S&H Green Stamps were once known as “America’s Most Valuable Stamps,” at one time printing three times as many as the U.S. Post Office. Printed by the Sperry and Hutchinson Company, they had been around since 1896 but did not reach their zenith until the 1950s.

The concept was quite simple. When you purchased food by cash from a participating store, the business would dole out one small green stamp for each ten cents spent. Patrons meticulously licked the stamps and placed them into small books, each containing spaces for 1200 serial numbered stamps.

The 30 empty pages contained advertisements promoting the lucrative benefits of the program. After accumulating several full books, consumers traveled to local “redemption centers” and exchanged them for predetermined merchandise. The business’s catalog, known as an Ideabook, offered customers a wide variety of choices and corresponding book requirements: Pair of bookends (1), Baldwin piano (380), Singer sewing machine (35), week’s vacation in Hawaii (190), pair of Speed King roller skates (1), Kodak Hawkeye camera (5½) and a Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder (43).

I recall a humorous event from the mid 1950s when a neighborhood acquaintance named Lucy invited my mom and me to ride with her to the S&H Redemption Store at 208 N. Roan Street near the old Power Board. Lucy placed a box of previously counted loose stamps on the counter in front of the attendant, informing him exactly how many books the stamps represented and the desired merchandise. The perplexed clerk informed her that stamps had to be in books in order to be redeemed. He proceeded to give her a handful of empty ones, assuming she would take them home and return with the stamps affixed to them. Not so. Lucy’s less than cordial response was “If you want my stamps in your books, then you lick ‘em and stick ‘em there yourself.”

Had Lucy read the fine print on the backside of the front cover of a book, she would have understood the rules: “The stamps when received from you must be pasted in the book, as that is the method we have adopted for the purpose of preventing their further use.” The clerk’s congenial reply angered Lucy, prompting her to begin licking whole sheets and sticking them on the pages with many stamps protruded outside the book. Mom wisely suggested we depart the premises. She hastily picked up Lucy’s box of stamps and empty books and the three of us abruptly exited the establishment. 

As demonstrated by our neighbor’s little temper tantrum, putting the stamps into books was a bit laborious, not to discount the foul taste of the glue. Nevertheless, most people overlooked this slight annoyance in order to select a prize from the attractive catalog.

The success of the S&H rewards program spawned competition from other companies: Gold Bond, Gift House, Triple-S, Plaid Stamps, King Korn, World, Blue Chip, Top Value and others. By about 1980, the “lick ‘em and stick ‘em” world of redeemable stamps ran out of glue and went dry. Sperry and Hutchinson Company is still in business but with a new marketing strategy.

Today, the only remnants of this unique rewards program are musty smelling books, stamps and catalogs found at flea markets, auctions and antique stores.  

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Today’s modern I-26 highway between Johnson City and Asheville is a far cry from the narrow winding old highway 19/23 of yesteryear.

John Hughes, a retired Johnson City bus and truck driver drove a Queen City Trailways bus across this treacherous mountainous terrain daily between 1946 and 1948: “I began my route in Bristol each morning around 8:00, traveling through Bluff City, Dead Man Curve, Bullet Hollow, Elizabethton, Johnson City, Unicoi, Erwin, Ernestville (traveling across a single lane bridge), Flag Pond and Mars Hill (stopping for a 15-minute break), before arriving in Asheville some five hours later. My pay was a little over $73 a week for a six-day work week. No one every tipped me; that just wasn’t done then. I wore an impressive looking dark beige gabardine uniform with maroon stripes, tie with pin and a cap with a bill.”

John said that it was commonplace for people to get motion sickness during the long curvy jaunt: Initially, I had to detour up a gravel road to Spivey Mountain and back across Tilson Mountain. Meeting another vehicle on this narrow road meant stopping to allow one to squeeze past the other. Passengers wanting to depart the bus signaled me by pulling a buzzer cord located along each side. My job responsibilities included carrying a rate book, figuring people’s fares, cutting tickets, taking money and dispensing change. Best I remember, it cost about $1.75 to ride from Johnson City to Asheville.” 

