September 2012

From 1908 to 1940, it was not unusual for a Johnson City family to anxiously travel to the railroad station to greet the arrival of their newly purchased mail order prefabricated model home from Sears, Robuck & Co. (formerly dubbed the “World’s Largest Store”).

On board were one or two railcars containing approximately 30,000 house components weighing an estimated 25 tons. During the program’s 32-year span, over 100,000 homes representing 447 styles were offered to the public. Entrepreneurs Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck began their successful business venture in 1893.

To order a prefabricated home, buyers had to show clear title to the lot, have steady employment and make a pre-payment equal to 2.5 percent of the amount of the material bill. A kit included all materials needed (excluding the house’s foundation) to build a sturdy, well-designed house. Eager homebuyers, aided by family, friends and neighbors, often provided labor for the project. Others contracted the work with a local construction firm or paid Sears to build it for them.

Each home came with an elaborate leather bound instruction manual containing step-by-step instructions for assembly. Sears promised that an average sized house could be constructed in about 90 days. A unique number inserted on each piece of carefully precut lumber identified its exact location as noted in the manual, eliminating any guesswork.

Sears Modern Homes consisted of three choices: Honor Bilt, Modern Bilt and Simplex Sectional. The first used only the best types of lumber, such as Douglas fir or Pacific Coast hemlock for framing, cypress for outside finish; and oak, birch and Douglas fir or yellow pine for interior finish. Catalogs showed floor plans ranging from modest to elegant homes. For instance, Honor Bilt homes in 1926 ranged from $986 (The Fairy) to $4909 (The Glen Falls).

Standard Bilt homes that ranged from $499 to $999 were available for those who could not afford the more expensive Honor Bilt ones. Although they too were high quality, they were not top of the line.

Simplex Sectional units were, as the name suggests, made in sections and could be quickly bolted together. These included add-on garages ranging in prices from $87 to $227. They also were suitable for summer cottages and hunters’ cabins.

Renters were urged to buy prefab homes and save monthly payments. The houses, depending on their size, could be paid off in as little as seven years. A side benefit of home ownership was having a nice yard where the entire family could enjoy landscaping it with green grass, flowers and vegetable gardens and a variety of trees, shrubbery and plants. Some house plans allowed potential buyers to alter the layout, such as reversing floor plans that took advantage of morning and evening sun. These altered plans contained the word “Reversed” after the name. Also, customers could suggest design changes by submitting blueprints to Sears, creating another kit.

As an experiment, the company once built two identical houses. One was built the ordinary way that required measuring and cutting; the other was a Sears home kit just as it came from the factory. The Sears home required 40% less labor. The company also sold wood to consumerswho chose not to order a precut home but desired quality materials from them at lowest cost.

In early years, houses could be built with or without an indoor bathroom. When one was included, it was generally located on the second floor. The company even sold a 720-pound sturdy outhouse kit priced at $41 that measured 4×7 feet. It contained ventilators on each side, asphalt roofing and two smooth finished seats with different size holes – one for adults and the other for children.

In later years, central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity became standard in most homes. Consumerscould select the heating system that best suited their needs: hot water heat, steam heat, warm air heat and a Hercules “pipeless” furnace. Also available were complete plumbing systems and a choice of bathroom fixtures such as the little nostalgic porcelain tub that stood on four feet.

Consumers could pay cash with the order, pay for material during the construction phase, pay after inspecting the shipped material or provide a “guaranteed letter of deposit” from a post office. The latter stated that the buyer had deposited with them the required sum of money as a special fund to be paid upon delivery of the kit. Every home carried with it a “Certificate of Guarantee” for delivery of all materials as detailed in the plans and specifications.

A typical testimony from a satisfied homeowner reads as follows: “I am well pleased with the house and with your material. My wife and I, who are approaching 60 years of age, built the house ourselves and saved about $1,300.”

The curtains came down on the Sears Modern Homes era by the Great Depression of 1929. Almost overnight the company was thrown into a financial tailspin by steadily rising payment defaults. Because of their high quality, many of the homes are still standing. According to local resident, Ken Harrison, the houses at 309 W. Pine Street and 320 Hamilton Avenue in Johnson City are Sears homes.

