Bob & Alf

Johnny and Patsy Starnes own an attention-grabbing brochure titled “Up Salt Creek.” The four pages deal with a prominent lecture that was frequently delivered by then Ex-Governor Alf Taylor at various locations throughout the state of Tennessee. The date is not specified but is known to have occurred between the time he left office in 1923 and his death in 1931.

The cover contains a large photo of Alf Taylor and a caption underneath that reads, ‘The old, old river that runs by the shores of all the yesterdays.’

According to Patsy, “Johnny received the pamphlet from the effects of his great grandfather, John Bunyan Wolfe, who built a furniture factory in Piney Flats around 1888 and was responsible for early electricity and telephones in the area.”

The expression, “Up Salt River,” is believed to have originated in Pike County, Missouri near the mouth of the Salt River in the early 1840s. A political aspirant suffered defeat in an election for a state office. Undaunted, he relocated further up the river, ran for office again and lost the election once more. Later, when people inquired about the persistent candidate, they were told, “he is still moving up Salt River and running for political office.” That was the gist and jest of Alf’s application of the phrasing.

The brochure is a review of Alf’s lecture by eight critics. An excerpt of each is listed below.

DeLong Rice, author of the book, “Old Limber or The Tale of The Taylors,” offered the most eloquent expose: “’Up Salt River’ is the title of the half-humorous, half-serious, all-beautiful discourse of the popular ex-governor who, but a little while ago, caught the attention of the whole country by setting a serious and able campaign speech to the music of running hounds.

“In the political campaign of 1920, when the suffering suffragists of Tennessee were listlessly bracing themselves for the biennial grist of aged platitudes and statistical ‘punk,’ Alf Taylor, keen reader of the minds of men, suddenly rolled his party platform, with Code and Constitution, into a master musician’s baton. And out of the shadows of the Appalachian peaks, came the wraith of ‘Old Limber’ and his flying chorus of Walker dogs and they holed the Tariff and treed the League of Nations as the melody of the chase was written on immortal bars in the forensic history of Tennessee.

The Johnson City Chronicle offered its assessment of the talk: “Folks in this section are glad, though not in the least surprised, that the lecture is being received with such enthusiasm everywhere it is heard. Uncle Alf, as he was popularly known thru the years of his political activity, is always a speaker worth listening to. Blessed with a platform presence which is not the heritage of many men, with perfect command of English, with the power to sway his audience at will through the gamut of emotions from hilarity to tears and, most important of all, with a never-failing basis of sound thought underlying his words, he never fails to captivate his audience and, in doing so, to give it something worth-while to think about.”

The Erwin Weekly Magnet sensed that the Governor shone forth in all of his old-time oratorical splendor: “Reciting much of the early history of Tennessee, ‘Mother of States,’ he told how nearly all of its distinguished men at this time or another had taken the trip ‘Up Salt River.’ He called attention to the fact that Gen. Sam Houston, first president of Texas and later its governor was a native Tennessean, as was David Crockett, hero of the Alamo. He mentioned 50 celebrated names of Tennessee men who became leaders in national affairs.”

The Knoxville Sentinel noted that Alf’s speech sparkled with wit and wisdom, delivered in the inimitable Taylor style: “He appealed to his audience’s sense of humor but sent his hearers away thoughtful. Gov. Taylor is one of the few remaining orators of the old school. For eloquence, diction and word artistry, he has no superior and a few equals. For almost an hour and a half, he held his audience as if in the hollow of his hand. As a prelude to the lecture and as a compliment to a distinguished visitor, the Lafollette Concert Band rendered a musical program of about 30 minutes.”

The Fayetteville Observer commented that Gov. Taylor had the vim and vigor of a 25-year-old man and was a speaker well worth listening to: “The lecture abounded in quips of fun which kept the crowd in a good humor, but underneath it lay of foundation of sound thought; he wore his way through the various stages of success, misfortune and hope and closed with a magnificent tribute to the Christian religion.”

