Jim Bowman provided some treasured memories about his employment at King’s Department Store at S. Roan and E. Main in the late 1950s. Bowman further talked to three long-time employees of the firm: Louise Curtis; Ellen Sells whose husband, Sam Sells, owned the establishment; and Rose Cooper) to tap into their reminiscences. Another source of information was an interview of Mr. Sells conducted by former Press writer, Alice Torbett, just prior to the store closing in 1984.

Bowman commented on the painful days when the once thriving store closed: “When it became obvious that the time had come for King’s to close its doors permanently, Sam R. Sells postponed making the dreaded decision probably much longer than he should have. The employees were close-knit family members who regarded their job site as a second home. Many had been with the company the majority of their adult years.”

(L to R, T to B: King's Department Store under construction in 1928; Ruth Green and Ed Bateman, longtime store employees; Sam Sells at his desk just before he closed his business ; aa;;;;  ; ; ; and   aand    a     hhhh; and Main Street entrance during a busy Christmas holiday in the mid 1950s)

According to Jim: The five-story (including a basement and mezzanine) brick building offered quality merchandise at reasonable prices. Several other traits separated this special marketplace from its nearby competitors, such as a kiosk that adorned the center of the main (first) floor. During holiday seasons, for instance Christmas and Father’s Day, many bargains were offered at a designated location known as ‘the Booth’ for one-hour blocks throughout the day. For years Ida Smith was stationed there daily, but was periodically relieved by someone from another department whose merchandise was being featured.”

The former employee recalled a practice that King’s offered to its customers that is rarely, if ever, seen today: “Merchandise could be taken out on approval from the store and kept for three consecutive days, after which the item was either charged to the buyer or returned to the business. Some of those ‘approval customers’ pretended to own the home furnishings that they kept over the week-end – assumedly fooling” guests when having a party on Friday or Saturday night.”

 Jim’s memories included the once popular pneumatic tube system that was popular in larger department stores of that era: “An interesting feature that intrigued young children was the method by which transactions were made following a sale. Although pneumatic tubes are commonplace now for drive through customers at bank windows, they were a novelty in the late 1950s. The clerk would place the sales slip and tended cash or check in a cylinder and place it in one of two tubes. It would then travel by vacuum in a pipe that ran above the store to a cashier who removed it, counted the money, put in the proper change and returned the missile in a second tube to the salesperson’s station.”

According to Ms. Torbett: “For most of the year, the fourth floor contained children’s clothes and some toys, but right after Thanksgiving a miraculous transformation took place when it became a fabulous Toyland with storybook dolls, electric trains, stuffed animals, games and mechanical toys assembled among fantasy castles and man-sized candy canes.” The floor became an intriguing setting for Santa Claus who, with his “luxuriant whiskers and resounding chuckle,” usually stood near the elevator and greeted youngsters as they sheepishly hid behind their parents.

(L to R, T to B: Cosmetics Department located on the first floor;  The store ready to open to customers on Monday, Sept. 24, 1928; and the popular display window at the corner of Main and Roan streets …

Occasionally, people would head for one of the store’s large windows on an upper floor to watch a parade travel along Main Street. Others might go to the mezzanine and search for members of their family in the store below.

“To the delight of the close-knit sales associates,” said Jim, “two gatherings occurred annually to honor them. A storewide party was held in the administrative suite during the Christmas season and a picnic was scheduled each August at one of the city’s parks. Of necessity, the doors were closed for half a day each year for the latter event.

“King’s was always an extraordinarily clean place. When salespersons wanted cardboard boxes carried away, they communicated this desire to the night janitors by turning the empty containers upside down. Occasionally, a flood in the basement required a clean-up crew. The high water’s wrath brought on unexpected bargains on slightly damaged goods.”

Rose Cooper recalls when “several of us drove from Erwin to work at King's in the early 60s. I was in the book department with Stella Bowers. Customers bought and read Green Eggs and Ham as well as The Cat in the Hat long before the Dr. Seuss classics were popular in schools. The children were excited to get them.”