John chuckled when he recalled stopping near Flag Pond to pick up a young boy and girl sitting on the side of the road. The youngsters, dressed in Easter outfits and carrying a basket, handed him a dollar and asked him to take them down the road to Aunt Louise’s house for an Easter egg hunt. 

Hughes said that he failed to return home only once in his three years of service: “The bus got through ice and snow pretty well because it was heavy and the engine was in the rear. There was a small hand ax mounted next to me on the side of the bus for the purpose of beating out windows and freeing passengers should the bus turn over on the door side.”

John stated that his vehicle occasionally became so full of passengers that the company had to run a second bus, a Fitzjohn, following behind as a double: In the early days if the bus had a flat tire or developed engine trouble, I had to flag down someone on the road and ask them if they would locate a phone and call the company to request a service crew. After dropping off my passengers at Asheville’s large busy terminal, I had about four hours of unpaid time before starting my return route. Trailways rented rooms for us at the nearby Earle Hotel. I left Asheville shortly after 5:00 and got back to Bristol usually around 10:20, making for a long day.”

In September 1984, John retired and was recognized for working 54 years without having a single accident. Asked how he accomplished this amazing feat, the seasoned driver answered without hesitation: “The good Lord above looking down on me and the drivers down here dodging me. The Lord had it all planned that way.” 

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I have fond memories of taking Sunday afternoon drives with my family in our old 1950 solid black Ford coupe. As we “motored” through the upper East Tennessee, Western North Carolina and Southwest Virginia regions, we often encountered a series of small advertising signs along the roads.

“We're Widely Read – And Often Quoted – But It's – Shaves – Not Signs – For Which We're Noted – Burma-Shave.”

In 1927, the Burma-Shave Company launched one of the most unique and memorable advertising campaigns in history, enduring until 1963. The commercialization of the automobile allowed people to explore America’s cities and countryside, making highways fertile ground for advertisers. For 36 years, these modest signs were posted along roadways, becoming an icon of American life.

“On Curves Ahead – Remember, Sonny – That Rabbit's Foot – Didn't Save – The Bunny – Burma-Shave.”

Six (sometimes five) wooden boards with white lettering on red background were spaced about 100 feet apart along heavier traveled roads. Eventually, there were 7000 sets of signs, spreading into every state except those with terrain concerns – Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Massachusetts.

“Past – Schoolhouses – Take It Slow – Let The Little – Shavers Grow – Burma-Shave.”

Initially, these slogans were total sales pitches, but they soon became a source of entertainment with catchy rhymes, witty safety reminders and time-honored wisdom.

These non-offensive and cheerful adages brought the country through the depression and World War II, when people needed something to make them smile.

“To Steal – A Kiss – He Had The Knack – But Lacked The Cheek – To Get One Back – Burma-Shave.”

Clinton Odell, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, concocted Burma Shave, a brushless shaving cream, but the public did not readily accept it. The owner’s son, Alan, suggested a series of small roadside ads along major highways. The rest is advertising history.

 “Although Insured – Remember, Kiddo – They Don't Pay You – They Pay – Your Widow – Burma-Shave.”

The spacing between signs required people to wait a few seconds before being able to read the next word or phrase, the final one being the name of the product. The company, needing a continuous source of slogans, conducted an annual contest that paid $100 for each verse used. They received over 50,000 entries from would be poets. The little signs were not without their problems. Some were stolen or vandalized; hunters used them as target practice; small animals would chew on them; and horses found them ideal for back scratching.

“Train Approaching – Whistle Squealing – Pause! – Avoid That – Rundown Feeling! – Burma-Shave.”

The Burma Shave phenomenon came to a screeching halt in 1963, caused by escalating costs, declining sales and faster cars traveling on new superhighways. The little colorful signs had simply run out of gas. Most ads were gone by 1966; a few lingered until they were felled by the elements. The Smithsonian Institution wisely salvaged a set to preserve this unique piece of Americana.

