August 2012

I have fond remembrances of patronizing several “mom and pop” grocery stores in Johnson City during my youth. The earliest one I recall was the Red Store in the late 1940s (Bert Weems, later W. Howard Stewart, located on W. Market at W. Watauga).

Others included Ford Wilson Grocery (Ford and Verna Wilson, Elm Street, delivered groceries to our apartment in the 1940s), West Side Grocery (Carroll and Nettie Younce, two of my favorite people, W. Market at Knob Creek Road), Fox Grocery (Henry and Louise Fox, Knob Creek Road near Peachtree), Bailey and Son Grocery (Frates and Mary Bailey, Earnest Street, selling those wonderful orange sherbet and vanilla ice cream “pushups”) and Puckett’s Grocery (Jeff and Martha Puckett, Forest Avenue).

Today’s column spotlights Adams Grocery at 109 E. Main (Guy and Carrie Adams). I recall the store but do not remember going in it. Karen Roberts of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle interviewed the couple in October 1988.

The couple sold groceries in the front of their home and lived in the back. Three old store signs graced the entrance with each one having a different product displayed: Coca Cola, Farmbest and Pepsi. Vintage soda pop machines and an ice cream freezer stood next to the walls along the front and side while the other two were stocked high with canned goods. Two benches greeted patrons on the front porch, as did a Chevrolet truck, usually sitting under the carport, and a cat named Bill that roamed freely about the place.

Karen noted that big-name chain stores extinguished much of the smaller stores’ trade. However, the couple was the epitome of small struggling grocers from that time. In good and bad times spanning three decades, the Adams’ business philosophy of treating customers with respect was unwavering.

“If I ever mistreated anybody in my life,” said 87-year-old Carrie, “I don’t know it. That makes a big difference with customers. If you treat them nice, you can get along with the world. People came in the store as much for friendship as for food. Not many people come by anymore because the dirt road out front is now paved, carrying torrents of traffic. You can hardly get across the street now. Would you send your kid to the store in that traffic?” Karen readily understood what Carrie was talking bout because passing cars and trucks drowned out most of what she was saying.”

“Also hurting small business are large companies giving big stores hefty discounts,” said Carrie. “If you were starving to death,” you couldn’t get anything to eat at a big store. If anybody comes in here and says that they are hungry, we give them something to eat. It happens almost every week.”

Guy, Mrs. Adams husband of 70 years, added his two cents: “Sometimes people knock on our door at five o’clock in the morning. There is no certain time for us to get up or go to bed.” This presented no problems to the couple.

Mr. Adams, a former livestock dealer who was 90 years old at the time of the interview, was mostly a silent partner, except when he talked of his love for horses. Pointing to Keystone, a housing project down the street, Adams noted that it belonged to his family. “It was just a big cornfield. It’s the first winter I ain’t kept some horses out there, but if I live to warm weather, there will be horses in that lot.”

Mrs. Adams boasted of her ability to get along with people in a neighborhood that some people consider a bit rough. “I get along with the meanest boys in Keystone and that’s saying a lot. They are all good to us,” Mrs. Adams said. The subtle way Mrs. Adams handles a disagreement has led to an enduring marriage. She makes her point and abruptly leaves without any argument.

When the couple was asked if they would consider selling the store, Carrie responded that they would keep it open as long as they were physically able. They needed the income plus it was a part of their life and their home.

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 In 1948, Johnson City was Tennessee’s fifth largest city with a population of 31,508. “The Hub of Tennessee,” as it became known, had experienced a population growth since the turn of the century: 1900, 4,645; 1910, 8,502; 1920, 12,442; 1930, 25,000: and 1940, 25,322. In 1948, officials provided some remarkable statistics about the city. It had a trading population in excess of 250,000 within a radius of 25 miles. Retail sales two years prior hit $26.9M.

In addition to the general products were lumber, building material, hardware supplies, dress goods, groceries, machinery and other allied lines of merchandise. The city served as the favorite retail shopping locale for the vast and fast-growing area.

By 1948, Johnson City was served by three railroads: the Southern Mail Line from Washington to New Orleans, the Clinchfield main line and the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Three U.S. Highways 11E (East and West), 19 (North and South) and 23 (North and South) contributed to traffic flow through the city. Also present was a million dollar airport that was the first stop of American Airways’ southern route out of Washington, with four planes flying daily.

Advertisements from a 1948 City Directory

Johnson City was the most diversified trading center of East Tennessee and one of the leading industrial centers. Local industries included hardwood flooring, furniture, textiles, rayon yarn, hosiery, fabricated steel, foundry products, bobbins and other products. There were 30 industries employing 4000 people with an annual payroll of slightly under $5M dollars.

