One of the most listened to area radio programs between 1960 and 1966 was “Hap’s House,” a creation of WBEJ Radio in Elizabethton.

“Hap” Harold Henley, alias Ziggy Ziggy Higginbotham, was a popular comedic deejay with a weekday morning eight to noon broadcast. The five-foot five-inch slightly stocky DJ beckoned his faithful listeners to their radios with “good listening, laughs galore and toe tappin’ tunes,” according to an old promotional “Wanted” poster. Those of us who remember his lively program further recall that his favorite recording artist was Elvis.

Cleo Reed, longtime general manager of the station fondly recollects the jovial entertainer: “During a broadcast, Hap put a record on the turntable and played it over and over. I went upstairs to see what was going on. He told me he was going to keep playing that song until people started calling the station. He wanted to see how many people were listening to his program. About that time, the phone began ringing off the wall.”

Given that one of his sponsors was a shoe store, Hap appropriately used as his daily theme song an instrumental recording, “Red Shoes.”

Ms. Reed recalled that the witty disc spinner once conducted a “Man on the Street” program at 12:15 pm in downtown Elizabethton in front of Parks Belk. Hap wore a bright red hard hat, interviewed people and awarded them sponsors’ prizes. The red hat is currently on display at the station’s new location at 510 Broad Street.

Cleo commented with fondness on Hap’s annual Santa Claus program, asking children or their parents to send letters to the station, receiving between 150 and 200 responses.  The clever announcer would then attempt to reach Santa at the North Pole with words like “Calling Santa Claus; come in Santa” and adding line static and wind gust sound effects to achieve even more realism.  After reaching the jolly old man, the DJ switched roles. He imitated Santa by sticking his head into a metal waste can, containing a microphone surrounded by several wadded up papers and reading the youngster’s letters over the air. The kids loved it.

Smithdeal’s Supermarket sponsored a cooking segment on Hap’s House at 10:00 each morning. Hap gave clues to secret recipes and called two fortunate listeners to see if they could identify the gastronomic delight. Prize money often exceeded $100.

 Hap had suffered terrible burns in a plane crash in World War II. Ms. Reed recalled that he was very regimented in his life activities, such as eating a thermos bottle of pea soup and a can of sardines for lunch every day. Hap was a perfectionist. He kept a huge unabridged dictionary 8” thick in the control room with him. Lynn Williams, former station engineer, located a second large dictionary at a book sale and purchased it for his friend.

Cleo summed up her feelings for her former good friend with these succinct words: “If you ever met the man, you would remember him forever.” After working at the station for six years, the well-liked radio entertainer died in October 1966 after a 13-week lingering illness. He was about 52.

The door of Hap’s House at 1240 WBEJ was closed and locked forever; Hap Harold Henley, alias Ziggy Ziggy Higginbotham, had left the building. 

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Billy Jones and Ernest Hare, known as the “Happiness Boys,” recorded a song in 1921 called “Down at the Old Swimming Hole.” “Come along with me, down to the old swimming hole. Come on and be a kid again. It’s great to lie on the bank and look at the sky. And let the rest of the world go by.”

As a youth growing up in Johnson City, I regularly patronized several city and surrounding “swimming holes.” In the late 40s, my family often traveled to the refreshing mountain waters of Hungry Mother Park in Southwest Virginia. It had a homemade beach and a kiddy wading area that was completely surrounded by a white wooden picket fence.

Another cold-water excursion was to Rock Creek Park in Unicoi Country, sporting a rocky natural pool and picnicking facilities. Mom insisted that I wait an hour after eating before entering the chilly streams so as to prevent cramps. I usually cheated on my time, not believing her worries held much water.

A third popular “hole” was the Sur-Joi establishment (formerly Watauga Swimming Pool) once situated on the site of Carver Recreation Center. Mom literally carried me there in the late 40s as a spectator because I was battling rheumatic fever and restricted from physical activities, including walking. I later became a regular active patron of that facility.