Let me conclude by offering my own fabricated tribute to Burma Shave: “Little Road Signs – Long Passed By – You Were As American – As Mom’s – Apple Pie – Burma-Shave.”

Compose your own Burma Shave limerick and send it to me. 

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A favorite prank of youngsters of the early 1950s was to call someone on the telephone and ask for Arthur. Ignoring their confused response, the caller would say, “When Arthur Itus (arthritis) comes in, tell him that Hattie call(ed) (Hadacol).”

This often repeated gag referred to a popular foul tasting brown-colored “tonic,” marketed under the name Hadacol and available in stores from the 1940s to the mid 1950s. I remember lying on the floor of our apartment living room listening to my favorite radio programs and routinely hearing a Hadacol commercial. I had no clue as to its significance.

This trendy “medicinal” product was marketed in a thin black eight-ounce bottle with a red and yellow label, being advertised as a dietary supplement and selling for about a dollar a bottle. The label displayed five vitamins and four minerals, blended in a mixture of honey     and … 12% alcohol, the latter being added “as a preservative.” The minimum recommended daily dosage was four tablespoons. My mom obviously understood the factual value of the product. While Castor Oil graced my lips many times during my youth, not one bottle of Hadacol ever made its way there.

The founder of this popular concoction was Dudley J. LeBlanc, a colorful Louisiana Senator and businessman. He made millions selling his “cure-all elixir to the masses.” Legend has it that when asked why he called it Hadacol, LeBlanc responded, “Well, I hadda call it something.”

Whatever ailments people had, Hadacol was presumed to cure it: high blood pressure, ulcers, strokes, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, pneumonia, anemia, cancer, epilepsy, gall stones, heart trouble and hay fever … to name a few. The company began paying people for testimonials that showed health benefits resulting from use of the product, some responses boarding on the ridiculous.

Many users were quite serious about what they were saying; others made exaggerated claims in hopes of being compensated. Such corny solicitations amused the masses, making Hadacol commercials quite popular. People began fabricating their own humorous testimonials and sharing with one another: “I used to suffer terribly from irregularity. After just two bottles of Hadacol, I now make frequent trips down that narrow path to the outhouse, even when I don’t need to do so.”

Many patrons overlooked the high alcoholic content of the product in hopes of receiving happiness in a bottle, receiving instead, a pricey placebic hoax. Northerners would call attention to the fact that people making these bizarre allegations were typically from south of the Mason and Dixon Line.

The enterprising Leblanc later formed his “Hadacol Caravan” and traveled across the south, delivering “medicine show” type entertainment and selling an abundance of Hadacol. His “caravan” included such celebrities as Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney, Dorothy Lamour, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Judy Garland, Groucho Marx, Jimmy Cagney, Harry Houdini and Carmen Miranda.

In 1949, Hadacol ironically sponsored radio’s “The Health and Happiness Show,” starring the legendary Hank Williams, Sr. The medicine shows of yesteryear have long passed from the scene, mainly due to today’s watchdog efforts of the Food and Drug Agency’s “Truth in Advertising.”

The childish telephone pranks of a half-century ago are no longer in vogue with today’s youngsters. Arthur Itus is still alive and well, but Hattie doesn’t call him anymore.  

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In 1923, Johnson City had but three commercial cleaners: Johnson City Steam Laundry (112-118 W. Market), French Dry Cleaners (N. Roan at Commerce) and Arlington Pressing Parlor (115 W. Main).

The latter boasted of “Cleaning, Pressing, Dyeing and Repairing – Ladies’ Work a Specialty.” By 1953, the Arlington was all washed up, but joining the ranks of the other two were eight new competitors: Acme Dry Cleaners (202 N. Roan), Allen Cleaners (704 Buffalo), Collie Dry Cleaners (306 Oak), Deluxe Cleaners (908 W. Market), Peoples Dry Cleaners (518 W. Market), Service Dry Cleaners (431 W. Pine), Varsity Cleaners (413 W. Walnut) and White City Laundry (221-227 W. Main).

