November 2013

John Thompson recently wrote an article for the Press concerning Nicholas (“Nick, the Hermit”) Grindstaff (1851-1923), a celebrated legend of yesteryear who spent most of his adult life in solitude on 4,000-foot Iron Mountain in Johnson County. My aunt, Doris Cox Anderson, reminded me that Nick was her husband Dana's great uncle. He shared added facts about his kin.

One item was a 1939 26-page booklet titled, “Nick, The Hermit: A True Story Written in Poetic Form of Nick Grindstaff, Johnson County, Tennessee –  'The South's Most Famous Hermit.'” It was compiled by Asa Shoun (a friend), R.B. Wilson (a relative) and D.M. Laws (a professor). It contained an epic 693-line poem that was magnificently composed in rhyme in 1926 by A.M. Daugherty, known as the “poet laureate of Johnson County.”

Nick's life story is an engrossing one. After losing both parents, Isaac and Mary Heaton Grindstaff, at a young age, he was raised by relatives until he was 21 years old. By then, he was strong, handsome and intelligent. Soon, Uncle Nick, as he became known, inherited one-fourth of the family property where he resided until 1877. At age 26, he sold his land and relocated to the West to seek his fortune, becoming a successful sheep herder. His yearning was to set aside enough money to return home and seek a bride.


After six years, Nick headed back to his beloved East Tennessee mountains. While en route, he became victim of a robbery, losing his belongings and the cash he had set aside. During the scuffle, he received a severe blow to the head. There are several variations to this account, one involving a woman who tricked him. When Nick arrived on Stoney Creek, family and friends quickly noticed a significant change in him. He began shunning people and displaying a strong desire to live in seclusion. Nick, by some means, was able to acquire 50 acres of land on top of Iron Mountain, along Richardson Branch just out of Buladeen and made it his private living quarters. 

Grindstaff built an 8×8 foot log cabin with a rock and mud fireplace under a large hickory tree that provided ample shade in the summer. Reportedly, the home's only entrance door measured 18 inches wide by three feet high, a peculiar size for a stocky man. There were no windows to let in daylight or to afford a panoramic view of the outside. Nick carefully sealed small openings and cracks in his shack to deny entry of small varmints and to protect him against the harsh elements. The hermit's next task was to build a small rudimentary barn.

Even in his solitude, Uncle Nick was not entirely alone. In addition to the usual wild animals that occasionally drifted onto his property, he owned a cow, an ox, a faithful dog named Panter and even a pet rattlesnake that surprisingly roamed freely inside his cabin. The hermit's animals, wild and domestic, were special to him because they lived together as a family in peace forged by a common partnership in survival.

The thick mustached solitudinarian cooked over a fire and slept on a split log slab on a dirt floor. He cultivated a small tract of land and farmed a little, which included handovers (rutabagas). He also harvested yellow apples, which he stored in a hollowed out chestnut stump that was about five feet high and five feet in diameter, large enough to hold 10 bushels of the succulent fruit. Neighbors fondly recalled how good they smelled when he lifted the lid on the stump.

In addition to farming, the rugged mountaineer kept his two buildings in good repair, as well as building and repairing fences that surrounded his abode. His few basic tools included a double-edged ax, which he put to good use.

A neighbor, who bore the name of “Bear Hunter” Sam Lowe, once went to see Uncle Nick. As he approached the house, he heard a loud rattling sound inside, which he readily identified as a rattlesnake. As he raised his gun to destroy it, Nick halted him and ordered him to leave it alone. Apparently, Sam was unaware that the snake was his pet who slept in the rafters close to the fireplace and enjoyed a hissing good time in isolation. After Nick stepped away for a couple minutes, he heard a loud bang and returned to find his lifeless favorite reptile on the floor. He mourned for some time over the loss of his poisonous partner, thereby becoming even more resolved to subsist as a hermit.

Nick always kept a loaded gun handy to fend off unwanted visitors who stumbled upon his habitat. Once in a while, he trekked down the mountain to the valley where he did chores for folks who paid him wages. He used the money at a local store to purchase groceries, such as coffee, meal, bacon, tobacco and other sundry supplies. The trip also afforded him the opportunity to get a haircut.

Sporadically, Nick would arrive unannounced at a neighbor's residence about suppertime. In those days, it was considered poor manners not to invite someone to eat with you if he or she came to your house at mealtime. Although the hermit never asked for a handout, he usually got one. After finishing a meal, he would abruptly leave, often without uttering a word of appreciation. People did not consider him rude; they understood this gentle woodsman.