In addition to the general mercantile products were lumber, building material, hardware supplies, dress goods, groceries, machinery and other related lines of merchandise. Retail sales for 1946 were $26,900,000.

Johnson City’s terrain was rich with a wide variety of raw materials including hardwood lumber, agricultural products, clay, shale, feldspar, coal, limestone, acid woods, water, mica, manganese and other natural resources, all of which existed in a crude and undeveloped stage.

The city was likewise proud of its Mountain Branch of the Veterans Administration Facility for Disabled Veterans. The reservation contained 450 acres of land on which were 76 buildings. It had six miles of asphalt-paved roads, three miles of secondary roads and its own “white way.” The value of the buildings and plants was appraised at $3,511,276, exclusive of the worth of equipment, which amounted to $785,733 or a total value of $4,297,049. The replacement value was estimated at $15M. There were 556 hospital beds, 1,723 duty and non-duty beds, and 330 unofficial barracks beds, making a total of 2,609 units. About 5,000 disabled World War veterans were admitted each year.

Johnson City was well served by a “Class A” school system with a splendid education system. In addition, there was an excellent Junior High School on N. Roan Street. The city boasted of providing the home for East Tennessee State Teachers College that had an annual enrollment of approximately 1,500 students. Nearby Milligan College had an annual roster of approximately 400 students. The 48 churches dispersed throughout the city covered practically all denominations. By this time, most of them had large congregations and modern church structures.

The civic clubs of the city in 1948 included the Chamber of Commerce, Junior Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, Kiwanis, Optimist, Civitan, Business and Profession Women, Pilot, Monday, Merchants Credit Association, as well as numerous patriotic, educational and music organizations.

The city was served with daily newspapers, both owned by Press, Inc. The Johnson City Chronicle was delivered in the morning and the Johnson City Press was distributed in the afternoon. It was also the home of radio station WJHL, which had just recently increased to 1,000 watts and had become a part of the ABC national hook-up at 910 on the radio dial. Station WETB, Johnson City’s newest station, broadcast from sun-up to sundown at 790 kilocycles.

Johnson City was recognized as being one of the outstanding burley tobacco centers of the Appalachian region. Within a radius of 70 miles of Johnson City, there was annual production of approximately 40-million pounds of burley tobacco. The quality and type of tobacco was up to standard and annually competed favorably with other markets in price and volume sales. The city had seven spacious tobacco warehouses with a combined floor space of 450,000 square feet of floor space.

With two sets of buyers, Johnson City could easily double the pounds sold. Thousands of tobacco growers preferred selling their product in Johnson City. Johnson City, being such a diversified retail and wholesale trading center, had a great advantage to the farmer in buying the necessities of life because, according to one slogan, “You can get it in Johnson City.”

Top: Johnson City Livestock Market As It Appeared on Broadway Street; Bottom: Main Street Looking West. Charles Store Is On the Left, Penneys on the Right

By 1948, the city had fast become the livestock and agricultural center of East Tennessee with the opening of a new livestock market. This was brought about by its ever-increasing number of quality mules and horses, the quality of its beef and dairy cattle, its fast-growing lamb production and an increase in poultry products. Washington County was in the midst of a soil improvement program aimed to prevent land erosion, increase lime in the soil and expand red clover across the land. Washington County was believed to have an enviable future in agricultural and livestock advancement.

The opening of the Johnson City Livestock Market in 1948 provided the handling of more than a thousand head of livestock each Wednesday.

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 A vintage boarding house (a.k.a. a lodging house or rooming house) referred to a home where the owners rented one or more of their rooms to paying customers. Room and board typically meant lodging and food for the guests. Initially, boarders shared washing and toilet facilities, but later each room normally had its own amenities. Depending on arrangements made with the landlord, duration of stay at a facility varied from a few days to several weeks to a year or more.

Boarding houses are mentioned in literature that date back before the Victorian period. Renting a room rather than a home made good sense. Income from such an arrangement could significantly augment the owners’ revenue, although it added additional work and expense for the renter from regular meal preparation and housekeeping chores.

An examination of old city directories reveals that Johnson City had eight boarding houses in 1909: Mrs. Mattie Almany (206 W. Main), Mrs. Hanna Coleman (East Maple Extension), Mrs. Nannie Creasman (102 E. Walnut), William G. Day (107 W. Main), Mrs. Annie Fair (503 W. Walnut), Mrs. Nancy Pickering (505 Afton), Miss Cordie Range (107 E. Holston) and Mrs. Lou Sharitz (117 W. Walnut).