Moving to Johnson Avenue in 1950 afforded yet another selection. Mrs. Dorothy Keezel would occasionally load several neighborhood kids into her convertible and escort us on a day’s outing at Willow Park in Erwin.

Munsey Memorial Methodist Church’s natatorium (indoor swimming pool) provided folks with perennial swimming. The pool operated on an hourly basis with lifeguards blowing whistles promptly on the hour to usher in a fresh batch of waiting swimmers. The hourly charge was 50 cents. I usually stopped at their modest snack bar opposite the pool for a bite and to watch the other swimmers. I learned to swim there from an instructor who, strangely enough, stayed dry by tutoring her students from the side of the pool.

I infrequently dipped in the Franklin Pool in Elizabethton at an early age, so my recollection of that enterprise is a bit blurred. I can, however, recall visiting Woodland Lake near Jonesboro, an establishment offering two large pools – a normal one and another containing all deep water for lap swimmers.

Unquestionably, my favorite aquatic location was Cox’s Lake (formerly Lake Wataussee). Its remoteness made it further desirable. In the late 1940s, Baxter Street was paved only as far north as Woodland Avenue.

Cox’s Lake had it all – swimming, picnicking, canoeing on the pond, a large screened in recreation area over the water, a jukebox and dime pinball machines, offering the potential for free games. The elongated towering wooden sliding board along the west side of the pool was thrilling, as was the high diving board at the deep end. Patrons entering the murky pool had to contend with a chlorine footbath with its strong trenchant odor.

When the city opened the municipal pool in the early 1960s, I became attracted to its dual low and high diving boards.

Oh how I long for those carefree days of yesteryear when this boy went “down at the old swimming hole” and “let the rest of the world go by.”  

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It is 7:00 pm on a balmy July 7, 1953 Tuesday evening in Johnson City. The four members of the John Doe family have decided to attend a local drive-in movie, having several motion picture choices:

Van Johnson and Paul Douglas in “When In Rome” at Family Drive-In, John Derrek and Donna Reed in ‘Saturday’s Hero” at Tri-City Drive-in, Anthony Dexter and Eleanor Parker in ‘Valentino’ at Twin-City Drive-In, and Edmond O’Brien and Joanne Dru in ‘711 Ocean Drive” at King Springs Drive-In.

They choose the Family Drive-In with two nightly showings, 8:45 and 10:45, opting for the earlier one. The ticket booth attendant charges them $1.25 (a quarter per person and a quarter per vehicle), giving little thought to anyone hiding in their trunk, an occurrence commonplace with the younger crowd.

Upon entering the establishment, the Does search for the most favorable viewing location, directly in front of the big screen without being too close or too far from it. They next remove the gray-colored speaker box from the outside post and hang it on the driver’s side window. Just prior to the start of the movie and while it is still light, the Doe children visit the playground and stop by the concession stand before returning to their vehicle. The family is now ready to enjoy, “When In Rome.”

About halfway into the picture, an intermission “trailer” comes on the big screen, further enticing people to visit the snack bar: “It’s Intermission Time, Folks. Time For a Delicious Snack in Our Sparkling Refreshment Building.”

Drive-in movies had good and bad aspects to them. On the positive side, patrons could enjoy a motion picture in the privacy of their automobile. That meant making it a family affair, talking and eating without disturbing others around them. Those who owned convertibles could let the top down and literally enjoy movies under the stars.

On the negative side, drive-ins featured mostly second-run movies that required total darkness, yielding a picture quality inferior to that found at indoor theatres. Also, customers had to contend with bugs in the summer and chilly air in the winter, prompting some theatres to issue small heaters for patron use. The speaker’s monophonic sound quality was poor with just one knob for level control. People would sometimes intentionally or inadvertently drive off with the speaker still attached to their vehicles, leaving a snapped cord dangling behind. This prompted theatre management to flash these words on the screen before customers left: “Please Remember to Replace the Speaker on the Post When You Leave the Theatre.”

