June 2012

An advertisement from a July 1927 Johnson City Staff-News told of the “Famous Paul English Players,” known as “The Show with a Million Friends,” coming to the city, performing in “the finest equipped tent theatre in America. 

The show site was located on the “regular show grounds” next to the Arcade Building (an early indoor mall at 133-135 W. Market Street that extended from Market to Main with shops lined on both sides and upstairs). A 1923 City Directory reveals a vacant lot at 137 W. Market, which is likely where the tent resided. The program was under the auspices of the Moose Lodge (135.5 W. Main Street).

The Paul English Players, a 45-person group of quality actors, offered a new performance each night. People who enjoyed the show one night could return the next and see a different one.

I located two old advertisements in Billboard Magazine. The first was dated September 11, 1920: “Wanted quick by the Paul English Players. Emotional leading woman, not under 5 feet, 5 inches, not over 140 pounds. Must be A-l. Good study and wardrobe. Will pay transportation on show to right party. Wire. Can use good heavy.”

The second one was dated November 25, 1922: “Wanted for the Paul English Players, Kempner Theatre, Little Rock, Arkansas, Piano player with library, to double baritone, tuba, cornet or e-flat clarinet. Also, comedian capable of being featured in stock and repertoire. Wire quick.”

According to the 1927 Johnson City flyer, the show was titled, “Some Baby” and described as being a comedy “direct from a metropolitan run.” To add variety, Paul English employed big time vaudeville performers between acts of first class plays. One group, the Florida Ramblers from Miami Beach, was known as “The South’s Peppiest Musical Organization.”

Patrons had the option of standing in line to buy tickets at the tent or purchasing them at Savoy Drug Store (201 E. Main Street). Doors opened at 7 p.m. with performances beginning at 8:20. Tickets cost 40 cents for adults, 20 cents for children and 20 cents for reserved seats. A special ticket was printed in the newspaper allowing ladies to be admitted free on Monday night when accompanied by a paid adult.

Paul English, as talented as his troupe was, had the good fortune of touring with the legendary Jimmie Rodgers, who became known as “The Father of Country Music,” “The Singing Brakeman” and “The Blue Yodeler.” The singer was riding a whirlwind of success at the time.

Two years prior to English’s coming to Johnson City, he and Rodgers toured together in tent shows that included performances in Alabama and Mississippi. When Rodgers completed his travel of the circuit in December 1928, he joined the Paul English Players, working out of Mobile, Alabama. The employment of a name attraction for limited engagements was said to be something new in tent shows. Rodgers’ appearances significantly increased attendance.

The Paul English Players repeatedly received high marks for their productions and played all over the country before packed audiences. Some of the plays they performed were “The Country Boy,” “While the City Sleeps,” “Which One Shall I Marry?” and “The Girl He Couldn’t Buy.”

Paul English received a good deal of praise for his group’s performances. Large attendance at his plays illustrated the paying public’s desire to keep spoken drama alive, especially when directed by its capable leader. English was credited for acquiring “a most charming and highly qualified special company of players that were able to present high-class plays.”

Paul owned a special train, which he used to carry his vast paraphernalia from city to city. When he came to a locale, he brought quality backdrops with him instead of cheap ones used by lesser-known groups.

After a week’s performances that began on Monday, July 4, the group departed for its next engagement. Tent repertoire shows ran a very successful gamut from 1917 to 1930.

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Ken Riddle has glowing comments about Mary Hardin McCown in “The Cy Crumley Scrapbook, ET&WNC Railroad Historical Photo Collection,” Archives of Appalachia, ETSU). McCown, whose father, George W. Harden, was superintendent of the famed railroad, was the “grande dame of Johnson City and an expert of the narrow gauge railroad’s history.”

“Mary was a real dear old girl,” said Ken, “and was honestly the standard bearer of a lot of the history of the area for many years, when history was not so cool. She adored her dad, had a quick smile and possessed a charming persona, especially when she was talking about Cranberry, the railroad, or her daddy.”