The Nashville Banner said the people of the capital city had the pleasure of hearing Ex-Governor Taylor deliver his new lecture: “It proved to be an excellent one and included a beautiful sermon and magnificent oration pronounced by many to be the best ever heard here.”

The Memphis Commercial Appeal called Uncle Alf “an optimist, whose philosophy is filled with spirit of human kindness: “Governor Taylor is giving a message to the world, which reflects the mellowness of a man who has smiled at adversity. In his jaunt, he gives a review and reminiscences from the mind and heart of a man who was not embittered by political defeat. ‘What I don’t know about Salt River isn’t worth knowing,’ said Uncle Alf. ‘Life is not a dream of ease. There is generally a horrid nightmare with every dream. There are ups and downs. One always finds plenty of company ‘up salt creek.’”

And finally … The Memphis News Scimitar indicated that Uncle Alf Taylor spread a lot of joy, mirth and good feelings wherever he traveled: “He is about the most delightful personage in the state and one of the most beloved. He is young in mind and imagination, buoyant, optimistic and cheerful. The only effect that the years have had on him is to give him wisdom. His faculties are undimmed and he stands a monument to perpetual youth.” 

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A favorite book of mine is “Old Limber” or The Tale of the Taylors (Delong Rice, McQuiddy Printing Co., 1921). The small-sized 88-page volume speaks of a famed Walker hound once owned by Alf Taylor, former governor of Tennessee. The witty prose emulates that of Alf’s brother, Bob, also a Tennessee governor: 

“Alf could not take the thousands in his audiences to the mountains; so he must bring the mountains to them. By the magical power of description, he lifted upon their enchanted views the blue and lofty peaks, drew out the long a sloping ridges and laid the river-threaded valleys. And when he has veiled them all with the silver sheen of moonlight, he blew the horn of fancy and out from their kennels came a third of a hundred hounds, each individual, except one, bearing some noted name.

“There was Alexander and Bonaparte and Bismarck and Lincoln and Grant and Thomas Jefferson (for Ben is a Democrat and would have his representation). There was a Caruso and a Patti and a Jenny Lind, which latter names were, perhaps, the most appropriate, for these dogs were singers – all.

“But the greatest of the troupe was “Old Limber,” a direct descendant of that mysterious tramp dog of unknown lineage, which old man Walker had found in the woods of West Tennessee eighty years ago. And still the picture grew under the spell of the speaker. The neighbors gathered and with them was Uncle Ace, the proud valet of the dogs and dusky musician to the camps of the clan.

“And they hied to the crest of a ridge, which lies on a nocturnal circuit of the foxes and release the chafing pack. There was the soft rataplan of feet as the dogs were lost in the shadows, turning for a little while the keys of silence until the strings of expectancy were taut; then intermittently, they thrummed the hills, as when a fiddler tunes his fiddle.”

A reader sent me several pages from The International Fox Hunter’s Stud Book, Volume II, (S.L. Wooldridge, Keeper of Records, The Chase Publishing Company, 1923). The volume offers an interesting look into the world of dog breeding. The names vary from the mundane to the atypical; some dogs even have two names. Limber’s parents and offspring can be found in the list:

“Taylor’s “Ole Limber” 2180 – Nat G. Taylor, Johnson City, Tenn., owner and breeder. (Walker) BW&T dog. Whelped June 29, 1915. By Limber (Taylor) out of Sail (Taylor); Sail by Ginger our of Mary Jones; Ginger by Tomcat out of Queen; Mary Jones by Dug out of Trilby; Tomcat by Jaybird out of Fan; Queen by Rout out of Fury; Dug by Harbinger out of Alice; Trilby by Raider out of Vic; Jaybird by Red Sam out of Mag; Fan by Minch out of Old Fan; Rout by Clark out of Spring; Fury by Bohannon’s Ginger out of Kate; Harbinger by Imp. Harbinger out of Belle; …

“Alice by Ed Walker out of Lot; Raider by Don out of Blk. Fan; Vic by Raider out of Tuck; Limber by Duke out of Kate; Duke by Gordon out of April; Kate by Buster out of Frances; Gordon by Phil out of Phoebe; April by Scrape out of Meck; Buster by Arp out of Phoebe; Frances by Don out of Tex; Phil by Arp out of Lill; Phoebe by Joe White out of Nancy; Scrape by Troupe out of Linda; Meck by Bally out of Emma; Arp by Joe out of Charmer; Phoebe by Joe White out of Nancy; Don by Rock out of Lucy; and Tex by Scrape out of Bones.”