At the conclusion of the first showing, there was a flurry of activity, as patrons began leaving the premises, making room for those coming to the second showing.

Drive-in theatres began with just a handful of establishments in 1933 and peaked at 5000 in 1955. Their demise occurred in 1980, victimized by cable television and VCRs. Today, fewer than 900 are still in operation for diehard nostalgists. Many of the old drive-ins have been razed for urbanization. A few sit idly with dilapidated decomposing buildings, cracking discolored asphalt, waist high weeds and a screen either gone or falling apart.

Fortunately, some establishments have been reopened, preserving this unique film genre and allowing a new generation of moviegoers to enjoy cinemas “under the stars.”  

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No program was so enduring to the hearts of area housewives in the 1940s and 1950s, as was “Ma Perkins,” a quarter-hour “soap opera” broadcast over radio station WJHL every weekday afternoon at 1:15.

Each segment opened with these memorable words:  “And now … Oxydol's own Ma Perkins,” followed by an organ theme song, appropriately titled “Ma Perkins,” a slight variation of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Our small apartment radio never missed an episode; my mom was an ardent fan of the widow Ma and her simplistic radio gang – John, Evey, Fay, Willie, Junior and Shuffle. Over time, some 68 unique characters were introduced over this much-listened-to radio production. Being a child, I was less ecstatic about the popular program, but usually listened inattentively to the story plots due to the smallness of our apartment.

Virginia Payne assumed the title role of Ma, a pleasant soft-spoken lady, who was co-owner of a lumber company in the fictitious town of Rushville Center.  The series began in 1933 over NBC radio with the 23-year old Payne sustaining the title role for an amazing 27 years, without missing a single broadcast. Ma’s distinctive motherly voice preserved her longevity over the entire series; she could be heard by radio listeners but not seen. The nifty actress would later become affectionately known as Oxidol’s “Mother of the Air.”

Over the golden years of radio, more than 50 radio “soaps” floated across the radio stage including: “One Man's Family” (dedicated to the mothers and fathers of the younger generation and to their bewildering offspring), “The Romance of Helen Trent” (just because a woman is 35 or more, romance in life need not be over), “Stella Dallas” (the true-to-life story of mother love and sacrifice), “Portia Faces Life” (reflecting the courage, spirit and integrity of American women everywhere) and “When A Girl Marries” (dedicated to everyone who has ever been in love).

These shows were aimed primarily at working housewives, allowing them to concurrently perform their routine domestic chores while listening to their radios. These weekday serialized melodramas were so-named because their sponsors generally sold cleansing products – soaps, detergents, cleaning agents and toothpaste. Unlike modern day television soaps, the story lines were as squeaky clean as the products they advertised, with plots focusing predominantly on didactic family values.

The mild mannered Ma was a homespun philosopher, always ready to dispense needed guidance on sundry issues to her family members and friends. Her life emulated the Golden Rule. Since the programs were only 15 minutes (including commercials), some scenes took weeks to fully develop as if being broadcast in slow motion.

Radio began to transform heavily by 1960, as TV became the dominating medium. Sadly, Ma and her gang ran out of soapsuds on November 25, 1960 after 7065 broadcasts. Another popular soap, Young Doctor Malone, performed its last operation that same afternoon. On the last show, Ma spoke resolutely to her tearful radio audience, telling them goodbye and assuring them that the characters they had grown to know and love would “live happily ever after.”

Virginia Paine parted the airways forever with these final words: “Goodbye and may God bless you.” With that, the lumber company co-owner and her group closed their factory and faded into radio history. 

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A post-WWI song of 1919 contains these old-fashioned courting lyrics: “Lovers’ lane is crowded again; Under ev'ry tree, loving pairs you see; Most ev'ry night lovers come there to woo; The boys teach the girlies how to parlez-vous.”

Melba Jones asked me to do a column about Spurgeon’s Island, a once popular 25-acre “lovers’ lane” hideout that was situated along the Holston River just below the present location of Boone Dam. Mrs. Jones has haunting memories of this idyllic piece of land when it was a popular attraction to the nearby youthful populace.

