, interviewed the fire chief concerning his thoughts on retirement after a highly successful 44-year career. “One of the hardest things for me to do is every time that the telephone rings at home, I expect the worst,” he said. “They call me when there’s a problem.”

The Bristol native was emphatic that he would remain in touch with his profession that occupied a major part of his life for more than four decades. “If you spend two-thirds of your life in it, you’re bound to miss it,” he said.

Eades began his career with the department as a volunteer for several months before being hired as a fireman. In the 1920s, his father worked as a volunteer fireman in the city. “I guess (watching my father) running to fires rubbed off on me,” said Clarence.

During Eades’ tenure with the fire department, he saw it become fully equipped. When he was a young fireman, the department’s trucks carried about 65 gallons of water as compared to the 750-gallon newer ones. “We didn’t have masks and you were lucky if you could find a helmet to wear,” he said. He firmly believed that before he left, Johnson City was as well equipped as any in the country.

Framed and hanging on the wall of Eades’ office were two signs that epitomized his life: “A great deal of talent is lost in this world from the want of a little courage.” “The men who try to do something and fail are infinitely better than those who try to do nothing and succeed.” He said that he always tried to keep these two things in mind as he performed his job.

Eades had plenty of ideas about what he would do with his retirement time. He hoped to continue working with area volunteer fire departments, something he had done for years. “I thank the world of volunteer firemen for the dedication and loyalty they have to the community,” he said. “I admire them. I hope to be able to get in more time working with them after I retire.

Although Eades enjoyed his career in firefighting, he said he might have missed his calling by not being a truck driver. “I can get behind the wheel and drive and drive,” he said. But unlike the routes truck drivers travel, Eades preferred not to drive on the main highways.

Clarence Eads was granted a little over seven years to accomplish his retirement aspirations. Although the former fire chief passed away on Feb. 14, 1992 at age 72, he left behind a rich heritage to the city.  

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