The City of Johnson City Historic Zoning Commission is interested in learning of any Sears kit homes that are located inside the city limits. If you know of any, please call Jessica Harmon with the City of Johnson City Planning Division at (423) 434-6073.

How can someone identify a house as being a Sears one? Search the Internet for suggestions: “Determine if the house was built between 1908 and 1940. Compare the actual floor plan dimensions with those shown in an old catalog. Identify characteristic column arrangements on porches. Find a square block molding at the foot of stairs. Look for numbers on boards used in attics and basements. Locate a shipping label under a staircase. Find the house’s building permit in a local courthouse. Look for an “R” or “SR” on plumbing. Find a stamp that says “Goodwall” on the back of sheetrock.”

(Resources/contributors:;; Small Houses of the Twenties, 1926 house catalog reprint, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia /Dover Publications, 1991; Ken Harrison; Bernie Gray; and Bill Russell.) 

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In 1775, Benjamin Franklin was appointed as the first Postmaster General, but it would be another 125 years before the postal system would implement RFD (Rural Free Delivery) aimed at providing mail service to country folks.

According to the 1988 book, History of Washington County Tennessee, initially the government was the primary user of the postal service. The general population had to rely on volunteers traveling to and from their area to receive mail delivery. Eventually mail routes became established with riders carrying mail in saddlebags. When roads improved such that stagecoaches could travel over them, parcels were delivered by these roomier conveyances.

By 1796, a post office was established at Jonesborough with John Waddell, Jr., a son-in-law of John Sevier, as postmaster. In Washington County, post offices were at first located in the homes or stores of designated postmasters, which meant a change of address anytime there was a change of postmaster.

In 1803, a proposed stagecoach route between Jonesborough and Blountville was rejected because it was too costly – $600 per year for once a week delivery. A carrier on horseback could transport it for $200. By 1840, mail was established between Jonesborough and three nearby cities: Abingdon, Virginia; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Knoxville, Tennessee.

By 1847, there were only eight post offices in Washington County. The number slowly grew to 14 by 1868. However, as the population began to increase, numerous additional offices were established throughout the county.

Postage stamps were introduced in 1847. During the Civil War, a Jonesborough postmaster issued a five-cent stamp on which his name appeared. However, uniform rates for stamps were not established until 1863. Initially, customers could prepay for a letter using a stamp or let the recipient fork out the money upon arrival.

Around 1900, the number of post offices began to decrease significantly because RFD had arrived. The establishment of 300 free rural delivery routes in Tennessee resulted in an almost immediate closing down of all post offices in Tennessee; they had served their usefulness. New and prosperous towns sprang up near villages, which brought with it larger distribution locations for the mail.

Many of the old post offices had historical significance attached to them. For instance, Bean station was where William Bean in 1769 built the first cabin by a white settler in Kentucky, Tennessee or Western North Carolina. 

Noli Chucky (Nolichucky) was the site of Jacob Brown’s first store opening in Tennessee in 1772. It was also where Russell Bean, the first child born on Tennessee soil first saw light. Also, John Sevier whose bravery was displayed in a battle with Indians earned the nickname “Nolichucky Jack.”

A few hundred yards from the Boons Creek office was the site of a gigantic leaning beech tree that bore the famous inscription, “D. Boon cilled a bar in the year 1760.” 

According to the book, Tennessee Post Offices and Postmaster Appointments, 1789-1984, there were 99 original post offices in Washington County. A sampling of nine of them with the post office name (its first postmaster, the years in existence and where the post office function was absorbed) include the following:

Alfred (Landon C. Garber, 1889-1899, Johnson City), Austin Springs (Clisbe Austin, Jr., 1875-1900, Johnson City), Blizzard (renamed Damphool, John F. Grisham, 1889-1900, Jonesborough), Blue Plum (Henry Johnson, 1849-1859, discontinued), Douglass Shed (renamed Douglass, Charles S. Ervin, 1895-1900, Jonesborough), Hacker (Robert L. Ford, 1893-1900, Telford), Haws Cross Roads (Thomas R. Haws, 1860-1900, Jonesborough), Johnson’s Depot (renamed Haynesville, 1857-1870, name changed to Johnson City), and Knob Creek (Alpheus Dove, 1856-1859, discontinued). 

