January 2016

An October 1895 headline in The Comet newspaper proclaimed these eye-catching words: “Only a Few More Days Until Walter L. Main's Grandest and Best Show Will be Seen in all Its Glory.” 

The big show came as announced, delighting thousands of expectant attendees who enthusiastically clamored for admission to the huge tent, which was reported to be the largest ever constructed at that time.

No exhibition that had ever visited Johnson City was so comprehensive in its methods of advertising or had attracted so much attention by its posted pictorial wall announcements.

The finest lithographed printing ever seen in this section had been scattered profusely over the entire countryside for miles around for people to scrutinize. Even a brief moment's reflection would readily convince a resident that none but a meritorious amusement enterprise, backed by unlimited capital, could afford to do such extensive advertising, something unheard of in those days.

Advertisement for Walter L. Main's Show in Johnson City

Residents were gratified to learn that even the marvelous specimens of “printer's ink” could not begin to convey the story of the remarkable wonders to be seen in person at the upcoming event.

The attraction possessed such well-known features as Miss Gracie Thomas, the world's greatest equestrienne; “Wallace,” the only lion that actually rode a horse and an elephant; Mr. Frank Miller, who stood at the head of the bareback riders of profession; the Four Rosaria Brothers, Europe's foremost acrobats; Stirk and Zeno, acknowledged monarchs of the air; a double troupe of Royal Japanese performers; Miss Dollie Miller, the greatest lady aerial performer on either side of the Atlantic; the three famous French grotesques, known as the Renos; a troupe of 20 humanly educated horses and ponderous elephants, besides many other unique novelties.

It was also a well-know fact that the great shows presented the finest zoological collection in America and a hippodrome of unsurpassed merit. The impressive street parade, which moved from the showground promptly at 10 a.m. was, by itself, worth the price of a ticket, as well as traveling many miles to see the extravaganza.

The sublime culmination of the art of training was marvelously shown in the equestrian performance, executed by 63 thoroughbreds under the guidance of Joe Berris, America's most famous equine educator appearing with the Walter L. Main Show.

The act introduced the finest specimens of American and Arabian thoroughbred horses executing the grandest and greatest performances ever imagined. It was advertised that a positively wonderful display of such categorical novelty, absolute originality, unrivalled magnificence and thrilling interest would forever blot out forever previous animal exhibitions.

There were literally rings within rings, platforms on top of platforms and upon all were horses concurrently performing concurrently and moving in five circles in opposite directions. This feature alone was said to be worth more than the price of admittance.

The Roman Hippodrome part of the entertainment was not only interesting but exciting, consisting of chariot, barrel and obstacle races, Roman standing races, cowboy and pony competition, lady riders and many other features too abundant to mention. There was a profusion of horses, prompting the comment that no show could have finer ones anywhere in the world.

The menagerie, always a popular attraction especially with youngsters, was a splendid exhibit of the animal kingdom and was also a noticeable feature that there were no fakes or robbing schemes permitted on the grounds. The entire show was clean cut and of high standards throughout, with performers selected from the upper ranks of professional people and stood second to none.

If the above text was accurate, the Walter L. Main Show must have been quite an attraction for Johnson City and surrounding areas in 1895.

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I am blessed with readers who send me old newspapers. In my voluminous collection of old papter, I recently came across a Saturday, August 17, 1929 edition of the Johnson City Chronicle, which was yellowed and brittle with age, requiring delicate handling. As I skinned through the edition, I noted several things that were unique to that era.:

The newspaper that called itself, “A Newspaper of Character,” sold for three cents with a yearly subscription of $7.00 (Sunday and daily except Monday). According to the paper, Johnson City’s population that year was 35,690.

The front page contained national and international news; you had to turn the pages to find local news. One article dealt with the dirigible, Los Angeles, touring New England. The blimp was to leave Lakehurst, NJ, which was eight years prior and at the same location as the Hindenberg Dirigible disaster of 1937.

The attention-grabbing item on the sports page was under the subtitle, “Yanks Trounce Tigers for 12 to 2 Triumph.” Babe Ruth (left field) got his 32nd homer of the season, while Lou Gehrig (1st base) accounted for two runs. In local sports news, the Troupers from Soldiers' Home and the Mountaineers from Bristol were scheduled to play on Sunday in at Soldier’s Home.