  When this nonagenarian lady hand-knitted some items for the Sells’ children, their father was so impressed that he established a new department for her products. However, he opened it only after Mrs. Cooper promised to work in the downstairs (basement) store. Ellen Sells recalls a beautiful custodian, Minnie Gilley, who possessed a great personality that was conducive to salesmanship, being transferred to the china department.

 Jim recalled that the nativity scene set up annually in the northwest corner window of East Main and South Roan was displayed years after the store had gone out of business. 

King’s great five-floor department store was a pre-cursor to today’s shopping centers. Customers could locate almost everything they needed conveniently under one roof, park nearby and dialog with clerks who sincerely showed an interest in them.

Today, a drive east on Main Street or south on Roan Street always evokes fond memories by area residents who still warmheartedly remember King’s Department Store. 

Read more

Today’s column is the fulfillment of a column that was initiated with Beverly Smythe Jackson just a few weeks before her passing this summer. Her parents, W.F. Burgess “Shorty” and Florence Smythe, once owned Smythe Electric Company in downtown Johnson City. Three grandchildren of the storeowners, Senter Jackson, Susan Wilson and Carol Burleson, shared treasured memories about the business. Mr. Jackson furnished me with three old city directories containing references to the store’s beginning.

About 1917, Russell Bishop, an electrician residing in Maryland moved to Johnson City and became secretary-treasurer and manager of Tennessee Electrical Supply Company, Inc. (J.W. Ring, president and Thad Cox, vice president) at 109 Spring Street. When construction on the new 10-story John Sevier Hotel began in 1923, Russell contacted his friend, Shorty, who was over six-foot tall and lived in Maryland, about a job opportunity.

Smythe came to Johnson City where he met and married Florence Browder. By 1928, Russell was proprietor of Bishop Electric Company, Inc. at 108 Spring Street, directly across the street from his previous employer. He hired Shorty as secretary-treasurer. Between 1930 and 1935, Bishop sold his business to Mr. Smythe and moved back to Maryland. The new owner relocated his store to 238 E. Main, the former location of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. During the Depression years, Mr. Smythe gave his wife a dollar each morning to cover the day’s expenses.

“The grandchildren fondly recall being at Smythe’s when parades traveled along Main Street. Because large crowds congregated along the street blocking the view from inside the store, tall ladders were moved to the front windows permitting the children to climb them and sit on top where they enjoyed a grandiose view.

Another doting memory pertained to the small wooden sound booths with doors on them that permitted customers to play store records (breakable and later non-breakable) to determine if they wanted to purchase them, something ideal for music lovers. Mrs. Smythe was depicted as a wonderful person with an incredibly loving heart who never got angry with anyone. She often walked across the street to Kress’s and brought back an oversized bag of popcorn, enough for the entire family to enjoy. 

Florence waited on customers in the front of the store while Shorty worked in the back with his electricians. The grandchildren remembered one in particular – Jackson Cornett, who specialized in home and commercial wiring. The rear area was crammed full of equipment with boxes stacked from floor to ceiling. The back door opened into a parking lot that faced Jobe Street (now State of Franklin Road). The area upstairs was a storage area.

In later years, businesses were closed on Sundays and Wednesday afternoons. The latter time was usually reserved for family activities such as going to see a movie or taking an exhilarating ride around the countryside in Shorty’s World War II Willis open-top jeep. 

Christmas at Smythe Electric was a festive time that meant decorating the store profusely with colored lights, holly and artificial snow. One favorite item that customers looked forward to and expected each season was a life-size replica of the RCA Victor’s (“His Master’s Voice”) dog, a fox terrier. 

Since Shorty was in the electrical appliance business, he always had instant access to new products. He built the first radio that appeared in Johnson City. He located the antenna on top of the John Sevier Hotel and positioned the speakers out front, causing a steady line of cars circling the hotel as people came from far and wide to hear the new product. He initially sold radios and then marketed the first televisions in the city. The family enjoyed TV in the store before it became available to the public.