What made the island so attractive to the younger crowd was that it was situated in “no man’s land.” The area was located in Sullivan County, but there was no direct access to it from that county, requiring deputies to first cross into Washington County. The latter’s patrol force had no jurisdiction over the locale; thus, the region was essentially unsupervised.

Clint Isenberg offered some comments about the island: “Coming from Johnson City on old Kingsport Highway 36, you turned right onto Spurgeon’s Island Road just before you got to the Airport Road (Highway 75). The location of it was about a mile and a quarter down this road. You crossed over Cedar Creek on your way. Water from the upper point of Holston River flowed to the lower part, forming an island or sleuth. The island got its name from a Spurgeon family that once owned the property; a Gray family later acquired it. I remember people taking watermelons there for an outing. We put out trout lines and caught fish. The lower point was an ideal spot for swimming.”

Clint remembers one humorous incident. A boy decked in a suit and wearing a straw hat was showing off in front of a multitude of spectators by swinging on a grapevine over the river. The lad abruptly lost his grip and fell into the river. He quickly swam ashore while his hat floated down the river, all to the amusement of the crowd.

Dot Haugh and her sister, Jean Moore, expressed their fondness for the trendy area. Mrs. Haugh commented: “We would go there on Sunday afternoons for a picnic. Several of us packed a lunch of hot dogs or other food, spread a blanket on the ground and ate dinner there. It was such an enjoyable place. The island was a fun place to go with friends of your own age. I remember that there was a lot of courting going on most of the time. People went there so often that they began to become acquainted with one another.”

TVA had an option on the land, which was eventually exercised in about 1948 to build Boone Dam just above the island. A wastewater treatment facility is now  located where the popular recreational area once stood.

More words from the 1919 song: “Their hugs and their kisses thrill all the misses; As they never did before; Since the doughboys all came back from the trenches; There is not one bit of room on the benches.”

In another column, I will revisit Spurgeon’s Island and relate the “Miracle of 1901,” a highly publicized and long remembered dramatic flood and rescue operation that occurred there in May of that year.  

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I received numerous responses from my Eddie Cowell article a few weeks ago. A few folks shared their memories of the once popular funnyman.

Don Sluder said he could write about the jovial jester for weeks, calling him the best radioman to ever hit the air in this part of the country: “We always started our mornings at home by listening to Eddie on WJHL; he was always entertaining. I remember his daily march around the breakfast table (similar to network radio’s Don McNeal’s “The Breakfast Club”). You could picture in your mind thousands of people pushing back their chairs and keeping time to the music.”

Merrill Moore said the clever jokester used this as a diversion tactic, allowing him to take a brief yet much needed break: “Eddie liked to alter record titles. One example was ‘To Each His Own,’ introducing it as the long-underwear song, “To Itch His Own.”

Don further recalled that one of Eddie's most requested records was a 1942 Spike Jones ditty: “Horsey, Keep Your Tail Up – Keep the Sun Out of My Eyes.” “Another reason for listening each morning (during icy weather) was to find out if area schools would be closed. There were times when, just for fun, Eddie would announce that they were closed when they really were not.”

Don further related that he later pursued a radio career and became a staff member for WCYB Radio in Bristol: “Was I ever surprised when I learned that Eddie Cowell was another staff announcer. At last, I had the privilege to get to know my radio hero. One thing he brought with him to Bristol was his famous fanfare recording that he would play before a big announcement. “Eddie had taken an old 78-rpm sound effects’ record that contained a normal short fanfare with trumpets. He recorded it over and over on an audiotape, making it last as long as he wanted.

“Many will remember his invitation to watch from the street as he told about sitting on the window ledge of the Reynolds Arcade Building where our sixth floor studios were located to eat lunch or stop at the bridge in Bluff City for a swim on the way to work.” 