(1908 photo of George Hardin (left, father of Mary Hardin McCown and superintendent of the ET&WNC Railroad) and Rev. J.E. Crouch (Johnson City Christian Church minister) standing in front of Tweetsie Engine 8.  (Photo courtesy of the Cy Crumley Collection, Archives of Appalachia.)


(Mary Hardin McCown from 1980.She is standing in her apartment at the Appalachian Christian Village holding what she identified as a miner's torch from the Cranberry mines. (Photo Courtesy of the Cy Crumley Scrapbook Collection, Archives of Appalachia).  

The noted historian once issued a 3-page condensed documentation of her tremendous knowledge of the area’s history, titling it “Johnson City’s ‘Firsts.’” It offers a succinct description of important happenings in the city. I captured some excerpts from her work:

1772-1792: What is now Johnson City was located originally on grants of 50 shillings for 100 acres from the State of North Carolina, “along the waters of Brush Creek.” The earliest settlers were Robert Young (to the west), David Jobe (midtown who purchased the Joseph Young land) and Jacob Hoss (to the east who acquired the Joseph Young land).

Sep. 2, 1811: Most likely, the first name on record was that of “Brush Creek Settlement.” James Nelson whose father, William Nelson, owned land to the west of Robert Young, gave “4 acres 8 poles” on Brush Creek to the Methodist Society for educational and church purposes. Here was built the Brush Creek Campground, which functioned for more than half a century.

Mar. 3, 1813: A group petitioned the court to build a road that would connect to one located at Dugan’s Ford on the Watauga River that ran between Elizabethton and Blountville. It was considered to be the best route to the Salt Works in Virginia for the Brush Creek settlers.

Feb. 24, 1832: The first area post office listed was at Green Meadows with Joseph L. Burtz as postmaster. It was located about two miles west of town close to the Robert Young log cabin. It was discontinued in 1853.

Jun. 7, 1849: The Blue Plum post office opened to the east about two miles toward Carter County. Johnson was selected as the first postmaster until John H. Bowman eventually replaced him. The office closed in 1859.

1857-58: With the advent of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad through town, Henry Johnson moved westward after buying half an acre from Abraham Jobe.

Jul. 10, 1857: Johnson’s Depot appeared with Henry Johnson as postmaster. Tipton Jobe, both nephew and son-in-law of Abraham Jobe, sold land to the railroad for a depot, which included other necessary sites for one dollar.

Oct. 8, 1859: The name of the post office was changed to Haynesville in honor of Landon Carter Haynes, the Confederate senator who lived just south of town.

Apr. 8, 1861: The name, Haynesville, was changed back to Johnson’s Depot.

About 1864: A school was held in a house on Rome Hill (later known as Roan Hill), but was later moved to a site near the Brush Creek Campground and the big spring there.

Mar. 9, 1865: Johnson’s Depot was permanently renamed Johnson City.

1866: The Science Hill Literary Society was organized, composed of a group of young men who met for debates.

Feb. 14, 1867: After a decision was made to build a school, the hill above Nobb Spring was selected. Tipton Jobe donated two acres and 56 perches of land. At this spot, the Science Hill Male and Female Institute was built from brick that was burned on the site and laid by local labor.

Oct. 27, 1867: The Institute was dedicated with Embree Hoss and Bishop Hoss as speakers. It opened on Aug. 24, 1868 with Reverend John B. Pence serving as principal.

Dec. 1, 1869: Johnson City was first incorporated with Daniel W. Crumley as mayor. The city limits were within a radius of a half-mile from the downtown depot.

1871: A group headed by Colonel Robert Love, Elijah Simerly, W.M. Taylor and others built the first hotel in the city. It was a 3-story frame building with 40 rooms standing on the side of the railroad between the Public Square and Wilson Avenue. The contractor was Henry Hoss Crouch.

Mar. 7, 1879: The State Legislature revoked Johnson City’s charter, but reincorporated it on March 25 with Colonel S.H. Yokum chosen as mayor.

