November 2014

Dr. Ted Thomas, Milligan College Professor of Humanities, History, and German, sent me an interesting clipping from an August 27, 1918 Johnson City Daily Staff that dealt with a visit of four distinguished visitors to the city: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and John Burroughs.

Thomas Edison (L) and Henry Ford

Harvey Firestone (L) and John Burroughs

An unusually brief note in the previous day's newspaper spoke with little fanfare of their arrival. After the newspaper was distributed, the news office was besieged by readers calling to find out where they could get a peek at four of America's most illustrious citizens. 

A crowd estimated at 500 to 1000 people turned out that Monday afternoon to greet their guests. The men were en route on their annual vacation trip from New York City by automobile on a mountainous journey that culminated in Ashville, NC.

Thomas Edison was one of the world's greatest inventors, maker of the incandescent light and the sounding machine, which was a cylinder recording device and hundreds of practical electrical devices.

Henry Ford was originator of the automobile that was said to have put the mourners bench out of business and brought more joy and happiness to mankind than any other contrivance.

Harvey Firestone, who specialized in making tires, had business revenue during 1917 amounting to $65 million. He organized the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, a leading firm in the rubber industry.

John Burroughs' notoriety, unlike his companions, was being one of the world's greatest naturalists, authoring hundreds of bird stories, poems and expressions of his love of nature. The curiosity of nearby residents who witnessed the entourage was amply justified.

Accompanying the famous four were H.S. Firestone, Jr., and Russell Cline, the assistant advertising manager of the Firestone Company.

All members of the party arrived in Johnson City by the designated time, with the first to show up being John Burroughs. He captured the public's eye with his Rip Van Winkle appearance, sporting gray whiskers and a linen duster that carried his slightly over 82 years remarkably well.

The bearded outdoorsman alighted from the car in front of the Majestic Theatre and, as he strolled down Main Street, encountered local businessmen Ed Brading and Munsey Slack, who readily recognized him and introduced him to the directors of the Chamber of Commerce.

Ed was president of Cherokee Realty Company, v-president of Brading-Sells Lumber Co. and v-president of Tennessee Trust Company. Munsey was editor of the Johnson City Daily Staff.

Burroughs was astonished that anyone would recognize him and, when he was told there was an article in the local newspaper about his party coming to town, asked for a copy of it, stating that his party was, in fact, interested in the war news. He talked entertainingly of the refreshing trips that the party planned each year.

The men had departed New York a few weeks earlier bound for a trip through the mountains and asked for nothing more than to pitch their tents by the side of a refreshing spring and spend the night resting on mother earth.

The foursome had left Tosca, near Bluefield, West Virginia early the previous Monday morning and camped a few miles from Jonesboro on the Nolichucky River. According to Mr. Burroughs, during that period Mr. Edison actually slept on a hotel bed one night and that was at Connellsville, PA, where they could not find a suitable campsite.

According to the Johnson City Daily Staff: “Two weeks of gypsying through the mountains had been an incalculable benefit to them as was noted by their bronze countenances and clear visions portrayed. All four of them looked revived, well-rested and fully rejuvenated. Burroughs was the most picturesque of the party, being tall and eagle-eyed with keen penetration. One look at his countenance revealed the source of his success.”

Henry Ford, at the solicitation of President Woodrow Wilson about two months prior, had announced his candidacy for United State Senator in Michigan. He made no campaign announcements and refused to spend a cent to secure the favor of either party. The people of Michigan were delighted and told him, “Mr. Ford, you will have little trouble in Michigan in the primary.”

Ford's reply was “I hope so,” which was taken to indicate that he did not care a bawbee (Scottish halfpenny) whether he was nominated or went to build automobiles and submarine chasers at his immense factories in Detroit. Of note, Ford lost the election, but obviously did not mind.

The noted industrialist reverted his energy to war work. Everywhere he had been, the energies of the people, of the United States were bent toward winning the war. He believed that Uncle Sam would sound the gavel at the peace table within a year (as was the case).

Thomas Edison, who was seated with the chauffeur in the car with Mr. Ford and Mr. Firestone, was described as being one of the most modest men who ever visited this section of the country. He was a trifle hard of hearing and when one Johnson Citian went up to him and told him he wanted to shake hands with the greatest man in the world, he blushed and modestly denied the accusation.

Abe Slack, a Staff carrier boy, was fortunate enough to sell Edison a newspaper. The inventor's car had just stopped on Roan Street when Edison waived to him and stopped the car. He gave the youngster a dime and when he reached to get change, Mr. Edison grabbed another paper and passed it back to Ford, telling the boy to keep the change. The youngster was later offered five dollars to sell that dime but refused without hesitation.