Johnny Humphreys made a deposit from his memory bank: “I fondly recall him; all our family looked forward to his program in the early mornings. I can remember his machine gun sound effects. He would often have to (supposedly) use his gun on the large rats in the studio before he could begin his program. “My older brother Fred took me downtown one day, and I was fortunate to be interviewed (on the “Man on the Street” program) in front of the Majestic Theater. I was awarded a coupon for a free loaf of that wonderful smelling Honey Krust Bread.”

Phil White offered his memory of the famed airman: “I will always remember him carrying on a conversation over the air with a “cow” (a Cowell conversing with a cow). He would tip over a small round cardboard box to get a “moo” sound from it.”

The imaginative Eddie Cowell saga seems to be endless. If you have additional memories of this long-remembered radio humorist, please share them. 

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This nine-year old boy made a brief 20-mile excursion on a Southern Railway train from Johnson City to Bristol in 1951.

The trip stands out vividly in my memory for two reasons. It was my first and last railroad jaunt; passenger service became extinct not long afterwards. The trip afforded me an opportunity to spend some quality time with my grandmother, Ethel Carroll. We boarded a Southern Railway passenger train at its downtown station one sunny Saturday morning and quickly arrived in downtown Bristol at the old Norfolk & Western Union Passenger Station, a historic relic from 1902.

Upon disembarking, our first order of business was to walk down State Street and eat lunch at a local five and ten store. Granny asked me if I wanted to dine in Virginia or Tennessee, making reference to the fact that the state line runs down the middle of the street. After enjoying a meal at Kress’s lunch counter and visiting a few department stores, we purchased tickets to the Paramount Theatre to watch the film, “Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm.”

The main stars, Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, became an overnight sensation from their bit role in the 1947 Universal Pictures’ comedy release, “The Egg And I.” The plot involved a city couple, played by Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, moving to the country to operate a dilapidated chicken farm.

Their simplistic country bumpkin neighbors were the Kettle family. The story line would later be replicated in television’s popular Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies. This hillbilly clan was immediately featured in their own right in seven additional flicks: “Ma & Pa Kettle” (1949), “Ma & Pa Kettle Go to Town” (1950), “Ma & Pa Kettle Back on the Farm” (1951), “Ma & Pa Kettle at the Fair” (1952), “Ma & Pa Kettle on Vacation” (1953), “Ma & Pa Kettle at Home” (1954) and “Ma & Pa Kettle at Waikiki” (1956).

A common thread in the Kettle series was the hard working, often shrill-voiced, Ma trying to get her dawdling apathetic husband to work around the house and farm. Pa’s main talent was winning advertising contests. The Kettles had from twelve to fifteen children (depending on the picture you were watching). Ma was constantly forgetting her offsprings’ names: “Billy, go in the house and fetch me my broom.” The puzzled youngster would respond, “Ma, my name ain’t Billy.” His mother would counter with “Well, go fetch it anyway, whatever your name is.”

A frequent scene in the Kettle movies was when Ma prepared a scrumptious meal; rang the dinner bell; shouted, “Come and get it” and abruptly stepped aside to avoid being trampled by her stampeding famished brood. Pa blessed the bountiful table by meticulously removing his hat, looking reverently toward Heaven and uttering a brief simplistic prayer, “Much obliged, Lord.”

At the conclusion of the madcap movie, Granny and I shopped at a few more stores, ambled back to the train station and boarded our coach for the short return trip to Johnson City. There are few recollections rooted in my memory bank more pleasurable than when a proud grandmother and her impressionable young grandson rode a train and spent a fun day together in downtown Bristol.  

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Few Johnson Citians can likely recall Redpath Chautauqua, a cultural traveling circuit that once frequented our city in the early part of this century.

Chautauqua, an Iroquois word meaning, “two moccasins tied together,” began in Chautauqua, New York as a Sunday school summer camp for teachers. It expanded into an annual recreational and learning university.

In 1904, the event became a series of traveling circuits, performing from three to seven days under a large brown tent. It eventually completed 10,000 meetings in 45 states before 45 million people. Redpath (the southern circuit) Chautauqua began on New Street at the former site of the old Leon Ferenbach plant, later relocating to a field between Main and Market streets west of First Christian Church.

