Christmas 1912 was a pecuniary delight to the pocketbooks of about 9,000 local inhabitants because of abnormally low Christmas tree, poultry and fruit prices.

While some people located and cut trees in rural areas, most urban dwellers purchased theirs from street vendors and nearby tree farms. Choice 4- to 10-foot trees that were straight and shapely could be acquired for 10 and 15 cents, affording the luxury of an indoor tree for even the poorest city dwellers. A cedar tree could be obtained for the cost of a loaf of bread. Vendors were eventually compelled to lower their prices to about the cost of transportation.

What caused this unexpected drop in prices? Talk early in the season of an embargo of cedar and spruce trees prompted residents to believe that prices for the commodity would be high for the coming holiday season. This caused a momentary swell in tree prices.

Soon, a glut of trees became available on the market by those wanting to make a profit from the supposed shortage. Those patrons who bought their trees early paid a dollar or more for them. Almost overnight, a deluge of trees became available for sale dropping prices substantially.

Sellers normally sold trees on a “cash and carry” basis. For those affluent citizens, trees with stands on them could be delivered to the customer’s home at a cost depending on the distance to the buyer’s residence. A stand added 15 cents to the price tag while a few sprigs of holly increased it another 10 cents. The plunge in prices allowed many shoppers to buy a second or third tree for home decorating. Christmas greens were also cheaper than usual that year with red berry wreaths selling at $1.25/dozen, pine ropes at 2.25 cents/yard and roping of laurel wreathes for 3 cents. The lone exception was holly, which was in short supply and high demand.

A similar scenario occurred in the poultry markets brought about by mild weather and good crops. The market became overstocked with a variety of fowl and game, causing the risk that the Christmas season would leave dealers with thousands of birds on their hands.

A 1912 newspaper noted that Southern Railway picked up approximately 150,000 birds, mostly turkeys, at Morristown and delivered them to New York for distribution. Suppliers of birds were situated mainly in East Tennessee, Northern and Southwest Virginia, Western North Carolina and Kentucky.

The rail trip with numerous stops took 45 hours, traversing the rugged and beautiful mountains of North Carolina, northward to Washington and onward to the Jersey yards by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Surprisingly, there were no single turkey farms of any magnitude in East Tennessee; shipments were made up from numbers of small “drives.” An amusing aspect of this business was the fact that turkey raising was orchestrated primarily by farmers’ wives of the surrounding mountain country. Proceeds from the sale of their flocks provided a source of Christmas spending money to the ladies.

Poultry prices per pound were turkeys, 25-28 cents (compared to 32 cents the previous year); geese and roasting chickens, 25 cents; chickens for fricassee (cutting the bird into pieces and stewing it in gravy), 20 cents; and celery-fed ducklings, 25 cents. Prices were corresponding low for squabs, pigeons and other game.

Trimming for the Christmas dinner was also quoted at reasonable prices caused by the arrival of trainloads of fruit and nuts. Mexican oranges went for 10 cents/dozen, a basket of 10 to 14 apples brought 25 cents and large grapefruits sold for 6 cents each. 

Don’t look for those prices today; that was almost a century ago. 

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I noted in my last column that I acquired an American Flyer train during Christmas of 1947. On Christmas Day in 1952, I received my second one, a Lionel “O” gauge assembly that was the dream of every young boy. I had wanted a Red Rider BB gun that year, but you can readily surmise why I didn’t get one. My parents were afraid I might shoot my eye out.   

The two train products were quite different. American Flyer trains were double track, whereas Lionel ones had three, offering the advantage of some complex track designs without the problems of reverse polarity of electric current. The center track was negative; the two outer ones were positive.


The locomotive came with a bottle of small pills that, when placed in the engine’s smokestack, emitted white smoke as it chugged along. It also bellowed out a mournful steam whistle sound when a lever on the thermostat was activated.

Soon after Thanksgiving, my dad told me he was going to make me something special for Christmas and made me promise to stay out of our basement. I agreed to his request and kept my promise. He spent countless hours at night and on weekends fabricating a complex train layout for his only child.

