May 2016

On Thursday night, July 12, 1888, several couples of the elite of the city gathered at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. F.A. Stratton on Maple Street. This was in response to a personal invitation to attend an event given in honor of a Mrs. Scott, of Indianapolis, and Misses Mary and Mattie Wilder of Roan Mountain, TN.

The hosts had an elegant home, the chief attraction being a large contiguous lawn. On this evening, no pains were spared to render the occasion a pleasant one, and how well they succeeded, all that were present could certainly testify.

The house was brilliantly illuminated, and numerous Chinese lanterns added to the beauty of the grounds served to cast sufficient shadows to satisfy loving couples inclined to seek dim lights and quiet nooks.

At ten o'clock, an elegant lunch was served on the lawn, after which all returned to the parlors. At one end of the main parlor was something very unusual – a large and very realistic looking donkey, with the single exception that it was devoid of a tail.

Each person was supplied with a piece of cloth made-up to represent a donkey's tail, and each piece was numbered. As the numbers were called, the persons holding them would go to the center of the room and, after being blindfolded, would start towards the donkey and pin the tail where they thought it belonged. It was very amusing to see how far “off the mark” some of them would get.


Mr. Isaac Harr came nearest and won first prize, while Miss Millard was the furthest removed and won the booby prize. Mrs. Scott and Miss Mary Wilder made the donkey and their work illustrated that they were true artists. The guests present at the event included:

Mr. and Mrs. T.E. Matson, Mr. and Mrs. J.E. Crandall. Mr. and Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Wilder; Misses Sanna Taylor, Constance Tinsley, Mildred Smith, Sallie Faw, Stacy Crumley, Emma and Eva Wilson, Nora Crumley, Cora Shewalter, Libbie Ceure, Allice Millard, Bennie Hoss, Lillie Roach, messrs Ike Harr, Frank Wells, Charles McNeil, Ralph Boyd, H.R Kenyon, Martin Gump, Henry Stratton, Harry Lyle, J.W. Crumley, Walter Kirkpatrick, John Cure, E.D. Duncan, Walter Faw, G.K. McCormick, James Houtz and Cy Lyle.

No other activities were mentioned in the gathering. What was intriguing to me was my perception that a donkey party was something usually reserved for youngsters. The donkey game was often played by youngsters of my generation at a youth gathering. We usually obtained a sheet, drew a crude (very crude) donkey on it without the tail.

One donkey get-together from my childhood that I vividly recall occurred in apartment 2-R near the south end of the Gardner Apartments, which once stood at the intersection of W. Watauga Avenue and W. Market Street (before an arsonist torched it a few years ago). Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Green hosted the social for their daughter, Wanda. I was the “grand winner” of the game, bringing home a cigar box chocked full of stationery supplies; that was right down my alley in spite of the fact that I was only about six years old. 

The people mentioned in this article were not adolescents; they were some of Johnson City's elite citizens. I find it odd that they would engage in such a juvenile game and seemingly enjoyed it. I can't picture my parents playing this game, except when their object of affection was their young son, Bobby.

Maybe we have become too sophisticated to allow ourselves to be blindfolded and attempt to place a cloth tail with a pin on it on the posterior of an “equus africanus asinus.” The creature in real life is domesticated, having long ears and employing a loud bray. That game was a favorite pastime in my young days and I looked forward to every opportunity to participate in it.

Maybe folks were less refined in that era. I might organize a game of “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” and see if anyone shows up. Anybody interested in attending?

Read more

The annual Cosby Ramp Festival was literally belched into existence on April 25, 1954 with Gov. Frank Clement proclaiming that spring day to be “Ramp-Eating Day” in Tennessee. Listed below are summaries of 13 of the 57 festivals that took place there:

Apr. 1954: Cosby is located in Cocke County, Tennessee. Ramps, real name, “Allium tricoccum,” grow in the mountainous areas of Tennessee, North Carolina and the Virginias at altitudes above 3,000 feet. The self-effacing ramp symbolized the strength and hardiness exemplified by the citizenry of the Tennessee mountains. While one might think that the ramp would dissuade more tourists than it attracted, the first ramp festival drew a crowd of about 30,000 on 25 acres of land. President Harry S. Truman was present as an added attraction. Although the main menu was comprised of corn pone, ramps and sassafras tea, those too wimpy to savor the smelly mountain treat had a choice of barbecued chicken and beef.

Apr. 1955:Mr. Truman returned to his second festival but vowed that he would not eat the pungent wild onions. Summarily, a delegation visited him and gave him a pre-taste of the ramp to acclimate him. The ramp, first cousin to the Lily of the Valley, smells roughly like a cross between an onion and a garlic plant, liberally seasoned with vinegar. While some folks regard it as a delicacy, others eat it in self-defense. Cosby was described as a community that was comprised of nothing more than a country story and a post office run by one of the few Democrats around.

