November 2011

Drivers motoring along West G Street in Elizabethton encounter a unique memorial situated on a small hill at the intersection with Monument Place, just a short driving distance from Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. While some people scarcely give the century-old structure a passing glance, others are vividly aware that it symbolizes an epic event that significantly shaped our country’s history.

The Sycamore Shoals Memorial was installed in late October 1909 when the area around it was an expansive field. It commemorates the Overmountain Men’s march from that spot on September 25, 1780 across the mountain to join up with fellow patriots and continue toward King’s Mountain, South Carolina. Their mission was to engage in combat with British commander, Major Patrick Ferguson, who greatly underestimated the determination of the rugged mountaineers.

Historians credit the skirmish, which resulted in the death of Ferguson and many of his British Loyalist troops, with turning the tide of the Revolutionary War. It ultimately brought independence to the country. 

The marker was erected through the dedicated efforts of three chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution: John Sevier (Johnson City), Sycamore Shoals (Bristol) and Bonnie Kate (Knoxville). The monument was constructed on an Indian mound that was located on the farm of Mrs. J.C. Thomas, who donated the land.

The final design called for a 13-foot tall shrine that was triangular in shape, having a base four feet high that was made of Tennessee white marble. It had columns on each end and a vertical shaft nine feet high that consisted of river rock embedded in cement. The rock was selected from the Watauga River.

The inscriptions on the three sides of the base contained the words: “1780-1909. John Sevier, Bonnie Kate and Sycamore Shoals Chapters, D.A.R. The Sword of the Lord and Gideon.” / ''Fort Watauga, First Settlers Fort Built West of the Alleghenies 1770.” / “Here was negotiated the treaty of Sycamore Shoals, under which Transylvania was acquired from the Cherokees, March 19. 1775.” A bronze tablet on the shaft bore the inscription: “In memory of the Patriots who met here Sept. 25, 1780 on their way to King’s Mountain under Campbell, Shelby and Sevier.”

Dedication of the monument was announced to the public for October 7, 1909, but setbacks caused it to be delayed until June 14, 1910. The historic occasion brought into the valley of East Tennessee some 3000 people from Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama and other southern states. Special trains had to be run from towns and cities in East Tennessee in order to transport the multitude of travelers.

A party of young men, dressed in pioneer garb, arrived from nearby towns representing the original Overmountain Men who once assembled there to formulate a route and battle plan to take down Ferguson and his men.

The Rev. Osborne of Johnson City opened the ceremonies with prayer. Afterward, while a choir of 1000 voices sang “America,” three youths, who were descendants of the three generals who led the valiant pioneers across the mountains, unveiled the monument. The lads (and the commander they represented) were Robert Asher Gray of Bristol (Colonel William Campbell), Carter Crymble (Colonel John Sevier) and Evan Shelby, Jr. of Memphis (Colonel Isaac Shelby).

Three regents (and the chapter they represented) were Mrs. J. H. McCue (Sycamore Shoals), Miss Mamie Arnell (John Sevier) and Mrs. Joseph W. Sneed (Bonnie Kate). Each gave a brief talk. Reverend David A. Carter of San Antonio, Texas, a great-great grandson of John Sevier, offered another speech. Mrs. Edward Pearson Moses of the Bonnie Kate Chapter followed Dr. Carter and read an original poem entitled, “Ode to Tennessee.” Shelby Thomas and Margaret Robertson, both descendants of William Campbell and Samuel Doak (who prayed for the soldiers prior to their departure for King's Mountain), were also present. The Bristol Military Band next played, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

United States Senator and former governor Robert L. Taylor, who was born in close proximity of the monument site, was the orator of the occasion and, as expected, delivered a powerful address in which he reviewed the story of the early struggles and the men whose efforts collectively counted for much credit in bringing independence to the nation. The ceremony concluded with the band playing a rousing rendition of “Dixie.”

The John Sevier Chapter of the DAR is credited for not only aiding in the erection of the stone monument but also for working with CC&O Railroad personnel to provide a number of substantial history makers along the route taken by the Overmountain Men.

The Sycamore Shoals Monument is worthy of attention by the public. Residents are encouraged to stop at the unpretentious monument, which is starting to show its age, take some photos and savor the two important pieces of local history that occurred in 1780 and 1910.  