What caused this sizable increase in cleaners over that 30-year period? The population certainly didn’t grow that much. The answer lies in the hardships people had to endure to routinely wash their garments. Home laundering was no simple task in an era of large families devoid of modern plumbing. I routinely hear stories from my family members, who once lived in an old two-story log house in the 1920s on Roscoe Fitz Road in Gray.

While Monday is generally regarded as being washday, our family extended it over two days. With twelve kids living at home, they washed white clothes on Monday and colored garments on Tuesday, which included several pairs of boy’s blue jeans. Before they could perform their wash chores, they had to make several trips to fetch water from their cistern or from a nearby creek.

While the youngsters were acquiring water, mama was busy building a fire in the fireplace to heat the water. Bed sheets were boiled in a big iron pot to keep them white. The clothes were then washed, scrubbed on a washboard, squeezed dry, rinsed in fresh water, squeezed again and placed on a long outdoor clothes line to dry. Finally, they were taken down, ironed and put into use.

While dry cleaning dates back to about 1840, it was not until the first half of the twentieth century that the commercial laundry industry seized an economic opportunity to lift some of these washday burdens, at least for urban folks. This new enterprise eventually provided for home laundry pickups and deliveries for millions of households, requiring large fleets of trucks for business owners. This was a tremendous benefit for people with limited transportation.

I vividly remember Mr. Horace Jones, a driver for Johnson City Steam Laundry, routinely picking up and dropping off laundry at our apartment in the late 1940s. Over time, he essentially became a part of our family.

For budget minded patrons, these dry cleaners offered three cleaning options: Option 1 called for bringing back clean but wet clothes in a rubber bag. Option 2 gave customer completely dry clothes. Option 3 provided full service, which included ironing and folding the laundry. Mom normally chose option 2. The dry cleaning industry began to decline substantially in the mid 1950s with the introduction of automatic washers and dryers into people’s homes and the arrival of wash friendly clothing such as “wash-n-wear.”

Today, self-service washaterias and drive-by cleaners have become the norm. The once ever-present nostalgic little dry cleaning truck is now nothing but a vanishing memory from yesteryear. 

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The much-anticipated new ultra-modern Penney’s department store opened its doors at 305 E. Main Street in August 1948. The business moved from 240 E. Main, which later became the residence of Nettie Lee Ladies Shop.

Penney’s took over a site previously occupied by the Maryland Beauty Salon, The Hat Box, Sam’s Haberdashery, the Orchid Beauty Shoppe and the Avalon Apartments. Mac and George Langford, sons of Penney’s new store manager, Norris Langford and his wife, Sarah, provided some interesting facts about the new facility.

According to Mac, James Cash Penney developed a marketing strategy in 1902 when he opened his first store in Wyoming: “It was named the ‘Golden Rule’ store and was aimed at small towns of 10,000 to 15,000 as a cash and carry retail outlet. No credit or charging was permitted.” Mac fondly remembers his mother taking her two young boys downtown to watch the construction of the 36,564 square feet facility, the product of Abernathy Architectural Firm and J.E. Green Construction Company: “We would stand on the sidewalk at Kings department store to see the steel workers throw red hot rivets up two stories and hammer them into place.”

George Langford added: “It was the first of the 1,600 stores at that time to drop the J.C. Penney Co. logo and black and yellow signage and use just ‘Penney's.’” After opening speeches and a ribbon cutting ceremony, the two Langford siblings pulled back the curtains of the Main street entrance, allowing patrons their first view of the impressive store. Mac said the event received full media exposure: “WETB radio covered the opening ceremonies and interviewed department heads and customers during three half-hour ‘public interest’ broadcasts that day.”