On July 22, 1923 at the age of 71, Nick the Hermit passed away in his sleep. That summer he had just put up a patch of sugarcane that he planned to use to make molasses but departed this life before it was time to harvest his crops. When a neighbor found him, he appeared to have been dead an estimated four days, apparently from natural causes. His friends had a difficult time getting Panter out of the house because the animal sensed something was wrong and was not about to let anyone near his master. Finally, they were able to contain Panter with a rope and remove Nick's body from the cabin.

After preparing the hermit for burial, they placed him in a nice coffin that had been paid for by family and friends. Legend has it that they allowed Panter to lay on his chest during the viewing. The dog seemed to know that his owner was gone because he howled mournfully. More than 200 people showed up at Nick's funeral to bid him farewell. It was said that Panter never got over Nick's passing and became so aggressive at times that he eventually had to be put down. His body was appropriately buried at Nick's grave.

Two years transpired. On July 4, 1925, R.B. Wilson, with the help of Nick's relatives and friends, erected a sizable monument, located 200 yards from where  his cabin stood. It was fabricated from cement and mountain granite, along with a slab of marble purchased from the Mountain City Marble Company. The memorial cost $208.07 and was constructed by Vaughn Grindstaff and Asa W. Shoun. The simple wording on it best described the hermit's life: “Uncle Nick Grindstaff – Born December 26, 1851 – Died July 22, 1923 – Lived Alone, Suffered Alone, Died Alone.”

Ironically, the marker was situated on land that would soon become a part of the expanding Georgia to Maine Appalachian Trail. One can only imagine the number of hikers throughout the years who have paused at his monument to rest.

Residents from nearby counties gathered at Uncle Nick's new monument to hold a memorial service. Many distinguished people were present, including Judge S. Earnest Miller (an attorney who practiced out of the Masengill Building at 242.5 E. Main in nearby Johnson City). The service was noted as follows: First Music – “America”; First Speaker – Asa W. Shoun, speaking on “The Life of Nick”; Second Speaker – J.M. Stout  on “The Life and Character of Uncle Nick”; Funeral Sermon – Address by Rev. R.M. DeVault; and a lecture – by Prof. D.M. Laws.

For people who today live in the valley between Holston River and Iron Mountain, the name of Uncle Nick Grindstaff evokes hand-me-down memories of a mountain spirit that has long vanished. The folks around Buladeen along Stoney Creek Road still talk about him through stories that include those that are accurate, mildly embellished or in part distorted. Nevertheless, Nick the Hermit was a unique person.

As John Thompson noted in his article, Granville Taylor, a nephew of Uncle Nick, has established a fund to restore Nick's crumbling grave marker. You can contribute by contacting him at (423) 474-2010.  

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Between 1945 and 1956, Thanksgiving morning was reserved for going with my dad to the annual Burley Bowl Parade in downtown Johnson City.  Our normal viewing spot was in front of the Tennessee Theatre on E. Main. Since it was usually freezing cold, we took thermos bottles of hot chocolate with us and kept in mind the fact  that Mom would have a hot Thanksgiving dinner waiting on us when we returned home.

After that, I began viewing the other Thanksgiving Day parades on our black and white 19 inch RCA television set with a limited option of stations available. Later, after color sets came into existence and became the rage, I was able to watch them in full color on a slightly larger screen. A perusal of old TV Guides recently provided me with a nostalgic tour down memory lane.

At 10:15 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, November 27, 1958, Detroit's 32nd annual J.L. Hudson department store's parade was hosted by everyone's favorite skipper, Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan), in a 45-minute telecast. A long-established feature of the parade was the presence of over 100 large “Italian heads” worn by cavorting clowns, which included 40 new ones that year. The normally scheduled game shows, “Dough Re Mi,” “For Love or Money,” “Treasure Hunt” and “Play Your Hunch,” were preempted that holiday morning.  

At 11 a.m., another parade commenced – the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. It was televised in a one-hour broadcast hosted by Bert Parks (best known for hosting the annual Miss America telecast from 1955 to 1979) and Frank Blair (anchor on the NBC News “Today Show” for 22 years). In addition to the giant Popeye, Spaceman and soldier balloons; celebrities (and the floats they were seen on) included Dick Clark (Cinderella), Ginger Rogers (Flower), Benny Goodman (Showboat), Dolores Hart (Mother Goose), Johnny Jellybean (Circus) Charlie Ruggles (King Cole) and Ed Herilihy.