Within two years, the number had soared to 21: Arwood & Patterson (213-215 N. Railroad Avenue), Mrs. Maude Carroll (814 E. Fairview), W.H. Cressman (145 E. Market), Mrs. Rhonda Crumley (421 W. Pine), Mrs. S.C. Crumley (114 Jobe), Mrs. B.A. Dempsey (114 W. Pine), Mrs. Ellis Mollie (209 E. King); Mrs. Hannah Frizzell (E. Maple Extension), Ella Gentry (202 W. Market), Mrs. J.A. Greenfield (404 Montgomery), Mrs. M.C. Hess (215 Buffalo), Mrs. S.A. Lawson (122 W. Market), Mrs. Sarah E. Lusk (101 E. Myrtle), Mrs. Etta Martin (125 S. Railroad Avenue), Mrs. M.E. Osborne (402 E. Unaka), Mrs. Lou Sharitz (104 E. Walnut), J.W. Smith (113 W. Cherry), Mrs. Mary Stroup (129 E. Jobe), Charles Walters (116.5 W. Main) and Mrs. Cora Weilder (109 W. King).

The number varied over the years: 1915 (11), 1917 (10), 1919 (6), 1922 (8), 1923 (19), 1935 (9), 1937 (15), 1939 (18), 1941, (22), 1944 (4), 1948 (7), 1950 (18, 5 boarding houses and 13 furnished rooms). By then, “boarding houses” were beginning to be known as “furnished rooms.”

Major Hoople Cartoon Strip, Newspaper Enterprise Association, 1937

Many of my “Yesteryear” readers remember Major Hoople. “Our Boarding House,” a once highly popular newspaper cartoon strip, featured the antics of the unstable Major Amos Hoople and his unwavering faithful wife, Martha. She owned a boarding house that was comprised of an always-eccentric group of boarders.

The Major’s morbid fear of work caused him to be quite content to let his hard-working spouse handle the daily chores of the business while he lounged around home complaining or partied with his equally useless cronies. He routinely uttered whopping lies about his many accomplishments and get-rich-quick schemes. The overweight, balding buffoon displayed a bushy black mustache and always wore a fez. Some people compared him to the egotistic comedian W.C. Fields.

Hoople has been properly described as “the greatest windbag, stuffed shirt and blowhard ever to ‘hrumph’ or ‘egad’ his way across the funny pages.” The public loved him. The caricature, written and drawn initially by Gene Ahern, ran as a daily cartoon in hundreds of newspapers from 1921 until 1981. The series was geographically restricted because almost every scene occurred in the boarding house, usually showing the couple scowling at each other to no avail.

Although Ahern retired in 1953, the newspaper series continued in popularity for decades, eventually inspiring a short-lived radio show starring Arthur Q. Bryan (who previously played Dr. Gamble on the long running successful Fibber McGee and Molly radio show).

If you know of another city boarding house or remember one that I listed, drop me a note.

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On August 14, 1940, a devastating flood occurred in Elizabethton, brought about by a massive overflow of the mountain-fed Watauga River. The 24-hour torrential rain was the remnant of a 91-mph hurricane that, after pounding the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, took direct aim at East Tennessee. The Watauga, normally a peaceful mountain stream about 50 feet wide and only a few feet deep, rose to a staggering 26 to 30 feet and a quarter of a mile wide.

Workers, scampering about in total darkness, rescued persons desperately clinging to trees and housetops after the rising waters swept the Rio Vista region that was adjacent to the city, home to about 150 residents. Authorities began preparations for an orderly evacuation of as many residents as possible.

Mrs. Bob Shell, 54-year-old mother of seven children, became a victim after being trapped in an automobile with her husband and 83-year-old mother when they fled their engulfed home that was located beside the river. The flood also caused heavy property damage.

Sergeant Claude Buckles of the Tennessee Highway Patrol believed that a number of persons drowned as the stream caused the water to rise 20 feet between nightfall and midnight. Although the waters began to rapidly recede, it was daylight before an accurate death toll could be determined.

Don Calfee, managing editor of the Johnson City Chronicle, said he witnessed the bodies of two men being pulled from the water. The small community was adjacent to two large rayon plants, Bemberg and North American Rayon, which had become the hub of industry for this city of approximately 10,000 people.  W.S. Argabright, the telephone company manager, said a number of persons were marooned on house roofs as darkness handicapped rescue work.

To assist rescue efforts, a truckload of boats and additionallaw enforcement officers were rushed from nearby Johnson City. Deputy Sheriff Campbell said that every available man who could be located was deputized for relief duty and began patrolling the washed out section. 

Nearly half of the East Tennessee and western North Carolina mountain streams bulged from their banks after the downpours. Floods in western North Carolina wrought undetermined property damage to industries and dwellings, interrupted rail and motor traffic.