When the store closed in the early 1960s after serving the community for about 30 years, Mr. Smythe opted not to locate a buyer for the business; instead, he sold the merchandise leaving the building empty. Today, Smyth Electric Company is just a pleasant but fading memory from Johnson City’s yesteryear. 

Read more

A March 24, 1940 Johnson City Press-Chronicle newspaper clipping alleges, “Bluff City Probably Had Section’s Pioneer Plant – Hat Factory Operated in Sullivan Before Area’s Present Industrial Centers Developed.”

Johnson City and other nearby cities had over the years become fertile industrial centers. Long before Henry Johnson built a water tank and depot in preparation for the emerging East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railway, a hat factory was in operation near Bluff City close to Thomas’ Bridge. Oliver Taylor corroborates this fact in his 1909 book, Historic Sullivan. He wrote that Edward Anderson operated the pioneer plant producing what he called a “good serviceable hat.” 

Virginia and Southwest Railroad Bridge in Bluff City  

Taylor also noted that the Sparger and Byrd mills at Bristol and the Prather mills at Bluff City, erected in 1874-75, survived only a few years because of high freight charges. The tobacco factories operated by Reynolds at Bristol and Prather at Bluff City also became casualties after selling their goods on credit and not getting paid on a timely basis.

Colonel Sam L. King of Bristol maintained that James King, his great-grandfather, and William Blount, first territorial governor of Tennessee, engaged in iron manufacturing between Bristol and Bluff City shortly after the Revolutionary War. Reportedly, cannon balls used by General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, the final major battle of the War of 1812, were made at the furnace. It was located at the mouth of Steel’s Creek adjacent to a discontinued division of the Southern Railroad.

The locale now known as Bluff City was among the oldest trading settlement in the state. As early as 1777, the commissioners of Washington County, Virginia, ordered a road built from Abingdon to Choate’s Ford (Bluff City). Choate was a notorious horse thief and Indian trader, according to Taylor’s research.

Over time, the town became Middletown (situated between Abingdon and Jonesboro), Union, Zollicoffer (so named to honor Confederate General Felix Zollicoffer), Union (again) and finally Bluff City on July 1, 1887. The town acquired more name changes than any city in Tennessee. The current designation is derived from the steep rocky bluffs on the Holston River along one side of the town.

 Davy Crockett’s father, John, lived in the vicinity of Bluff City before moving to the Limestone settlement in Washington County, Tennessee. Saint Joseph Company, producer of a well-known brand of drug products, originated in Bluff City. In 1805, a settler could purchase a quarter-acre plot of land for $82. 

In 1872, Bluff City’s first newspaper, the Landmark, started publication with W.D. Pendleton as proprietor and Major B.G. Vance as editor. In 1878, the paper moved to Blountville, the county seat. It was claimed by many authorities to be the second oldest town in the state behind Jonesboro.

Another paper, the Central Star followed a few years later. B.L. Dulaney, forefather of Mrs. Jay Gump of Johnson City and N.J. Phillips, owned it. Phillips later became the sole owner and moved the paper to nearby Newport in Cocke County. The last newspaper to be put out in Sullivan, as noted by Oliver Taylor, was the Sullivan County Developer in 1908 with W.D. Lyon serving as editor.

My column photo shows the Virginia and Southwest Railroad Bridge in Bluff City. It was originally planned to haul iron ore from Northeast Tennessee, but instead became a major transporter of farm and timber products. 

Read more

Saturday, October 20, 1917 brought news of the death of General John Thomas Wilder, a prominent industrialist who lived in Johnson City between 1884 and 1892. It saddened residents all over the country, especially those in the State of Tennessee.