The announcers were well known area personalities: Harry Snook, Herb Howard, Bill Shell, Stan Barron, Alice Friberg and Fred Lockett. One of the first people interviewed was Jenny Sells, the longest working Penney’s employee of Johnson City, having been employed with the firm since 1923. Throughout the opening day, Mrs. Clarence Ring, long-time organist for Central Baptist Church, played songs on the Hammond organ from the mezzanine level, commencing with the very beautiful “My Tennessee, My Tennessee.”

The store consisted of three and a half floors: street floor (ladies’ accessories, candy, jewelry, cosmetics, men’s and boys’ furnishings and dress shoes), mezzanine floor (infants’ and girls’ wear), second floor (women’s apparel, foundation garments, millinery, gowns, slips and the cotton shop) and downstairs (work clothing, work shoes, piece goods, notions and home furnishings). The prices were a reflection of the times: men's waistband overalls- $2.49, suits- $10.00, dress shoes- $6.90, dress shirts- $2.98, ladies' nylon hose- $0.98, cotton dresses- $2.00, fall coats- $24.75, children's shoes- $3.98, dungarees- $1.59 and sheets- $1.67.

The front entrance consisted of six thermo-pane 200-pound doors, installed by Holston Glass of Kingsport; the back entrance had four. The air was cooled every six and a half minutes by an air conditioning system, utilizing a huge water-cooling tower on the roof. An unusual six-inch pool of water across the entire roof provided year-round insulation.

The store had two adjacent high-speed, self-leveling, operator-driven elevators. A third person, identified as Mrs. Miller, served as elevator hostess. Should one elevator inadvertently stop during transit, the other could be deployed alongside it, allowing stranded passengers to pass through interconnecting doors from one unit to the other. George said the self–service elevators had attendants much of the time because “Dad thought it was more convenient for the customers who were not used to manning the elevators themselves.”

The flooring of the downstairs and main floors was terrazzo (marble chips on concrete). The balcony and third floors had ice blue, fatigue proof carpet. Modern ‘theatrical lighting” was deployed throughout the store to add visual effects for promotional events. There were 28 fitting rooms. The second floor ladies’ apparel rooms were quite luxurious for the time, utilizing three-way adjustable full-length mirrors.

Mac described Penney’s unique method for identifying sale items: “Most marked down special event merchandise had a price ending in “88”, such as $5.88.” Just prior to opening day, Mr. Langford went to Hamilton National Bank to obtain a supply of shiny new coins (half dollars, quarters, dimes, nickels and, of course, pennies) to be used for making change. 

The store employed an “auto call” xylophone chime system for paging key personnel. The number of chimes specified the person being summoned; for example, Mr. Langford’s call was one chime. Mac was amazed at the store’s massive labor force, employing between 64 and 106 workers, depending on the anticipated crowd.

Penney’s used the suction tube system prevalent in department stores of that era. If a sales clerk needed extra cash or a customer receipt, he or she put money or a sales slip into a tube, placed it in the suction pipe and sent it to the main cashier on the mezzanine level. The person at the other end would fill the request, put it back in a tube, insert it in the suction pipe and return it to the appropriate counter. The merchandise was then wrapped in brown paper, tied with a string and handed to the customer.

According to Mac, the store did something unheard of today: “Merchandise could be taken out of the store ‘on approval’ without paying for it.” He further commented: “Ladies back then wore corsets, and the foundation department had a professional corsetiere who could fit any female shape known to exist. “The store also had an alterations department with two large steam pressing machines, which could press men’s suits, felt hats, pants and ladies dresses after alterations while the customer waited.” Patrons could sit at their leather padded glove-fitting counter and have an expert fit them with just the right gloves.

Mac once served as an after-school roving store “detective,’” being on the lookout for shoplifters. His role was to stand on the mezzanine and report any suspicious persons to the store’s security person.