Dad mounted everything on a 4’x8’ piece of thick plywood and added four legs. He constructed a city along one side; the rest of the board was rural terrain. The back portion had a tunnel where the train would disappear for a few seconds. Two separate loops of track allowed the switching of the train to go to the city or to the country.

Dad even subscribed to Model Railroader Magazine several months prior in order to glean ideas for the project. His biggest challenge came Christmas Eve night when he and Mom had to carry it up the stairs and into our living room. All the weeks of hard work were worth it when he saw the glow on his young son’s face. It made me forget about a Red Ryder BB gun.

An undated Lionel Train ad believed to be from the early 1950s shows a complete “O” gauge outfit for $14.99 that included a 30”x60” oval track, locomotive and button control, tender with automatic couplers, box car with automatic couplers, gondola car, caboose, automatic flagman, train station and 75 watt transformer.

A November, 1948 National Geographic magazine ad declared: “We know of no other gift that offers so many years of fun, excitement, and happiness as a Lionel Train. Thousands are passed on from father to son. They are so real, so true-to-life. Watch them puff smoke. Hear them whistle so realistically. Note the scale-detail perfection of their manufacture. For that boy you love, let it be a Lionel this Christmas.”

Another ad from November, 1949 added, “Here is, undoubtedly, the greatest father/son Christmas gift in the world. With reasonable care they will last a lifetime, therefore, a most economical purchase. They are real trains in everything but size.”

A fourth advertisement proclaimed that a Lionel train allowed every mom to see the boy in her man and man in her boy.

I was permitted to keep the train board in our living room for several weeks after Christmas, but eventually, I had to dismantled it and put it back in our basement. Within a year, the village was taken apart and the train set went into a large cardboard box for a couple years.

My 1952 Christmas present’s demise came when I sold it to an avid neighborhood train enthusiast, Ronald Turner, for a mere five dollars. I only wish that I had kept it for my young son. 

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Ebenezer Scrooge, a wealthy old miser from Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic, underwent a life changing experience on Christmas Eve from three disembodied spirits known as the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Future. Today’s column is a glance back to some of my Christmas pasts in the 1940s and 50s.

In 1947, my family lived in an apartment on W. Watauga Avenue. Our five and a half foot pine Christmas tree was decorated with about 20 paper-thin colored glass balls with glitter sprayed on them. Cotton swabs were placed throughout the branches to give the appearance of ice and snow and then covered with a heavy dose of icicles. Mom was meticulous about her icicles; they had to be strategically placed on the tree one filament at a time. The finishing touch was to thread a long chain of freshly popped popcorn and drape it around the tree. Conspicuously absent from the pine were lights.

My main gift that year was an American Flyer electric train. Other presents included a metal two-story Keystone filling station with an elevator, a xylophone, a blackboard on a folding wooden stand and a Gene Autry outfit that was only visible from the front side. I was a root-n toot-n cowboy as long as I didn’t turn around.

By 1950, we were living on Johnson Avenue. Our Christmas trees then were generally cedar with large colored lights and bubblers that boiled after they got hot. A tree full of these multicolored devices was truly impressive if not somewhat unsafe. Gone by then were cotton swabs and popcorn strings. We usually purchased our trees from vendors on Walnut Street or Market Street at Kiwanis Park. Attendants wore heavy wraps and hovered over a wood fire burning inside a metal drum. We took the tree home and placed it in front of our picture window facing beautiful Buffalo Mountain in the distance. 

A special memory in 1953 occurred at Henry Johnson School when my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Pierce, selected me to go into the basement and bring some Christmas decorations to our room so we could adorn a tree. For a brief few minutes, I was the envy of the class. 

In 1956, I clipped a coupon from a comic book, mailed it to the Wallace Brown Company and began selling Christmas cards to neighbors, family members and friends. This enterprise lasted but one season.


