Raucous Pranks at Service Clubs Once Common at the Windsor

Rita Garst wrote me a note commenting on the Hotel Windsor and other former hotels in downtown Johnson City. She shared some humorous stories.

“As a kid, she said, “I thought those buildings were skyscrapers; they looked awfully big back then. The last time I went to Asheville on the old highway, I noticed that the old barn that had Windsor Hotel painted on its roof was still there.”

My column in early May offered an epigrammatic history of this long-standing hotel (1909-1961), known briefly as Hotel Pardue before permanently becoming Hotel Windsor. I mentioned that the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs once held their meetings there. However, I didn’t mention the fact that, according to former club member, Allen Harris, Sr., William Jennings Bryan once dined there with the Rotarians. I also didn’t elaborate on just how rowdy these all-male early meetings could become. Horseplay was often the order of the day. The club dining room was then located on the street floor.

The Rotary Club assigned members a seat and charged a quarter to those who were late to the meeting. Paul Smith, former Johnson City Press-Chronicle writer, in an article written just prior to the razing of the old hostelry, offered some humorous examples of the variety of pranks that occurred back then. At one Rotary meeting, members were aghast when one of the hotel waitresses boldly stepped forward and announced to the club president that one of the club members present was the father of her unborn child.

The club leader, playing along with the impromptu gag, asked for the guilt party to stand up like a man and identify himself. Unknown to the group, one chair had been wired to produce a mild electrical shock. At that precise time, a switch was flipped, sending a shock wave to the man sitting in that particular chair. The “guilty” club member immediately sprang to his feet, bringing a spontaneous roar of laughter from those present.

On another occasion, a fake holdup was staged with masked robbers running in brandishing guns, creating bedlam for the frightened onlookers. Some clubbers dove out windows to escape being pilfered or injured. One poor soul was last seen running well past the Lady of the Fountain statue in Fountain Square Park across the street.

Such rambunctious carryings-on were not confined to Rotarians. Lonnie McCown, a longtime secretary of the Kiwanis Club, recalled an amusing event. Members were seated for what they thought was a normal meeting – discussing the issues of the day and enjoying a deliciously cooked meal. Suddenly, two “clumsy” waiters, carrying full loads of dishes on their trays, collided in the meeting room. The impact produced massive quantities of broken chinaware and initiated harsh words between the two servers.

In the “scuffle” that ensued, the “irate” workers drew pistols and began firing at each other. Those present dived under tables and sought whatever shelter they could find to prevent being hit by the barrage of “gunfire.” To the relief of everyone, it soon became apparent that the whole thing was a carefully orchestrated hoax and that the tricksters were in reality using blank cartridges to carry out their foolery.

Perhaps because of these pranks, the Kiwanis Club moved its meetings from Hotel Windsor to the Avalon Dining Room at 309 E. Main Street, later becoming the site of Penney’s Department Store.