The party departed in two large Packard automobiles, with two white trucks carrying their luggage. As expected, no business was conducted during the visit; the fellows were merely enjoying a vacation “far from the madding crowd.” They were communicating with nature, renewing their youth and having their fatigued brains soothed and their nerves healed.

The visitors liked what they saw in and around Johnson City. Mr. Ford and Mr. Firestone especially took a keen interest in everything they observed and were impressed with the number of paved city streets and the city's general air of progressiveness. 

Readers might want to further research this subject to learn more about the annual quartet's fresh air excursions. There is a wealth of information available. I wish to thank Ted for sharing this subject with me and my readers.

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Thanks to a few individuals who shared their memories of the Red Shield Boys' Club in response to my request in my Oct. 13th column. I will feature several more in upcoming columns. The first comes from Dick Church.

“In 1944,” he said, “when the club was formed according to your article, I would have been 7 years old and in the third grade at Columbus Powell. Although I don’t remember the exact time frame, I would have had the opportunity and desire to be involved with the Boys' Club most likely from about 1947 when I would have been in Junior High school until about 1950.

“I clearly remember heading for the club in its upstairs location on W. Market Street, right after school let out where I would hang out until probably around 7:30 p.m.”

Dick noted that the city bus station was just down the street and across Fountain Square where he caught the big green bus that took him on a route through the tree streets heading toward East Tennessee State College. His stop was at the corner of Maple and Tennessee streets where he walked a short distance to his Maple Street home. He recalled that bus fare was a nickel or dime then.

“You mentioned a lot of activities that were available at the Boys' Club,” he said, “and I took part in nearly all of them except for the team sports. The thing I liked about the Club was its informality. You could do about anything you felt like doing with no pressure to stick to any one thing. You could spend an hour picking out “Chop Sticks” on a piano that was situated in a small “music room.” You could work in the wood shop, play board games or do whatever you wanted to do.”

I mentioned in my article that the club had a small television. According to Dick: “There was no TV set during the years I attended; that would have come later. For a time the Optimist club sponsored a Junior Optimist club at the Boys' Club, which I joined.”

“Two activities stand out in my mind; there was a small room in the back of the club called the Radio Shop. There was a great volunteer to the club whose name was George. I am not sure of his last name, but he helped the boys learn how to build crystal radio sets and even provided some of the parts for them.

Bob McKee, Jimmy Lafollette and Bob Barlow Work in Radios at the Red Shield Boys' Club

George once brought in a wire recorder, which was a precursor to the tape recorders. I though it was a marvel that you could record your voice on a piece of shiny stainless steel wire and play it back. I was thoroughly entranced with being able to build a radio myself and hooking it to a wire antenna strung outside the house where I could listen to local radio stations through a pair of earphones.

“Sometimes George would bring in a radio that needed fixing and then show us how to take it apart and find what was wrong with it. That experience started me on a long road of exploration of radio and electronics.”

Dick explained that by about 1950, television was on the scene and he started spending his free time hanging out at the shop of “Brownlow, the Radio Man” that was located on Walnut Street. Walter Brownlow and his technician, Ray McCrary became his second mentors. They taught him how to fix radios and, as a result, he helped them install TV antennas all over town.

“By 1952,” he said, “while attending Science Hill, I earned my first Amateur Radio License. In 1957, I went to work at Cape Canaveral as an electronics technician, later after completing college and going to work in the rocket and space business as an Aerospace engineer.”

Dick retired in 1997 after over 40 years in that business. His earliest mentor who started him on his life’s career and lifelong interest in Electronics was George at the Boys' Club. Can anyone furnish George's last name?

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Jan. 1, 1890 was a busy day for Johnson City. During all the hard times of the late 1800s, Johnson City had more desirable and more permanent work than any other town, large or small, in the South. Notwithstanding the bad weather, work steadily advanced on all the plants and factories, until they were on the threshold of prosperity’s open door.

In the next sixty days, the builders promised to complete one of the most magnificent and capacious hotels in the state. It would be known as the Carnegie Hotel, which was being erected by the Carnegie Land Company in their addition to Johnson City.

The company sold $50,000 worth of property in their addition along the east side of the city. One section of land was block No. 70 sold to A.B. Harris, president of the Southern Construction Company.

The block was initially described as being the ugliest allotment in the addition, fronting on North Main Street (Carnegie street, not the one in the downtown district) and 7th Avenue (later renamed Chilhowie Avenue).

Mr. Harris began building a hotel there that was said to have no equal in the South with respect to beauty. It was so situated where it could be seen for miles in every direction and overlooked all parts of the county.

Mr. Harris's intention was to have the hotel open by the time the ill-fated Three C's Railroad was built to the coal fields the upcoming fall. The building was to be the showiest and most conveniently arranged one that could be designed by architects and built regardless of expense and with the sole purpose of making it a summer and winter resort of high grade.