Chautauqua served as a platform for issues of the day; over the years, nine U.S. presidents spoke at it. The Chalk Line, a newspaper of the student body of East Tennessee State Teachers College, had this bold headline in its May 19, 1931 edition: “Redpath Chautauqua, Johnson City, Tennessee, May 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, June 1.”

Professor Carson and Dr. Wheeler divided Johnson City into ten districts and directed a massive ticket sales campaign. Teams of students were recruited to sell tickets within the clearly defined districts; the campus was referred to as “a happy hunting ground.” Admission prices were 35 cents, evenings; children, all programs, 25 cents; and season tickets, $2.00.

The six-day event began at 10:00 am or 2:30 pm each day and ran well into the evening hours, presenting some impressive programs: The Children’s Hour; Mystery and Illusion: Reno, the Magician; Play: A New York Comedy Success, “Broken Dishes”; Entertainment: Ball-Brown Company; Prelude: Ball-Brown Company; Lecture: “Government in Gangland,” C. Ray Hansen; Lecture: “Are Kings and Queens Human?” Adrian Wright McCauley; Play: Uproarious Comedy, “Her Husband’s Wife;” Popular Entertainment: Lura Forbes; Musical Comedy: Drama, “The Violin Maker of Cremona;” Main Street Smile Program: Lura Forbes; Grand Concert: Metropolitan Singers; Lecture: “The Old Town In a New World,” Charles H. Plallenburg; Play: Great International Drama, “Grumpy”; Junior Chautauqua Program; and Popular Concert: The Philharmonic Ensemble.

The students concluded their Chalk Line article by offering seven enlightening reasons why students should attend the event. In their own words …

1. “I like music, and at the Redpath Chautauqua, I can hear understandable music of every kind.

2. “I can see some of the most successful comedy-dramas of recent years enacted by splendid casts.

3. “I can hear speakers of recognized ability and experience discussion problems that are worthy of attention.

4. “I enjoy the clean, wholesome entertainment, which is to be found in every program.

5. “I like the neighborliness and community spirit of the assembly and can renew and strengthen old friendships and cultivate new ones.

6. “In reality, it is a summer vacation brought to my door and which I cannot afford to miss.

7. “I may have all this with a season ticket for what I would have to pay in many places for a single attraction.”

In spite of these positive comments, Chautauqua’s demise came within two years, a causality of a lingering poor economy and the increasing popularity of radio into homes. After a 58-year cultural run, the show organizers brought their big brown tent down for the final time; the show was over.  

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On Halloween night, October 30, 1938, noted actor, Orson Wells, terrified the nation with his Mercury Theatre on the Air’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast, recounting a purported Martian invasion of earth. Popular WCYB radio personality, Eddie Cowell, displayed similar chicanery on January 23, 1954 by telling his listening audience that an enormous monster was on the loose reaping havoc in downtown Bristol.

The well-liked deejay went on to describe the ominous creature as being 80 feet tall, 40 feet thick and having a 100-foot tail capable of toppling large trees. Cowell employed the same tactic as Wells – unfolding the horror over a period of time to build the suspense as new information was supposedly relayed to the station. Listeners were informed that a bomber containing advanced weaponry was being deployed from Washington DC to eradicate the scary beast. Some 1000 frantic calls from listeners across East Tennessee and southwest Virginia poured into the station; local law enforcement dispatches also received numerous inquiries.

Thanks to Joe and Ida Cowell, the late broadcaster’s son and widow respectively, the Eddie Cowell story can be revisited. The creative prankster began his memorable career as sports broadcaster for WJHL radio in 1939 after winning a contest, eventually becoming sports director and then program director. Ed O’Cowell, as he often called himself on the air, possessed an extensive repertoire of madcap records and sound effects that he routinely incorporated into his broadcasts. One favorite bandleader was Spike Jones and His City Slickers, who offered “dinner music for people who aren’t very hungry.” Another artist was Victor Borge with his “Phonetic Punctuation” routine – reading text and hilariously inserting audible punctuation.