The previous night, a play written by Cosby resident, Delmar Baxter, was presented by local actors dressed in hill country garb and using dialect depicting the Cosby story. The festival was largely the achievement of David R. Large, president of Cosby's Ruritan Club. Truman, after receiving a 21-gun salute, spoke to the crowd. All the while, ramps were cooking in the back.

Ramp Devotees Partage of Their Favorite Potent Leeks

Apr. 1956: The 1956 invited guest was Eddy Arnold, internationally known “Tennessee Plowboy” best identified with his song, “Cattle Call.” Also, the University of Tennessee “Pride of the Southland Band” was  secured for the ramp festival that year. Governor Frank Clement delivered the principal address.

Apr. 1962: The festival was held in Luther Valentine's pasture to honor the mighty ramp, described as being the “vilest-smellin' vegetable grown anywhere on earth.” Interior Secretary Stewart Udall paid tribute to those souls brave enough to eat it, but he did not partake of it himself.” Senator Estes Kefauver bravely consumed a small quantity of ramps.” Cary Fry, a candidate for governor of Tennessee, refused to eat any on the grounds that “no politician wants to smell like that.” Those planning to eat ramps were warned that they would smell like a Billy goat on the second day. 

May 1963:The 1963 gathering saw upwards of 20,000 people gathered at Cosby for a day-long festival of fun in honor of the lowly ramp. The event combined heavy socializing with relaxing in the beautiful area on the fringes of the Great Smoky Mountains along state highways 32 and 73. The entertainers included Dinah Shore, Eddy Arnold, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Dorothy Collins (“Your Hit Parade”) and regional talent from the tri-state area. Most diners adorned his or her plate with that magnificent maverick, the indescribable gastronomic ramp.

Apr. 1969:The event six years later saw a more modest 6,000 persons gracing Kineauvista Hill that year. The bill of fare was barbecued chicken and beef, sassafras tea, cornbread and of course, ramps, served fried, boiled or raw. They dined while listening to country music from Grand Ole Opry performers, Archie Campbell and Lorene Mann. Also on hand were Sen. Howard Baker and Rep. James Quillen, both Tennessee Republicans.

Preparing the Delicacies at a Typical Ramp Festival

July 1971: The first bluegrass festival ever held in the state was held on July 2, 3 and 4 at Kineauvista Hill at Cosby. My wife and I attended that one. The stated location was approximately five miles, south of Newport off Interstate 40. Top notch bluegrass artists signed to appear on the shows were Bill Monroe, father of bluegrass music, who was also a Hall of Fame member; Jim & Jesse; Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass; The Goins Brothers, Red and Fred; Carl Story, Bobby Smith and the Boys from Sholoh.

James Monroe, Bill's son, hosted the gala, along with Bud McCain of WSM Radio, Nashville, who emceed the show on Saturday afternoon and evening. WSM's Grand Ole Opry announcer, Grant Turner, directed the program on Sunday. An amateur band contest was held Friday, July 2 and any bands wishing to enter was instructed to be at the park to register at 10 a.m. that morning. prizes were awarded.

May 1972:The 19th annual Ramp Festival attracted 8,000 visitors. One guest, not familiar with ramps, looked up the delicacy in a large dictionary. He had to wade through nearly five inches of descriptions for the word, such as “crawl,” “boisterous rage,” “incline,” “swindle,” “bold woman,' “slope” and others. Finally he spotted it: “Any of several plants of the genus Allium.”

May 1975: Several days before the festival began, local club members went into the Great Smoky Mountains to gather 80 bushels of ramps, which was followed by two nights of cleaning and preparing. Then on the big day, fires were started, cooking began for steaming pots of ramps, barbecued chicken, and salads that contained ramps and even scrambled eggs. People came from miles around to eat, visit, play baseball and enjoy a stage program of gospel singing, country music, a beauty pageant and some long-winded political speeches.

Apr. 1981: Advertising for the festival warned newcomers: “Don't be too surprised if there's a run on mouthwash today in this small town. If you plan to eat ramps, you better be sure your wife does also or you will sleep alone for several days. The ad went on to state that ramps are stronger than garlic and ten times stronger than an onion. The “Maid of the Ramps” winner was thrilled with the honor but not the insistence that she eat one of the critters. Her evaluation  of the delicacy was, “I ate one and I didn't go out of my house for a week.” 

May 1988: The 35th festival was held on May 1 with such entertainers as Tennessee Ernie Ford, little Miss Brenda Lee, Archie Campbell, Razzy Bailey, Con Hunley and Del Reeves. The media noted that for generations, people in the mountains had considered the ramp as an important ingredient for their health. That year the menu included scrambled eggs, home cured fried fatback, fried cornbread, and, of course, ramps. Other menu items were a chicken box lunch, hot dogs, hamburgers and a bean plate consisting of pinto beans, fried Tcornbread and fried fatback.

