October 2012

On Wednesday morning, November 25, 1931, former governor, Alfred Alexander Taylor passed away. The next morning, newspapers across the country broadcast the breaking news proclaiming, “Uncle Alf is Dead.”

The grand old man of the Republican Party in Tennessee had gone to his eternal rest, stilling a deep voice that thrilled and stirred thousands of people over two generations. He joined a long list of mortals who were forever lodged in the memories of a people.

Former Tennessee Governor, Alf Taylor

Outside of the state were people who knew him impersonally as political leader, congressman, and state governor with political exploits that spanned his long and active life. Inside the state, the congenial statesman was more of a friend, fellow townsman, neighbor and public-spirited citizen of his community. Locals described Alf as one who held dearer to his heart the esteem and friendship of his neighbors and friends regardless of their social or political status.

Although Uncle Alf had passed away, his memory became a shining light to be cherished in thankfulness for having shared his friendship. When the curtain on a life that had been brilliantly spent had been drawn, the family was joined by thousands of well wishers whose lives were touched by a man who made the world a brighter, finer and better place to live.

The colorful 1886 “War of the Roses,” governor’s race campaign between “Uncle Alf” and “Our Bob,” endeared the two brothers to the state and commanded the attention of the nation. The story of Bob Taylor, a Democrat, and Alf Taylor, the Republican contender, engaged in a famous brother-against-brother battle for governor has been told countless times from one end of the Volunteer State to the other. Bob defeated his challenger in a good spirited and often humorous contest. Thousands attended their debates, even those living in smaller counties. At Nashville, an estimated crowd of 15,000 gathered to hear them engage in a battle of elegant words in the public square in Nashville.

When advised of Uncle Alf’s passing, Tennessee Governor Henry Horton issued comments about him: “A life of good will, kindness of spirit and firm character is brought to a close in the passing of our greatly beloved ex-Governor, Alfred A. Taylor. The people of Tennessee, irrespective of political creed or dogma, will be greatly afflicted by the melancholy news of his death. He was a loyal-hearted man and carried the riches of God within himself. Governor Taylor was the kindest and most generous of men. All of the gentle virtues came into full bloom in his life. I join with our people in mourning his death most sincerely.”

Among the many messages received by Mrs. Alf Taylor was a telegram of condolence from President Herbert Hoover: “The White House, Washington, Nov. 25, 1931, Mrs. Jennie Anderson Taylor, Milligan College, Tennessee. Mrs. Hoover and I are greatly saddened to learn of the death of your husband, Alfred A. Taylor for his public career as governor and as a member of congress, he served the public welfare with diligence and faithfulness. His was a high sense of integrity in personal life. Please accept for yourself and members of your family our sincerest sympathy. Herbert Hoover.”

A fitting tribute to former Governor Taylor was made in a statement issued by B. Carroll Reece, previous first district congressman: “Death of Governor Taylor will not only cause a great loss to the political party with which he affiliated, but it is a tremendous loss to the state of Tennessee as well as the nation. His life has been and will remain an inspiration to countless numbers of young people who have read of his activities through his public and private life. We are all saddened by his passing and I feel in it a great personal loss.”


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People living in the 1950s readily recall the action-packed Walt Disney movies pertaining to the life of legendary hero, Davy Crockett. Many, like this writer, had to have a coonskin cap to wear that was available from such downtown establishments as S.H. Kress, McLellan’s, Woolworth’s, Charles Store and Powell’s.

Disney broadcast the action-packed episodes to those who were fortunate to own black and white television sets. Today, they are equally exciting to watch in DVD and Blu-ray formats.

The hit song from the series made popular by Bill Hayes, Fess Parker and Tennessee Ernie Ford, while very entertaining, was not completely accurate. It had the pioneer being born on a mountaintop (instead of the banks of the Nolichucky River), living in the greenest state in the land of the free (absolutely correct), raised in the woods where he knew every tree (certainly) and killed him a bear when he was only three (highly improbable even for Davy).