During World War II, businessman Truett Siler, owner of a local furniture and appliance store, became a sponsor of Cowell’s show. The two men made a noble wager to see who could sell the most war bonds in a single week. While the collective total was an impressive $90,000, it was Cowell who prevailed in the bet, resulting in the storeowner pulling his entertainer friend along Main Street in a wagon before a crowd of curious bystanders.

About 1948, Eddie was offered a role in WJHL’s “Man on the Street” broadcast, a clever promotional initiative sponsored by Honey-Krust Bakery. Anna Sue Lacey as “Honey” and Eddie as “Krust” interviewed contestants at 12:15 pm every day, Monday through Saturday, in front of the Majestic Theatre. Ruth Greenway also served in that capacity. The ability of the pair to glean interesting facts from people made the program immensely popular. Sometimes tricky questions were asked, such as how to spell “phthsic” (pronounced “tiz-ik”). Participants were rewarded with a freshly baked loaf of Honey Krust Bread.

Eddie was elected as a Johnson City Commissioner in 1949 after a decisive victory over four competitors. His numerous community service activities earned him the title, “Outstanding Young Man of 1949,” by the Johnson City Junior Chamber of Commerce. Mayor Howard Patrick presented his award at a highly attended banquet at the John Sevier Hotel ballroom. In July 1950, misfortune struck the broadcaster when he was abruptly stricken with crippling polio. He was eventually transported to Duke Hospital in Durham, NC for further treatment.

While still at this medical facility, Eddie experienced something on October 7 that few people can boast. General Robert Neyland, University of Tennessee head football coach, arranged for the wheelchair bound radio personality to sit on the sidelines with his favorite team. The visiting Volunteers honored their special guest with a 28-7 victory over the Duke Blue Devils.

In 1953, Eddie left WJHL and, after a brief stint at WBEJ in Elizabethton, joined Bristol's WCYB Radio, where he produced an afternoon show and an evening sports program. It was during this stint that the zany airman is best remembered for his creative unusual broadcasts. Eddie once reported that an airplane carrying 200 passengers was stuck by its landing gear on a cloud over Tri-Cities Airport and that extrication efforts were underway. Another widely remembered prank involved a submarine sighting at South Holston Lake. The sultan of surprise once aired the news that actress Marilyn Monroe and then husband, Joe DiMaggio, Yankee Hall of Fame baseball legend, were visiting Bristol and became lost. A host of volunteers searched for the celebrated couple without success.

Merrill Moore, former WCYB Television anchorman, recalls when his good friend told his radio fans that a man was going to toss currency from the roof of Bristol's General Shale building at a designated time. A sizeable and disappointed crowd arrived to witness the non-event. The rascally conniving deejay then invited listeners to join him on the banks of the nearby Holston River to observe the annual polar bear club members plunge into the icy waters. Several gullible shivering spectators gobbled his witty bait.

Ida Cowell recalls when her husband asked listeners to come to the WCYB building and watch him tap dance on a narrow fifth floor ledge – quite a feat for someone with polio. The practical joker tapped two quarters together on his broadcast table to simulate the desired sound effect. Other Cowell shenanigans include reports of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill staying at a nearby hotel and diamond mines being discovered in Abington, Virginia. Once in response to a scheduled visit by President Eisenhower to the area, the uninhibited jester actually phoned the White House during a broadcast to see if the nation's leader and his staff might stop by Mrs. Cowell's kitchen to enjoy some of her delicious cherry pie. Eddie’s bag of trickery appeared to be endless. This rebel with a cause had the uncanny ability to project realism into his broadcasts even when logic suggested otherwise.

