January 2017

Prior to the summer of 1944, public recreation in Johnson City consisted of a baseball park on Legion Street, the Surjoi Swimming Pool (later renamed Carver Park near the intersection of W. Watauga and W. Market streets) and Memorial Football Stadium, constructed by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s.

In April 1944, the city charter was amended, establishing the first Park and Recreation Department. A nine member Board of Directors was appointed with Kiwanian C. Howard McCorkle serving as the first chairman and Kiwanian Howard A. Johnson as the first Park and Recreation Director.

Later that same year, Kiwanis became the first city group in Johnson City to sponsor a public park, known as Kiwanis Memorial Park, acquiring a sizable block of city property between Main and Market streets, on which they built two baseball diamonds, one on each end, and a nice picnic pavilion.

Kiwanis Park on W. Market Street. Henry Johnson School Can Be Seen in the Background

Not to be outdone, the rival Optimists offered sponsorship of a city playground on Poplar Street, a few months later, beginning a friendly competition among the city's civic groups, Lowe said.

In 1945, the Jaycees joined in the fun, sponsoring a neighborhood park adjacent to Stratton Elementary School. And in 1948, the Rotarians brought a new angle to the city's park system by developing a naturalistic picnic park on Broadway.

This helpful tradition continued through the next two decades, with the Lions Club adopting its park off Unaka Avenue in the late 1950s and the Civitan Club taking over what had previously served as the city dump in 1963.

In more recent years, the Metro Kiwanians developed a comprehensive park on Knob Creek Road. Later, the North Johnson City business club, forgetting all regional prejudice, took over sponsorship of the former Powell Square in Southwest Johnson City.

In the 43 years since the Kiwanians built their first baseball diamond on Market Street, their accumulated investment of time, labor and funds went to the creation of a $250,000 facility, which, according to Lowe, continued to be the most utilized park in the city.

In early 1950, my family moved to Johnson Avenue, directly behind Henry Johnson Elementary School playground. I vividly recall the three (I think) carousels inside the white picket fence. To power it, some of the older children ran on the inside of it while holding on to the rail until it reached a desirable speed. We then jumped aboard.

According to today's safety standards, some of these rides were a bit unsafe. Failure to get back on it could cause you to trip and fall on the ground. I don't see these rides anymore. The most common displeasure was motion sickness. We quickly learned when to stop riding it.

Another favorite was the metal sliding board midway in the park. Initially, sliding down it was difficult because it was a bit rusty. We corrected that deficiency by bringing sheets of wax paper from home and rubbing them on the slide for several minutes. It amazed us how slippery it became with only a few slides. The journey down it then meant a lightning fast departure into the dirt.   

Another memorable pastime was watching baseball games; Little League teams played on the east end of the park, and Connie Mack batted at the west side. Other games involved numerous adult leagues.

One significant memory of the park was the small snack shack facing Market Street and Henry Johnson School. My most frequent purchase was a frozen Zero candy bar that cost a nickel. Behind it to the south was the large elevated pavilion that was used for a variety of programs, including showing movies.

Even today, I occasionally drive to Kiwanis Park, park my vehicle and take a stroll back to my own private “yesteryear,” enjoying the memories that made our youthful lives so pleasurable. Where did the time go? 

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A July 1889 Comet newspaper article asked the question, “Where are you going to spend the month of August?”

hot city for a few days or weeks of recreation and relaxation and go where you can stay cool, drink from chalybeate water (impregnated with or containing salts of iron). It is water as good as can be found anywhere.

“And then there's fishing, hunting, boating and getting all-you-can-eat. You need to pack your essentials, travel to Unicoi County, stop at Unaka Springs at the Unaka Springs Hotel and converse with the friendly landlord, Mr. A.V. Deaderick.

“The owners of the establishment don't exhibit a lot of style up there. In turn, they offer you something much better: good air, clean water, plenty of exercise and fresh food that will stick to your bones.

“If you're looking for a stylish hotel, you don't want to go to Unaka Springs, but if you're seeking rest and want to go where you can get pure air, water, butter, milk and fresh fish that you catch yourself in the streams, Unaka is the place for you.

“At the spring, you can sit and view the handiwork of nature in all its glory; you can further listen to the rippling waters of the Nolachucky River for hours, until you forget the cares of the world and imagine that you are shut in by the towering peaks that rise all around you from your very feet.

