September 2014

Official announcement that a $500 thousand National Guard armory would be constructed in Johnson City was welcomed by numerous organizations who had long wished for such a place to hold meetings. The new facility was located on a 30-acre tract of land just off the New Jonesboro Highway (11E, left side traveling west) near what was then the city limits.

The new armory, after completion, made possible many types of gatherings that were previously prohibited for lack of suitable facilities. Colonel Clarence W. Taylor, commander of the five-unit 130th Tank Battalion, National Guard, said that worthwhile meetings of all groups, including religious and political, would be welcomed to use the armory's facilities.

With Johnson City becoming known throughout Tennessee as the “convention city,” Chamber of Commerce-minded residents were looking forward to bringing even more out-of-towners here after the armory was completed. The assembly room was designed to seat 3,000 persons.

Sketch of the New Armory That was Built on the New Jonesboro (Jonesborough) Highway

The armory grounds included amply parking facilities for all cars even after the assembly room was filled to capacity. The new armory was consistent with plans to help make Johnson City and Washington County a better place to live.

Most meetings of organizations and presentations of programs had previously been held at the John Sevier Hotel, the Country Club, East Tennessee State College  Memorial Gymnasium and City Hall in some instances.

For many meetings, the John Sevier and the Country Club were far too small, although they provided excellent facilities for crowds which they could accommodate. The State College Gym was much too large for smaller gatherings and City Hall was too small for larger ones.

The serving of meals put the John Sevier and the Country Club into a separate class for banquets and dinner meetings. The new armory was not expected to have any significant impact on that need. However, kitchen facilities were included in the armory's ultra-modern structure if groups wished to prepare their own food.

Conference and study rooms, designed to be used mainly by members of the National Guard, were used for small group meetings at the Armory. The assembly room, which included a stage, was built to be used for all sorts of rallies and meetings, which attracted a sizable group of visitors.

The armory was ideal for plays, band concerts, sporting events and about anything that needed a gymnasium. It helped remove some of the conflict in the often-crowded schedule of functions in the city and county.

Those groups which used the armory were to be charged a proportionate share of the extra costs of operation caused by their having a meeting, such as cleanup and utilities. The cost proved to be very low, and in many cases, no amount was charged. The city of Johnson City and Washington County, which promoted the armory project, were asked to contribute $30 thousand in funds and services, which included landscaping and grounds improvements.

The federal government paid 75 percent of the bill on the armory, which comprised a $100 thousand service building for National Guard use only. The state came through with the rest of the cost.

Since taxpayers provided the funds for the armory, Nations Guard officials felt that the public needed to use the new structure as often as possible. According to Colonel Taylor, arranging a meeting was as simple as making a telephone call.

When completed, the armory was among the most modern ones in the United States. Washington County residents were proud to have in their midst, a new half-million dollar institution, designed to be of use intellectually, economically and for its contribution to nation defense.

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Recently, Kitty Cornett contacted me saying, “I have been trying to track down a local violin maker in Johnson City, who's long gone by now, but may still have family living in Johnson City.” After acquiring her mother's old violin, she spotted inside one of the two F-Holes the words: “E.W. Hinkle,” '”H”,' “Johnson City, Tenn.” and “1933.”

Top: Kitty Cornett Holds Her Mother's Restored Violin. 

Bottom: Beautiful Wood Design on Back of Unrestored Violin.

Kitty would like to know if anyone has information about this person. She also wants to know the significance of the letter “H.” My hasty response to the 1977 Science Hill High School graduate was that the only vintage violin maker I knew about was Virgil C. O'Dell, who operated from his residence at 207 W. Pine.

However, after perusing my “Yesteryear” collection, I located a Jan. 11, 1934 Johnson City Chronicle newspaper clipping concerning an E.W. Hinkle. The article's subtitle, read: “Hotel Manager Is Making Beautiful Violins, Cabinets.” I further located his name in two city directories.

“One of the newest and most interesting of Johnson City's industries,” said the piece, “is a violin-making shop operated by E.W. Hinkle at the Fountain Square Hotel (109 Fountain Square, west side). Hinkle, who is also an expert cabinet maker, made two magnificent secretaries for Christmas gifts for members of his family.

“He has produced fine rolling desks, cabinets, etc., but his pet hobby is making violins of the Stradivarius style. His instruments, according to expert violinists, have an exceptionally fine tone and resonance due to the skill with which the backs and bellies are hand shaped. Hand-made violins are generally much finer and more expensive than factory-made instruments for that particular reason.