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 In 1873 when Johnson City’s population was about 600, Reverend Clisbe Austin, who listed his address as “Johnson City, Washington County, State of Tennessee,” marketed a U.S non-alcoholic medicinal product known as Austin’s Liver Regulator.

 On September 17 that year, the reverend submitted an application for his invention to the United States Patent Office. He was granted rights for patent 152,939 under the category “Improvements in Medical Compounds.” Research suggests that Clisbe, as assignor, authorized his two oldest sons, Frederick and Clisbe, Jr. (by his second wife, Jane Ann Hammond) to produce and market the product from their recently purchased Austin’s Springs property on the Watauga River. 


The recipe consisted of eight largely unfamiliar, hard-to-pronounce ingredients, with the exception of one – apple-vinegar. The components were placed in a brass kettle, boiled six hours, strained, filtered and bottled for distribution.


In a June 1874 local ad, the inventor promoted his product: “The world wonders why it is that Austin’s Liver Regulator so far excels all other family medicines now before the people. The reason is it is the result of 35 years gathering and experimenting until we brought it to the state of perfection and now proves its wonderful virtues at home before going among strangers. We boldly challenge the world to produce its equals as a gentle, safe and reliable family medicine.


“The product cures all derangement of the liver and bowels and purifies the blood, has cured several cases of scrofula (tuberculous infection of the lymph nodes), prevents and cures diseases generally if taken in time (cholera and all fevers not excepted). Hence, every family should keep it in their house and prevent sickness and doctor bills. It is purely vegetable compound made of the roots of Armenian growth, their medicinal properties extracted with pure apple-vinegar without the drop of spirits.”


The ad identified a “cloud of witnesses,” prominent Johnson City citizens who put their stamp of approval on the medicine in a document dated April 15, 1874: “We the citizens of this town and vicinity do heartily recommend Austin’s Liver Regulator as being one of the safest and best family medicines we have ever used. It is exceedingly popular where it is made and has performed many wonderful cures among us. The signatures read like a who’s who of the regions early days:


B.F. Swingle (clerk and master chancery court), 0.P. Childress (merchant), H.C. Burroughs (merchant), John J. Adams (home builder), H.H. Crouch (builder), A.B. Bowman (postmaster), D.B. Farnsworth, (express and depot agent), A.J. Toppings (surgeon and mechanical dentist), E.F. Akard (attorney at law), Rev. T.B. Felts (M. E. Church, South), Rev. F. D. Crumley (M.E. Church, South), Col. P.P.C. Nelson (ex-state senator of Tennessee), Dr. H.H. Carr (Tennessee legislature), Col. J.K. Miller (U.S. revenue collector), D.W. Crumley (City Mayor), Charles S. Holloway (city marshal), W.H. Taylor (city alderman), Jacob McNeese (city alderman), J.M. Carr (city alderman), Rev. J.D. Daugherty (M.E. Church, South), A.J. Daugherty (shoe and boot maker), D.M. Taylor (deputy sheriff), E.S. Crumley (tinner), J.P.S. Ryburn (tanner), A.S. Brownlow (claims agent), E.D Hoss (hotel keeper), G.W. Hicky (hotel keeper), S.H. Miller (justice of the peace), J.M. Williams (justice of the peace) and J.B. Love (farmer).


 The Austin Brothers made and sold the product for one dollar per bottle; five bottles equaled a gallon. The company offered an undisclosed discount if the buyer purchased a dozen bottles. A printed circular could be ordered at no cost from the company that provided additional information about the medicine. The mailing address was shown as “Austin Brothers, Johnson City, East Tennessee.” 