About 1959, nine of us high school students were in the basement at the old downtown Science Hill building. The accompanying photo shows (L to R) me, Frank Moore, Bill Woods, Guy Wilson, Jud Mast, Al Ferguson, Johnny Leach, Joe Biddle and Graham Spurrier. A photographer from the Johnson City Press-Chronicle came by and asked us to pose for a holiday picture for the newspaper by singing Christmas carols.

We rounded up some ROTC training manuals from the drill hall to serve as songbooks and posed for the shot. The next day, our photo was in the newspaper. Our “songbooks” were decorated with musical notes, the background was darkened to give the appearance of nighttime and “snow” was magically added.

The caption stated, “They sing Christmas carols and the scene is one that will be repeated many times over within the next fortnight, snow or no snow. And Christmas caroling is a custom that grew up in the middle ages when beggar and king joined in the observance of Christmas. Carols were sung in the streets and images of the Virgin Christ carried from house to house with feasting and merrymaking to mark the festival time.” 

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While my father was serving his country overseas during WWII, he received a black and white Christmas card from his employer, Eastman Kodak Company in Kingsport, with these expectant words:

“The lights are still burning at Tennessee Eastman this Christmas – lights of hope and good cheer – lights of welcome awaiting your safe return. With best wishes from your company – P.J. Wilcox and James C. White.” Also enclosed was one of 11,000 $50 war bonds sent to servicemen and women stateside and abroad.


An examination of several Johnson City Press-Chronicle newspapers from December 1942 to 1944 denotes what many families are experiencing today – balancing the joy of the season with the harsh reality of a war. One ominous front-page article contained unwanted news: “American troops engaged in trying to stem the German breakthrough are suffering a big battle price in men and material, but are making the enemy also pay a fearful cost in blood and munitions for his great Western Front counteroffensive.”

Late Dec. 1944 found the city with temperatures in the low 20s and a heavy, slick blanket of snow and ice covering the region. School superintendent C.E. Rogers announced that city buses were running and that street forces were busy keeping the steps at Science Hill and Junior High free of the white stuff. Westbound trains at Southern Railway were running late; the Streamliner had arrived into the city six hours past due and No. 41 passenger train was 3.5 hours behind schedule.

Sixteen women’s organizations and eight Girl Scout troops were actively promoting bond sales that, to date, had yielded $47,156.50. The names of 497 servicemen to whom the bonds were dedicated were posted in the Main Street window of Sterchi Brothers. The newspaper counted down the 25 days of Christmas with a message at the bottom left on the front page, such as “23 Shopping Days to Christmas, Give War Bonds, Stamps.”

One edition noted that 17 men from Selective Service Board #1 and 45 from Board #2 were en route to an Army induction center. A “Daily Holiday Bible Reading” section was posted each day on page 4 with one displaying the first six verses of Psalms 37. Needy families were reminded to register at the Salvation Army office for Christmas dinner baskets to be distributed at a “family party” being held at the First Presbyterian Church. Ration dates for meats and fats, processed foods, sugar, shoes and gasoline were listed: “Sugar: Book 4, stamps 30 through 34, valid indefinitely for five pounds each. Gasoline: No. 12 coupons in ‘A’ books good for four gallons through Dec. 21.”   

Five East Tennessee Seabees – Henry Tippett, Ray Britt, Glenn Poarch, William Cawood and John Laws – sent V-Mail letters to the Press-Chronicle from the Pacific theater as part of a state proclamation designating Dec. 28 as Seabee Day in Tennessee.

Holiday ads populated the newspapers: Fields: “Dress Shirts, $1.49-$1.98; Coplan Ties, $.50-$1; and Suspender sets, $.69-$1.”

Sears Roebuck: “Walnut Veneer End Table, $7.98; Chenille Rugs, $2.98; Hunting Pants, $1.98; and Christmas Tree Stands, $.69.”

Kings: “Black Chesterfield Coats, $35 to $59.95; Topflight Topper-Fashion of the Year.”