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Louis Feathers, an occasional contributor to my column, is particularly proud of the fact that he is a fifth cousin to Herman Michael Hickman and William Beattie Feathers, two former University of Tennessee football standouts. Anybody knowledgeable of Big Orange football is familiar with the two names. Louis wrote about them in his 195-page autobiography.

Herman Hickman (left) and Beattie Feathers

Hickman was born on October 1, 1911 in Johnson City. His parents, Herman M. and Ossie Feathers Hickman, lived on W. Unaka and later moved to Highland Avenue. Both athletes played on early 1930s teams that were coached by Robert Neyland for whom the stadium is named. The two of them were on the 1930 squad that won nine games and lost one, remarkably outscoring their opponents 209 to 31. Both athletes were named All-Conference and All-America.

According to Louis, “Hickman was a lineman (guard) who gained fame in sports as well as other fields. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and made All-America in his senior year at the age of 19, making him one of the youngest to attain the honor. He played three years for the Brooklyn Dodgers (football) and was a professional wrestler, known as the “Tennessee Terror.”

After serving as an assistant football coach at North Carolina State and Wake Forest, the 300-pound “Friar Tuck” appearing athlete was hired as line coach for Army in the mid 1940s, the days of Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard (known as Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside). The Army team won three National Championships during this period.

In 1948, Herman became Head Coach at Yale before retiring in 1951. Grantland Rice, a noted sports writer of the time, called him the best guard in football history. Because of his keen intellect and outgoing personality, he became a panelist on “Celebrity Time,” a popular television game show in the 1950s and “The Herman Hickman Show,” a 15-minute sports program. Later, he developed into a public speaker. Louis said he was privileged to hear him speak at a General Electric function in Cincinnati. The football great next turned to writing, which included a column, “Herman’s Hunches,” for Sports Illustrated and a book, The Herman Hickman Reader. The “Terror” died in 1958 at the age of 47.

Feathers next turned the subject to Beattie Feathers who lived in Bristol, Virginia. He played football in an era when team members played both offense and defense. His main position was as a triple-threat halfback, meaning he could run, pass or punt. In 1933, his senior year, he was named All-American. The following year, he joined the Chicago Bears where he became the first NFL player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. He amassed 1,004 yards in 101 carries, averaging nearly 10 yards per carry, while missing two games during the season. In 1938-39, he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers NFL team. A year later, which was his last season, he played for the Green Bay Packers. 

Louis further added, “Beattie was later inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, which is apparently different from the NFL Hall of Fame at Canton, Ohio. Years later, he coached football and baseball.”

Finally, Feathers commented on the Vol skipper, General Neyland, a 1916 graduate of West Point and career army officer. He came to the University of Tennessee in 1925 as Professor of Military Science and Tactics of the ROTC Unit and also served as the Assistant Coach of the football Team. In 1935, the Army sent him to Panama and a year later he retired from the Army and returned to UT as football coach. Except for the war years, Neyland remained as that position through the 1952 season when he was made Athletic Director at U.T. His overall record at the school was an amazing 173 wins, 31 losses and 12 ties. He had bragging rights to six SEC and four national championships.

A trip to Neyland Stadium is a constant reminder of this great coach from the annals of yesteryear. 

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Today’s column contains seven responses from Press readers. Several contain requests for information.

I received a photo of a dance band from about 1946 from an anonymous person who identified some of the musicians: Front row, l to r: Phil West (clarinet and tenor sax), Buddy Beasley (tenor sax), (unknown 1) and Patty Smithdeal (alto sax). Middle row: (unknown 2), Ruth Barr (trumpet), (unknown 3) and (unknown 4). Back row- Gene “Fergie” Young and (unknown 5. The photo was likely taken at the Franklin Club in Elizabethton. Who was JB?

Frank Campbell sent me a postcard of the Beverly Court and Coffee Shop that was once located at N. Roan and Sunset Drive. He found three cards in the building that once housed the motel. The card says, “25 units, tub and shower. Tile baths, radios, fans, steam and electric heat. Phone 2166 and 9175.”  

West’s July 4, 2004 obituary notice stated that he was oboist, arranger and Professor Emeritus of the Eastman School of Music and served as artist/faculty member of the Aspen Music Festival. His wife, violinist Carole Cowan, survived him. His first wife was the late mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani. To say the least, he had an impressive career.