A Chicago company bought 40 lots in the Carnegie Addition that New Years' Day with plans to put up 12 business houses in the upcoming spring. A large force was put to work excavating for the $100,000 hotel, which was located at the corner of Broad Way (Broadway) and 2nd Avenue (Fairview).

Specifications called for the building to be brick, 150×140 feet and four stories high. The materials were already contracted for and were to be delivered immediately to the site. A decision was made to expedite the building of the hotel so as to get it fully operational as speedy as possible. It opened for business six months later on July 8, 1889.

General J.T. Wilder left town that week traveling to Birmingham to contract for the erection of the furnace and ordered a Mr. Cantwell to put a force of men at work that very week grading 40 acres of land on which to place the furnace.

Within 30 days the furnace was to be well underway providing they received the brick they needed. Engine No. 31, the first 3Cs locomotive ever sent to the city arrived that week and was fired up and run down to the track. John Bonan, an engineer formerly employed by the ETV&G Railroad, was put in charge of it and James Watson was assigned fireman.

A number of flat cars were ordered and as soon as they arrived, N.G. Scott & Co. begin the arduous task of laying track, which was needed because the rails had been ordered in advance.

Will M. Patton commenced building a dwelling in the Jonesboro addition. W.J. Palmer started a residence on Myrtle Avenue with plans to expedite it to completion. R.J. Lusk had his property laid off with plans to open Myrtle and Fairview avenues through it.

Will Harr tore down the old tobacco warehouse located at the corner of Buffalo and Jobe streets, which greatly improved the looks of things in the downtown area.

Indeed, early January 1890 was an eventful one for Johnson City.

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Bob Taylor used to be the editor of Johnson City's The  Comet newspaper. An old saying that pertains to gifted writers urges these folks to keep their files wet continually for the specific purpose of preventing spontaneous combustion from their “lightning streaks of rhetoric.”

The name “Comet” came about by accident. A group of men consisting of Cy Lyle, Bob Burrow and Bob Taylor along with a half-dozen country squires, utilized because of their high social standing in the city, was organized to found a newspaper. In their initial meeting, they established a list of preliminaries, such as determining an appropriate name for the new publication.

One of the squires immediately suggested that the name be “The Hurrold.” It was adopted by acclamation, after which all of the squires were put to work on a committee to draft a prospectus.

The squires began work on it on it as a matter of policy. They were instructed to comb out any unbecoming kinks in it and protect the English language from insult.

The committee finally submitted a wonderful, yet fearful document, using the odd spelling, “Hurrold,” so named because that was exactly how nearby mountain people pronounced it.

The syndicate then met to consider it, at which time it was passed around, admired and corrected with a few frills. However, one of the committee members startled the syndicate by recycling the issue saying: “Boys, danged if I b'leeve that 'ar goldurned name's spelt right. She looks kinder unnatural-like somehow.”

They passed the prospectus around, shook their heads over it and concurred that indeed something was wrong with it, but they could not see eye-to-eye just what it was. Soon it flashed in like a revelation on Squire Huffaker's mind: “I've got her, boys. There's just too many durned r's in it.”

The assemblage immediately saw it and were puzzled that it too so long for them to spot it. However, when it came to correcting their error, Squire Hullaker paused, bit his pencil contemplatively and muddied the water by uttering: “Lookee here, fellers. Which one of these dodbusted “r's” ought to come out, the first one or the second? I'll be grab-snatched if I can tell.”

The syndicate bumped their heads together again and a vexed and troubled look crept in and settled on their assembled countenance. Some fervently demanded that the first “r” be stricken out while others insisted on the second one. Soon the discussion waxed hot and ended in a tie that busted up the syndicate; they were at an impasse.

Bob Burrow and Bob Taylor, not to show defeat,  regrouped and quickly came up with a new name for the publication. The problem of one or two “r's” was abruptly put to rest when they chose another designation, “The Comet.” Although it appeared that they had resolved the issue, success did not arrive immediately. It seems that the two men soon got into an argument as to whether the new name should be spelled with one “m” (Comet) or two (Commet). If it were two, that lead into a deeper discussion as to whether to add the second “m” before of after the first “m.” The silence of impasse again arrived.

Fortunately, the problem was adjusted by the two men without unkind words or bloodshed. When the syndicate met, Gov. Taylor abruptly excused himself from the meeting and Bob Burrow managed to feel a little bit under the weather. Without fuss or fanfare, the newspaper was named “The Comet.” No mention was made of the “mm” option.

What else would we expect coming from a man with such exhaustive humor as Bob Taylor. I hope Bob kept his files continually wet while writing that expose. 

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