September 2013

Today's column deals with the stirring news of the grand opening in June 1926 of the Majestic Theatre's new $20,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ. The information was gleaned from a full-page advertisement sent to me by Jerry Honeycutt, a frequent contributor to my articles.

In the summer of 2010, I wrote a column about the purchase of the new organ, noting that it was later donated to Milligan College where Prof. Edward Lodter played it for a weekly Sunday afternoon broadcast over WJHL radio.

The complex musical instrument was constructed in 1926 in North Tonawanda, NY with two manual keyboards and 511 tubes (seven racks with each containing from 61 to 97 individual pipes). The unit arrived in the city from Cincinnati on a Southern Railway train. Company technicians placed the pipes in concrete-lined chambers that were bored into the walls of the theatre.

The pricey device provided background music in an age of silent movies to audibly supplement the action being shown on the movie screen. It produced numerous special effects: a train whistle, airplane, ocean surf, sirens, bells, horses hoofs and numerous others. When ‘talkies’ appeared in 1927, the need for the organ diminished and was relegated for patriotic sing-alongs, organ concerts and recitals.

“For Your Approval,” said the newspaper ad, “accurately defines the policy and intent of the management of the theatre in the recent installation of this mammoth organ, the latest type to be developed by Wurlitzer.”

 A Mr. Wilson, described as a noted theatre organist and composer of numerous numbers, played classical and popular music. His years of training on Wurlitzer theatre organs gave him perfect control of the hundreds of special effects which were built into the instrument, enabling him to produce virtually every sound needed to furnish perfect accompaniment to any and all theatre productions.

During “Opening Week,” the management extended to every patron an invitation to visit them at 239 E. Main and to pay particular attention to the organ preludes that preceded each program.

Patrons who visited the theatre weeks prior to the grand opening noted increased activity throughout the building that was done mostly at night to prevent disruption of programs. In addition to the new organ, work included the installation of new cozy and comfortable opera chairs that increased the enjoyment of the programs.  Thousands of dollars were invested in the upholstered chairs.

Other work included the installation of the most complete and perfect cooling system obtainable anywhere in that era. Huge blowers pumped a steady flow of fresh air into the theatre, which spread it throughout the auditorium in a scientific manner so as to prevent drafts and to maintain a steady pleasant temperature in the theatre. This, they said, made the theatre “the coolest place in town,” making it ideal for watching movies and programs.

A general renovation and redecoration of the interior of the theatre was made by adding modest touches, all aimed at increasing comfort and pleasure for customers.

The company further noted that special features, choice programs and improved services were an ongoing focus as specified in the Public Theatre policy, which had been announced some months earlier.

The movie on Monday and Tuesday that week was the Paramount production of “That's My Baby,” starring Douglas MacLean. A “short” was then shown along with their “Majestic News” feature. A newspaper ad said, “'Yes Sir, That's my baby; Doug's best and we don't mean maybe; some title, some picture, some gags, some laughs.”

The Wednesday showing was “Wild Justice,” featuring Peter the Great, the newest and best known German Shepherd dog star of 1926. Thursday and Friday brought about the featured “His People,” along with comedy, news and novelty. 

The organ's demise is not a happy one; it was sold in 1972 to an individual whose residence was afterward destroyed by fire, bringing a dramatic end to the prized relic. 

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In 1903, it was deemed to be the supreme Soldiers' Home in the country. The National Home for Disable Volunteer Soldiers, located near Johnson City in East Tennessee, was only a short journey over the mountains from Asheville, NC, site of Vanderbilt’s immense palace.

The Home's grounds were laid out in the shape of a rectangle, covering nearly a square mile. Its 36 buildings stood on a commanding plateau overlooking the loveliest of landscapes, with scenic mountains majestically posing in the distant horizon.

Magnificent forests of pine and maples stretched in every direction displaying a dazzling landscape picturesque with streams, glens and cliffs. The beauty was indescribable. Although somewhat remote, the outside world was within easy access to the Home. The Southern Railway made plans for a station to be built at the entrance to the grounds along with a connecting spur there from the main line at Johnson City.

Credit for the noble national venture belonged to Colonel Walter P. Brownlow (nephew of “Parson” Brownlow, the famous Union leader and editor of the Jonesborough Whig, which later relocated to Knoxville.

The colonel asked Congress for a $1.8 million appropriation for the home. They, in turn, voted to grant Brownlow's request in recognition of her loyalty to the government during the Civil War. The payout was reported to be the largest amount the government had granted for a soldiers' home.

General Martin McMahon ably directed the task of selecting the site and erecting appropriate buildings on it. He became the driving spirit in the effort and to him was due the honor of having a complete, comprehensive plan prepared at the outset for the grounds, buildings and interior finish.