The colorful pioneer penned his autobiography, which he titled, Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee (Carey and Hart Co., 1834). The work provides a realistic and often humorous perspective on the hardy backwoodsman and later politician.

The preface was captivating because Davy talks directly to his readers and reveals what makes him tick. Reading this section prepares readers for what to expect in the remainder of the book. Crockett began by saying, “Fashion is a thing I care mighty little about, except when it happens to run just exactly according to my own notion and I was mighty nigh sending out my book without any preface at all, until a notion struck me, that perhaps it was necessary to explain a little the reason why and wherefore I had written it.”

Crockett was quick to state his motive for the autobiography; instead of fame, he sought justice. It seems that a nameless author had penned a biography of him and Davy was not happy with it: “(He) has done me much injustice and the catchpenny errors, which it contains, have been already too long sanctioned by my silence. I don't know the author of the book and indeed I don't want to know him; for after he has taken such a liberty with my name, and made such an effort to hold me up to public ridicule, he cannot calculate on any thing but my displeasure.” Other comments of the famous Tennessean can best be stated in his words:

“I have met with hundreds, if not with thousands of people, who have formed their opinions of my appearance, habits, language, and every thing else from that deceptive work. They have almost in every instance expressed the most profound astonishment at finding me in human shape and with the countenance appearance and common feelings of a human being.

“In the following pages I have endeavored to give the reader a plain, honest, homespun account of my state in life and some few of the difficulties, which have attended me along its journey down to this time. I am perfectly aware that I have related many small and, as I fear, uninteresting circumstances, but if so, my apology is that it was rendered necessary by a desire to link the different periods of my life together, as they have passed, from my child-hood onward, and thereby to enable the reader to select such parts of it as he may relish most, if indeed there is any thing in it which may suit his palate.

“I have also been operated on by another consideration. It is this: I know, that obscure as I am, my name is making considerable deal of fuss in the world. I can't tell why it is, nor in what it is to end. Go where I will, everybody seems anxious to get a peep at me.

“They will, at most, have only their trouble for their pay. But I rather expect I shall have them on my side. But I don't know of any thing in my book to be criticized on by honorable men. Is it on my spelling ? — that's not my trade. Is it on my grammar? — I hadn't time to learn it, and make no pretensions to it. Is it on the order and arrangement of my book? — I never wrote one before, and never read very many; and, of course, know mighty little about that.

“Will it be on the authorship of the book? — this I claim, and I'1l hang on to it, like a wax plaster. The whole book is my own and every sentiment and sentence in it. I would not be such a fool, or knave either, as to deny that I have had it hastily run over by a friend or so, and that some little alterations have been made in the spelling and grammar; and I am not so sure that it is not the worse of even that, for I despise this way of spelling contrary to nature. And as for grammar, it's pretty much a thing of nothing at last, after all the fuss that's made about it. In some places, I wouldn't suffer either the spelling, or grammar, or any thing else to be touch'd; and therefore it will be found in my own way.”

Crockett’s preface concluded by saying, “But just read for yourself, and my ears for a heel tap, if before you get through you don't say, with many a good-natured smile and hearty laugh. This is truly the very thing itself — the exact image of its author, David Crockett, Washington City, February 1st, 1834.”

If Davy could correct the hit song about him in the mid 1950s, perhaps it would read: “Born on the banks of the Nolichucky River; Greenest state full of groundhogs and beaver; Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree; Killed him a bear when he was over three; Davy, Davy Crockett; King of the Wild Frontier.”  

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Today’s column is a continuation of several vintage news briefs that I have accumulated over the years from old newspapers. This edition spans 96 years (1863 to 1959).

Oct. 1863: The ravages of the Civil War became a stark reality on this date when a band of Confederate raiders descended upon the town of Blountville, Tennessee, reducing the larger and better portion of it to ashes. Those whose homes and effects were totally obliterated included W.W. James, John Powell, John Fain, Dr. N.G. Dulaney, E.P. Cawood, Rev. N.C. Baldwin, Mrs. Martha Rhea, F.L. Bumgardner and Major J.G. Eans. The courthouse along with the offices of the clerks of the county and the jail were also destroyed. Loss was estimated at half a million dollars.