The crowd favorites, without question, were the giant balloons that hovered overhead. They almost didn't make it into the parade in 1958 because they were to be inflated with helium, which was in short supply that year. The dilemma was resolved by inflating them with air and using cranes to propel them. The live broadcast preempted two network game shows: “The Price is Right” (with Johnny Olson's famous utterance, “Come On Down”)  and “Concentration.”

A third parade marched down the streets of Philadelphia that morning –  the 38-year-old Gimbel parade, which was the country's oldest. It was picked up nationally on CBS's “Arthur Godfrey Time” with country singer, Jimmy Dean (country singer and sausage producer) as the grand marshal.

At noon, the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions faced off in a Thanksgiving Day football game. The contest resulted in the  cancellation on that day of “Love of Life,” “Search for Tomorrow,” “The Guiding Light” (all three being soap operas), Walter Cronkite's newscast, “As the World Turns” (another soap) and “The Jimmy Dean Show.” “Art Linkletter's House Party” was picked up in progress at the finale of the game. Detroit won with a score of 24-14.

A college football game between the Aggies of Texas A&M and the Longhorns of Texas at Austin, Texas,  kicked off at 2:45 p.m. A&M ran a single-wing offense while Texas used a split-T attack. Jim Myers coached the Aggies while Darrell Royal provided leadership for the Longhorns. Texas won 27-0. The game affected five additional regular programs, “Haggis Baggis,” “Today Is Ours,” “”From These Roots,” “Queen for a Day” and “County Fair.”

In 1958, the only available networks were ABC, CBS and NBC; the DuMont network. The latter one, which I am sure many of my readers recall, had ceased operations three years prior. Those were the days before cable. Good reception required a quality antenna. An ad from that era urged consumers to purchase a Channel Master “Traveling Wave” antenna. Sending in a coupon and a dime brought a pamphlet on how to spot antenna trouble. 

This was television and we were pleased to have it even if it was often challenging to watch. Happy Thanksgiving.

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I was asked to give a brief address to the attendees at the Johnson City Sessions VIP celebration on Oct. 20 at the Venue in the downtown King Center. Subsequently, I was requested to repeat my speech in my Yesteryear column. Here is a slightly abbreviated version of it:

“My name is Bob Cox, a retired chemical engineer for Eastman Chemical Company, now writing local history articles for the Johnson City Press, something I have been doing for about 9 years.

Six of my family members participated in the 1928/29 Columbia Records sessions. Fiddlin' Charlie Bowman, my great uncle, was my grandmother's brother and leader of The Bowman Brothers, a string band comprised of three of his four brothers: Elbert, Walter and Argil. Charlie's two oldest teenage daughters, Pauline and Jennie, became known as “The Bowman Sisters” and traveled extensively with their father on Loews vaudeville circuit in the 1930s.

As an Appalachian historian, I stress to my readers the need to “capture and preserve” area history. It has been said that all of us represent a library. At birth, our libraries contain no books, but as we age and acquire knowledge and experience, we begin to add new “volumes,” to our “shelves.” Over time, our libraries become packed full of volumes. But as we approach old age, we start to lose books, sometimes at an alarming rate due to memory loss. When we die, our libraries go dark and shut down forever. Hang on to that thought; I will return to it.

Let me comment on the Bear Family Records project. The slick-page color book contains 8 chapters: 1. “Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” (from a newspaper ad from 1928); 2. “Gathering Flowers from the Hillside” (critical prior planning and strategy for locating known and obscure musicians; 3. Frank Walker (A&R (artists and repertoire) talent scout for Columbia Records’ Country Music Division); 4. Bill Brown (Frank Walker's assistant); 5. The  Artists (1928 sessions, 334 E. Main Street) 6. The  Artists (1929 sessions, 248 W. Main Street) 7. The Songs (100 selections); and 8. Discography of the Sessions (1928-29). Each recording gathering is identified in the book along with the artist(s) and the recording dates. The CDs were digitized from the original recordings and sound terrific.

When I learned of the upcoming Bear Family Records box set, I was delighted, being knowledgeable of the many high quality sets already in distribution, including the 1927 Bristol Sessions.

I wish to offer my readers a challenge. Purchase a box set and strive to “meet” the folks in the book and on the CDs. Take a three-dimensional journey back in time with photos, text and music. I began with selection 1 on CD 1 titled, “My Boyhood Days” by the Shell Creek Quartet and am progressing toward selection 100, “Smokey Blues” by Ellis Williams. As I listen to each song, I simultaneously read about them in the book and inspect their photos in minute detail, using a magnifying glass. I am interested in their clothing, their musical instruments, their facial expressions, the area around them, any animals present such as dogs or chickens and anything else I can find.