Sam’s Haberdashery (Samuel E. Miller): “Buy Him a Hat, $2.95-$9.95.”

The Little Stores: Coffee, $.30 lb.; Pork Chops, $.37 lb.; Flour $1.45, 25-lb. Bag; and Shrimp, No. 1 Tin, $.35 with 3-points of ration stamps.”

This Christmas, let’s adopt the same message on the 1940s Kodak card and offer lights of hope for today’s service personnel and await their safe return home.


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July 4thholidays of yesteryear were observed with colorful flag displays, community synchronized events and wholesome family get-togethers. The one for 1897 was no exception with festivities being held the following day on Monday.

The 1897 Comet newspaper revealed 42 city merchants and individuals donating $90.55 for the city’s festivities. Some of the businesses (and their contributions) included the following: Ward & Friberg ($5); M.P. Dyer & Co. ($5); McFarland & Bolton ($2.50); Kirkpatrick, Williams & Bowman ($1); Webb & Worley ($2); J.A. Mathes & Co. ($1); Piedmont Hotel ($2); Whitlow & Co. ($3); Gump Brothers ($2); Hart & Smith ($2); City Grocery ($1); Wofford Brothers ($2); Wofford & Co. ($2.50); and Wolfe & Co. ($1.55).

Expenditures included two Spaulding balls ($2.50); general labor ($3.15); railway fare ($12.80); lumber/labor ($5.80); brass band ($20); meals ($4.10); prize money ($17.60); printing ($18.25); advertising $7.98, which included telegrams and drayage (wagon rental for hauling goods); dynamite ($1.18); and carriage rental ($1). The final tally was $94.36, leaving a deficit of $3.81.

The day was kicked off at Fountain Square with a gun salute at sunrise. Mayor W.W. Faw welcomed the crowd at 9:30 followed by an oration by Gov. Bob Taylor at 9:45. The guest of honor spoke for 10 minutes, telling his constituents that America was the greatest country on earth. He humorously expressed his delight to look into the faces of those among whom he was born and among whom he expected to die.

In his characteristic witty style, Taylor told a few amusing stories, but wound up with a solemn admonition to keep the fires of patriotism perpetually burning as the country was threatened by “the money power.” After chiding the people of Washington County in a pleasurable way for loving him so much and voting so hard against him, he concluded his speech. People then crowded around their idol to shake his warm hand and get a glimpse of the “merry twinkle of that bright eye.”

The ensuing day’s events were well attended. John Lusk won first prize in the obstacle race on Market Street and Garner Range finished second. Norman White of Boones Creek carried away first honor in the hurdle race with Garner Range placing second. Will Caldwell took first accolade in the foot race and Norman White second. Earl Smith of Bristol won the bicycle race and Maxwell Willoughby of Washington College came in second. Finishing the morning’s activities was an exhibition by the city fire department.

The afternoon entertainment moved to Lake Wataussee with picnicking, a swimming race and a tub race. Norman White was first prizewinner in the swimming competition with Charles Collett finishing second. At 3:30, a baseball game was played between Johnson City and Greeneville. After seven innings, the game was called because of darkness with the score 10 to 2 in favor of the home team. Frank Hart umpired and was highly complimented for his unbiased calls.

The Jonesboro brass band, described as the handsomest band in the nation and composed of young men of about the same age and size, was on hand and furnished some good music for the occasion.

At the conclusion of the long day, a fatigued but contented patriotic crowd journeyed back to their respective abodes on foot, horses, wagons, streetcars and trains, having celebrated yet another of our nation’s birthday. The Comet complimented the streetcar system for providing excellent service throughout the day. 

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My cousin, Larry Reaves, and I recently reminisced about a small business opportunity we shared as young boys during the Christmas holidays of the early 1950s.

Larry’s father, Ray, worked for Mullins’ Hardware, owned by the late Tollie and Maxie Mullins. The successful business was located in the Taylor Brothers Building on W. Market Street, diagonally opposite the Southern Railway depot. Just after Thanksgiving each year, the store printed thousands of colorful brochures, advertising Christmas gifts that also included toys. Larry and I were hired to deliver these circulars, as we called them, door to door to potential customers all over town.