Asheville’s City Manager said that his city's 51,000 residents faced a major crisis unless repairs were made within 36 hours to three large water mains feeding the two city reservoirs. Workmen, reaching the intakes in the mountains 20 miles away, reported several hundred feet of one 24-inch main washed out and sections of two 18-inch ones broken.

The Swannanoa and French Broad rivers, converging at Asheville, swept out of their banks, forcing hundreds of residents from their homes. Heavy rains sent streams rising rapidly in the Piedmont section of South Carolina from Augusta, Georgia to the North Carolina line. Many highways were closed to traffic.

A young man from Denver, Colorado drowned when his boat plunged over a dam at Lake Eden into the Swannanoa River. Thousands of summer tourists were marooned at dozens of resorts when landslides halted east, west and northbound traffic over the Southern Railway. High water washed away bridges and covered highways in numerous areas.

After the water began receding here, flood warnings were issued for Kingsport on the Holston River 40 miles from Elizabethton and some 1,200 persons living on Long Island near the Tennessee Eastman plant were hastily evacuated.

After the disaster ended, North Carolina counted six deaths from drowning and landslides. Three more were reported near Galax, Virginia and Elizabethton had three. One fatality occurred when a woman died of a heart attack after learning that floodwaters were approaching her home.

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In March 1947, there were 57 cafes/restaurants within the posted limits of Johnson City (excluding those eateries in five and ten stores, drug stores and ice crème parlors). Some of the better-known ones, depending on your age, were Dixie Barbeque, Melody Lane, Guy’s Café, Derby Grill, Eddie’s Steak House, Long’s Barbeque, Market Street Café, Lucky Grill, Peerless Steak House, Spot Steak House, Dinty Moore’s and Patio Grill.

A few of the lesser recognized ones included Bacon’s Café, Fair’s Grill, Jestes Café, Maple Street Lunch Stand, Sevier Café, The Stag, Main Coffee Pot, Murr’s Place Cafe, Sports Center Sandwich Shop, Tipton’s Roxie Café, Black Hawk Restaurant and “Y” Café.

Over the years, some restaurants opened and remained in business for an extended period of time while others were short-lived. A few relocated to a more favorable location. One establishment upgraded its facilities and food choices after shutting down and remodeling its premises. Henry “Chris” Christiansen owned Christiansen’s Café at 236 E. Main Street. His wife, Vera, worked as a secretary for Sterchi Brothers Stores Inc.

The food establishment was located on the south side of E. Main between the Keys Building (Orth D. Hutchens, accountant; Carla B. Keys, President of Johnson City Enterprises, Inc.; and Tunnell’s Photographic Studio) on the west and Smythe Electric on the east.

The Johnson City Press-Chronicle announced its reopening on Saturday, March 20, 1947, with a bold headline: “East Tennessee’s Most Beautiful Restaurant Makes Its Bow!” The ad further declared: “After months and months of planning, we are pleased to present to our patrons and friends a new, beautiful Christiansen’s Café at our same location. We have long dreamed of giving to Johnson City an eating establishment comparable to the finest to be found in larger cities. With this in mind, we’ve worked untiringly through the years of shortages to present just such a restaurant to our patrons and friends. This is now a reality and on Wednesday, we invite you in to see the most modern, beautiful and complete restaurant within hundreds of miles of this city. We hope you’ll like it. Chris.”

The newspaper on that Saturday displayed several ads from local businesses offering their wishes for success, but also plugging their products or services:

Hecht’s Bakery, Inc.: “Congratulations to the new Christianssen’s Café. Try our delicious cream pies at Chris’s.”

Smythe Electric Company: “Best wishes, Chris. Johnson City may well be proud of your newly remodeled restaurant and we are proud to have played our part in its construction.”

J.E. Green, Contractor: “Congratulations to
Christiansen’s Café on the opening of our newly remodeled restaurant. We are pleased to have worked with you on this job.”

Grocers Baking Company: “Congratulations Chris. Honey Krust bread is made with pure golden honey making it fresh, wholesome and delicious. Honey Krust products – enriched white bread, whole wheat, cracked wheat, Aunt Sally’s self-rising, rye, sugar rolls and tea biscuits – are available at your cafe.”

Scruggs Equipment Company, Inc.: “Congratulations to the modernized Christiansen’s Café in Johnson City, Tennessee. Scruggs Equipment Company, Inc. of Knoxville, Tennessee, furnished the new, modern equipment and fixtures. The local representative was W.D. Chadwick from Johnson City, Tennessee.”

While I do not know when the business opened or closed, I do know that by 1953 the E. Main Street location was occupied by Jo-Ann’s Shops. If anyone can recall eating at Chris’s place, knows someone who did or can shed additional light on the former business, I would like to hear from you.  

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