Alf Taylor’s beloved canine has long been silenced, but tales of his celebrated hunting exploits still permeate local history books. “Old Limber” will not be forgotten, at least as long as this writer is around. 

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The discovery of an old scrapbook of newspaper clippings is always an exciting find and often contributes to an enhanced understanding of history. Such was the case in late October 1938 when Mrs. Kate Keys of 407 Highland Avenue found two pages from a scrapbook dating back to 1888, just 10 days before the national elections. The specifics of the find were not specified.

The unidentified material, which most likely came from The Comet, described the upcoming November 2 presidential election between Democrat Grover Cleveland and his Republican challenger Benjamin Harrison. Of particular note was a reference to Washington County residents and brothers Bob and Alf Taylor who, just two years prior, ran against each other in the now famous “War of the Roses” campaign for governor of Tennessee. After the votes were counted, Bob had prevailed.

Harrison became president in 1889 by receiving a majority of electoral votes, although Cleveland had a plurality in the popular column. Cleveland turned the tables later and went into office for his second term. For governor, the Republicans ran S.W. Hawkins of Carroll County; for Congress, A.A. “Alf” Taylor of Washington County; for senator, James A. West, also of Washington County; and for floater, C.C. Collins of Carter County. The Democrats chose Robert L. (“Fighting Bob”) Taylor of Washington County.

Not all of the find was political fare. At the top of one of the pages is a picture in red of the American flag with a caption written in faded brown ink: “The flag of our own happy country.” A poem in praise of the flag by William H. Burleigh occupies the upper left corner, while another gem of poetry, “The Drunkard’s Daughter” by Rev. W.Q.A. Graham, takes the right-hand side.

The other side of the sheet contains more faded brown writing that proclaims: “For conduct good and lessons learned, your teacher can commend.” There is also a poem clipped from a publication called “The Methodist,” titled “The Resurrection and the Life” and written by Sereno Edwards Todd.

A death note, probably taken from the same publication, was written in a strikingly dissimilar style to that used nowadays. It ran, in part: “Died of flux (diarrhea) at her home near Loy’s X Roads, Union County Tenn., July 11, 1884, in the 27th year of her age. She was naturally of a cheerful and affectionate disposition. For the last six or seven years, she was altimes a great sufferer. Literally she passed through the furnace of affliction. We trust these dispensations consumed the dross and refined all the gold of her nature. We have not learned as to her spiritual comforts in the last hours. Only know that she has passed to the Spirit Land.”

The final clipping was an amusing four-stanza poem by a David W. Wright explaining why he was slow paying his subscription to the newspaper. The first and fourth stanzas read: “Send on your paper, printer; Don’t strike my name off yet. You know the times are stringent, And money hard to get. But I must have the paper, Cost what it may to me. I’d rather dock my sugar, And do without my tea.”

Thanks to Mrs. Kate Keys, her sharing of two pages of nineteenth century history almost 70 years ago allows us a brief yet interesting peek into a piece of Johnson City’s storied past. 

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Last week’s column featured memories from 104-year-old Pansy Oliver Torbett as related to me by Joann Conner, her daughter. Mrs. Conner also supplied me with information that included a beguiling document dating back to April 1928.

“I read with interest,” said Joann, “your recent column concerning the former waterspout and foxhunts that were frequent occurrences on Buffalo Mountain. My husband, Joel, grew up on the south side of Johnson City and explored this mountain many times as a young boy. Hiking to White Rock was a Sunday afternoon thing to do in the 30s and 40s. Your article made me recall the stories my grandfather, Dave Oliver, used to tell about foxhunts on his farm where I now live in Piney Flats.