Apr. 2011: Sadly, the Cosby Ramp Festival came to an abrupt finale in 2011 after 57 years of continuous operation. Vandals brutally wrecked the park, leaving the owners without the necessary funds to restore the damage. Its closure was also brought about by a significant drop in attendance in prior years. It was time to give the lowly ramp a well-deserved rest; that year, the annual “smell-a-thon” drifted into yesteryear.

There are other locations around Tennessee that still host ramp days, such as the one at Flag Pond, but the one mentioned in this article went dark in 2011. 

Read more

On 04-05-1871, the “impromptu stump speaker,” a political fixture, was intellectually known as a “human nondescript.” He was likened to a kind of terribly crushed meat, specially salted, saged and peppered, which became known as “souce” (from the Latin word “salsas,” (which is always ready for use).

A stump speech is “a standard campaign vocalization used by someone running for public office.” The term is derived from the early American custom in which candidates campaigned from town-to-town and stood upon a sawed off tree stump to deliver their discourse.”

The word “impromptu” fit him well because of his busy pace of campaigning, which often included addressing folks several times a day. The candidate usually penned a single speech to be delivered at most, if not all, public gatherings.

The campaigner was further described as being like a “liberated open-countenanced, strong-lunged canine, always prepared to sound off at a moment's notice, to bark for anybody and at anything and to yelp as long as his prepared speeches pleased or annoyed his public, but they were never ignored.”

The orator was likened unto a barn door hung on face hinges, opening not only with easy screeches, but one way was just as easy as another, and when you shut him off in one direction, he was sure to open in another and possibly in several… all at the same time.

The politician resembled an old continental musket, powerful on a shoot and, if the charge be moderately heavy, he kicked back with as much force as he shot forward, often more so, and if occasion required it, he found no difficulty in exploding and effected others sometimes in the same way.

The spokesman was like a weather-cock in the midst of a crazy March storm, wheeling in all directions; sniffing the breeze from every point of the compass and facing every thing that approached his particular front.

Young Abraham Lincoln as a Stump Speaker

Internally, he was a compound mixture of all kinds of moral liquors charged heavily with soda, so as to secure ready and powerful fermentation, hence his supply of intellectual froth and foam was next to inexhaustible.

In a musical sense, he was a combination of all instruments in an orchestra that depend upon active air (or perhaps wind) as a motive tone power.

The man on the stump was a scientific porcupine; he couldn't be taken by storm and if captured by slow siege, the victors would find themselves vanquished in the end.

Mr. Impromptu was full of nerves, so much in fact, that they hung out loosely all around him. Hence, he was very sensitive, so much so that his absorbing powers of sensation were much superior to all possible supply that his personal feelings were never wounded.

The speaker was an animation and vitality smelting furnace and hence, his words and even actions were as fully clothed with mutilating sparks as a fire-puffed cupola.

The stumpman was an automatic commentary on sliding literature and exercised all the privileges which poets and lecturers could have the presumption to claim mechanically. He was a most ingenious comic repair shop.

The non-descript individual was a scientific chime of human bells, and in a singular musical sense, he was not only a riddle, but a most skillful fiddle, capable of being tuned and keyed up to any other instrument demanded for whatever the special occasion.

Altogether, the impromptu stump speaker was quite a clever fellow; he sold in markets for several times his real worth. He got along well with the world, and the earth would feel sadly at a loss without him. Whilst others were not laughing at him, he was always amused… at others and himself. 

Read more

Over the years, fires have struck downtown Johnson City, leveling some buildings and causing minor damage to others. Perhaps the biggest one occurred in May 1905 and destroyed almost everything within the boundaries of E. Main, S. Roan, Jobe (replaced by State of Franklin Road) and Spring streets. One notable structure, Johnson City's First Baptist Church, known as “The Little White Church,” completely escaped the carnage in spite of the fact that it was wooden.

Another terrible flame occurred in March 1894 in the same block, except it was confined to the northeast end of Spring Street in close proximity to E. Main. The location would later become the site of the Sevier Theatre. 

That Monday at about 9 p.m., the fire alarm sounded and a black cloud of smoke quickly ascended from the heart of the city, drawing a huge crowd of anxious and curious onlookers. Fortunately, the fire was contained to an area of one-story corrugated iron buildings facing west. Cause of the fire would prove to be a tiny spark in a defective flue.

The smoke became so dense and suffocating that it was impossible to tell where the fire originated. However, it soon was determined that it started in the middle building (3), which was occupied by a bakery. (It should be noted that the date of the fire was 1894 while the attached map was produced in 1891, three years prior).