To accomplish my worthy goal, it will take a while, but hopefully I have a while. So far, I have listened to all of CD 1: Shell Creek Quartet, Grant Brothers & Their Music, Roane County Ramblers, Renus Rich & Carl Bradshaw, Clarence Greene, The Wise Brothers, Proximity String Quartet, Greensboro Boys Quartet and Richard Harold.

My favorite group name in the entire compilation is Ephraim Woodie and The Henpecked Husbands. As I read and listen, I try to remember that these were individuals who walked our streets, purchased items from our stores, attended our schools, joined our churches and played music all across our mountainous area. But eventually, these folks got old and went away, closing their libraries.

I have some great news. Because of Bear Family Records,  many of the “books” in their libraries have been reopened. Let me encourage you to garner the gold from this magnificent collection. This was a great week in the history of Johnson City. Our thanks go to Ted Olson, Tony Russell and Richard Weize (owner of Bear Family Records) for the box set and for honoring us with their presence. 

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The Johnson City Sessions' celebration has come and gone after much advanced publicity, four days of interviews, speeches and old-time music performances that included the rollout of the Bear Family Records box set. Several of my Bowman family members and I were privileged and honored to be among the participants.

Richard Weize, founder of Bear Family Records, captured and preserved the old-time music from the 1928 and 1929 Columbia Record sessions. This included the conversion of the original vintage 78-rpm records to digital format, documenting the musicians' personal stories and acquiring timeworn photographs of the performers. The compilation is a high quality set of four CDs (100 songs), accompanied by a corresponding book of old photos and informative text.

In today's column, I wish to single out some behind-the-scenes individuals, both living and deceased, whose contributions to the project were noteworthy. 

When I learned that there were no recordings available for the box set for two of my family members, Pauline and Jennie, known professionally as the Bowman Sisters, I sent Richard a CD of their four songs from my heirloom record collection. To my dismay, Richard called me saying that my records were too scratchy for inclusion in the collection and it appeared that the box set would regrettably go forward without the Bowman Sisters' songs.

Fortunately, Mary Lou Weibel, Charlie Bowman's youngest daughter, came to the rescue. She possessed a set of relatively good quality discs that she acquired from eBay. Richard sent a recording engineer to her home in Atlanta to transcribe them. As a result and to our delight, the Bowman Sisters' music was included in the project. 

One bit of data that was conspicuously missing was the location of the 1929 make-shift studio. A newspaper ad in the fall of 1928 confirmed the address of the first sessions to be 334 E. Main Street. Pauline once told me that the 1929 recordings were conducted in a building on the north side of W. Main Street, just east of and within walking distance of the intersection with W. Watauga Avenue.

Renowned country music historian, Charles Wolfe, learned from Jack Jackson, a participant at the 1929 sessions, that the site was a vacated store building that had been used for a cream separating station. He described it as a relatively small old red brick structure with a front section about 10 by 12 feet in front, then a wall and a small window that resembled a bank teller's window and an entry door into the building.

When I was in Johnson City last February, I contacted Bill Durham, a SHHS classmate of mine who grew up in the W. Main Street area, to see if he knew which of those buildings might be the one in question. We drove there early one morning and, in the sheer peacefulness of the town, took photos of every structure on that block.

Bill then called Eddie Baldwin, a friend of his who also grew up in that neighborhood. Bill gave him a verbal description of the building and asked if he had any thoughts about which facility might be the one for which we were seeking.

With little hesitation, Bill and Eddie mutually agreed that the studio was located at 248 W. Main Street, which at the time of the recording sessions would have been a relatively new building. The structure, which today is painted white, is the property of the West Main Street Christian Church that borders on Sidney Street.  

Bill recalled going by the edifice many times in his youth when it was the Rowe Radiator Repair Co. A current photo of the building is included in the box set. Bill further recalled that the structure was a large open room with a partitioned restroom in one corner. A roll-up door was located on the east side for automobile entry.

My final contributor was Clarence Howard Greene, son of Clarence Horton Greene who recorded “Johnson City Blues.” I became acquainted with him through the efforts of Alan Bridwell. The younger Clarence walked in the same footsteps as his famous father, becoming a great musician of old-time music in his own right. He sent me a CD of his songs along with several old photos that I forwarded for use in the sessions project. Sadly, Clarence died a couple years ago. 

Thank you Bear Family Records for the wonderful box set and your participation in the corresponding four-day city celebration.

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