John T. Wilder As a Young Man

The noted soldier of the Civil War, pioneer in the iron industries of the Chattanooga district and one of the leading drivers of the commercial development of Tennessee, died that morning in Jacksonville, Florida where he went two years prior to spend the winter. His obituary indicated that he was 87 years old and for several years had been in failing health, but retained his devoted interest in the welfare of the Volunteer State. His wife, Dora Lee, four daughters and a son, survived him. He was returned to Chattanooga for burial in Forest Hills Cemetery.

Wilder was born in Hunter Villages, Greene County, New York on January 13, 1813. He served seven years as an apprentice in the iron businesses as a draughtsman, machinist, pattern maker and millwright.

The industrialist entered the war as a lieutenant-colonial in the Indiana Infantry, becoming a full colonial in 1862 and a brigadier general of volunteers two years later. His Civil War service was especially noteworthy in such battles as “Hoover’s Gap,” “Chickamauga” and “Chattanooga.” Ironically, he once shelled Chattanooga, the city that he would later call home.

After the war, Wilder settled in Rockwood, Tennessee, and later in Chattanooga. In 1867, he founded an ironworks in the Chattanooga region, then built and operated the first two blast furnaces in the South at Rockwood, Tennessee. In 1870, he established a company to manufacture rails for the railroads.

Wilder entered politics and was elected mayor of Chattanooga in 1871, but resigned a year later to pursue his business interests. He unsuccessfully ran for the United States Congress in 1876. In 1877, he accepted the position of city postmaster, serving until 1882.

In 1884, Wilder relocated to Johnson City and lived here until 1892. He helped promote and construct the Charleston, Cincinnati & Chicago (3Cs) Railroad. He also developed the booming industrial suburb of Carnegie along the east side of the city. He named it in honor of fellow industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, which included the lavish Carnegie Hotel at E. Fairview and Broadway and a host of iron making and railroad-related manufacturing facilities. Iron ore was brought to Johnson City via the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad (ET&WNC known as “Tweetsie”). Wilder constructed the popular 166-room Cloudland Hotel near the summit of Roan Mountain to serve tourists via the scenic narrow gauge railway line.

In 1887, the tycoon organized the Roan Iron Works and built and operated two blast furnaces at Rockwood, Tennessee. He became active in the mineral development of Tennessee.

In 1897, Wilder moved to Knoxville, Tennessee after receiving an appointment from President William McKinley as a Federal pension agent. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft later granted reappoints. The general eventually became commissioner of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

General Wilder did more, perhaps, to develop the resources of Tennessee than any one man in the state. To him is due much credit, especially for the development of the iron resources of East Tennessee. In Chickamauga Park stands a magnificent monument erected as a fitting tribute to General Wilder’s “Iron Brigade.” 

Read more

My aunt, Doris Anderson, gave me a cache of old letters dating between December 1911 and June 1949 that were written to her mother (my grandmother), Mrs. Neva Cox. They came from her husband, Earl; mother, Molly; and others. While much of the wording would be appropriate today, an occasional entry in the letters dates them (buying eggs for three cents each in 1915 and working for the American Cigar Box Lumber Company on Cherry Street for 33.3 cents/hr. in 1920).

Other interesting comments spoke of family members sharing magazines and newspapers with one another. A family would buy a copy, read it and pass it on to others. It was never casually discarded. One letter wanted to know if my grandmother knew who had the latest “Ladies’ Home Journal.” Two others mentioned the “Johnson City Staff-News” and “Happy Hours.” I located a February 1916 “Happy Hours” magazine that contained nine articles: The Editor’s Desk; Twisted Oaks; Eileen’s Housekeeping; The Spirit of the Day; Marion’s Fortune; Flowers – What to Plant and When to Plant Them; Home Helps; Popular and Old-Time Ballads; and Latest Paris and New York Fashions.