Thomas Beckner, a Science Hill classmate of mine and whose family operated the successful Beckner’s Jewelers at 232 E. Main for many years, commented that growing up in Johnson City when we did was really great. “I used to walk to Junior High School from our house at 914 Holston Avenue,” he said. “It took about 30 minutes and along the way I would join up with Bill Wood and some other guys. Then we would walk home in the afternoon.

“I recall how vibrant the downtown area was in our day. Do you recall the first Kristal-type hamburger place in Johnson City? It was across from the old Hamilton Bank building on E. Main Street. I think they were five or ten cent each. I can still recall the smell of the place.” 

Bill Cooper noted that his son came home from a used bookstore with an original oil painting that was stamped, “A Prof. Kingfish Creation.” The backer board for the painting had a date of 1967. He commented on my article that said the Professor (Bill Marrs) adopted a hobby of painting and photographing areas of East Tennessee following a heart attack. Cooper was wondering if the painting is a “collectible.” It is nice to know that Bill’s paintings can still be found.

Richard Howie wrote that he had two great uncles, Louis M. Lecka and Charles M. Lecka who were brothers who lived in Johnson City. They were both from Albania. Their parents were Michael and Katkerin Michell Lecka. Louis owned a restaurant at 104 Fountain Square during the 1920's to the 1950s.  Not residing in Johnson City, Richard was clueless about where Fountain Square was located until finding out that it was the center of town on the railroad. Another location that interested him was 111 Spring Street, which housed the Sanitary Barber Shop. 

Frank Santore, Jr. asked me if I would do a story on Ed Carter, the popular former WJHL television newsman. He later moved to Columbia, SC where he became equally well liked over WIS-TV, the NBC affiliate, as their primary anchorman between 1972 and 1998. I chatted with Ed several years ago after a chance meeting with him in Columbia’s main downtown library. 

Bill Perham asked for information about the Publix grocery stores in the area. Soon after moving here about 10 years ago, he noticed a warehouse downtown with a faded “PUBLIX” painted on it.  He asked several people about it, but was unable to get much information. Bill said he was a big fan of the Publix Grocery chain, which originally started in Florida.

If you have information to share about any of these subjects, please pass it along for future columns. My e-mail address is on the home page.

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In September 1922, exciting news went out in the Johnson City Daily News that the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was coming to Johnson City’s circus ground, the big rectangular lot located between E. Main and E. Market streets where the city municipal building is now located. Seventeen tents of various sizes were erected for the “amusement of the public and convenience of the employees.”

The circus was advertised as having the “longest and most magnificent parade in amusement history shown free upon the streets.” Mr. Hagenbeck was known as “Animal King” while his business partner, Mr. Wallace, was dubbed “Circus King.” The circus became famous for its beautiful thoroughbred horses with hundreds of highly trained, blue-blooded equines.

At 9:30 a.m. on a Friday, a bugle was sounded to begin assembling the parade. The newspaper writer was amazed that with so much hustle and bustle everything was orderly with absolutely no confusion. Every worker in the vast circus machine knew what had to be done and when it was needed. Everything was there including the gorgeously clad feminine outriders, the wonderful band wagons ablaze with scarlet, gold, green and silver colors, and numerous ridiculously clad clowns in their donkey carts “fussing” with the many youngsters that surrounded them. Several highly decorated cages of animals had the sides partially removed to give the audience glimpses of the little furry creatures moving restlessly inside. This was a carefully designed ploy to arouse the curiosity of the crowd and make them want to inspect the contents of the other cages.

The elephants, positioned in their proper places, marched along with majestic stride and ponderous poise. This was in contrast to the frightened horses by their sides and the ambling camels that lagged behind them. Sitting on the numerous wagons and chariots in the parade were performers who were decked out in their brightly colored regalia somewhat oblivious to the horde of spectators.

The spotted gray horses that were drawing the wagons pranced along proudly seemingly conscious of their shining leather and gleaming brass and gold. Four bands were evenly positioned in the parade so as to produce a continuous fanfare from appreciative bystanders. Some folks were seen rubbing tears from their eyes because the spectacle was “reminiscent of the good old days.”