“Granddad related how the men and their hunting dogs would initially congregate on the “ridge” at his farm and then go into the connecting woods. My grandmother, Cordelia Oliver, dreaded these planned fox hunts because the ladies had to cook so much cornbread to feed all the dogs. They used all the pans they had and spent hours over small wood fired stove ovens cooking the quantity of bread needed.”

Joann said the dogs were not fed before the hunt because they needed to be agile in order to corner or tree foxes. Since they scurried across more than 100 acres of land during the chase, they returned from the hunt tired and hungry. Joann’s grandfather and the other hunters broke the bread into small chunks for the canines to devour. 

 “I remember Grandfather Oliver speaking of Gov. Alf Taylor,” said Mrs. Conner. “Mother told me several years ago that her father had received a special invitation to join a foxhunt that was to be held in honor of the (80-year-old) former governor. A few months ago, while sorting through some old records, I found the invitation she told me about. It was mailed to my grandfather on March 28, 1928 from Bluff City with a two-cent postage stamp.”

The hand-drawn letterhead at the top left of the invitation depicts Ole Limber hot on the heels of a fox. Below the caricature are these words (written as shown): “Ole’ Limber; The Elizabethton Hunt Club; Request the honor of your presence; at an; Old time East Tennessee Fox Hunt; at Elizabethton, Tennessee; Given in honor of Ex-Governor, Alf A. Taylor; on Friday, April the thirteenth; Nineteen hundred and twenty eight; at three o’clock P.M.; It will be the South’s Greatest Fox Hunt. R.s.v.p.; Alex Shell; Elizabethton, Tenn.”

This was three years before Alf died; it is not known if he participated in the sporting event. The right side of the invitation contains the names of the 15 Elizabethton Hunt Club members, which includes some of Alf Taylor’s sons: Alex L. Shell (Chairman), E.D. Houston (Secretary), Nat B. Taylor, E.C. Alexander, Frank H. Lovette, Winton Chambers, Willard G. Shell, Blaine Taylor, Alf A. Taylor, Jr., Edwin H. Hunter, G.R. Patterson, W.D. Rudy, Walter P. Dungan, Jno. (John) Alf Taylor and J.W. Denny. Piney Flats resident, Mack Houston, believes E.D. Houston to be his grandfather’s brother, Ed.

Thanks to the selflessness of Mrs. Joann Conner, another important historical artifact from the region’s celebrated past has been located and duly preserved for inspection at ETSU’s Archives of Appalachia. 

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Dr. B. Harrison Taylor, a grandson of the celebrated former Governor of Tennessee, Alf Taylor, sent me a letter: “Several months ago you had a historical article (“Old Limber”) in the paper about my grandfather. I thought you might enjoy this quote of Alf’s brother, Bob, from a little booklet entitled “Governor Taylor’s Love Letters to the Public,” especially in the light of present events.”

Harrison copied six pages for me and highlighted portions of it. In a letter written to Uncle Sam dated January 1, 1899, the former governor made the following statements: “I very much fear that you are going too far from home on your gunning expeditions. Why not be content to sit down to your own hog and hominy, and turnip greens, and canvasbacks, and beef and venison, and ‘possum, and pumpkin pie and political punch? I suppose that while you are contracting and expanding, you will take a notion after awhile to stretch yourself to your full length on the western hemisphere, until the mosquitoes shall roost on your big toe at Cape Horne, while icebergs form on your whiskers in Alaska. Remember me kindly to the American Eagle, give my love to the Goddess of Liberty and may we all live long and prosper.”  

I located and purchased the illustrated 95-page soft back booklet, published in 1899 by J.F. Draughon Company of Nashville. I paid more than the cover price of 25 cents. The 14 letters in the works were composed between Feb. 1 and Sept. 22, 1899; eight of them were written at “Robin’s Roost,” the governor’s residence in south Johnson City. Bob’s delightful humor comes through in his excerpts to various people:

To the Politicians (Feb 1): “Somehow or other we have never flocked together in the paradise of politics. You wanted me to blow your trumpet, but I preferred the mellower notes and softer tones of the old-time fiddle of the people.”