A small 24-page advertisement booklet titled, “Season of 1927-1928, Bargains in Magazines,” offered magazine subscriptions. A unique feature was the use of money-saving prices on “clubs” of leading magazines. For each item, two prices were offered – full price (one subscription) and club (reduced) price (more than one subscription). Three full pages contained 72 suggested “clubs,” each containing a list of from 5-15 magazines. In addition, subscribers could develop their own “clubs” from a catalog of 138 magazines located at the end of the booklet. Most prices were for one year, could be new or renewal and allowed shipping to different addresses. The ad further provided enhanced descriptions for six popular magazines.

The Mentor ($4/yr., 12 issues): “Real Romance”; authentic pirates; little-known stories of well-known people; places you always wanted to visit; romance made real; and the world of yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

Cosmopolitan ($3/yr., 12 issues): “The World’s Greatest Fiction Magazine”: most alert, vigorous and far-seeing magazine in America; bringing the best talent of the world to entertain and inform the reader; twice as many novels, stories and features by star writers as any other magazine.

Good Housekeeping ($3/yr., 12 issues): “Supreme in Service to the Homemaker”; shortening a woman’s workdays; saving 10% on living costs; tasty recipes, menus, smart fashions; useful suggestions on home dressmaking, health, childcare, decoration, entertainment, housekeeping.

Collier’s ($2/yr., 52 issues): “The National Weekly”; novels of thrilling interest; complete stories; politics, sports, and special features; clever pictures; written by popular authors, all in the most-quoted American weekly.

 Woman’s Home Companion ($1/yr., 12 issues): the year’s best novels; short stories; from movies to psychology, from travel to music; helpful, practical department service that includes fashions, cooking, good looks, better babies, interior design, good citizenship, entertaining, handicrafts, gardening, home planting and others.

American Magazine ($2.50/yr., 12 issues): Thrills from the experience of those who conquer life in spite of tremendous odds; people who offer individual recipes for success, famous writers like Zane Grey, detailing the glorious west and providing tales of adventure, mystery, humor and romance.

Thanks to old letters and vintage ads, we are provided with another glimpse into the nostalgic world of yesteryear. 

Read more

I love to read old newspapers because I never know what I might come across. Such was the case when I examined an article in an April 1931 Johnson City Staff-News titled “Major Lyle Is Chief Speaker for Kiwanis – Old Resident Describes Development of City from Days of Long Ago.”

Major Cy H. Lyle, former editor of the city’s first daily newspaper, The Comet, offered interesting tidbits to the club of the development of Johnson City from a diminutive village of less than 400 people to a thriving town of almost 30,000. The occasion was the Kiwanis Club’s regular luncheon meeting Wednesday noon at the John Sevier Hotel.

Fortunately for club members, he offered very specific information about the city’s growth from 1887 until 1931. However, regrettably for newspaper readers, the account provided a dearth of specific information about the history he was so fluently discussing.

The noted newspaperman supplied details of the city’s gradual growth from the days when the town consisted of the Hoss House, a single water tank (used for trains at Johnson’s Depot), a water ram (hydraulic pump that operates without electricity) and a few scattered houses. Lyle further related numerous anecdotes involving some of the early citizens. Again, the newspaper writer saw fit not to mention their names or what they said. Cy proceeded to describe the struggles of producing a daily paper.

Major Lyle depicted the various residences and business buildings that sprang up as Johnson City grew, relating specifically where each one had stood. The newspaper indicated that older members of the club enjoyed his address because they remembered the things he said. Younger members were also interested because they had heard about them from hearsay.

Lyle recalled the days when Bob Taylor, Augustus Herman Pettibone (member of the United States House of Representatives for the 1st congressional district of Tennessee) and others engaged in heated political battles.

 “I quote these facts from memory,” said Lyle, “but there is none here who can dispute them. I can remember Johnson City from 1878, when I went to work for the Jonesboro Times. I moved to Johnson City in 1881 and lived here much of the time since.”