Mar. 1872: A new calaboose was opened in Johnson City to accommodate the imbibed public. The city had recently been incorporated with a mayor, Board of Alderman and police force. An amusing unplanned dirt street race that occurred one evening attracted a crowd of spectators. Two large intoxicated men and a smallish fellow with exceptionally large feet somehow mounted a small horse and precariously began riding it down the street. After the trio became blatantly boisterous, seven policemen were dispatched to the scene and gave chase but surprisingly could not keep up with the revelers. The drunks outpaced the officers by 200 yards.”

Nov. 1895: George D. Massengill, Jr. and Miss Inez Jobe, a young lady from a prominent city family, were married one afternoon. The next day, they were being driven on a wagon to the train station with expectations of making a bridal trip to Washington. Without warning, the team of horses became startled and galloped away, throwing Mrs. Massengill to the ground where she received a skull fracture and passed out. After examining her, the physicians who were called to the scene determined that her injuries were not life threatening. John Garrell, driver of the team, was also seriously injured, but Mr. Massengill was not hurt.

Dec. 1906: Senator-elect Robert Love Taylor of Happy Valley, Tennessee selected Mr. Laps McCord, long-time editor of the Tennessee Sugar Tree Gazette, to be his private secretary. The paper humorously stated, “Only a man whose mind runs to something like sugar would do for the frolicsome fiddler from Happy Valley.”

Main Street Looking West in Johnson City as It Appeared in 1908

Aug. 1909: A man (whose name I will withhold), had been in Washington, DC for 100 days, but had been locked up behind bars for 95 of them for drunkenness and vagrancy. The Civil War veteran begged the presiding judge to let him leave the nation’s capitol and return to his mountain residence in Johnson City, Tennessee. “Judge, your Honor,” he said, “I want to go back to my native home because it is dry down there. I fought for the freedom of my country, but I don’t think much of the freedom of the Capitol of this glorious land of the free. This town has too many temptations for me and I can’t keep sober where there is so much liquor flowing. I want to go back to the town of my birth.” “All right, Thomas,” replied his honor, “I shall keep you in jail for 60 days to get the liquor fully out of your system and, after that, you can return to your home in Tennessee.”

Jan. 1959: The wreckage of a Southeast Airlines plane, missing for several days with 10 persons aboard, was spotted about 400 feet from the top of rugged Holston mountain. There was no sign of life at the scene of the wreckage. An Air National Guard plane located the wreckage at 11:50 a.m. about 10-15 miles east of Holston Dam in the rocky, heavily forested East Tennessee area. Captain Robert A. Jackson of the Civil Air Patrol led a mobile unit to the scene with 15 members of the Greeneville, Tennessee Rescue Squad accompanying him. It took the rescuers several hours to reach the scene.  

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In November 1909, Booker T. (Taliaferro) Washington (1856-1915) began an “educational pilgrimage” through five southern states: Tennessee, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas and Florida. The educator’s purpose was to boost the spirits of African Americans living in appalling conditions in these five states. The first day of the Tennessee portion of the trip included stops at Bristol, Johnson City and Greeneville where he spoke to large crowds comprised of both races. 

The train stopped first at Bristol. It was explained to Dr. Washington that since the centerline on State Street split the city between two states, half the population lived in Tennessee and the other half resided in Virginia.  


Bristol was described as an educational center of considerable importance, being the seat of four institutions of learning: Virginian Southwest Institute (a Baptist academy for women), King College (a Presbyterian college for men), Sullins College (a Methodist college for girls) and Bristol Normal Institute (a black school for both sexes under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church).

The party arrived in Bristol during a driving flurry of snow that morning. Several hundred people, black and white, braved the harsh elements to come to the railway station for the opportunity of seeing their guest. A committee of the local branch of the Negro Business Men's League, which Dr, Washington organized, surrounded him and escorted him through a cheering crowd to carriages, which then gave the party a tour of the city.

