Johnson City Was Known As the “Switzerland of America” in 1921

Press readers regularly tell me that they save Monday’s History/Heritage page. That is encouraging to those of us who inscribe these weekly articles because it indicates people’s love of olden times and their desire to personally archive it.

I saved an article written in 1986 by the late Tom Hodge concerning a 1921 Chamber of Commerce booklet, “Membership and Classified Directory.” Ted Thomas brought him the publication, which reads like a “Who’s Who of the city’s historied past.” In it, Johnson City was known as “The Switzerland of America.”

Chamber officers that year were S.R. Jennings, president; C.L. Marshall, vice president; and William G. Mathes, secretary-manager. Club directors were George T. Wofford, James A. Summers, H.D. Gump, Allen Harris, J.E. Brading, E.C. Lockett, Lee F. Miller, L.H. Shumate, J.W. Ring and B.W. Horner.

Members were assigned a job classification from a list of 150 groups. Oddly enough, only seven doctors were shown: Dr. H.M. Cass, Dr. Elmore Estes, Dr. Lee K. Gibson, Dr. E.M. Loyd, Dr. W.J. Matthews, Dr. John Gaines Moss and Dr. E.T. West. Other members included such names as A.H. Abernathy, W.A. Allison, T.F. Beckner, D.R. Beeson, C.L. Bolton, John P. Rhea, Guy L. Smith, Thad A. Cox, R.N. Dosser, W.T. Swoyer, George W. Hardin, Dan B. Wexler, Harry Faw, Bert Gump, L.D. Gump and George W. Keys.

The city limits encompassed 7.2 square miles containing a population of 12,442 residents. There were 22 miles of asphalt-paved roads, 50 miles of graded and macadamized streets, 60 miles of cement sidewalks and 22 miles of sewer line.

An impressive municipal building referred to as City Hall contained a large auditorium and a well-kept market house at the corner of Boone and W. Main streets. Two newspapers, the Chronicle (Guy Smith) and the Staff (Clyde Hodge and Munsey Slack) served as the city’s news media.

The booklet provided a colorful description of Johnson City and its environs: “Situated in Washington County, the third county from the extreme northeast corner of the state; at the head of the fertile Valley of East Tennessee; the Switzerland of America; among the foothills of, and in fact the gateway to, the Appalachians and almost midway between the Cumberland Mountains and the wonderful Blue Ridge …” Two highways were under construction that year: Memphis to Bristol (State Route 1) and Asheville-Moccasin Gap (U.S. 11E and 23).

The booklet declared Johnson City’s environment to be superior to that of nearby Asheville by having an equable climate without temperature extremes, yielding a mean summer temperature of 72 degrees and a mean winter one of 39. The city was described as “delightful, healthful and conducive to longevity and the joy of living.”

Johnson City also boasted of “a well-organized and splendid system of elementary and high schools with one superintendent, nine principals and 79 teachers.” It also bragged about its Normal School with a staff of 35 officers, teachers and assistants, an annual enrollment of 1300 students and an administrative cost of $490,000. Milligan College had a faculty of 14 and a student body of 142 at an investment of about $350,000.

The Chamber’s publication lastly identified four city hotels with a total of 185 rooms, said to be inadequate to meet the present requirements of the traveling public. Thanks to Ted and Tom’s efforts 22 years ago, we are privileged to again steal a look at the “Switzerland of America” of 1921.