When the Home opened in October 1903, it was put under the executive direction of John Smith, resident governor of the institution, along with an ample staff of officers. Colonel Brownlow, the father of it all, appropriately became the local manager.

The home comprised 30 buildings. Approaching it from the railway station and walking up the central drive displayed an imposing view with a glorious landscape stretching away and mountains breaking the distant horizon.

 Ascending the steps of the main entrance, the visitor observed the Administration building on the left and the Governor's residence on the right. Also to the right were the buildings of the hospital group and the home for nurses. In the center was the mess hall that measured 500 by 400 feet and contained a grand dining room where 1500 residents could comfortably sit at tables without crowding one another or inconveniencing the waiters.

Farther back was the impressive library financed by Mr. Carnegie that contained an estimated 17 thousand volumes. Next came the barracks measuring 300 feet long, then the chapel and finally Memorial Hall, an entertainment venue aimed at helping veterans get their minds off their physical and mental ailments.

The grounds also contained a storehouse and combination barracks where soldiers could be cared for and fed without having to go to the big mess hall. It also contained powerhouses, laundry facilities, stable, ice plant, propagating houses, guard barracks and a hospital with an adjoining morgue. The calm conservatory was an institution within itself, being an attractive part of the general scheme.

A significant feature of the architect's plan was housing for officers; it was designed for each resident's individualized use and comfort. The structures were separated with each one being surrounded by an attractive garden. North of the grounds was the cemetery that was ornamented and improved annually. In front of the spacious home in the center of a grand circle was a bandstand used to entertain visitors and patients with daily concerts.

At the imposing main entrance of the facility was a national flagstaff mounted on a pedestal of bronze, rising from the center of the elevated plaza through which would be observed by those on their way to the mess hall.

The six buildings, though separated, were connected by closed corridors, all enclosing a rectangular garden 400 by 700 feet with a fountain in the center. It was an Italian garden, beautifully laid out, ornamented with trees, shrubbery, benches and chairs so as to provide a delightful place of rest and comfort for the heroes of the great wars.

The kitchen, another model in design, represented every modern convenience known to mankind. Food was delivered at the pantries of the ward and elevated to the floors in the shortest possible time, ensuring hot meals from the kitchen. Also, there were private dining rooms for officers and mess rooms for surgeons.

Each of the 36 buildings had individual features, each differing somewhat from the others, so that picturesque harmony would charm every visitor's eye. Each one was the result of long and careful study of the purposes for which it was to be used.

The most modern ideas in arrangement and equipment were introduced into every department and every building from icehouse to laundry and morgue, from barracks to the Administration Building and dwellings for officers. This was achieved because there was a definite overall plan covering the entire enterprise that was established at the beginning of the project when the grounds were only wild fields in the midst of mountains and distanced from the nearest town, Johnson City.

Thus were created the improvements and conveniences of a city, which became known as “a city within a city.” The purest soft spring water from the pristine mountain reservoir was judged to provide healing for many an old soldier. 

Another feature was the system of barracks. Rotundas surmount two of these buildings. There were grand balustrades on each floor for promenading and lounging, an improvement deeply appreciated by the aged soldiers. At the ends of the barracks were ''recreation porches” open in summer and converted into sun parlors during winter.

The dominant note in the architecture was in keeping with Southern climate. A reminiscence of the Spanish architecture was suggested in the heavy overhanging roofs and wherever striking effects were produced. This was particularly true of the fine tower of the mess hall. A glit ball surmounted the slate cupola roof. In the veranda hung a big bell that chimed the hours, while a great dial indicated the time on the terra cotta face of the tower. Below under the balconies, one has a spacious view of the countryside.

As initially stated, the National Home for Disable Volunteer Soldiers was deemed to be the finest soldiers' home of its kind. Johnson City had something for which they could truly be proud. A drive-through the complex today takes the visitor back to 1903.

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The Powell County “history mystery” that I wrote about a few weeks ago has been partially resolved, thanks to the excellent publication, History of Washington County (compiled by the Watauga Association of Genealogists, Upper East Tennessee, 1988). 

According to the book, the northwest corner of Washington County, centered around the Fall Branch community, became the focal point of an attempt to form a new county. In 1821, citizens of the northwestern portion of Washington County, the northeastern portion of Greene County, the southeastern portion of Hawkins County and the southwestern portion of Sullivan County petitioned the Tennessee legislature to combine selected portions of the four counties into a new one. It was to acquire the name Powell County in honor of Judge Samuel Powell of Northeast Tennessee. 