We canvassed area neighborhoods on most Saturdays between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The experience, while often a bit demanding, afforded us the opportunity to engage in the merriment of the holidays. Ray served as our driver, route planner, supplier, chaperon, motivator and accountant. He kept a record of the number of advertisements we delivered, eventually rewarding us with two cents for each one dispersed. 

The weather ran the full gamut from wintry rainy or snowy days to cool sunny ones. We preferred gripping cold and light snow because it further enhanced the Christmas spirit. Before we departed to make our deliveries, our driver loaded the back of a covered pickup truck with an ample supply of circulars and several blankets. He then placed three bag lunches and some thermos bottles of hot chocolate in the front seat with him. Oddly enough, we opted to ride in the back of the truck until we became so numb that we gladly joined our driver up front in the comfort of the truck’s heater.

We worked together from opposite sides of the street. After dropping us off at a given stop, Ray drove to the next corner and waited for us. This afforded us the opportunity to enjoy a hot cocoa drink or replenish our circular carrying bags. Our chauffeur kept us within city limits and targeted neighborhoods with the highest concentration of inhabitants. Larry and I specifically recall working the tree streets of Locust, Maple, Pine and Southwest as well as the parallel avenues between Fairview and Eighth. We covered a good deal of territory in those four weeks.

The two of us loved what we were doing – spreading Christmas cheer all over Johnson City and receiving a heavy dose of it back from some nice congenial folks. We could not recall dogs being a problem for us; perhaps the canines were in the holiday mood and giving us a break. 

Larry and I occasionally played a game to see who could deliver circulars the fastest on any given block, literally running to and from houses, prompting surprised looks from residents. We did this once on E. Fairview.  I became exhausted running up and down steps on the uphill north side, while Larry effortlessly strolled on and off people’s porches on the downhill south end.

Our lucrative little business venture went bankrupt at the beginning of the third year when we boldly and confidently attempted to negotiate higher wages in our contract. We learned the reality of supply and demand firsthand. Our employer answered our ultimatum by replacing us with more affordable deliverers, sending our little door-to-door holiday venture into the archives of yesteryear.  

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I have vivid memories of each December during the 1950s when downtown Johnson City was magnificently transformed into a winter wonderland of holiday enchantment, thanks to city officials, storeowners and eager shoppers.

The recognized commencement of the Christmas season was launched at the conclusion of the Thanksgiving Day parade, with the appearance of Santa Claus sitting on a big colorful float and throwing out candy to youngsters. Should some persons not be in the holiday mood, all they had to do was spend some time within a half-mile radius of Fountain Square.

I recall making several trips downtown with my parents each Christmas season to savor the festive atmosphere. Moving through traffic and finding parking was a challenge, especially at nights and on Saturdays. Main and Market Streets were profusely decorated with large colorful decorations, perhaps gaudy by today’s standards. Storeowners decorated inside and outside their lively establishments.

It was imperative that Christmas be cold, not cool and certainly not hot. Cold air and Christmas seemed to blend together wonderfully. Occasionally, things got even better when snow blanketed the area, adding even more winter wonderland realism. As kids, we cheered the icy covering, leaving worries about the slippery roads in the hands of grownups. The town was heavily adorned with large colored lights, unlike the miniature white ones so prevalent today. Such illumination was magnified by the darkness of the night.

A dilemma for some parents was explaining to their youngsters how Santa could be at several downtown stores at the same time. My mom’s explanation was that one was the real Santa and the others were his helpers. My next question was quite predictable: “Which one is the real one?” Santa did not charge us to have our picture taken with him; instead, he freely gave us candy and special holiday comic books.

Kings’ Department Store appropriately placed Santa on the fourth floor between the toy department and the elevator. Penney’s Department Store located him in the basement where youngsters could sit on his lap, tell him what they wanted for Christmas and simultaneously be broadcast over a local radio station.

