Former Downtown Vendor Shares Story of 1930s City Life

Recently, I spent an enjoyable afternoon in the home of Frank and Sara Tannewitz, savoring stories of life in downtown Johnson City in the 1930s.

The former SHHS teacher and student counselor related his story: “I sold magazines after school and on Saturdays there. Saturday Evening Post, Collier and Liberty went for a nickel; Woman’s Home Companion and Ladies Home Journal cost a dime. “My supplier was Zimmerman’s News Stand, owned by Carl and J.R. Zimmerman, near the old train depot. They let me pay for my magazines after I sold them, not before. I made about $1.50 a week, being paid an average of about a penny and a half for each copy I sold. That allowed me to buy lunch at school for 15 cents, purchase cola and candy bars for a nickel each and attend a movie for about a dime.

“I made my rounds by walking up and down Main and Market streets from Fountain Square to Colonial Way carrying a bag full of magazines. I knew all the downtown merchants; they graciously let me sell inside their stores. Surprisingly, the store clerks bought more magazines than did their customers. I sold to passengers at the depot as they got on and off trains. I had more sales at the John Sevier Hotel and the Colonial Hotel than any of the others.”

Tannewitz recalled two historical events that occurred during this era. The first took place about 1929 while he was at his mother’s Triangle Tearoom (140.5 E. Market, part of the site that later became S.H. Kress Company). “I overheard somebody shout, ‘There he goes,’ said Tannewitz. “I looked over and saw Herbert Hoover coming out of the Market Street door of the John Sevier Hotel. The President was in Johnson City for the opening of the Bemberg and Glanzstoff plants in Elizabethton.

The second noteworthy incident occurred about 1937, while the youthful peddler was promoting his product line at the Roan Street door of the John Sevier Hotel. “I saw Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt come hurriedly out of the hotel and get in a car,” said Frank. “She was being escorted to the VA.”

Mr. T. recounted several observations of the downtown area while selling magazines there: “There was once a water supply tank standing at Roan Street adjacent to the railroad tracks that was used to load steam engines. Brush Creek ran through that same area. The railroad once brought in a traveling sidecar show that had a whale mounted on it. It was on public display for several days and drew quite a crowd. I remember when the Lady of the Fountain was moved from Fountain Square to Roosevelt (later called Memorial) Stadium. Eventually, I saw the bowl lying on the ground after it had been separated from the statue. It soon vanished.

“During World War II, the city erected a big board in Fountain Square that contained the names of all military personnel who fought in the war. The City Bus Station was located along the railroad tracks opposite the Windsor Hotel. I remember Fields Department Store, Snyder-Jones Drug Store, Anderson’s Drug Store and Sterchi’s Furniture Store. Street peddlers, riding in horse drawn wagons, were plentiful along Railroad Street that ran between the buildings and the train depot. I also recall seeing horse-drawn ice wagons.”

Thanks to Frank Tannewitz’s 1930s downtown employment opportunity, we have been afforded yet another glimpse into the city’s colorful past.