Mac recalled the occasion when Mr. Penney visited their home in Johnson City. The top executive was traveling with his valet from New York and wanted to stop by and visit his new store. Norris secured reservations for them at the John Sevier Hotel. Just two hours prior to their arrival, the New York office called and informed him that Mr. Penney wanted to stay at the Langford house. Norris met them at the train station, astutely tipped their baggage handler and escorted his important guests to his home. At Mr. Penney’s insistence, they ate breakfast promptly at seven the next morning, walked around the neighborhood at eight and were downtown ready to enter the new store punctually at nine.

During Norris Langford’s 21-year tenure as manager of Penney’s, he once served as director of the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce. After managing the new store for ten years, he was transferred in 1958 to another Penney’s store in Madisonville, Kentucky. Over time, the downtown area became a financial burden on the store’s operation. They moved to the Johnson City Mall on N. Roan Street in 1990.

Thanks to Mac and George Langford, we have been afforded a nostalgic look at a once bright spot in Johnson City’s business history.  

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Wolford B. Watson owned and operated a used clothing business at 109 W. Main Street in 1939, three doors west of the Windsor Hotel. Johnson Citians won’t remember him as “Wolford”; everybody called him “Pat.”

The businessman later opened Pat’s Trading Post in the building at 126 Spring Street, focusing more on used books, magazines and other paper products, offering something for both adults and juveniles. Watson had a railroad background, having previously been employed in the 1920s by the Southern Railway Company. His father and grandfather were also railroad men.

Anybody who ever strolled into Pat’s store will fondly remember it as a treasure trove of yesteryear; you never knew what gems you might uncover as you traversed each jam-packed aisle. The post had items stacked high off the floor, but nobody minded; such clutter added to its appeal and charm.

Pat’s business stratagem was to offer his patrons the options of buying, selling and trading, the same technique used by earlier frontier trading posts. This arrangement made it convenient for customers who did not have the cash for purchases. All they needed was a stack of books or magazines for bartering purposes.

Upon entering the establishment, his clientele first encountered a long table along the right side, stacked with piles of used comic books. Being an avid “funny book” fan, I always spent some time at this table. For every two comic books you brought Pat, he would permit you to select one from the table. Should you desire cash, he would offer you a nickel for two. Most of the comics on his table were for sale at a nickel apiece, half the original cover price.

This was the essence of Watson’s business, using a similar approach with books, magazines and other items. The businessman carried a large supply of worldwide postage stamps and mostly United States coins, which he stored in a couple of discarded refrigerators.

About 1953, my dad introduced me to a new hobby, philately (stamp collecting), thus beginning a pastime that I enjoy to this day. Stamp collectors would sometimes tire of their collections and bring them to Pat for trading purposes. As a result, I acquired a large number of stamps by exchanging my dad’s used paperback books. I then began filling the pages of my large 1250-page album from these collections, licking clear “hinges” to append each stamp to the album.

To the dismay of his many fans, Pat closed his trading post around 1960 and went to work, ironically, next door as a salesman for DeVault & Devault Real Estate Company. A few years later, I visited Pat and his wife, Herstyne, at their Holston Avenue residence. He escorted me into his basement where, to my astonishment, I found the remnants of Pat’s Trading Post, literally crammed into every nook and cranny of his cellar.

Not long after that pleasant visit, the popular downtown trader moved to Gadsen, Alabama. Sadly, he passed away in early 1986 at the age of 90.

Today, each time I open my mammoth stamp album, I cannot help but think of Wolford B. “Pat” Watson and his marvelous downtown trading post. Thanks for all the memories, Pat.  

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Saturday afternoons in the 1950s often meant a trip to downtown Johnson City for a neighborhood buddy, Hagan Reed, and me. We walked east on West Market Street from Johnson Avenue, a distance of about a mile.

The main department stores then were S.H. Kress, McLellans, Woolworths, Charles Stores, Sears Roebuck, Powells, J.C. Penney, Dosser’s, Kings and Parks-Belk. Our first stop was Earl Hicks’ Produce, where my great uncle, Walter Bowman, would offer us a sample of fresh fruit. We initially walked the entire length of Main Street, entering whatever stores suited our fancy. If our shoes needed repair, that necessitated a stop at the Arcade Shoe Shop for a Cat’s Paw heel or sole. The staff gave us a sheet of white paper to rest our stocking feet on while we waited.