Reverend Austin died in 1883 at Austin’s Springs (later Austin Springs).


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I grew up in the 1940s about a block from West Side School that was once located at the southeast corner of Main Street and Watauga Avenue. I attended the first grade there in 1949-50 under the watchful eye of my teacher, Miss Mildred Taylor. A Johnson City Chronicle dated May 3, 1947 contained a news item that aroused my interest by mentioning several names that I recognize.

Miss Eleanor Robertson, teacher at Training School of East Tennessee State College, was the speaker at the May meeting of the school’s School Parent-Teacher Association. The educator chose as her theme, “Relation of the Child to the Parent,” listing love, respect for work, honesty and obedience as the four fundamental principles for training children. She stressed that youngsters need positive models rather than negative critics. 

The 4-F children, as she defined them, experienced “firmness, fondness, fun and fairness.” She concluded her talk by reading an interesting old poem that has been heavily quoted over the years titled, “The Child’s Appeal,” by Mamie Gene Cole:

“I am the child. All the world waits for my coming. All the earth watches with interest to see what I shall become. Civilization hangs in the balance. For what I am, the world of tomorrow will be.

“I am the child. I have come into your world, about which I know nothing. Why I came I know not. How I came I know not. I am curious; I am interested.

“I am the child. You hold in your hand my destiny. You determine, largely, whether I shall succeed or fail. Give me, I pray you, those things that make for happiness. Train me, I beg you, that I may be a blessing to the world.”

Following the speech, Mrs. Roy Webb gave the secretary’s report; Mrs. Joe Bettini, in the absence of Mrs. William Cox, read the treasurer’s report. During the devotional period, each member of the group read a Bible verse. Miss Georgia Tomlinson gave the membership information, stating that West Side had received the Gold Leaf Award for having 100 percent attendance.

Other chairpersons providing concise reports included Mrs. Earl Gentry (finance), Miss Ruth Martin (school lunch), Mrs. Lester Bowman (founder’s day, my aunt), Mrs. Maude Meek (music, spiritual education), J.H. Mahoney (principal, program chairman), Mrs. H.R. Deere (art), Miss Mildred Taylor (child welfare), Miss Carrie Lu Yoakley (building and grounds) and Miss Mildred Adams (procedure, by-laws).

Mrs. Primus Dees (wife of my former downtown barber, president of Central PTA council), conducted the installation ceremonies for the following new officers and positions: Mrs. Roy Webb, president; Mrs. Glen Maupin, vice president; Mrs. Ralph Hamley, secretary, and Mrs. Joe Bettini, treasurer; Mrs. Mildred Lawson, program; Mrs. Fred Deneen, publications; Mrs. D.V. Paradis, publicity and scrapbook; Mrs. H.W. Cassing, summer round-up; Miss Carrie Lu Yoakley, child welfare; Mrs. R.Y. Foster, school lunch; Mrs. Howard Hartsell, buildings and grounds; Mrs. Harry Johnson, finance; Mrs. Earl Gentry, hospitality; Mrs. Lester Bowman, founder’s day; Mrs. Harold Dyer, study course; Mrs. Harry Yeager, membership; and Mrs. H.R. Deere, spiritual education.

It was announced that the Central Council would meet on May 23 at 2:30 p.m. at Mayne Williams Library and that the Mother’s Day Arts and Crafts Club would convene in the Girl’s Club Room at the First Presbyterian Church on June 4 at 2 p.m.

Graduation exercises for the sixth grade class were scheduled for 2 p.m. on May 26 at the school followed by a class party. It was also reported that the luncheon for teachers would be held at noon on Wednesday, May 28.

The meeting concluded with Mrs. Nathan Holley winning the attendance prize and Miss Georgia Tomlinson’s third grade class receiving the room-count prize.

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In 1928, two evangelists came to Johnson City to lead pre-announced revivals. The first one was Winston-Salem, North Carolina evangelist, Edward Fraser, who arrived on September 13 with a sermon he titled, “Weeds – Spiritual and Physical.” He rented land for his tent meeting on East Market Street opposite the Colonial Hotel (at about the location of today’s Colonial Way, see attached photo).