Jun. 15, 1881: The Tennessee Legislature first chartered the ET&WNC as a broad gauge road, but difficulties were encountered causing the broad gauge idea to be abandoned. Instead, the railroad was built as a narrow gauge road, with the first train going through to Cranberry, NC on that date. After a long and colorful run, the line was discontinued for through service in June 1960.

1886: The downtown high school was leased to Johnson City for five years. About 1902, the school was again leased to the city, but this time for 99 years for use as Science Hill High School. It remained a high school until 1961 when it became South Junior High.

Sep. 5, 1911: East Tennessee State Normal School was built on land donated by George L. Carver, president of the Carolina and Clinchfield Railroad. It opened in 1911 with Dr. Philander P. Claxton as speaker. The school later became East Tennessee State College and finally East Tennessee State University.

1901: Congressman Walter P. Brownlow was instrumental in establishing the Mountain Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. About 475 acres aimed at providing domiciliary and hospital facilities were purchased from the Lyle and other families.

1903: The first hospital facility in Johnson City was a small private one established by Dr. William J. Matthews. It was housed in the Carlistle Hotel (a brick building that became known as the Franklin Apartments at the corner of E. Main and Division streets). 

Mrs. McCown’s time capsule summary certainly offers a convenient resource of important dates in Johnson City’s colorful history.

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WJSO-AM stories continue to drift into my mailbox. Don Sluder, who became employed at the station on December 1, 1958, within two months of the station’s sign-on, said he enjoyed the two recent Press articles from Don Dale and Ray Stockard on the subject. Don indicated that there was so much that could be said about WJSO that helped cause a revolution in the way a radio station was formatted. 

(The WJSO “Bad Guys” (l to r): Don Dale, Norm Davis, Ray Stockard, Bill Seaver (Jackie London) and Stan Scott attempt to push the station's Chevrolet van.)

“Bob Mattox and I worked the morning shift,” said Sluder. “Seeing the picture you used with the trashcan in the air reminded me of a humorous incident. Bob called me one morning and said that there was something alive in the control room trashcan. It was filled with Teletype paper and I discovered a mouse had made a nice nest and had a large number of little hairless babies. When Bob finished his shift he took the trashcan out and dumped it. Watching Bob run as mother and all the little ones scattered in every direction was hilarious.”

Don related another funny account concerning Bill Bachman who was the station manager at the time. He was an old radioman but was a little rusty with his announcing skills. He was pressed into service one morning to deliver a newscast. As was normal back then, they did a rip and then read the latest five-minute newscast to come across the wire. There was very little preparation time. In Bill’s search for news, he came across a story about a famous actor who had died. He became very serious since this was his final story before doing the weather. Although Don could not remember the actor’s name, he recollected what he said over the air: “Mr. (name) has died; he was 76 degrees.”

“Another tale,” said Don, “involved my doing a five-minute newscast in a small booth facing the control room. My first story had a Johnson City byline and concerned a lady who discovered what she thought was an alligator in her rose garden. There was something about the way it was written that I thought was funny. I began laughing uncontrollably during the entire newscast. My next story concerned a plane crash that killed several people. Yep, I laughed through that one also and on through to the weather. The control room announcer was laughing so hard he didn't think to turn me off and start a record playing.”

While in the same booth but during a different newscast, Bob was to start Don’s first record after the news, which would start his air shift. When he finished the news, he realized that Bob was not in the control room; therefore he proceeded to make his way to start a record. This, of course, was a distraction and led to some dead air space, something that was unthinkable by radio stations. The reason for the blunder was that Bob forgot that Don had left the studio to go up the highway to a store to get some snacks.

“I still keep up with Bob Mattox,” said Shuler, “I talked to Stockard and Norm Davis recently. Ray was still a student at ETSU when he came to the station and worked weekends.