To the Boys (Feb. 6): “I have seen something of life in (cities and towns) and my observation has been that the country is the place to raise a boy, where the green hills and beautiful landscapes broaden his views. …”

To the Girls (Mar. 1): “If a woman has thoughts, let them fly; there is room enough in the intellectual air for every wing. If she can write, let her have the ink bottle; give her a pen and foolscap (paper) ‘‘a-plenty.’”

To the Fishermen (May 8): “What a glorious time to resurrect the fishing tackle from its dusty tomb in the lumber room and the red worm from his slimy sepulcher under the sod and to impale him on the hook and send him diving after suckers.”

To the Mothers-In-Law (no date): “(She) is the conservator of the peace and not its disturber, as many bad men would make it appear. She is the Goddess of Liberty, enlightening the little world within the four walls of home.”

To The School Teachers (July 24): “There is a glorious field of labor already ripe for our teachers; let them enter it and reap the golden harvest. The hills of the future are abloom with opportunities; let them climb to the heights and pluck the flowers.”

The remaining seven letters with the same articulate elocution were written to Bachelors, Drummers (salesmen who are paid to “drum” up business), Fiddlers, Candidates, Sweethearts, Sportsmen and The Blue and the Gray.

The last paragraph of the Introduction best summarizes the former governor’s inimitable flair: “Bob Taylor is something more than a humorist and a musician; he is also a great word painter, putting into the sublimest language the grandest and the most solemn thoughts conceivable by man.”   

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Last May, I spoke at the 2005 International Country Music Conference in Nashville where I met Dr. Bob Taylor, a retired history professor at Middle Tennessee State University and a grandson of Alf Taylor, former governor of Tennessee.

In 1886, the Taylor brothers, Bob and Alf, competed against each other in one of the most unusual political campaigns ever to transpire in the state.

 I related to Bob that my great uncle, Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman, a member of a string band known as the Hill Billies, made a unique 78-rpm record in 1926. “Governor Alf Taylor’s Fox Hunt” was recorded in New York on the jointly owned Vocalion and Brunswick labels. The composition depicts a fox chase on Buffalo Mountain with Alf; four sons; his favorite hunting dog, Old Limber; and a friend, Ben Jenkins, with his dog, Old Zeke.

Al Hopkins narrates the pursuit; Charlie fiddles, imitating Uncle Alf, himself a fiddler, and the barking of the two dogs. Throughout the record, Al instructs Uncle Alf (Charlie) to “have a little tune” each time the dogs run out of hearing range. The recording concludes with Old Limber catching a red fox and Old Zeke seizing a rabbit.

Bob later wrote me a letter: “Thank you for introducing me to the remarkable music of your great-uncle Charlie Bowman. “I learn from it that my grandfather, Alf Taylor, and Charlie Bowman are quaintly yoked by ‘Old Limber,’ the storied Tennessee foxhound. Our forbears collaborated in spreading Limber’s little legend.” Dr. Taylor noted that Bob served three times as governor and was a state senator at the time of his death in 1912. Alf won the governorship in 1920 with help from the still lingering appeal of his deceased brother.

The retired educator further commented: “In his first gubernatorial race in 1886, Bob had defeated his brother Alf in what became known as ‘Tennessee’s War of the Roses.’ In 1920, Tennessee Democrats were the majority party, but they were divided on issues, menaced by a national Republican tide and burdened by an unpopular tax that infuriated the farmers.”

Bob explained that Alf and his wife, Jennie, once lived near Buffalo Creek, adjacent to Milligan College in Carter County, maintaining a farm on the Nolichucky River. Bob offered a colorful depiction of his famous grandfather: “He was a farmer, public lecturer, and story-teller of energy and artfulness. His voice was a rich baritone. He was short and stout.  He was also a fiddler and a hilltopper (in his case, an unmounted hunter of foxes).”