The importance of local farming in 1929 was noted in a section titled, “Weekly Farm Number,” with two strong messages: “Don’t Raise Products You Can’t Sell” and “Give the Land a Chance to Work For You by Rotating Crops.” Another ad on page 11 proclaimed, “Erosion takes 20 times as much fertility from the soil as the growing of crops. Tis better to leave the farm than let it leave you. Permanent pasture is the answer.”

The article, “Fire Alarm Caused By Flying Sparks,” caught my eye because it described a fire at the American Cigar Box Company. My interest was fueled because my grandfather, Earl Blaine Cox, worked at this company in 1929. The plant was situated on Cherry Street, conveniently located near the railroad tracks and east of the large parking lot on South Roan Street.

Typical of this newspaper was the Austin Springs social calendar of events with people going on vacation, receiving friends in their home and “motoring” to a nearby city. When is the last time you heard that word used?

An amusing article dealt with the destruction of a local 75-gallon moonshine still from someone referred to as “King of the Moonshiners.” Allegedly, half of the moonshine was poured out while the rest was hauled in as evidence.

It is surprising how many businesses were in the 1929 paper that were still around when I was growing up in Johnson City such as Parks Belk, Kings, and Dosser's.

Lucy Pouder was mentioned in the social section. The Pouders were highly successful businessmen of that era. My Grandfather Cox once worked for Mr. Pouder when he owned a combination furniture store and funeral parlor located in the same location as the Charles Store in downtown Johnson City. He would sell furniture one minute and then assist in a funeral the next minute.

Reference is made to the John Robinson’s Circus coming to Johnson City for two shows. I was a frequent visitor to the area circuses in my youth but don’t remember this one. 

The Johnson City Chronicle gave away two free swimming tickets to two people to patronize the Sur Joi Swimming pool located near the corner of Watauga Avenue and W. Market Street. They would hide the names of the two winners among the classified ads. If you looked on page 33, second column, under “Apartments For Rent,” you will see the name, “Miss Lillian Hodges.” If you look over in the fourth column, under “Houses For Sale”, you would find, “Mr. Ralph Young.”

My great uncle, Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman and His Brothers routinely played old-time music to attract customers there when it was called the Watauga Swimming Pool. I would be interested in knowing from my readers how the Sur-Joi acquired its name. I grew up during World War II in the Gardner Apartments, which overlooked this popular pool. It later became the  Carver Pool.

The A&P grocery store stood for “The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company.” I would love to sink my teeth into one of their advertised large, cold, ripe watermelon for 55 cents. Remember how we use to “plug” watermelons to sample them before purchasing them? That is a thing of the past; today we take “pot luck.”

As a former employee of Eastman Kodak Company, I took interest in the $.98 Hawkeye Camera which, when developed, were 2.25 by 3.25 inch black and white photos. I also remember buying two-quart hot water bottles for $.98, same price as the camera. We filled those rubber bags with water so hot that you would almost burn yourself, until they had lost enough heat to become quite cozy in bed.

The local bus schedule from ET&WNC Motor Transportation Company was quite interesting with trips to Asheville, Cranberry, Elizabethton, Bristol, and Erwin. Also, the Seals Coach Line offered trips between Johnson City and Appalachia with stops in between.

I was delighted to see my old friends Jiggs and Maggie again. I loved that comic strip “Bringing Up Father.”

Three downtown movie theatres were advertised: the Criterion, the Majestic and the Liberty. The Deluxe Theatre (later called the Tennessee) was not shown. The Majestic featured both a movie and a variety of vaudeville acts. Over time, theatres made the transition from being completely vaudeville to offering a combination of movie and vaudeville entertainment before becoming movie theatres.

I spent many a pleasant Saturday afternoon at the Liberty Theatre watching my favorite western heroes on the screen that included a cartoon and the next thrilling chapter of my favorite serial, “Thunda, King of the Congo,” starring Buster Crabbe (of Flash Gordon fame). What fantastic memories!

As previously noted, this newspaper came out about ten weeks before the stock market crash. When I read the financial page, I searched for clues of the impending crash. Perhaps the title of the article, “Bulls Advance Many Issues To Record Levels,” was the best hint. People were in a buying frenzy, driving up stock prices to artificially highs and paying for them on credit. Stock volume that day was quite high. The problem came when the stocks dropped so dramatically and people had to pay with money they didn’t have.