Wallace’s Shoe Store had a new x-ray machine used to fit shoes. We inserted our foot into a bottom slot, glanced into the top viewfinder, wiggled our toes and watched the bones in our foot move. Kings Department Store’s attraction was an open-cage elevator ride, traveling from the basement to the fifth floor and back. This excursion, with its creepy looking fully exposed shaft, was as exciting as any carnival ride. The attendant often had to move the elevator up and down to align it with the floor, negating a tripping hazard for customers.

Another stopover was Pat Watson’s Trading Post to exchange some of my dad’s paperback books for comic books. Our choice for lunch was often John’s Sandwich Shop; a couple of dime hot dogs and a nickel coke would send us on our way. Sometimes, we patronized Kress’s food counter, usually consuming a hamburger, French fries and a soft drink for under a half dollar. Before departing, we spent several minutes gazing into their tropical fish tanks.

Henry Frick’s Music Mart and Burgess Smythe’s Electric allowed us to preview some records in one of their enclosed sound booths. The Southern Railroad Depot afforded us the excitement of watching trains being loaded and unloaded. It also included a brief pause at Zimmerman’s News Stand next door. Saturdays were always enhanced by a chance encounter with John Kilby, a comedic person frequently seen in the downtown district. This hilarious old chap was a delight to his many fans.

If we needed a haircut, we could choose between fifteen barbershops within walking distance of Fountain Square. We usually patronized Primus Dees at the Majestic Barber Shop or Boyd Purdy at the Palace Barber Shop, paying 50 cents for a trim, all the while listening to Paul Harvey on the radio. The highlight of the afternoon was watching a movie at the Liberty, Tennessee, Majestic or Sevier Theatre, the first two establishments being our favorites.

Before trekking home, we stopped at Market Street Drug Store to purchase any needed three-cent stamps or penny post cards from their small post office in the back. Our final digression was the Red Shield Boy's Club for some brief recreational activity, accompanied by a free bottle of Pepsi.

Today, I cannot drive downtown and walk the streets without thinking of those simple carefree days of yesteryear when our parents, without worry, permitted two pre-teenage boys to enjoy an entire Saturday in the heart of Johnson City.

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I love a good mystery, especially when it concerns Johnson City’s history. Earl Buchanan sent me a very interesting advertisement, in the form of a letter, dated April 23, 1918, of the Farmers’ Exchange. The business sold an extensive assortment of agricultural supplies: “wagons, plows, mowers, rakes, harrows, mills, drills, gasoline engines, silage cutters, seed cleaners and other farm items.” While the ad contained no street address, the letterhead showed a small photo of the exchange building, which slightly resembled the Arcade building. 

The letter was dated five years before the Arcade was constructed in 1923, ruling out that possibility. Where then was this large business of yesteryear located? The depiction showed a road flanking the left side of the building and a train on the right, billowing black smoke from its stack as it chugged along.


After some research, I determined the address of the Farmers’ Exchange to be at 106-110 West Market Street, in close proximity of the future Arcade Building. The London-Kirkpatrick Hardware occupied the site in 1928, becoming known two years later as London Hardware Company. The road in question was Commerce Street and the train was leaving the Southern Railway Depot, suggesting that the exchange building was built before the Taylor Brothers Building next door.

The advertisement identified the officers of the business as W.F. Carter (president), E.L. Anderson (secretary and manager) and R.S. Pritchett (treasurer). The letter illustrates the strong male influence of the early 1900s, containing some unusual language: “We hereby extend to you a cordial invitation to our anniversary May 4, 1918.

“The enclosed button may be worth several dollars as there are five hundred duplicate numbers, and if you will find the fellow wearing the same number you have and bring him to our store, we will give each of you a silver dollar.” Another benefit of wearing the button was receiving an additional 5% of all cash sales. The letter cautioned the receiver not to lose it, lest both parties miss an opportunity to win a dollar coin.