Businesses stayed open late at night, adding more excitement to shopping. You could feel the exhilaration in the air as a host of shoppers navigated from store to store. Merchants offered several choices of merchandise but not an abundance of them. Self-service had not yet arrived on the scene; each counter had one or more attendants waiting on customers.

Kings Department Store was, without question, the winner for their store window decorations, reserving one section of their wrap around window for the Nativity Scene. People from neighboring cities came just to see this highly inspirational display.




 Christmas chimes floated melodiously through the air, being played from Home Federal Savings and Loan. The steady ringing of bells was heard all over town as the Salvation Army manned their big pots, collecting money for the needy.

After Christmas, a trip downtown just wasn’t the same. The city seemed to lose something after the decorations were taken down and the crowds diminished. It was time to think about the approaching New Year, which at its conclusion would once again bring back the festive holiday spirit with all its holiday enchantment.  

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Between 1945 and 1956, the traditional annual Thanksgiving Day dinner was sandwiched tightly between two separate Burley Bowl celebrations. This much anticipated event consisted of a parade held in downtown Johnson City in mid-morning, followed by a football game at Memorial Stadium in the afternoon.

Both heavily attended proceedings originated soon after the close of World War II as a way to celebrate the opening of the upcoming tobacco market season. I have warmhearted memories of this parade, attending it with my father for as far back as I can recall. Almost without exception, the weather was cold and blustery, occasionally with light snow or flurries and requiring us to dress appropriately. A thermos of hot chocolate was a necessary ingredient in our survival kit.

Dad and I always left early that morning, usually parking our car along Boone Street between King and Millard streets. The downtown portion of Main Street had previously closed to vehicle traffic, restricting it for pedestrian use. Such action allowed sufficient space for the massive parade and sprawling crowd.

The parade route originated in front of City Hall at Main and Boone streets, with stationary floats and school bands positioned bumper-to-bumper for a distance extending west, well beyond West Side School. Each of the numerous community clubs in the county sponsored a float and simultaneously entered a pretty contestant in the Burley Bowl queen competition. Dad and I claimed our favorite spot in front of the Tennessee Theatre, a location that permitted us to view the parade at its point of origin while it was “fresh.”

At the precise designated start time, the procession began to the accompanying cheer of the crowd. It journeyed east to Memorial Stadium, a pilgrimage of nearly a mile. What followed was a volley of police and fire vehicles with sirens blaring and lights flashing, city officials riding in convertibles, colorfully decorated floats (usually with a hint of tobacco displayed), area school bands and outrageously dressed clowns.

One year, a family member invited us to join them in viewing the parade from their second story Franklin Apartments residence at the corner of Division Street. While I enjoyed the warm unobstructed view of the spectacle while kneeling at a window, I missed the exhilaration of being part of the shivering crowd below. The parade always concluded with jolly old Saint Nick, perched high on a fire engine, waving and tossing goodies to his enthusiastic youthful congregation below.

After the pageant ended, Dad and I navigated through the dense, almost impenetrable, mob to our car. We then drove home to feast on the scrumptious Thanksgiving dinner that Mom had prepared for us.

The Burley Bowl football game began in early afternoon, with the previously selected homecoming queen crowned during halftime. According to the late Ray Stahl’s book, “Greater Johnson City: A Pictorial History,” twelve colleges and universities participated in the event during its relatively short history: East Tennessee State College, Milligan College, Emory and Henry College, Carson-Newman College, High Point (North Carolina) College, Southeastern Louisiana College, West Chester (Pennsylvania) College, Appalachian State University, Hanover (Indiana) College, Morris Harvey (West Virginia) College, Lebanon Valley (Pennsylvania) College and Memphis State University. East Tennessee State College joined the competition in 1952, playing in the last five games and winning three of them.

After the 1956 Burley Bowl tobacco market celebration concluded, the event went up in smoke and quickly vanished into yesteryear.  

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