Bob then unfolded the Old Limber myth: “As Alf Taylor saw it, his chief obstacle to winning the governorship was his age.  He was seventy-two years old. His stratagem for assailing the age issue was predictable. He would construct a myth. The myth would revolve about Old Limber, an aging Walker hound from his sons’ substantial pack. Old Limber was approximately age six at the time. His name was further accentuated by the Old Limber Quartet (often spelled “Quartette”), comprised of three sons (Nat, Alf, Jr., and Dave) and their friend Bob Wardrep.  The Old Limber myth differed from telling to telling, year to year.  It was studded with superlatives, digressions, and humorous exaggerations. 

“Alf Taylor believed that Limber was ‘the greatest dog that ever lived.’  His sons’ dogs pursued ‘the finest runners on American soil.’ The tall tale would be told from political platforms and before service clubs. It was sometimes coupled with the promotion of Henry Ford’s doomed bidto lease dams and purchase nitrate plants in the Muscle Shoals area, a project Taylor believed would deliver cheap power and fertilizer to Tennesseans.”

Bob alleged that in 1922 a stenographer from a Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, recorded the only complete printed version of the myth: “It was set in or near Carter County, although Old Limber’s hunting territory also touched other East Tennessee counties, especially Washington. When the other dogs ‘heard and recognized the voice of Old Limber it took two men to hold each dog. (Laughter.)’ Old Limber led the pack of thirty-two Walker hounds during the last three hours of the chase, which culminated in Happy Valley (Carter County). Alf indicated that, in the past and in a manner of speaking, he had followed the pack on foot and boasted that he ‘could break down any boy (of his seven surviving sons) I have behind this pack of Walker dogs after a red fox and have done it a hundred times in the Appalachian Mountains.  So get it out of your heads that I am too old to be governor of Tennessee.’ 

 “Alf Taylor was elected governor in 1920, assisted perhaps by the Old Limber myth.  Old Limber’s apparent magic could not be rekindled during the 1922 campaign: a national tide (fueled by a devastating recession) had turned against incumbent Republicans, the tax law had not been changed sufficiently, and Alf Taylor had his own party’s factions to contend against. Furthermore, the opposition press was attacking both the governor and his dog. Austin Peay defeated Alf Taylor soundly. But Limber had inspired a small stirring in the popular arts. J.E. Wallace sculpted a statue of him (and a bust of Alf Taylor) out of Belle Meade Butter Company butter. The statue was exhibited at the Tennessee State Fair in 1921, and its photograph is preserved on a post card.  A painting of Limber hung in the capitol during Alf Taylor’s tenure.”

Bob said that Alf and the Old Limber Quartet went to New York in 1924 and made a record for the Victor label, possibly being an abbreviated version of their campaign routine: “The Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University, has an original. On it, the former governor, employing his gift and taste for vivid detail, introduces the Quartet. He declares that the spirituals they would sing (‘Pharaoh’s Army Got Drownded’ and ‘Brother Noah Built an Ark’) were learned from hearing the master of the hounds (probably an African American named Ace Harding) around the foxhunt campfires. He only refers to Limber and does not recount the hunt story.”

Bob credits Charlie Bowman for furthering the foxhound myth: “Apparently, the composing talents of your great-uncle Charlie Bowman, of Washington County, then embellished the Old Limber myth by setting it to fiddle music. It thus appears that music was as much a part of the Old Limber myth as the hounds themselves. Music, Alf Taylor, and Limber himself were given immediacy and durability by the recording devices, which by the mid-1920s were obviously attracting southern performers. When a concrete walk was poured in front of Alf Taylor’s Milligan home, Old Limber’s prints were embedded and enshrined with the inscription: ‘Old Limber’s tracks—age nine years—Nov. 2, 1923.’

“Milligan College subsequently acquired the adjacent Taylor property.  Weather had eroded the walkway inscription and tracks substantially, but an heroic preservation effort–led by Clarinda Jeanes, the college’s first lady, and Clinton Holloway, a Milligan alumnus–saved the home and the part of the walkway containing Old Limber’s tracks, which remain on display.”

I find it especially enthralling when two individuals can bring two separate historical events together and weave them into one. Alf Taylor’s Old Limber myth should be remembered in East Tennessee history as the foxhound that helped elect a governor.  

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