Judge J. H. Price, the son of a slaveholder and one of the Democratic leaders of western Virginia, introduced Dr. Washington, a former slave in Southwest Virginia, to the crowd as one of the Old Dominion's most distinguished sons. 

From Bristol, the train proceeded to Johnson City, one of the new manufacturing cities of East Tennessee. It had evolved from a village to a bustling city with steel mills, tanneries and a Carnegie Library. Under construction was a $75,000 Federal building, a tribute to the influence of Congressman Brownlow, the East Tennessee Republican boss with the Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives.

A large crowd greeted its special guest at the railway station. As Dr. Washington appeared on the railcar steps, the band from National Soldiers' Home struck up a welcoming tune. Johnson City’s Hippodrome, a large rink-like hall a few blocks from the station (located about where the Johnson City Press building now sits), was the chosen site for the gathering. Almost all downtown businesses closed and schools, both black and white, dismissed early. Teachers marshaled their pupils to the Hippodrome as a group. The barn-shaped structure was filled to capacity.

Mayor Burbage introduced Washington, who was received enthusiastically by the crowd. After his speech, hundreds accompanied him back to his train, where he shook hands with many people until it was time for his train to leave. Cheers could be heard as the vehicle chugged out of sight. 

Greenville, the next stop on the tour, was reached about 3:30 p.m. This town, which was proud of giving the country a president, escorted visitors to a small street off Main Street. Here stood a dilapidated, weather-beaten little shop bearing a cracked signboard containing barely decipherable words, “A. Johnson, Tailor.” President Johnson was buried in Greeneville on a hill overlooking the town.

Dr. Washington's party was next driven in darkness in buses to Greeneville College, a black school located a half-mile out of town. Dinner was served in the commons room of the school. Afterward, the party was escorted back to town for a meeting in a large crowded hall.

At 10:30 p.m. the special tour train departed Greeneville and headed for Knoxville; the first day of the Tennessee pilgrimage was over.  

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Today’s column deals with the old North Side School that was built in 1922 at N. Roan Street, sandwiched between E. Eighth and E. Chilhowie avenues. In 1928, the city began a study for replacing, remodeling or expanding several area schools.

That same year, the Johnson City Chronicle initiated a review of existing schools in articles titled, “Inside the City School Houses.” This was likely done in an effort to draw attention to several schools that needed attention. A number of educational facilities were inspected over the course of several weeks and the results reported in the paper. The reviews ranged from deplorable to excellent; those receiving an unsatisfactory grade was due primarily to the building being crowded or aged.

A year later, the city made a decision to spend $300,000 to build new elementary schools for Columbus Powell, Martha Wilder (later renamed Stratton) and West Side (later became Henry Johnson). The appropriation also included additions to two schools, Science Hill and South Side. (My November 1, 2008 feature story dealt with that expansion program).

North Side School, which was only six years old at the time, received a glowing report. One comment stated, “Wherefore, let us give thanks that in our corporate midst on city-owned acreage there stands a public school building that appears to be well-suited to most of the crying needs of the day. It is modern in type and construction and ample of accommodation.”

The report went on to say that more tears had been shed over North Side than any other grammar school building, but they were from childhood heartbreak at being taken out of distant schools and being compelled to walk several miles every day to attend classes.

Many residents vividly recall that the school was a two-story brick building containing 20 classrooms. The six-year-old facility was described in the report as “cheery, well lighted and properly ventilated, with wide airy corridors whose ground floor doorway entrances had no ice coated steps to navigate to enter the building.”

That year, there were 800 students attending six grades of classes there. The floors were made of hardwood with tile floors in the boys’ and girls’ lavatories on both levels. The stairways, designed for emergency exit, were well placed throughout the building. Each classroom contained a wardrobe with doors that opened only into it. Tack strips adorned each classroom slate blackboard. Separate rest rooms were provided for teachers. Panic locks on all interior doors enabled classroom occupants to open the doors from the inside by turning the doorknob. On the outside, the knob could be locked if desired, but it could never be locked on the inside. Panic locks were also placed at each ground floor main entrance.

