August 2013

It was August 1918 and the world was at war. If the Hun (Germany) was to be trampled to his knees, it had to be done by trained men under the able direction of capable leaders. That year, the Student's Army Training Corps (SATC) was opened to all American boys 18 years of age who aspired to enter college.

The Government was virtually commandeering college campuses for the intention of providing special training to thousands of choice young men who later became officers and technical experts.

King College was designated by the War Department as one of the components of the SATC. A United States Army commissioned soldier was chosen to direct the training of both college and preparatory students who were privileged to this educational opportunity.

The college offered special training in preparation for the United States Signal Services Corps. This included flag signaling, construction and operation of the telephone and telegraph and a special course in wireless telegraphy. Permission was granted by the War Department for the establishment of a wireless station along with instruction in wireless telegraphy as soon as the King College unit was organized.

The following courses were also chosen: chemistry; physics; biology; mathematics (emphasizing trigonometry and navigation); history and government (including the history of modern European nations; their form of government and the cause of the present war); the manual of arms; the school of the soldier, squad and company; intensive drilling; and observation of military regulations).

College students over 18 years of age were enlisted as privates in the Army and received weapons, uniforms and  equipment, being given regular pay as a private but without ration allowance. This two-fold education program opened up an attractive field of service to young men for future service in the Army or Navy.

While this unique activity was going on, the World War was very real to people like Sergeant Bob Boren, a soldier located “somewhere in France,” who penned a poignant letter to someone back home named Ike:

“Dear Ike: Your letter came yesterday. I regard a letter from a friend as a precious gift these days as they are getting fewer it seems, but when I look over them, they make a pretty good bunch at that. From what I hear, I guess you miss the boys around Johnson City now. It sure gives proof that Kaiser Bill is going to come down.

“I also notice the American people are doing their best to help the boys and that is what it takes and it does the boys lots of good to know the people are going to stand behind them. I notice you all are doing a great part and that is as good as battles. Ike, I think it is mighty nice of you all to remember me in your prayers and I appreciate it to the fullest extent. I heard that Mack was placed in the 5th class. I imagine he is getting restless by this time. I guess if you were not married with a family to care for, you would be in within 24 hours as everybody feels they owe a part in some way.

“It was mighty nice of you to offer to mail me anything I might need. The government now issues smoking tobacco and also all kinds of cigarettes to sell and we pay no tax on tobacco at all. We can buy all smokes far cheaper than you can and get the same brands. We have to get an order approved before we can get packages. Every time I want a letter, I write about two so as to have a supply on the way. I wrote W.M. Cooley a few days ago for my Shrine card. I have all other cards good for the duration of the war with me. We now have a club here, in fact we rented a house with all its equipment, have six rooms with kitchen and all. It has a piano and all kinds of reading material. It is a model home I will say.

“Big times are to be had over here. Yes, we will have some big games when Kaiser Bill is licked and Uncle Sam won't be so long doing it, I think. Please remember me to your mother. I am as ever, Yours truly, Bob.”

Little did Bob know that those “big games” were coming in about two months, bringing an end to the war.

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Walter Blevins, alias Walter Curtis, alias Walter Dean, a criminal with Johnson City connections in 1917, rivaled the exploits of Jesse James with his attention-grabbing experiences and daring adventures. Although Blevins boasted that he belonged to the famous Harvey Logan clan, his claim was disputed.

J.W. Hornung. Ruffles was a man-about-town, conversationalist, cricketer and bold “gentleman thief.” Blevins' deeds and crimes were deemed as being unparalleled in the popular “Diamond Dick” and “Nick Carter” mystery pulp magazine stories. The police were unaware of half of the slick desperado's wrongdoings, which he accomplished with extraordinary cunningness.

Once, while officers were keeping an eye on the criminal, he freed himself from handcuffs using a small pipe cleaning wire. Moreover, he concealed small saws and files under plasters attached to his back that were used when he was incarcerated. Time and again, the outlaw proved to authorities that prison bars were no obstacle to his freedom.

After Walter was released from Leavenworth Prison in Kansas on October 15, 1916, he traveled to Chattanooga and worked for two or three weeks as a structural steel worker on the Volunteer State Life Building. He quit that job about the middle of November that year and visited his parents who lived about ten miles north of Johnson City.

For two months, he remained in the East Tennessee area. During that time, he robbed the Johnson City Post Office on Ashe Street at Earnest (site became the Ashe Street Court House). He used nitroglycerine to blow up the main vault and a large safe inside it, exposing $10,000 worth of postage stamps and several hundred dollars in cash. Shortly afterward, the post office at Piney Flats was burglarized. Blevins was a suspect in both robberies but authorities had no tangible proof he was their man.