Today's excursion is a brief journey back to the golden days of yesteryear. I hope you enjoyed it. I can't get my mind off that 55-cent plugged tasty watermelon and summer is a long way off.

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Municipal quarrels are a thing of modern day and long-ago; only the magnitude of the dollar amount has changed. In April 1897, a local newspaper, The Staff, contained an inflammatory editorial:

“The people of Johnson City are all poor and they know it. They also know that much of the vaunted wealth of Jonesboro has been created by litigation and other business ventures originating in Johnson City. For instance, an unjust system of taxation levies a tribute of $2.50 on every taxpayer in Johnson City, while it charges only $.85 on the taxpayers of Jonesboro.”

The publication noted that those were actual facts and that the citizens living outside of Jonesboro would do well to ponder them in order that they may see which of these towns had more than borne its fair share of taxation. They would then realize that one town had grown rich at the expense of the balance of the county.

The editorial challenged the newspaper to point out how, why and wherein the litigation originating in Johnson City had added so much to the wealth of Jonesboro. Also, they wondered why the taxpayers of Johnson City would allow this injustice to continue without an inquisition. The Staff's clipping very likely grabbed their attention.

Southern Railway Train Schedule in 1897

“If our contemporaries do not know how much Johnson City contributes to and receives from the school fund,” it stated, “they have an easy way of finding out. The fact of the matter is, many of them don't want to know, as the publication of these statistics for the Ninth and Fifteenth Districts would make such an loathsome comparison that the people outside of these two districts would open their eyes in astonishment.”

They did not report how much Johnson City contributed to the school fund, but to set the minds of those who wished to know, they gave a few figures on the subject. Looking at 1896 figures, for instance, it revealed that the assessment for school purposes in Jonesboro's Ninth Civil District was $3,821.12; however that district received from the school fund $4,134.70, thus showing that the district received $313.58 more than they were assessed.

But this was not all. It was a well-known fact that the Ninth District was delinquent in about $1,000 for the year on their assessment for school purposes.

In Johnson City's Fifteenth District, the assessment for schools was $1,215.87 and received from the school fund $1144,81 or $71.06 less than paid. 

The Jonesboro magistrates' proposition was to build two county roads, one from Fall Branch to Jonesboro and the other from Boon's Creek to Jonesboro, which was labeled as “a sublime spectacle of unmitigated gall.”

Typical Johnson City Advertisements from 1897

The Magistrates of Jonesboro were not alone in their desire to have good roads in the county. Any student would readily tell The Staff that they alone could not build roads to or from any points in the county. It was the duty of the magistrates of the county to provide this service for all the people and common sense dictated that the proper thing was to first build them to the county seat, which was where citizens frequently traveled.

Of course, it would not be a “sublime spectacle of unmitigated gall” for the magistrates of Johnson City to propose to build a road from their city to Fall Branch or Boon's Creek. That would be acceptable and full of wisdom and justice to the people of the county.

The paper daringly stated that the insinuation that Jonesboro was jealous of Johnson City was without foundation; in fact, it maintained that the people of Jonesboro would rejoice to see Johnson City prosper. However, they did not propose that the county build up the town at the expense of the remainder of the district.

We can only speculate how long the $313.58 dispute lasted. 

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Today's column is the second of three that deals with some early 1900 Johnson City enterprises. I have attempted to identify the location of each, plus (in parenthesis) include  some later businesses that occupied that same site. Slightly paraphrased comments are in present tense.

City Stables

The intersection of Ashe, Cherry and Buffalo streets: The City Stables, owned by W.T. Givens and conducted by W.C. Snapp, manager, easily take the lead in Johnson City liveries. Mr. Givens is a Kentuckian, an accurate judge of horseflesh and will have none but sound, swift, young roadsters in his stables. Since opening his livery in 1900, he has established a large patronage, owing to the fact that his turnouts are serviceable, comfortable and handsome. His stables measure 135 x 90 feet, and he has ample accommodation for 100 horses. Mr. Givens also conducts a feed stable, which is largely patronized as all horses are given the best care and attention.

Will I. Hart & Co.