“Don't stop until you get to Unaka Springs and hear Uncle 'Dot' blow his dinner horn. That means he has something good on the table waiting for you to come and dine.

“The spring is about 18 miles from Johnson City and can be reached by hack easily in half a day. Also, a regular hack line is run from Jonesboro (Jonesborough).

“The three C's railroad currently runs within 100 yards of the hotel, and next year it will be expanded to carry you the rest of the way to your destination.

“After passing Erwin, Tennessee, the road to the spring follows the Nolachucky the last two miles, and the tranquil scenery along that distance alone will more than repay you for taking the trip.

“After crossing the river and entering the hotel grounds, you're completely shut off from the outside world. It's a feeling beyond description. At your feet is the river, full of perch, just waiting for you to come and hook them (if you can) and all around you are mountains so close that you only need to step off the porch to began ascending. They are so high you cannot shoot over them even with a Winchester rifle.

“But we will not try any further to describe this wonderful place for you. If there's any poetry in your soul and you want to realize what real pleasure is, go to the Unaka Springs Hotel, and if you're not satisfied, the Comet will refund the money you paid by mailing it to you.”

I located a July 22, 1915 newspaper clipping titled, “Mr. and Mrs. Boyd Chaperone House Party.” The gathering was at Unaka Springs. I located the Boyd's home residence in the directory as being at 211 W. Holston Avenue.” The article, which reads like a Who's Who, had this to say:

 “Misses. Maradin Prease (Preas?), Myrtle Lyle, Florence Summers, Ruth Faw, Mary Nell Dosser, Mildred Exum, Bernice Green, and Gertrude Williams. Messrs. Bob Miller, Eugene Parsons, Fred Lockett, Max Luck, Kyle Worley, Jim Martin, Jack Lyle and Bob Dosser, Jr. are enjoying a house party at Unaka Springs for 10 days, chaperoned by Mr. and Mrs. John Boyd. The management of this famous resort sjhould feel proud of having such select crowds choose Unaka Springs for their outings.”

I would love to hear from someone who can remember the Unaka Springs Hotel when it was in operation and have memories of staying there. The last time I drove by there, and that was several years ago, the hotel building was still standing. I only wish Mr. Deaderick was still in the office.

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In 1948, a popular CBS radio show was titled, “The Life of Riley,” starring William Bendix in the popular role of Chester A. Riley. The show's title depicts someone who has it made or lives “the life of Riley.” His oft-repeated familiar idiom on the show was, “What a revoltin' development this is.” Riley could easily be described as the “Archie Bunker” of the 1940s.

Undertaker Digby “Digger” O'Dell and the first Chester B. Riley, Jackie Gleason

While we would all agree that death is never funny, this show had an usual character in it by the name of Digby “Digger” O'Dell, known unaffectionately as “the friendly undertaker.” In real life, he was the character actor, John Brown. One of his familiar lines addressed to Riley was, “You're looking fine, Riley. Very natural.” When it came time for him to leave an establishment, he would say, “Cheerio, I'd better be… shoveling off.”

Forrest Morris, president of Morris Funeral Home (located at 305 N. Roan Street, opposite Central Baptist Church) and, prior to that, Sterchi Funeral Home on Spring Street), suggested to the widely-known radio personality, that his type of humor was completely in bad taste and the character should be permanently “laid to rest.”

In May 1948, Morris called attention to the insensitivity of the program with an editorial in the Johnson City Press-Chronicle that was sent to the popular radio program. In part, it said:

“Throughout my long tenure of service, “said Mr. Morris, “it has never been my desire to make light of death or its accompanying grief” and I confidently feel that if this well-known punster were to suffer poignant grief, he would without hesitation seek another means of livelihood.”

“Twixt you and me, “Dig,” death is never funny, nor, in the human circumstances of deep sorrow, can funeral service ever be considered festive or jovial.

“In all fairness, Mr. Digby, we put to you the case of a family suffering bereavement. Not an exceptional case of some overly sensitive family issue, but the typical family of average, decent Americans. They recently lost, let us say, their elderly mother. To keep the case entirely fair to you, let us think of this family, not in their first poignancy employing grief, but some weeks after the funeral.

“Picture this scenario: This family is still in the phase of adjustment and transition. They're slowly, very slowly beginning to find their way back into normal paths of life they'd known before the shock of their recent heartbreak. They are seated in their home on any given Saturday evening, trying as best they can to comfort one another, seeking any seemly diversion that may bring some sense of sorrow in their hearts.