“Factory-made instruments where the backs and bellies are machine cut, the thickness of the wood is necessarily the same. But with hand-made instruments, the back and belly are of varying thickness ranging from 3/64 inch to 9/64 inch, this variation being accomplished by hand shaving of the wood, according to the location, particularly on the belly.

“Hinkle imports from Germany the wood used for the bellies and, of course, also uses considerable ebony. He is experimenting with instruments made almost entirely of wood from this section (East Tennessee) and has made two instruments of very good tone using local wood. Very shortly, he intends to make an up-town display of his violins and invites musicians to inspect and try them out. It is purely a hobby with him, as he has never attempted to commercialize his work.”

Ms. Cornett, an Assistant Director in the Graduate and Executive Education Programs of the College of Business at the University of Tennessee, provided additional information that included several photos of the four-stringed instrument before and after she had a reputable professional business restore it.

“Note that the back of the violin looks like a striped tiger, she said, “and if you look closely, there are two thin lines that outline the edges of the back. I originally thought they were painted on but figured if that were true, they would have rubbed off by now. The newspaper article makes me believe they are ebony.”

Top: Hinkle's Writing Visible Inside F-Hole of Violin.

Middle: Kitty's Mon, Jane; Aunt Pat; and Their Grandmother.

Bottom: Cowan Moss III at About 9 Years of Age.

(Photos Courtesy of Kitty Cornett).

Ms. Cornett's parents grew up in Johnson City, as did their parents. Her mother, Jane Perdue Lewis Cornett, who was born in 1921, took violin lessons under a qualified music teacher. However, she detested the experience, later telling her daughter that she was never a good violin player and always occupied a “second chair” position in the school orchestra.

During the height of the Great Depression, the youngster, who by then was in high school, was finally relieved of her misery when Jane's parents let her quit taking lessons. In retrospect, she knew the real reason was the poor economy. The violin thus abruptly went silent.

Kitty related how she came in possession of the unfretted fingerboard instrument. Her cousin, Cowan Moss III (son of Dr. Cowan Moss, Jr. and Pat Lewis Moss Rowan) came home one afternoon and announced to his parents that he wanted to learn how to play a musical instrument.

Since Jane still possessed her violin, she and Pat agreed that he should learn to play it. The two ladies had the violin spruced up and restrung for the youngster. The instrument was about to arise from its deep slumber.

Cowan recalled that his “violin career” started in the early 1960s when he was in about the 4th grade at Fairmont School where there was a sincere effort to establish an orchestra. However, by the time he went to North Junior High, they had a decent orchestra, which the lad joined. He said that he was always in the second chair section Junior High and Senior High schools.

Young Moss noted that South Junior High’s orchestra was the better of the two, which was evident when they were combined at Science Hill.

Kitty said to this day she can still visualize him in her mind's eye as he hurriedly carried the violin case and metal music stand with sheet music “flying in the air.” As an aspiring violinist, he often improvised his own songs.

Cowan's family members frequently begged him to play their favorite violin “hit” of his, a made-up composition that was appropriately titled, “Cats and Dogs.” It was so-named because its wailing sound resembled that of a fight between the two animals. The young man so seriously performed his homemade composition that he took no notice of his siblings and cousin writhing in the floor, laughing hysterically.

One favorite memory that Kitty's mom and aunt shared was when Cowan’s orchestra was performing at a concert. The two ladies had the starting time wrong and made a grand entrance just as the performance was concluding. Kitty said the two pulled off quite an act when they convinced Cowan that they heard every note he played and that he was brilliant.

By the time the young man entered high school, the demand on his time had greatly increased. Therefore, after limping through his sophomore year, he finally bailed out of the orchestra, causing the violin to go silent again.

Kitty recalled the day after the violin had been restored. The store owner's assistant tuned it and played it, propelling once again beautiful music into the heavens. Although the instrument had been dormant for about 45 years, she described it as being an emotional moment for her. To her untrained ear, it sounded wonderful.

If anyone has knowledge of Mr. E.W. Hinkle or would like to comment on this story, please drop me a note.

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My wife recently directed my attention to a beautiful Monarch butterfly hovering near our backyard flowerbed arbor. Immediately, I thought about the late Tom Hodge,  long time writer for the Johnson City Press, and his love for the fluttery critters. He inspired my love for area history.

Each fall, the former sports writer, news reporter, telegraph editor, executive editor and editorial director provided readers with a continuous monarch butterfly report of the migration of the winged creatures to Mexico. He also examined woolly worms to determine how mild or severe the weather would be. According to legend, thickness of the coat and number of rings on the caterpillar is a prediction of the forthcoming weather.

