My wife recently directed my attention to a beautiful Monarch butterfly hovering near our backyard flowerbed arbor. Immediately, I thought about the late Tom Hodge, long time writer for the Johnson City Press, and his love for the fluttery critters. He inspired my love for area history.
Each fall, the former sports writer, news reporter, telegraph editor, executive editor and editorial director provided readers with a continuous monarch butterfly report of the migration of the winged creatures to Mexico. He also examined woolly worms to determine how mild or severe the weather would be. According to legend, thickness of the coat and number of rings on the caterpillar is a prediction of the forthcoming weather.
Tom also mentioned “morning fogs in August,” which some folks believe correlates with forthcoming snow accumulation in the mountains. Supposedly, heavy fogs forecast deep snows while light ones predict a miniscule amount of the white stuff.
Tom Hodge, Third From Left Takes A Coke Break With Press Employees
The journalist became acquainted with many railroad workers over the years and was continually featuring their stories in his column. They included Erwin's legendary J. Fred Leonard, known affectionately as “Fogless Bill” and who had a distinctive train whistle; Ed Lewis of old Clinchfield 99; and even Casey Jones. Tom's train articles involved the CC&O, Southern, ET&WNC and others.
Hodge developed an appreciation for the many landmarks in the East Tennessee area and the importance of preserving them. Sadly, Johnson City razed many of them over the years, which included the Southern Railroad train depot, City Hall, Tennessee Theatre (built as a venue for vaudeville stage shows) and the Windsor Hotel, to name a few. And the beat goes on.
Over the years, Tom regularly received local history material, either written or verbal, which he used in his columns. This included vintage newspapers, books, high school annuals, photographs, shared memories and area artifacts.
Tom penned numerous articles about the First Families of Franklin. This organization, that originated from the Tipton-Haynes Historical Farm, traced its history to a battle over the newly formed State of Franklin at the farm and surrounding area giving rise to the organization. He qualified as a member because of a distant relative and received the honor from Faith Stahl, wife of Johnson City’s late historian, Ray Stahl.
Tom routinely focused on area customs and folklore with a wide variety of subjects: sulfur and molasses being good for acne, the wearing of copper bracelets, the mysterious Brown Mountain lights near Linville, NC, ramp (mountain onion) festivals and many others.
One of Tom’s favorite subjects involved stories that originated from Clarence’s Restaurant in Unicoi. Old timers from the area routinely met there to eat and exchange stories, or “tall tales” as they referred to them.
One of the most famous and unusual stories to come out of East Tennessee is the 1916 hanging of a circus elephant, known as Mary, for killing her trainer. The execution took place in Erwin using a railroad crane. Tom kept the story alive over the years by occasionally revisiting the subject and adding new information or slants on it as it became available.
Through the years, Tom reviewed a number of local history books from local authors, thereby doing a favor to the author and to area history buffs.
And finally, Hodge occasionally gave his readers a “test” that covered a wide variety of local history subjects, some of which had been covered in his articles. One creative individual submitted one that was in the format of a crossword puzzle.
Tom featured several items that I sent him over the years. His many contributions to local history have not been forgotten, at least not by this writer.