The article noted that the past decade had marked rapid changes in the building complexion of the city as a whole. Old structures were repaired, remodeled, enlarged or replaced to make room for new. The life of a building suited to swift progress was said to be relatively short. The Chronicle chided the school system for willful neglect of school buildings, allowing them to fall in such disrepair that the final solution was demolition.

Although some schools had occasional repairs made to them and even had additions built onto them, most had been woefully neglected. This was deemed shameful to the students who tried to get a good education there. 

The newspaper ended by saying, “And if so, in light of what has already been written and anticipating the worst yet to come, let us be thankful that in at least one of our valuable public school properties everything is jake.”

I will feature the reports of some of the other schools in future columns. Three had very unflattering comments made against them and were targeted for replacement. 

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Yesterday, September 30, 2012, marked the anniversary of a historical event that occurred 126 years ago. Two local history buffs met on September 30, 1986, the 100-year anniversary of the incident, and relived the story for an article for the Johnson City Press-Chronicle.

Jim Goforth (Erwin historian and author) and Tom Hodge (historian and Press-Chronicle writer) convened on that day in Tom’s office to revive the particulars of the granting of a charter to the Charleston, Cincinnati and Chicago Railroad, commonly referred to as the 3-C Railroad.

The two history buffs contrasted the 1886 exciting announcement of the construction of a much-needed railroad in Johnson City with the 1893 disparaging news that work was being suspended, even after much track had been laid.

L: John T. Wilder, R: George L. Carter

In 1886, ex-Union General John T. Wilder received a charter to build the 3-C Railroad, a forerunner of the Clinchfield. He already had other significant businesses in the city: the Carnegie Land Company, the Cranberry Iron Furnace, the Carnegie Hotel and the Cloudland Hotel (atop beautiful Roan Mountain).

While campaigning through the Southeast during the Civil War, the industrialist visualized great potential for developing the area, but he also realized that the region lacked an adequate transportation system. To remedy this, he received authorization to begin constructing a 625-mile railroad from Charleston, South Carolina to Cincinnati, Ohio to connect the industrial midwest with the Atlantic seaport. The new route would further serve the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky and Southwestern Virginia, the timber and mineral areas of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, the resort areas of the Blue Ridge and the agricultural area of the Piedmont.

The estimated cost of the venture was $21 million, which was a considerable amount of money then. Within two years, a 171-mile segment from Camden, South Carolina to Marion, North Carolina was completed and put into service.

When the Carnegie section of Johnson City, near the Empire Furniture Company plant on E. Fairview Avenue, was chosen as the northern headquarters of the railroad, the city almost overnight became a boomtown. Track installation was expedited in both north and south directions from the city. Rails reached the Nolichucky River in Erwin in 1890 and the roadbed to Dante, Virginia was 90% completed three years later.

In 1893, the country suffered a depression, known as “Cleveland’s Panic,” and the 3-C Railroad immediately faced bankruptcy. Assets were sold at foreclosure for $550,000. Johnson City, eager to help reclaim the 3-C line, bought $70,000 worth of bonds, thereby subjecting the city to heavy financial strain when it defaulted.

A new owner, identified as the Ohio River and Charleston Railroad, acquired the assets in 1897, but unfortunately did little to extend the line. Conversely, the company began selling portions of it.

In 1902, a new hero emerged. George L. Carter acquired the northern segment of the road and completed construction as the Clinchfield Railroad. However, he abandoned much of the 3-C roadbed and instead laid new track to Johnson City from the northwest. Since the entrepreneur had become involved in developing the coal lands of southwestern Virginia, he needed a railroad to transport his coal to a south Atlantic seaport. Between 1905 and 1909, work to extend the Clinchfield from Dante, Virginia to Spartanburg, South Carolina was successfully completed.

A few years ago, Clint Isenberg, a Gray resident, showed me some weed-covered track near Spurgeon’s Island just off the old Kingsport highway. According to Tom and Jim in 1986, track could still be seen at the intersection of East Fairview Avenue and Star Mill Road and at the old J. Norton Arney Farm, which later became Winged Deer Park. Are there still portions of 3-C track visible in the area? 

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