101 E. Market (Idol Inn, Southern Cafe, Byrd's Restaurant): This large shop is located in the heart of the downtown business section. The Comet has the pleasure of advertising Will I. Hart, our noted manufacturer of hand-made harnesses, saddles, bridles, collars, whips, leggings and all kinds of horse millinery. Mr. Hart has spent a number of years in the harness business.

In 1894, the business was established and since its inception, trade hasincreased tremendously in all parts of the city and surrounding county. The business affords four experienced men with full-time employment. Mr. Hart rewards his help with liberal wages and in return receives first-rate work from them. He has resided here for the past 25 years and does an extensive business. He has garnered a large acquaintance and is held in high esteem by patrons.

S.B. White

111 Spring Street (Sanitary Barber Shop, Sports News Billiard Parlor): Our many prosperous merchants are highly pleased to note the successful season this business is enjoying. Among the most prominent is S.(Samuel) B. White, the well-know stove and tinwork merchant, who is hauling a complete line of china and queensware, including lamps and common and anti-rust tinware.

General repair work is also done in spouting and guttering. Fancy china is sold all over the city and county. Mr. White's business has increased by 30 per cent since January 1st. The Comet recommends this store as first-class in every respect with which to do business. Mr. White also does furnace work on a large scale.

Johnson City Foundry and Machine Works

Cherry Street and corner of Earnest Street: The Johnson City Foundry and Machine Works, organized in 1884, has the distinction of being the second established industry in Johnson City and has been closely identified with its present growth and perpetuity. At this great foundry, wood-working machinery, water wheels, brass and iron castings and forgings are manufactured. General repair work is also accomplished.

The abundance of raw material within easy access and an unlimited fuel supply makes this city an unsurpassed manufacturing location. Johnson City Foundry and Machine Co. was among the first manufacturers to observe and reap advantage from this fact. The great plant, which they erected, covers an area of over two acres. This results in 75 men gaining steady employment and a pay-roll, which represents $550 per week, is considered most liberal.

The company is daily in receipt of large contracts from every part of the South, and the plant is in continual operation. The officers are as follows: J. Allen Smith, president; G.W. Sitton and general manager; W.B. Johnson, secretary and treasury; and B.J. Sitton, master mechanic. All are local men and to their united and individual efforts, a great measure of the city's progress and success is due.

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The sixth grade was to grammar schools what the twelfth grade was to the high schools. We were the “seniors” of Henry Johnson School. Each year, both sixth grades presented a play to the rest of the school. Miss Boring was in charge of the production and wrote all of the plays. She was ably assisted by Miss Gordon Grubbs, the other sixth grade teacher. This production was a big deal for Miss Boring, as she put a great deal of effort into it.

Plaques on Each Side of the Front Door Entrance to the Old School

For reasons I cannot explain, Miss Boring chose me for one of the lead parts in the play. I was certainly no actor plus I was worried about stage fright. I even got nervous during practice. I was, of all things, a traveling medicine salesman dispensing my wares from a little bag that I carried with me.

In addition, I had a crude “magic” act that I performed on stage. Miss Boring insisted I do it, but I preferred to do my recitation of the song, “Life Get's Teejus, Don't it?,” but that was not to happen. Perhaps she objected to song's spelling and grammar.

In addition, several class members danced the Virginia Reel, from Wayne King's hit song, “Josephine.” Before I was assigned a lead role, I practiced dancing with the group. Later, to my delight, Miss Boring pulled me from the dance routine, but, to my dismay, assigned me a part in the play. At the end of the frolic, we all sang “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” which was very popular then.

We had practice rehearsals for weeks, yet within a week of the performance did not have our lines memorized to Miss Boring's satisfaction. One afternoon, she got rather direct with us, taking out her wrath on us during our “duty time” while I was erasing and washing the blackboard.

Despite Miss Boring's worries, the play went off without a hitch, except for one brief moment when I forgot a line during my traveling salesman routine, and someone behind me whispered it to me. I don't think anybody noticed.

Let me turn the clock ahead about 12 years. I became acquainted with a lady who was kin to my former teacher. I related to her that she was one of my outstanding teachers from the early 1950s. When she offered to take me to her house for a visit, without hesitation, I accepted her generosity. She called and received permission for us to come to her residence at 112 W. 11th Street.

When Miss Boring came to the door, I instantly recognized her. Although she had aged somewhat and moved much slower, she seemed surprised and pleased to see us. I was introduced to her as one of her former students from the 1954-55 class. As expected, she did not appear to remember me.