After Lyle concluded his speech, Mayor W.B. Ellison, who was in charge of program entertainment, introduced some pupils from West Side School The young artists gave a varied program, including a piano and xylophone number, the chorus from a song titled “The Levve,” a reading called “Moonlight on the Colorado” and a song by a quartet of harmonica players.

F. Stewart Crosley, newly elected governor of the Kentucky-Tennessee district, was introduced by president and businessman F.B. Hannah and, in a brief response to a standing tribute by the club, expressed his intention of carrying out the agenda launched by the late Dr. E.B. Bowery, whom he succeed in office.

Afterward, the president handled several items of business. One was an invitation from the Miami Kiwanis Club for the Johnson City members to attend the international meeting in that city sometime in May. District trustees Charles Edwards of Kingsport, L.M. Allred of Erwin and Walter Hunter of Kingsport were present to name a successor to the post of lieutenant governor. It was announced that W.T. Watkins won the award for having the greenest necktie at the previous gathering.

The meeting concluded on a humorous note. Ralph Carr was introduced as the club’s “Baby Kiwanian.” 

Read more

In 1909, the year Henry Ford introduced his Model T Ford to the public, there were understandably no automobile dealers or repair shops in Johnson City. Instead, numerous livery stables existed such as Edward S. McClain (W. Market near Boone), Marion McMackin (Locust near Roan) and City Stable (125 W. Market).

By 1917, the number of car dealerships had grown to three: Burrow Motor Co. (339-41 E. Main), E.D. Hanks Motor Co. (119-21 E. Market) and H.R. Parrott Motor Co. (Ash and Buffalo).

Within eight years, 15 businesses attested to the mounting popularity of the automobile: Auto Renewal Co. (520-22 W. Market), Automobile Electric Co. (138 W. Market), Clark Automobile Co. (808 Buffalo), Glover Motor Co. (235 W. Market), Hensley Repair Shop (102 Montgomery), Herrin-Leach Auto Repairing Co. (244 W. Market), H.L. Hobbs (116-18 Water), Kyle Auto Sales Co. (214-16 W. Market), Muse’s Auto Repair Shop (308 W. Main), Offinger-Sewell Chevrolet Co. (114 Jobe), Range Motor Co. (119-21 E. Market), P.W. Sams (518 W. Market), A.J. Shelton & Co. (339-41 E. Main), Universal Motor Corp. (Boone at King) and Young & Goforth (921 W. Main).

Louis Chevrolet and William Durant founded Chevrolet Motor Car Company in 1911. Six years later, General Motors Company acquired it. According to a 1925 newspaper, Chevrolet engaged in an unrelenting quest to add superior value to its vehicles and compete with Ford’s Model T. To accomplish this, Chevrolet chose a few automobiles for “Speed Loop” tests and selected trucks to “Bump Boulevard” evaluations.

Chevy’s “Speed Loop” was located near Milford, Michigan, where cars were driven around it repetitively. The grueling driving assessment was maintained around the clock throughout the year without regard to weather conditions. In the course of a month, seven Chevrolet cars were subjected to the loop for a combined total of 75,000 miles, providing both routine and abnormal driving conditions that cars would not be subjected to by the typical owner. All models were included in the test group.

Two shifts of drivers maintained a pace of between 35 and 40 miles per hour (a high speed then), stopping only for gas, oil and inspection. The dayshift drove from 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. with a half-hour off for lunch; the night group worked from 7 p.m. until 6:30 a.m. with a 30-minute midnight snack.

The “Loop,” which had no speed restrictions, included three miles of gravel track banked high at the turns and one mile of level concrete straightaway. The section of road leading from the “Speed Loop” to the inspection shop had a 11.6% grade. When each car traveled 1000 miles, it was taken into the shop where it incurred a thorough washing followed by a meticulous examination. This was the only time the vehicles were under cover. An assessment report was then issued to management. 

After a vehicle reached 40,000 miles on its odometer, it was taken into the shop and torn down for additional precision analysis. Often, the inspectors found opportunities for major and minor refinements. No detail was considered too insignificant for consideration of design changes in future models.