“Someone turns on the radio, and all of a sudden without the slightest warning, comes Digger “Digby” O'Dell, the friendly undertaker” to the microphone. Before you know it, you have been exposed to a pointed pun, or play on words that conjures up a cold, hard, callous, grim allusion to man's physical mortality.

“In the circumstances of these people, and there are of several million like them at any given time in these United States, do you suppose your act would be a joke to them? In my opinion, Digger, it is something that far exceeds a joke.

“It is true that the funeral director earns his or her living from services connected with the burial of the dead, but no decent funeral director or embalmer, in my opinion, has ever been made happier to learn of any person's death.

“In a matter of speaking, funeral directors do have the patience of Job, but there's a limit to all things. In the tolerant opinion of many, your burlesque is no longer funny. It is time to take “Digby” and bury him six feet down.” Well said, Mr. Morris.

According to my research, the role of “Digger” was never eliminated from the radio show; instead, when the program was switched to television in 1949, it retained, not only the same character but also the same actor … John Brown.

In case you're even remotely interested, on May 16, 1957, Digger (John Brown) died of a heart attack at age 54 while en route to his doctor's office. It is unlikely that there was any blatant merriment present at his funeral service. We can only wonder.

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In 1933, a Mrs. Pouch and a Mrs. Frost, both members of the New York Daughters of the American Revolution, gave speeches at their annual meeting concerning mountain people of the South in 1905. Participants were encouraged to adorn sunbonnets, shawls and other homespun mountain dress. A few members provided musical numbers that were consistent with that era.

According to the ladies, adventuresome travelers paying a visit to the isolated hill communities in that post-century era reached their destination only after hours of travel. They were escorted in rough wagons drawn by mules over narrow mountain roads that sometimes dipped into deep mud holes and sometimes skirted along dangerous cliffs.

During that post turn-of-the-century era, travel through Southern Appalachia was slow and thorny at best, with crude roads following rocky creek beds. Primitive conditions governing transportation served to keep the mountain folk living just as their predecessors had lived after they had trekked down from Western Pennsylvania and settled along the tiny hamlets.

The mountaineers were described as being “hill-dwellers living in the “land of do without.” Mrs. Frost cautioned the members not to confuse these folks with the descendants of indentured servants and convicts who went there from the slums of England's seaport towns.

Andersonville, TN Family 1933 (public domain)

On the other hand, these inhabitants were largely the descendants of stout Scotch stock sent in 1607 to Ireland by James I. After coming to this country, they had a dispute with the Crown and settled first in Pennsylvania, which was then the western frontier of the colonies and later with a sprinkling of French Huguenots and Dutch.

Afterward, they moved south and reached the mountains where their descendants can be found to this day. From these rugged hills came such leaders as Daniel Boone, John C. Calhoun, Stonewall Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

The DAR ladies deemed the residents to be “warmly hospitable.” “If you'uns can stand what we'uns have, come right in and sit ye down in a cher.” Mrs. Frost spoke of their honesty and independence. They retained their quaint speech, crude habits and picturesque customs of 18th century American. Hence the nickname, “our contemporary ancestors,” illiterate though they were, according to their standards, “aimed to git larnin” and vowed to sacrifice to the utmost that an ambitious child would attend one of the mountain schools. Although they knew their Shakespeare well, since books were scarce, they familiarized themselves thoroughly with what they possessed.

The two DAR ladies noted that in their speeches that one finds expressions dating back to the Saxon, older than the English tongue itself. Many of their colloquialisms were excellent Chaucer, while they have a great fondness for tautology (the use of words that merely repeat elements of the meaning already conveyed, such as “water-stream” and “tooth-dentist”).

“They’re the 'fightingest' people imaginable,” Mrs. Frost alleged. “Their family feuds are rooted in ideals of family honor, traceable to clan warfare traditions handed down by their forebears. “Of course, we're appalled by the feuds,” Mrs. Frost admitted, “but they never killed for money, so perhaps they're not as bad as so-called civilized Northerners.”

Illustrations of ballads that have been sung for centuries of mountain folks were provided by several DAR ladies. One sang two 13th century ballads, “Gypsy Laddie,” a Civil War  unnamed ballad and “Brother Green.” Two others sang, “Lady Gay” and “Sing Said the Mother.” Mrs. Frost displayed her talent on the dulcimer, a quaint musical instrument once familiar to mountain festivities.