When the Fire Company arrived on the scene, the hook and ladder crew hastily penetrated the iron structures, opening as many holes as they could. Then, they simultaneously began pouring four or five good streams of water into the three buildings (2,3,4). The heat was so intense that initially little control was gained.

The heavy iron coverings on the three buildings were so stubborn to the fireman's axe and hook that the three businesses were pretty well-gutted before the fire crew could subdue their threatening adversary.

This news meant a change of plans to save the adjoining Post Office (1) or it would have undoubtedly been seriously damaged, if not completely destroyed. Fortunately, an alley/walkway ran along the north side of the Post Office (1), offering a possible shield to those businesses facing E. Main Street.

The three business buildings (2,3,4) were all occupied at the time the fire broke out. When it was assured that the structures could not be rescued from the flames, the dangerous task of removing inventory from them began with limited success.

Building (2) to the right of the Post Office (1) contained the grocery store of Taylor Brothers. They had $600 insurance on their stock and $500 on the building, which also belonged to them. Unfortunately, a comparatively small portion of their goods was saved for a loss of $1,500. 

Since the fire was not fully contained, the Taylor Brothers' owners purchased George R. Brown's restaurant across the street and began moving everything they could to the new facility. It was likely empty at the time.

The second room (3) from the Post Office (1) was occupied by Brown & Stinson's Philadelphia Bakery. These unfortunate gentlemen had no insurance and lost everything. They did not know exactly the amount of stock on hand, but they estimated it at $400. This was the property of Adam Bowman, and his allowing his policy to lapse a month or so earlier cost him about $800.

The last building (4) in the ill-fated block was occupied by Webb Brothers Meat Market. They too had no insurance and came out with a loss of $300. They opened up the next morning in the old Ball stand on Public Square.

 The fire was fortunately extinguished before it reached the adjoining brick wall of the Post Office or other buildings in the nearby vicinity.

I mentioned the Sevier Theatre. It was located at 113-17 Spring Street. It too met with a damaging fire in the 1960's and was razed… but that is another story. 

Read more

The welcomed announcement came from C. Howard McCorkle, superintendent of schools and directed to several hundred parents at a special meeting the previous night. The two schools were to be independent of the other, plus have separate athletic programs that would be in competition with one another. 

Speaking before the Junior High Parent-Teacher Association, Supt. McCorkle expressed his hope that all ninth grade students from both schools would eventually be part of the big new $2.5 million Science Hill High School just completed. 

However, by the following fall, it would be necessary to operate two junior highs, North Junior High and South Junior High, as the names they would soon acquire. The boundary line was defined as the Southern Railway and Market Street. Those on the north and east sides would attend North Junior High while those on the other side would go to South Junior High. Exception was made for any eighth and ninth grade boys studying industrial arts because South Junior High would not provide this training.

“Otherwise, South Junior High would offer as complete a program as the present North Junior High, “This program of dividing what was a student body of more than 100 students in the present Junior high was being significantly relieved by the restructuring. It had been so overcrowded that there was insufficient room to work, not to mention inadequate space to allow for growth,” McCorkle commented.

One stipulation was added – When the city much later found it feasible to abandon the present North Junior High building, it was to be “turned back to the city” for whatever use it could provide. That became a reality in 1974.

When a parent questioned the condition of the old Science Hill High School, without hesitation the superintendent described the facility as being one of the soundest buildings in town from a structural point of view. However, the superintendent properly noted one defect in the old high school that was not in the main building but in the gymnasium behind the school. It had been built on shale and had moved slightly. However, he stated that the problem was already in the process of being remedied.

South Junior High would have a complete music department, their own library, a home economics department and other pluses. Much of this was left over from the high school and was perfect for South Junior High School's needs.

Mr. McCorkle further promised that the new school would have its own sports programs, such that its teams would be in competition with those from the existing Junior High School. The present one would then have around 700 students and 600 more would be attending classes in the new school. A big plus for the change was that teachers would go with the students, which meant there was no need for an increased teaching staff.

However, beyond having selected Paul Slonaker to head South Junior High, he indicated that other personnel had not been assigned to a specific building. Mr. Slonaker, at the time, headed the industrial arts program at Science Hill. McCorkle promised all teachers that they would keep their own home room, meaning there would be no more “floating teachers,” which came as welcomed news.

The North Junior High guidance program continued under the direction of Jack McCorkle, who would divide his time between the two junior high schools.

McCorkle assured his well-attended audience that besides providing better overall benefits to students, the program was at once be aimed at providing more benefits for less money. PTA meetings would continue to be held in the massive Junior High auditorium with Mrs. Carl A. Jones presiding.

Read more