Chevrolet trucks were also under continuous testing along “Bump Boulevard.” This consisted of an old unpaved farm road, much like those in rural areas that crossed the 1,146-acre proving ground. The defects and irregularities of this road were purposely left intact to challenge the trucks.

The two testing programs were not without a price. The company used about 4,500 gallons of gasoline monthly, but considered the effort well worth the price.  

Read more

In 1958, a Junior High School classmate and I went to Tri-Cities Airport to research for a project about the operation of the facility as part of an assignment for Ms. Viola Mathes’ 9thgrade Civics class. We put together a poster that was later displayed during a PTA meeting.

I was reminded of this event when I read the title of an article in the January 9, 1934 Johnson City Staff-News: “Engineers Busy Making Final Surveys of 125-Acre Airport.” The clipping stated that the dream of East Tennesseans had long been to possess an airport that adequately served the Tri-Cities area. That vision became a reality when engineers began surveying and moving in machinery to accelerate the building project on a chosen site located about halfway between Johnson City and Kingsport, just a short distance from a newly paved thoroughfare between the two cities.

The article stated that all but 10 acres of the desired land were in Washington County near the Sullivan County line. A committee chosen to purchase the property found all the landowners willing to sell their land at a reasonable price except for one family who held out for a higher price. Timing was favorable for the construction of a regional airport. As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the CWA (Civil Works Administration) was approved on November 8, 1933 with a goal to create jobs for millions of unemployed workers. It was intended to run parallel with the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps).

The CWA created construction jobs, aimed largely at improving or constructing buildings and bridges. However, CWA’s window of opportunity lasted only four and a half months, ending abruptly on March 31, 1934 after racking up a 200 million dollar monthly tab.

The newspaper article stated that engineers were making final surveys for the airport and workers would be selected equally from the four cooperating counties: Washington, Sullivan, Unicoi and Greene. This was in exchange for each party agreeing to pool its share of CWA funds to secure the airfield. A landing field was seen as a significant benefit for people residing across a wide area. The East Tennessee field was to be the largest in Tennessee with two runways 3,200 feet long and three others almost that length. One impressive fact about the new airport was that the largest planes built at that time would be able to land there regardless of the direction of the wind.

Mr. R.S. Boutelle, former Tennessee Director of Aeronautics who was in charge of 11 southern states in the building of airports with CWA money, telephoned officials and ordered work to get under way immediately. Local authorities, eager to comply with the director’s instruction, expedited every phase of the preliminary work.

The newspaper article further noted that after the airfield was completed, it would represent an expenditure of more than $200,000. It was believed that a sufficient amount of money from the CWA fund would be available for building necessary hangers, beacons along the runways and other lighting facilities.

The article concluded by bragging on Johnson City’s and Kingsport’s leaders for their cooperative efforts in securing the airport. Those from JC were Harry D. Gump, M.T. McArthur and J.W. Cummins. A.D. Brockman, Robert E. Peters, J. Fred Johnson and E.W. Palmer represented KP. Efforts from those humble beginnings in 1934 to establish local air travel can be seen today by visiting the modern and expansive Tri-Cities Regional Airport.

Does anyone recall the name or have a photo of the friendly little canine that for years hung around the runway side of the terminal and became a hit with passengers?  

Read more

Local historian Alan Bridwell interviewed Stella Lent who fondly recalled the years she lived in Johnson City and her love for working at the John Sevier Hotel.

The 99-year-old resident was born in 1911, the same year as the Titanic tragedy. She and her family arrived in Johnson City in 1928 by train from Beckley, West Virginia and rented a furnished house on Whitney Street from Dr. Carroll Long. Ms. Lent later worked at People’s Drug on Main Street for several years.

Between 1943 and 1963, she was employed at the John Sevier Hotel. She spoke highly of Harry Lee Faw (on whose land the hotel was built) and his wife, Katherine. The old Faw home place later became a boarding house before being demolished to make room for the hotel.  