The songs were declared to be the finest examples in the world of Scotch and English ballads. The DAR ladies then brought to a finale the highly interesting and educational program and departed for home.

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In August 2006, I wrote an article about Jobe's Opera House, a former popular entertainment venue once located at the corner of E. Main and Spring streets on the second floor above Gump Brothers, a fashionable clothing store. Today's column provides supplementary information about the once popular establishment.

If we were to turn the clock back to 1890 in Fountain Square, there could be no mistake as to the identity of the business at that site. “Jobe’s Opera House” (see photo) appeared in sizable letters across the upper south side of the edifice, denoting Johnson City’s first public entertainment establishment. Ike T. Jobe built and managed the upstairs business; M.E. Gump was assistant manager and owner of Gump Clothing Store below.

The successful enterprise was proclaimed by a travel agent of McElreth’s Dramatic Troop to be the “largest and best hall between Lynchburg, Virginia and Knoxville, Tennessee.” A flyer from 1888 proclaimed: “Full Sets Scenery, First-Class Show Town, Play Companies Only on Shares,” with an added suggestion for patrons to “Stop at Piedmont House,” which was located nearby.

The enterprise offered cultural refinement from a variety of choices – operas, plays, lectures, humorists and music productions.

Entrance to the theatre was gained by entering Gumps through two doors on the Main Street side and climbing stairs into the auditorium. The lecture hall’s use also included sporting activities and even once served as a courtroom for chancery court sessions. In its formative years, the facility was used by such notables as Johnson City’s “Our Bob” Taylor, delivering lectures as part of his highly well-liked “The Fiddle & the Bow” series.

According to the late historian, Dorothy Hamill, the opera house occasionally opened its doors for high school graduations. Seniors, dressed in long white frocks or black suits, marched a short distance from “The Hill” on Roan Street to Jobe's Opera House where they received their diplomas.

Over time, numerous first-rate productions graced the opera stage, such as “Jesse James,” 1885, a production denoting the life of the infamous outlaw. Others appear as photos in this article.

The latter’s appearance was sponsored by the Longfellow Literary Circle and S.B. McElreth, a Johnson City comedian. This society was organized at the residence of Sallie Faw. Cargilles frequently sponsored such events, bragging that he owned “the cheapest store in existence.” Around the turn of the century, the opera management pioneered some brief action-packed silent motion pictures using a new invention – a hand-operated projectoscope.

The new medium of motion pictures was looming on the horizon and, by about 1907, would bring to an abrupt halt the once impressive opera house. As business waned, the second floor was divided into several small offices and rented until the building was finally razed and rebuilt.

An out-of-town reader of my column, who requested that I identify him only as Mr. John Doe, was thumbing through the fourth volume of an 1899-1900 “Official Theatrical Guide Containing Information of the Leading Theatres and Attractions in America.” John spotted an entry that he was certain would seize my attention. He was right; it offered some added specifics of Jobe's Opera House.

I am listing it just as it appears in the guide:

“Johnson City- Pop., 4169. Jobe's Opera House. Gump & Mathes, mgrs. and bus, mgrs. S.c. 606. Illum., elec. Wiley Porch, stage carp. Width prosc. opening. 20 ft. Height. 14 ft. Depth footlights to back wall, 22 ft. Depth under stage. 4 ft. 1 trap, located center. Theatre second floor. Wiley Porch, prop. man. Printing required, 3 stands, 2 3-sheets, 50 1-sheets, 50 1/2 half sheets. Wiley Porch, bill-poster.

Other information included: “Newspapers- “Comet,” weekly, Wed. “Staff,” weekly, Thurs.

“Hotels- Piedmont, Greenwood, Carnegie, special rates.

“Railroads- So., T. Klepper, agt. E.T.&W.N.C., J.C. Hardin, agt. O.R.&C., M.H. Weiler, agt. J.C., T. Klepper, agt. J.C.&C.T. Klepper, agt. Transfer Co., Sanders & Co.”

S.C. appears to refer to the seating capacity. According to other information I have from 1887, it seated 900 people that year.

Thank you, John Doe, for sharing with me and my Johnson City Press readers this diminutive treasure-trove of information.

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