The end of Eddie’s on-the-air shenanigans came to an abrupt halt soon after the monster scare when a local resident filed a complaint with the FCC, asking that such on-the-air tomfoolery be halted immediately. The station eventually complied with the request against a storm of protest. The good-natured showman’s involvement with the station was later expanded to television, which included hosting such television quiz shows as Kiddie College and Club Quiz.

The funnyman retired in 1970 and, after several years of declining health, passed away in 1988 at age 70. East Tennessee State University's College of Arts and Sciences honored him by instigating an annual “Eddie Cowell Broadcast Journalism Scholarship” for deserving students.

Eddie's funeral in 1988 included a brief moment of merriment that symbolized his illustrious life. Merrill Moore recalls the event while serving as pallbearer: “While we were bringing his casket down the steps of St. Mary's Catholic Church on Market Street, several police cars and fire engines zoomed by with sirens blaring.” Perhaps they were heading toward Bristol to deal with a menacing monster, to Tri-Cities Airport to assist with a cloud stuck aircraft or to South Holston Lake to investigate sightings of a submarine. Another pallbearer turned to Merrill and whispered, “Can't you just imagine Ed grinning right now and saying, 'You don't really need to make all this fuss over me.'”  Both men fought back laughter.

This sudden spontaneous disruption of an emotional solemn event was just as Eddie Cowell would have orchestrated it. Looking back over this unique and highly creative announcer’s career, one has to conclude that this radio genius was truly ahead of his time.


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Bowling alleys had a very modest beginning. Prior to 1958, only a handful of such establishments existed in Johnson City, which included Johnson City Recreation Center, originally known as Royal Club Recreation (106-108 Spring Street), R&L Bowling Lanes (808 Buffalo Street) and Bowling Palace (84-86 Wilson Avenue).

My Junior High School friends and I routinely patronized the business on Spring Street opposite Hamilton National Bank; several of us boys would gather there after school. The bowling portion of the operation was located directly above the pool hall. Without realizing it, we were just a stone’s throw from the former site of Jobe’s Opera House, the city’s first public entertainment venue.

As I recall, there were only three or four lanes; surprisingly, we were often the lone customers. After securing a paper scorecard and pencil, we each searched their limited selection of balls for one that comfortably fit our finger spacing. There were no special bowling shoes to rent; patrons simply played in their regular footwear. None of us had perfected the art of bowling. We awkwardly glided the ball to the lane, rolled it forward and hoped it would knock over most, if not all, of the pins. Often, the gutter was its destination.

Next came the interesting part. Instead of an automatic pinsetter removing and resetting the downed pins, the machine required manual labor. One or two boys hastily shifted back and forth between the operating lanes to service them physically. With each toss of the ball, the worker rolled it back to the bowler and reinserted the toppled pins down into the device. After the second ball was rolled and the remaining pins placed back into the setter, the worker operated a lever that lowered the ten pins upright onto the floor for the next bowler, that being the only automatic step.

It was not unusual to arrive at the leisure center to find no one available to reset pins. That meant we had to assume this task ourselves, affording us a unique behind-the-scenes experience. The desk attendant always strongly warned us to stay well behind the wall when the ball was being tossed down the alley lest we be injured by it or by flying pins. While this somewhat unsafe activity was pleasurable initially, it eventually became fatiguing, and we were quite willing to let the next person take his turn.

Although, bowling has existed since 5200 B.C. in Egypt, it was not until 1895 that the rules were standardized. In 1958, the Professional Bowlers Association was organized to promote bowling to the status of a major sport. 

About this same time, Nance Lanes opened its doors at Main, Market and Division streets, opposite Paty Lumber Company and at a site vacated by Dan Plank Oldsmobile. The new business had 12 lanes, automatic AMF pinsetters and a snack bar. Bowlers were required to rent or bring their own bowling shoes.

A few months later, several of us joined our first bowling league – the Johnson City High School Boys Bowling League – with George Finchum, an instructor at ETSC (later ETSU) Training School (now University School), as our league manager and coach.

Today’s bowlers can enjoy state of the art facilities at such local locations as Holiday Lanes and Leisure Lanes.  

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