The message was a demonstration of practical Christianity. Before the gathering, Fraser lead a group of men in an effort to convert the unsightly weed covered lot where the meeting was to be held into a neat, well-groomed lawn. The effort was consistent with the desires of the Appalachian Publishers and the Chamber of Commerce to rid the city of weeds before the forthcoming visit to the city by Herbert Hoover and also the annual Appalachian Fair.

Citizens witnessed firsthand how quickly an eyesore could be converted into something attractive. The effort was twofold – cleaning an unkempt lot and providing an illustration for his upcoming message.

Mayor William Barton; Sam R. Sells, president of the Chamber of Commerce; and members of the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs were invited to participate to display their full support to eradicate weeds. A picture of the lot was taken before and after it was cleared and manicured.

Fraser asked those who had worked on the lot not only to attend the meeting the next night but to also bring their scythe and Bible with them. The meeting began promptly at 7:45 with an appropriate song – “Bringing in the Sheaves,” an analogy between harvest time in the fields of grain and the spiritual harvest of souls as a result of diligent sowing and reaping. When the meeting rolled around, the evangelist delivered his gospel message,” asking his congregation to clean up their lives both physically and spiritually.

Left: Gipsy Smith Ad; Right: The vacant lot can be seen in this photo.

The second evangelist that came to Johnson City was the well-known “Gipsy” Smith who conducted evangelistic campaigns in the United States and Great Britain for over 70 years. He arrived in the city on October 12. His focus was a bit different from Fraser’s. Long before he came to town, he had his followers organize small group gatherings in people’s homes, known as “cottage prayer meetings” to pray for the upcoming revival.

The ladies of Johnson City eagerly volunteered their homes, forming assemblies that averaged from 20 to 24 women. Each meeting was held from 10:00 to 10:30 a.m. The 33 ladies (and their residents) who volunteering their homes represented many prominent families from yesteryear:

Mrs. Ross Spears (312 East Holston Avenue), Mrs. Sam Sells (Sunset Hill), Mrs. Henry Blackwell (1305 Baxter Street), Mrs. Will Blevins (1204 E. Holston Avenue), Mrs. Charles Piston (Oakland Gardens), Mrs. S.G. Henson (310 E. Fairview Avenue), Mrs. Fred Lyle (615 E. Fairview Avenue), Mrs. L.M. Snapp (Lafayette Apartments, 302 W. Main), Mrs. Sam O’Dell (215 W. Holston Avenue), Mrs. L.E. Faulk (201 W. Holston Avenue), Mrs. D.E. Fine (301 Lamont Street), …

Mrs. Sue Miller (502 Highland Avenue), Mrs. Sam Collins (300 Fall Street), Mrs. J.F. Templeton (102 E. Unaka Avenue), Mrs. H.C. Beasley (106 E. Myrtle Avenue), Mrs. Harry Lyle (100 West Pine Street), Mrs. Neal A. Beasley (315 W. Poplar Street), Mrs. N.H. Dickson (1415 S. Roan Street), Mrs. Hughes Peters (804 Grover Street), Mrs. L.F. Sage (516 W. Main Street), Mrs. J.L. Jillin (310 Wilson Avenue), Mrs. F. Wilton (425 Hamilton Street), …

Mrs. St. Clair (303 Hamilton Street), Mrs. J.L. Hankins (920 W. Maple Street), Mrs. E.O. Woodyard (717 W. Pine Street), Mrs. Charles Dickey (412 W. Maple Street), Mrs. Frank Taylor (312 W. Pine), Mrs. A.J. Davis (511 W. Locust Street), Mrs. McFadden (216 Tacoma Avenue), Mrs. Frank Graham (200 W. Watauga), Mrs. Andy Lanless (1007 Grover Street), Mrs. John Cox (1207 Alton Street) and Mrs. Will Archer (907 Claiborne Street). 

If you recognize a family member or friend in the list, please send me an e-mail or letter.

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