Tom also mentioned “morning fogs in August,” which some folks believe correlates with forthcoming snow accumulation in the mountains.  Supposedly, heavy fogs forecast deep snows while light ones predict a miniscule amount of the white stuff.

Tom Hodge, Third From Left Takes A Coke Break With Press Employees

The journalist became acquainted with many railroad workers over the years and was continually featuring their stories in his column. They included Erwin's legendary J. Fred Leonard, known affectionately as “Fogless Bill” and who had a distinctive train whistle; Ed Lewis of old Clinchfield 99; and even Casey Jones. Tom's train articles involved the CC&O, Southern, ET&WNC and others.

Hodge developed an appreciation for the many landmarks in the East Tennessee area and the importance of preserving them. Sadly, Johnson City razed many of them over the years, which included the Southern Railroad train depot, City Hall, Tennessee Theatre (built as a venue for vaudeville stage shows) and the Windsor Hotel, to name a few. And the beat goes on.

Over the years, Tom regularly received local history material, either written or verbal, which he used in his columns. This included vintage newspapers, books, high school annuals, photographs, shared memories and area artifacts. 

Tom penned numerous articles about the First Families of Franklin. This organization, that originated from the Tipton-Haynes Historical Farm, traced its history to a battle over the newly formed State of Franklin at the farm and surrounding area giving rise to the organization. He qualified as a member because of a distant relative and received the honor from Faith Stahl, wife of Johnson City’s late historian, Ray Stahl.

Tom routinely focused on area customs and folklore with a wide variety of subjects: sulfur and molasses being good for acne, the wearing of copper bracelets, the mysterious Brown Mountain lights near Linville, NC, ramp (mountain onion) festivals and many others.

One of Tom’s favorite subjects involved stories that originated from Clarence’s Restaurant in Unicoi. Old timers from the area routinely met there to eat and exchange stories, or “tall tales” as they referred to them.

One of the most famous and unusual stories to come out of East Tennessee is the 1916 hanging of a circus elephant, known as Mary, for killing her trainer. The execution took place in Erwin using a railroad crane. Tom kept the story alive over the years by occasionally revisiting the subject and adding new information or slants on it as it became available.

Through the years, Tom reviewed a number of local history books from local authors, thereby doing a favor to the author and to area history buffs.

And finally, Hodge occasionally gave his readers a “test” that covered a wide variety of local history subjects, some of which had been covered in his articles. One creative individual submitted one that was in the format of a crossword puzzle.

Tom featured several items that I sent him over the years. His many contributions to local history have not been forgotten, at least not by this writer. 

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Occasionally, I delve back into my childhood to revisit cherished memories of yesteryear. My favorite radio show of the early-to-mid 1950s was, without question, “Big Jon & Sparkie.” The program ran from 1948 until 1958.

Big Jon and Sparkie Who Shared the Same Voice Over Radio

I faithfully listened to it over WJHL on my bakelite radio every weekday afternoon at five p.m. (one hour at the beginning of the series, later reduced to 15 minutes)  and every Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. for their “No School Today” (“Noooo Schooool Todaaaay”) program (initially two hours, eventually 60 minutes).

Two other late afternoon broadcasts that the youngsters of my generation enjoyed were ” Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” who kept the universe safe from space pirates  and “Mark Trail,” an outdoorsman, conservationist who courageously fought the enemies of man and nature. 

Big Jon was Jon Arthur (real name Jonathan Goerss) and Sparkie, “the little elf from the land of make-believe who wants more than anything else in the world to be a real boy.” Sparkie's voice was actually that of his creator that had been speeded up electronically, something a bit unique in those days. Dave Seville later did the same thing with his “Alvin and the Chipmunks” recording in 1958.

The radio show's theme song, “The Teddy Bear's Picnic,” was an organ instrumental. Initially, Big Jon had more airtime than anyone on radio. I never missed a daily episode. One story line that sticks in my memory was a boat journey from Africa back home to Cincinnati.

Of all the stories featured on the Saturday morning version of the show, my favorites were the “Little Orley” episodes. The creator and writer of them was former Marine, Hugh “Uncle Lumpy” Brannum. He later became Mister Green Jeans on television's “Captain Kangaroo,” playing the role of farmer, handyman and inventor. Each creative recording was about four minutes in length. Brannum always ended his “Little Orley” adventures with the catch phrase, “that's all.”