Blevins was later caught and confessed to the robbery at the Johnson City Post Office and was charged for the crime he allegedly committed. He was tried at the session of the United States District Court at Greeneville, TN, but repudiated his alleged admission, claiming that the confession was forced from him. Since the federal government was unable to refute his claim, the jury acquitted him; there simply was no other evidence of his guilt.

While in jail in Greeneville, Blevins was given a saw by a young boy who was behind bars serving a light sentence for a minor charge. Blevins told the lad that his saw was no good for cutting thick bars. He showed him some better ones that he had hidden in his belt. He offered the youngster five dollars if, when he soon got out of jail, he would obtain a quantity of nitroglycerine and smuggle it to him. He made the mistake of telling the boy that his intentions of using the explosive were to kill the guard and destroy part of the prison, thus allowing other inmates to break out. The boy became frightened at what Blevins said and instead, squealed the details of the offer to federal officers.

Blevins was sent back to Montana, but not before he was constrained with extra security to prevent him from escaping again. Officers placed a 20-pound boot that had a combination lock on it that would take three minutes to open. They also placed a set of extra strong handcuffs on him. This time, the clever outlaw did not escape.

Some of Blevins' other crime sprees included stealing gold nuggets in Alaska, killing a man and wounding a woman who were slow to raise their hands when ordered to do so and holding up about a dozen automobiles loaded with people on their way home from a dance at a country club.

Walter Blevins' crime binge came to a culmination when he was convicted of murder and highway robbery, but spared the death penalty by being sentenced to life behind bars by a Montana judge. By this time, his cunningness had worn thin and he did not escape. His name is now a  forgotten fixture of yesteryear.   

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Recently, I read an interesting entry from Jeff Fleming's impressive ( website, written in 2008 about a Powell County being located in East Tennessee in 1839. An inspection of a current map offers no hint of the county.

Fleming acknowledged that Kingsport's GIS staff located an 1839 Tennessee map showing Powell County, at the Tennessee-Virginia border sandwiched between Hawkins, Greene, Washington and Sullivan counties. Jeff provided added information from the 1840 Acts of Tennessee.

The county seat was Fall Branch and included the cites of Kingsport, New Canton, Church Hill, Mount Carmel, Carters Valley, Lynn Garden, Bloomingdale, Colonial Heights, Fall Creek, Sullivan Gardens, Haws Crossroads, Baileyton and Graysburg Hills.

I decided to pen a column on this subject. Cartography Associates ( owners of the map gave me permission to use it in my column. 

My further research uncovered a book titled, Acts Passed at the First Session of the Twenty-Third General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, 1939-40 (Published by Authority, Nashville, J. Geo. Harris, Printer to the State, 1840). The book can be viewed on-line as a free ebook.

The Act specified that a new county be established of fractions taken from the four above named counties and that it be identified as Powell County in honor of Samuel Powell, one of the judges of the circuit courts of Tennessee. 

A lengthy antiquated description of the new county's property lines taken from the other four was given, beginning with the words: “The county of Powell shall be bounded as follows, viz; Beginning on the north bank of Holston River, ten miles from Blountville, running thence south sixteen degrees east three miles to a stake, south thirty-three degrees three miles and fifty poles to a stake in Chase's field, south sixty degrees west … (and on and on).

Individuals from each of the four counties that were contributing land to new Powell County were named: Washington County (Terry White, Joseph B. Gilman), Sullivan County (James P. Hulse, Joshua Shipley John Peoples),  Hawkins County (Joseph Smith, John Ball, Jr.), and Greene County (Elijah Hendrick, Andrew English, and James Shanks). The commissioners were approved by each state's county court after which a bond and security payment was made in the amount of $5000.

Newly appointed commissioners of the four counties were required to hold an election to decide if that county was in favor of forming the new county. Each voter was instructed to mark his ballot with “New Country” if he agreed with the change or “Old Country” if he was opposed to it. The election was to be decided on a simple majority rule basis. If Powell County was approved, it would receive all the powers, privileges and advantages along with the liabilities and duties affiliated with being a new county.

Those counties who failed to vote in the election, for whatever reasons, were required to hold one as soon as possible; irregularities were to dealt with promptly.

Powell County's court was to be temporarily held at the storehouse at Gammon & Company on the Fall Branch side of Horse Creek until a permanent seat could be established. Also, all officers, civil and military, were instructed to hold their offices and exercise all the powers and functions thereof until other locations were available. 

Powell County was authorized to form one military unit to be known as the 148th Regiment and attached to the third brigade. The final section of the Act warned that if property line disputes arose, they were to be swiftly referred to a surveyor to resolve the questionable areas.

The Powell County Act was presented by Jonas E. Thomas, Speaker of the House of Representatives and L.H. Coe, Speaker of the Senate on Nov. 30, 1839.

This material did not reveal why the state  wanted a new county or what happened to it. I will shed further light on this subject in an upcoming column.

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