Initial plans were to construct the hotel in three phases beginning on the north (Southern Depot) side and finishing at the south (Market Street) end. The first phase containing 130 rooms was constructed in 1924. The second phase that added 100 additional rooms was under construction when the Lent family arrived in the city. The third addition was never built. Entrances to the long lobby were on Market Street (south), Roan Street (east) and Fonde Circle (north).

Initially, the hotel rooms were very basic with no frills such as radios, televisions or air conditioning. Stella recalled that room rates were varied: $2.50, $3.00, $5.00 and $8.50 per day. Each had a private bathroom with small tiles on the floor.

Guests had access to a separately owned 110-car parking garage along the west side of the hotel owned by a Mr. Fields. Although there were no covered walkways interconnecting the hotel, train station or garage, passengers could exit the train and be within a short walking distance of the hotel. Bellhops known as “red hats” patrolled the area between the hotel, garage and train station to assist travelers with their luggage.

Ms. Lent recalled that Eleanor Roosevelt lodged at the hotel on three separate occasions, always arriving by train. She conversed with the First Lady on each visit. During one trip, she and her sister went to Soldiers Home and chatted with the special guest about the subject of infantile paralysis, which had infected the president and Stella’s sister. 

When Stella was asked if she heard any stories about Al Capone staying at the hotel, she responded with a strong, “Oh yes!” She based her information on comments related to her from a reliable bellboy who was working there when the gangster and his entourage arrived in 1927. He told her that they rented the entire third floor. They were always very polite, caused no trouble during their stay and left the rooms in the same clean and orderly condition as when they arrived. Stella remembered when the city was called Little Chicago. Downtown merchants often utilized a “door shaker,” a police officer who walked the streets after hours checking each business establishment’s door to ensure it was properly secured.

The old Faw Spring, which had previously been a favorite resting stop for travelers and their horses in the early days of the city, became an aggravation for the hotel after it was built because water had to be continually pumped out of the basement sump. Occasionally, a pump malfunctioned, causing water to flood the basement. Stella said the water would sometimes be ankle-deep in her first floor office.

It was standard procedure for people to make reservations before arriving at the hotel. Sometimes, patrons would stop in for a room only to find that there were none available. The hotel stayed full throughout the war years. Rooms were held until 11 p.m. after which time they were removed from reservation, unless the arrival time was confirmed with the reservation desk clerk.

A humorous incident once occurred concerning room 1820, which had three single beds in it. A man showed up at the desk and requested a room. Since the people reserving it had not arrived yet and it was approaching 11 p.m., the man repeatedly demanded that he be given the room. When Stella refused, he threatened to call his good friend, Judge Samuel Cole Williams to influence her to give him a room. Stella responded, “When you call him, let me speak to him because he is deceased.” That abruptly ended the argument.

Ms. Lent said that the hotel strived to maintain a good reputation by strictly forbidding gambling, prostitution and drunkenness. If hotel management suspected questionable behavior in a room, they checked it out. Sometimes a fight broke out prompting a call for the police to restore order. The hotel maintained a “black list” of people who were not permitted to stay at the hotel because of previous problems She said some well-known residents were on the list. 

Stella loved to work on the hotel’s switchboard, which she deemed was a “great experience.” It consisted of a two position Kellogg board with two rows of jacks directly opposite each other. “When a signal came on,” she said, “the operator could answer on either set, but the rule of thumb was to use the back jack for all guests requesting an outside call. We stayed busy when we worked the switchboard. We had three telephone booths; one was the house phone and the other two were pay phones. Somebody would come up and ask me to ring someone’s room, but we were not permitted to pass along calls from people walking in off the street.”

Despite her age, Stella Lent’s sharp memory and quick wit provided added interesting facts about a once prominent “skyscraper” in downtown Johnson City. 

Read more