I figured if I mentioned some of the happenings that occurred in the sixth grade, she might recall me. When I brought up the subject of the school plays that she wrote and directed each spring, she immediately lit up, especially when I told her one of them was centered around Davy Crockett.

Miss Boring noted that she had written a school finale play each year that she taught at Henry Johnson School and had kept copies of each one in her home hall closet but had lost one; she lost the play our class was in. I wanted so much to see it. 

I described the production to her, including my traveling salesman routine, the Virginia Reel, my magic show and the Davy Crockett theme. She still did not remember the play, nor did she remember me.

I called out the names of several of my classmates to her. The only two she remembered were a couple of troublemakers,  Harold and Johnny (last names withheld to protect the guilty), the latter having his own seat in the southwest corner of room near a window.

Although this great lady did not remember me, I certainly knew her and I would not have missed our visit for the world. After a pleasurable but somewhat abbreviated stay, we departed. This was the last time I would see her, but she is permanently etched in my memory. This great teacher passed away about a year later.

If any of my readers were in Miss Boring's class and would like to comment about her, I welcome hearing from you.

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In July 1903, Ex-Gov. Robert L. Taylor (“Our Bob”) journeyed to Bristol on a short business trip, vowing to return that same day and bring his two small sons, Bob and David, home from their visit with Uncle Alf at Johnson City.

Before he left, Gov. Taylor was seen at the Southern Depot (between W. Market and N. Roan) by a Journal and Tribune reporter, surrounded by a party of admirers, both Democrats and Republicans and in the best of spirits.

When asked if he was a candidate for the Senate, the cheerful ex-governor said that he was running in the interest of Senator Bate, whom he wished to succeed himself. “I am having a good deal of fun from the boys in this race,” he said. “They can’t see how I can possibly be for Senator Bate. Those who go against him will soon find out why I am for him.

“I am not ready to go to the Senate yet,” he continued. “I haven’t the money enough, but I am heaping it up in this political sense awful fast now. I don’t want to go to the Senate this time. I am like the drunk who staggered around and held to the inside of his bedroom door, saying he would jump into his bed… the next time it came around.

“Seriously, I see no reason why this old man, rich in years and honor, should be turned out at this time if he wants to stay in. I would have defeated him several years ago if I could have, but ‘bless your life, honey,’ as the old saying goes, ‘we were both younger then than we are now.’

“The time has passed by now to defeat Senator Bate. He has grown old and with the weight of years come the sentiment of war, which is the strongest in the (emotion) of any people. I went against Shiloh once, but I will never do it again. I am converted; the sentiments of war are stronger than (those) of peace.

Johnson City Newspaper Advertisement from 1903

“Senator Bate is a much stronger candidate now. Whatever I can do for him, I will do. I would not mind having the honor of succeeding him, but it is a case of ‘after you, my dear Gaston,’ with me, and I can wait till the old man retires. I used to think if I didn’t get my young and heated blood into the senate chamber at once, the whole country would go to the bow-wows.

But I have got over that feeling and the longer I put off my race, the less I am inclined to crowd out an old man who has been just as good a Democrat as the country ever produced and a bravo and honored soldier as well.

“You can tell them I am for Bate, first, last and all the time. I have had several representatives from headquarters come to me and try to tell me what a big mistake I was making by being for Bate. I can’t see it that way. The only mistake I ever made was running against him in 1892 and I don’t care to repeat it.”

When asked for an interview, Mr. Taylor pulled off his hat and exposed his bare frontal to the zephyrs, which blow through the Southern station at times. He gave his hearers a merry twinkle of the eye and replied, “I reckon I can. About all I can do is to get interviewed. That’s the only way the poor fellows have of keeping the people from getting them.

“We would ill have been deep beneath oblivion’s dark wave, politically, if it had not been for the kindness of the newspaper reporters who come to our rescue. They used to know us when we were in our glory and are too charitable to pass us by now that we are reposing on the shelf, maybe forever.

“We poor old fellows live in the future, and the newspapers are after that kind of news, so I suppose we can play into each other’s hands in that way. About all, that is left to an ex-politician is the past and the future. Mankind, in general, lives in memory or hope. The present is never fully appreciated.”

That is quite a depiction, Mr. Taylor.

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