Next came an array of trained wild cats, upon which the fame of the show was founded; striking equestriennes in arrogant raiment; and breathtaking acrobatic groups tumbling like a cascade. At the circus grounds, numerous aerial stars kept the lofty canvas dome alive with activity along with a corps of clowns whose sole mission was to keep the crowd in stitches.

Among the many circus celebrities in the show that year were the Davenport Troupe of equestriennes; the John Helliott wild animal acts; and the Wallace troupe of performing horses, one of which was Porter, the world’s highest jumping horse and Maid of the Mist, a riderless horse that jumped for the fun of it. Others were Mesdames Alma Wood and Marion Drew, presenting a herd of trained elephants; the Stokes and Brock troupe of aerialists; the two flexible Nicholsins; and the Riding Crandals consisting of 60 Japanese jugglers and a Chinese troupe of acrobats.

And estimated crowd of 5,000 persons was in attendance at the 2:00 p.m. performance; the night show started at 8:00 p.m. The doors were open an hour before and after each show to allow attendees to leisurely tour the menagerie.

The organization was formed in 1907 when Ben Wallace purchased the Carl Hagenbeck Circus and merged it with his show to form the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. Things went well until the Great Depression caused the circus to suffer financially, forcing it to close its doors in 1938. 

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On July 11, 1910, every business in Johnson City respectfully closed its doors until after the funeral of one of the city’s most beloved citizens. Congressman Walter Preston Brownlow, a nephew of the controversial William Gunnaway “Parson” Brownlow, died two days earlier at the city’s National Soldiers' Home hospital after a lingering illness.

The politician was instrumental in bringing the sprawling VA military complex to the city that opened in 1903. To honor the congressman’s momentous achievement, the city had a bronze statue fabricated, affectionately known as the “Lady of the Fountain,” and erected it on Fountain Square about 1904.

Mayor James Summers and other officials made the presentation on behalf of the city. The statue remained on the square until 1937 when it was relocated to Roosevelt Stadium. Eventually, it was sold and moved to North Carolina where it adorned a flower garden until 1983 when it was returned to the city. In April 2011, a replica of the statue was erected on Fountain Square.

Walter Brownlow was born in 1851 in Abington, Virginia. After his father died, he was forced to quit school at age 10 to earn a living. Over the years, he served as a tinner’s apprentice, locomotive engineer, reporter for the Knoxville Whig and Chronicle and owner of Jonesboro’s Herald and Tribune, a Republican newspaper.

Representative Brownlow, who served Tennessee’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1896 until 1910, completed seven terms in succession and was nominated for an eighth one. He surpassed other southern congressmen in appropriation achievements for his district, which totaled in the millions of dollars.

In 1881, Brownlow was appointed postmaster at Jonesboro, but resigned before the end of the year to become doorkeeper of the National House of Representatives of the 47thCongress. Following the building of Soldiers' Home, he was elected a member of its board of governors. He was twice the Republican nominee for United States Senator. In 1908, he was elected a member of National Congressional Committee. His initial term in Washington was in the 55thCongress.

Brownlow’s health declined in December 1909 after he was diagnosed with a kidney disorder known as Bright’s Disease. In spite of treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, his situation worsened and by May 1910 he was critically ill. He lingered several weeks before collapsing into a comatose state for three days with uremia poisoning. His death at age 59 came on July 9. Brownlow left behind a wife, five children and an estate valued at $250,000.

The funeral service was held at Memorial Hall at the Home. Six United States senators were in attendance including James Frazier and “Our Bob” Taylor of Tennessee. The memorial ceremony was conducted by the Reverend J.A. Ruble, chaplain of the home, and assisted by Reverend J.A. Osborne, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Pallbearers, selected from the deceased’s special friends, were Samuel C. Williams, J.W. Howard, Eli A. Warren, Frank L. Britton, J.M. Fink and G.T. Wofford.

After a simple funeral service, Brownlow was buried at “The Circle” at the Home. The body was laid to rest on a scenic knoll overlooking the magnificent $2.5 million dollar facility.

History tells us that few men in public life met more obstacles and handled them more courageously than Mr. Brownlow. Although his career began in obscurity without the advantage of a college education, young Walter firmly grasped the reins of life and demonstrated in a striking way the vast possibilities that lie before self-motivated American youth. 

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