Not to be completely excluded, the farmers’ wives were addressed in the letter in a rather impersonal manner: “For the convenience of our farm women and other visitors, we have just completed a Ladies Rest Room on the second floor of our building where we will be glad to have them leave their bundles, eat their lunch or rest while they wait for trains or friends. Bring the women along.”

The brochure announced some quality improvements made to their product line: “We no longer sell you pea hulls, sticks and trash in your millet, for we have installed a seed cleaning plant and all peas, millet, cane seed, buckwheat, etc. are put in first-class condition before we send them to the farm. We have a power sheller and can handle your corn in the ear. We will also make corn meal and chop for you while you wait.”

The ad concluded by promoting their Sharples Suction Feed Separators, which they proclaimed to be “the most perfect separator on the face of the earth.”

The exchange either closed or moved to another location sometime between 1918 and 1928. One has to wonder if they took the Ladies Rest Room with them when they closed.

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Just prior to Johnson City’s two-story Arcade being demolished in 1985, I visited the 62-year-old dying structure to pay my final respects.

When construction of the city’s first indoor shopping mall began in 1923 at 133-135 W. Market Street, there was a smorgasbord of sounds in the air: the “whooo whooo” of steam locomotives, “clang clang” of trolleys, “ooogah ooogah” of Model T Fords, and even an occasional “nei-ei-ei-eigh from a horse.

The Arcade consisted of two parallel rows of small specialty shops, separated by a long convenient viaduct that ran perpendicular from Market to Main streets. Vintage businesses in the 19 bottom floor units once included: The Blue Ridge Coffee Company, Tennessee Washing Machine Company, National Cash Register Company, Bessie’s Place Restaurant, Shell Realty Company, Arcade Newsstand, Arcade Music Shop, Long Seafood Market, Ocean Café, Cameron Jewelers, Bower Brothers Auctioneers, Alabama Novelty House, Time Shop, Trading Post, and many others.

The Exterior of the Arcade Looking from the South Entrance (Main Street Side)

The 16 upper floor spaces, accessible by a beautiful wide marble staircase, attracted attorneys, doctors, accountants, notary publics, private detectives, chiropractors, contractors, optometrists, and justices of the peace. That afternoon, as I traversed the long corridor between the north and south entrances, I became dismayed at how much the facility had deteriorated over time. Most units were closed and locked with an accumulation of debris, fallen ceiling tiles, and thick dust covering the darkened musty premises. 

In my mind’s eye, I began to visual the old structure as I remembered it. I saw and heard the merriment of eager hurrying shoppers. I plunked a penny into the old pedestrian weigh scale at the south entrance that once greeted customers. I stood and looked in the door of the Arcade Confectionery, the longest operating store in the mall, observing Mildred Wexler as she busily performing her duties. I purchased a cold watermelon, after first plugging and tasting it, from a produce shop along the northeast end. As I approached the west side of the north entrance, my coin collecting days flashed before me; there stood Archie Blevins and W.I. Vines behind their spacious display counter attending to a numismatic customer.


The Interior of the Arcade Looking from the South (Main Street Side)

Those hanging on during the Arcade’s waning years included the Rustic Attic, Jerry’s Bargain Center, Stewart’s Used Clothing, Arcade Barbershop, Tri-State Antiques, Elegant Emporium, Bud’s Gyp Joint, Sam’s Used Furniture, and the Free Saints Independent Mission Church. The Arcade’s death was a slow painful one. The occupancy rate of the upper floors began to decline substantially in the late 1950s, followed by a similar decrease in the lower floors by the late 1960s.

Within ten years, the building had essentially become a sparsely attended low-budget flea market. As I sadly departed the Arcade for my final time, I looked back at a sign posted in one of the windows that seemed to say it all: “Our Last Sale – Grab it.” Those prophetic words soon became a reality; the once unique Arcade was no more. 

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