The request resulted because of the remoteness of the surrounding area, poor roads and lack of adequate vehicular transportation, making it exceedingly difficult for residents to attend courts, musters, elections and conduct other business. The distance was often 15 miles or more to each of the county seats of Rogersville (Hawkins County) Blountville (Sullivan County), Greeneville (Greene County) and Jonesborough (Washington County).

After the local residents conjured up the idea of forming the new district, for whatever reason, little progress was made to carry out the work between 1821 and 1836.

In 1836, new life was breathed into the effort when the legislature appointed six commissioners for the proposed new county: Elijah W. Headrick, J.J. James, William Hall, Terry White, Alexander English and Robert Hays with specific instructions to “have the bounds of said county marked and also to hold elections to determine whether the qualified voters in the affected counties were willing to surrender land for Powell County.” 

Elections were conducted as specified. When the voting results were made known, 498 residents were in favor of the new county with only 24 opposing it, demonstrating the serious concerns the citizens had about travel. The minor opposition came mainly from residents of Greene and Hawkins counties. The county boundaries were then laid out on maps as noted in my first column.

Some of the Washington County inhabitants residing inside the proposed limits of Powell County are listed below. Pay particular attention to those with Bible names, including those of Meshack, Shadrach and Abednego:  James Whillock, Thomas Whillock, Levi Archer, Enoch Whillock, Sr., George Whillock, Enoch Whillock, George Irvin, William Irvin, Thomas Whitaker, John Whillock, John English, Nathan P. English, Jesse Hedrick, Thomas Fulkerson, John Fulkerson, Josiah Wood, George Hale, Jonah Keen, William Leadmon, John Crawford, Cage Grimsley, John L. Crumley, J.J. James, William Stephenson, Hiter Crouch, John Graham, Stephen White,…

Meshack Hale, Sr. Meshack Hale, Jr., Shadrach Hale, Abednego Hale, Amon Hale, Isaac Horton, Solomon Hale, Jesse Mullins, Thomas Charleton, Billingsly Gibson, John Bowser, Terry White, David White, Daniel Denton, David Gibson, Thomas Gibson, George Jackson, Joseph Grimsley, John Whillock, Sr., John Whillock, Jr., John Haws, Joseph Howard, Charles Hale, Enich Hale, Sevier Tadlock, Carter Tadlock, Bird Hale, William A. Crawford, John Pursell, Benjamin Archer, Michael Martin, Patrick Anderson, Stephen Keen, Jr., Jacob Robertson, John Robertson, James Robertson, William Robertson, Alexander Ford, William Haws and Mark Bean.

In spite of the vote and elaborate preparations  to launch Powell County, it never materialized. Perhaps the further delay was due to the enormous amount of work and cost to bring it to fruition. The project seemed to cool off again like it did from 1821 to 1836. Today, the areas that would have formed the new county are still firmly attached to the original counties of Washington, Greene, Hawkins and Sullivan. The ill-fated Powell County faded into yesteryear.

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Robert “Bob” Taylor and Alfred “Alf” Taylor are notable in Tennessee for their legendary 1886 brother-against-brother “War of the Roses” gubernatorial campaign, acquiring its colorful name from the original 1455-85 “War of the Roses” conflict fought for the throne of England between supporters of the houses of Lancaster (red roses) and York (white ones). Bob emerged the victor.

In 1899, after completing two terms as governor (1887-91 and 1897-99), Bob Taylor quit the field of politics (at least for seven years) when he lost his third bid for the job. In typical poetic form, Governor Taylor commented on his difficult pronouncement. Note in his words the adoration he expresses for his beautiful East Tennessee mountain home:

“I am about to shuffle off this mortal coil of politics and fly away to the haven of my native mountains where I may think and dream in peace, safe from the sickening sting of unjust criticism, safe from the talons of some old political vulture, safe from the slimy kiss and keen dagger of ingratitude.

“I do not mean to say that all politicians are vultures or that they are all hypocrites or assassins, for the great majority of our public men are upright and honest and worthy of the confidence reposed in them by the people. Yet there are black wings in the political firmament and reptiles crawl and hiss in every capital.

“But thank God, the live thunders of eternal truth always clear the atmosphere and the heel of justice will surely bruise the serpent’s head. I do not retire from this office with the ranking of disappointment and chagrin in my bosom, but rather as one who retires from labor to rest, from war to peace, from trouble to happiness.

“I do not retire, the ‘somnambulist (sleepwalker) of a shattered dream,’ but with all the buds of hope bursting into bloom and all the bowers of the future ringing with melody. I am contented with my lot in life. Three times I have worn the laurel wreath of honor (U.S. House of Representative and two terms as governor), twined by the people of my native state and that is glory enough for me.