“WJSO had unbelievable power and reach in the surrounding area. The staff regularly received mail from listeners in Knoxville who tuned in every day. When they received permission for an early sign-on, I was working the early shift in Sumter, South Carolina. Bob and I would continue our morning banter by phone until time for me to sign our station on the air.

“I have many fond memories of that time in my career,” said the former announcer. “Our big competition was the duo team of Merrill Moore and Joe Goodpasture, who had a dialog over WETB-AM in Johnson City that was known as ‘The Joe and Mo Show.’ He and Merrill worked together several years later at Channel 5 in Bristol.”

Don concluded his note by saying, “I thought you might like to know what WJSO was like in the real early days.”

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The late Sue Carr Eckstein once shared with me a massive scrapbook that had belonged to her father, Paul Carr. She also gave me a photograph of Carr Brothers employees that accompanies this column. My research dates the photo to about 1922. The business, owned by brothers, Paul and Sam Carr, was located at Oak and Millard streets. Earlier publications list it at First Avenue and Millard Street, but that was before Oak Street was renamed from its former Carnegie street designation. 

My grandpa, Earl B. Cox, is shown in the second row in the center (hatless and wearing a suit). Paul Carr is on the front row, fourth from the left. For years, the owners gave their employees a $20 gold piece as a Christmas gift. Another present for men was a necktie. I have one of the latter that is permanently retired and resting comfortably in my closet.

City directories provide a glimpse of the business, which began operation about 1910 as a coal supplier. Three years later, its product line was expanded to include fuel wood, ice and lumber. By 1915, the firm had dropped wood.

Circa 1922, a representative from the Utica Heater Company of New York came to Johnson City at the invitation of the Carr brothers to promote their highly publicized “Super-Smokeless Furnace.” The public was invited to attend a demonstration of it on a W. Market Street vacant lot that was adjacent the old Arcade Building. The space was frequently used during the city’s early years for numerous open air and tent performances. 

According to the agent: “The Utica furnace consumes all gases and volatile matter that would ordinarily escape in the form of smoke by combining them with air heated to about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. No smoke comes from the furnace and the available heat emitting from the coal is increased about 60 percent, ensuring absolute cleanliness and a 25-30 percent reduction in coal consumption.”

By 1928, the company had stopped selling ice and was promoting “lumber, building materials and coal.”

A full-page flyer from a 1930 Johnson City Chronicle and Staff-News stated: “Carr Brothers – Home Builders – Wholesale and Retail Dealers in Lumber, Building Material and Coal – Price Quality and Service Have Built the Business into One of the Largest in Its Line in the Entire Appalachian Section of Tennessee and Virginia.”

The workforce that year included Paul Carr  (general manager), Sam Carr (assistant manager), Earl B. Cox (collection, salesman), Ralph B. Carr (salesman), H.G. Taylor (salesman), J.F. Venable (salesman), C.G. Taylor (collection, salesman), Guy S. Carr (real estate, rental), W.P. Crowley (real estate, rental), N.K. Humphrey (shop superintendent), Paul Emmert (bookkeeper), Mrs. R.O. Wilcox (assistant bookkeeper), Mrs. Ana Eakin (stenographer), Miss Edna Gobble (shipping) and Phil Carr (messenger).

A 1941 brochure gave the company’s address as Oak Street at the Southern Railroad tracks, although the actual location was unchanged. The railroad conveniently ran in close proximity to their property, which is likely why they purchased this parcel of land.

In 1948, the management team consisted of Paul Carr (president/treasurer), Sam Carr (vice president/secretary) and Phil Carr (vice president). By then, the business was more descriptive: paint, lumber, roofing, lime, plaster, cement and coal. Several large coal yards and warehouses occupied the property. Also, three next generation of Carr brothers had made their way into the business world occupying executive positions at 7 Up Bottling Company: Guy (president), Ralph (vice president/treasurer) and Phil (secretary, in addition to his Carr Brothers position). 

Around 1963, Carr Brothers closed its doors forever, having completed a 53-year successful downtown run. If anyone can identify the other personnel in my column photo, please send me a note.

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