Around 1955, I located a Decca 78-rpm “non-breakable” record containing two “Little Orley” stories: “Little Orley and the Parade” and “Little Orley and the Cloud.” As I played them, I quickly remembered both selections.

In the spring of 1999, I came across an advertisement for the entire set of stories on several CDs. I ordered eight stories and found them to be as entertaining as they had been in 1955.

The adventures were the creation of noted bandleader, Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, who hired Brannum to write and record the stories. The recordings were intended to be a part of a radio show but television was advancing rapidly on the entertainment field, pushing radio to the sidelines. Although the radio program was cancelled, the shows managed to become a part of Big Jon and Sparkie's Saturday morning programs.

My research reveals that there were a total of 45 stories in the series such as Little Orley and the… Parade, Cloud, Leprechaun, Barn Dance, Glee Club, Engine, Pancake, Snowstorm, Bull Fiddle, Cricket, Bug Band, Bookworm, Sunday School Picnic, Stranger, Love Bug and Helpful Snowman.

After almost 50 years, I found myself quoting the words, line by line, of “Little Orley and the Parade”… “Well now, once upon a time, Orley's pa said, 'hey, there's a big parade in town today. They do say as how it's gonna be quite a show, so Orley put your shoes on, come on, let's go.' Then he hitched up the team and said 'Geteup, boy' And they drove down the road while Orley jumped for joy.” I could go on, but I won't.

Little Orley must have been a country boy because he rode a team of horses to the parade. Maybe that is why I liked him so much. I conclude by taking a cue from Uncle Lumply… “That's all.”

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In the past, I wrote about several carnivals and circuses that came to Northeast Tennessee. They included the Mighty Haag Railroad Shows, Gentry Brothers, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, The Great New York and New Orleans Zoological and Equestrian Exposition, John Robinson's Circus and J.J. Page Carnival. The latter wintered in Johnson City along Love Street.

Today, I am adding another one to the list – the Rubin & Cherry Shows, known as “The Barnum & Bailey of All Carnival Shows,” came to the city on April 29, 1917.

Rubin and Cherrry Shows Advertisement from 1917

This was described as the biggest, best and most up-to-date show of its kind on the road that year. There were 18 paid attractions, 50 concession stands, merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, merry widow swings and the exciting $40,000 “Whip the Whip,” referred to as the “joy ride supreme.”

The amusement company traveled on its own special train of 15-foot cars. Locals were strongly urged to meet and greet the show train as it arrived in town. It offered a grand free band concert two hours after arrival that featured 400 show musicians. A plea was made in the local newspaper for residents who had unfurnished rooms available to let them know.

There was every kind of entertainment act imaginable, from trained fleas, a plantation show, the “wild west” and numerous amusements for young and old.

Cowboys, cowgirls, Costello Post's Drum and Fife Corps, Rubin & Cherry bands, eight floats and numerous other features occupied the procession.

The ad spoke of a monopoly of the world's greatest attractions: Through the Trenches, Monkey Speedway, Underground Chinatown, Broadway Cabaret, Motordrame, Prince William, The Spider Girl, Musical Review, One Ring Circus, Joyland Fun Factory, Dixieland Minstrels, Crystal Haze, Hawaiian Village and European Flea Circus.

The superior excellence of the organization over smaller carnival shows of that era was too well-known around Johnson City to give it much competition. Suffice it to say, there was a large and well-pleased crowd each day on the big lot. Mr. Sam Arh, the advance agent of Rubin & Cherry Shows had been affiliated with the famous Robines Shows and the K.G. Barkoot Shows.

My source offered another unusual aspect of the carnival that year. At a special called meeting, city council “suspended 'verboten' (forbidden, prohibitive, banned) and granted permission to the Reuben and Cherry shows to exhibit within the corporation limits at the price of a $250 license to be collected by the city recorder.” No mention was made as to the specific showground site, but it was understood that the carnival would be seen the following week on one of the lots in the Southwest Addition.

Carnival companies often showed just outside the city limits at the end of S. Roan Street. Beyond this location, the city was the unfortunate beneficiary of all of the ills and objectionable features associated with unsavory traveling entertainment companies. The council reasoned that it would be better to allow potential undesirables to come within the city limits where, under police scrutiny, they could be watched and regulated. It was noted that outside the corporation limits, there were no restraints whatsoever. 

The Rubin & Cherry Shows stayed in Johnson City for six days before rolling to its next scheduled performance. Note in the photo that the carnival performed on Walnut Street that year opposite the Post Office, which would later became the site of the Ashe Street Courthouse after the post office relocated to E. Main Street.

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