“While I believe that the good in politics outweighs the bad, yet how thorny is the path and how unhappy the pilgrimage to him who dares to do his duty. There are no flowers except a few bouquets snatched from the graves of fallen foes; there is no happiness except the transient thrill of cruel triumph, which passes like a shadow across the heart.

“Every honest man who runs for office is a candidate for trouble, for the fruits of political victory turn to ashes on the lips. To me, there is nothing in this world so pathetic as a candidate. He is like a mariner without a compass, drifting on the tempest-tossed waves of uncertainty, between the smiling cliffs of hope and the frowning crags of fear. He is a walking petition and a living prayer; he is the packhorse of public sentiment; he is the dromedary of politics.

“I am no longer a candidate. Never again will I be inaugurated into public office. The ark of my humble public career now rests on the Ararat of public life and I stand on its peaceful summit and look down on the receding flood of politics. The dove of my destiny has brought me an olive branch from happier fields and I go hence to labor and to love.

“I take with me a heart full of gratitude and a soul full of precious memories – gratitude to the people for their unwavering confidence in me – precious memories of my friends who have been kind and true. The record I have made is an open book to all. I am willing to live by that record. For whatever mistakes I may have committed, I have kept steadily in view the honor of the State and the happiness of the people.”

“Our Bob” made good on his retirement promise from 1899 until 1907, but changed his mind and was elected a United States Senator from Tennessee. The distinguished Happy Valley native sadly passed away in 1911 while still serving his first term. Brother Alf became governor in 1920.

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In the spring of 1946, Republican legislators were lining up behind Representative B. (Brazilla) Carroll Reece of Tennessee to succeed Herbert Brownell Jr. as GOP National Committee chairman. Mr. Reece, 56 year-old representative from the Volunteer State's 1st Congressional District, if selected, was eager to resign from Congress and take over the party chairmanship on a full-time basis.

The National Committee, of which Mr. Reece was a veteran member, met on April 1 of that year to pick a successor to Brownell. GOP leaders in Congress reportedly settled on Mr. Reece after the leading contender, a representative from Ohio, took himself out of consideration.

Mr. Reece, a banker, lawyer, educator and highly-decorated World War I veteran, had served in Congress since 1921. Republican colleagues regarded him as a “middle of the road” man not particularly identified with the political camp of any party, thus being potentially satisfactory to all factions.

When Mrs. Louise Reece was asked if she thought her husband was dynamic enough to hold the job, she smiled and responded: “He keeps his dynamite well concealed. You should see him in an emergency or when he is provoked. A man can't have a war record like my husband's and not be dynamic.” The new chairman had volunteered for World War I, entering the service as a private and departing as a battalion commander. 

His decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal and the Purple Heart. In addition, he received the French Croix de Guerre with Palm and was cited for bravery by several Allied generals. Before he entered the GOP chairmanship, few persons in Washington knew very much about him.

According to Reece's critics, the chairman's record in Congress had been unspectacular; his voting branded him an isolationist. He voted against reciprocal trade agreements, lend-lease, amendments to the Wagner Labor Act and for anti-strike and anti-racketeer bills, which were directed against unions.

On the other hand, Reece's supporters noted that he had shown liberal tendencies in voting for abolishing the poll tax, anti-lynch legislation and signed the petition favoring the FEPC (Fair Employment Practices Commission). He regarded himself as an independent thinker. What Reece lacked in outward appearance was complemented by his wife who mere than filled the void. 

Louise admitted that politics has been in her family for a long time. She was the daughter of Sen. Guy Goff from West Virginia and granddaughter of the man who was often called the idol of the Republican Party in that state, former Judge Nathan Goff. While Reece was going about his quiet business in Congress, his wife kept things running smoothly back in Johnson City. This resulted in his having the longest tenure in the history of that district. He was first sent to Congress in 1930.

The new chairman was skillful at soothing ruffled feelings. Once, at a meeting of Republicans in Chicago, one member of the group offered a resolution and insisted on presenting it in person at the next meeting of the National Committee. Hot words were exchanged accusing the guilty one of wanting to usurp the conversation.

Reece, acting as chairman, said the whole situation reminded him of this story: “A group of preachers were sitting around discussing which preacher they like to listen to best. The last to speak his mind said, 'Well, when I'm going good and warmed up, I believe I enjoy listening to myself best.” This caused the group to laugh, thereby causing the tense situation to be ironed out.

A good friend of Reece's from the Tennessee Legislature has these positive words to say about the politician: “Carroll never meets a stranger. As soon as he says 'hello' to anybody, that person is his friend.”

When Reece passed away in March 1961, his wife was elected to serve the remainder of his term in Congress. Both are buried at Monte Vista Memorial Park in Johnson City.

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