In the spring of 1930, the Johnson City Chronicle and Staff-News conducted a “Birthday Contest” for local residents who were born in 1885. The rationale was to glean from locals what the city was like in the 45 years since they were born.
The newspaper focused on people who had lived the longest in Johnson City and on those with the best stories about early city life. Six people were subsequently interviewed for the newspaper; four received a $10 or $25 cash prize.
1. Mr. Ollie White, 607 Franklin Street ($25): “I was born on Mar. 30, just five days after the (second) birth of Johnson City, which has been operating continually under a series of charters. I lived in a house on what is now King Street that was just inside the city limits of the village. I have never been out of town except for a visit of a few weeks. My mother also lived in Johnson City for more than 70 years, coming here when she was a young girl. I attended school in the old Jobe residence on what is now Tipton Street. I currently am employed at Harris Manufacturing Company. About 1900, I was caught in a windstorm one Sunday morning while on Main Street. The wind blew the front out of the post office that was just across the street from the church. It also tore the roof off Pardue’s store. Some of my relatives and friends came to town from Buffalo, New York to attend my funeral (laughing) after hearing that I had been killed in the storm.”
2. Mrs. Fannie Johnson Merritt, 207 Lamont Street ($25): “I was born in what was known as the Whiteside House on Holston Avenue. It has since been torn away. I am a cousin of Henry Johnson, founder of our city, and have lived here all my life. My total time outside the city amounts to only about six months. I am a widow with two children now in school. My father, Marshall H. Johnson, was a Civil War veteran and first cousin of Henry Johnson. He was a carpenter and surveyor, having surveyed most of the first streets in Johnson City. I remember when there were only planks for sidewalks here and the two principal stores were the Bee Hive and the New York Racket Store.”
3. Arthur W. Callaway ($10): “Although born in Jefferson, NC, I have lived in Johnson City for 35 years and this is home to me. I was a 10-year-old boy when we moved here. I remember that the old water tank of the Southern Railway stood near Fountain Square. Ward and Friberg ran the Bee Hive department store. “William H. Taft, President of the United States, spoke in the old skating rink that stood on W. Main Street, near the present location the White City Laundry. George Campbell was chief of police in 1905 and I.M. Wilson was No. 1 policeman. David Netherly, Sr., now the oldest man on the force, was working at the Johnson City Foundry. Johnson City was only a village then, quite different from the city of today. The post office was on Main Street in a building near where the walkway now goes from Main to Market. There were no paved streets in Johnson City when I first came to town. Brick was laid on Main and Market streets in the fall of 1908.
“The Foundry stood near the present location of the Clinchfield station on Cherry Street. The Southern Railway and ET&WNC railroad depots were combined in the building now used as the bus terminal (on Buffalo). Mr. Lee ran a hotel on Buffalo Street and Wilson Pardue opened a grocery store on Main Street. I believe he started free delivery of groceries in town. I remember attending a revival meeting in the little white frame Baptist Church on Main Street near the current location of Frank Miller’s store. There were no buildings from there to where the H.P. King building now stands. Gump’s clothing store was where the Tennessee National Bank now stands. The fire hall was on Market Street near Roan. Fire equipment consisted of a wagon and a few feet of hose, drawn by one black horse and one gray horse. Bill Owens was fire chief and the others were John Perkins, Berry Wilson and some volunteer fire boys. W.E. Burbage owned the city water system.”
4. Mrs. J.F. Puckett ($10). “In 1908, I was here to visit an uncle who lived on North Baxter Street. The mud was so deep our old Ford could hardly pull through it. Now, I live in the same block on a nice paved street. When I was 10 years old, I came to the village of Johnson City. I saw an automobile for the first time and it was probably the first that ever came to Johnson City. What interested me most was the fire wagon, pulled by two big black horses that raced along the streets with bells ringing. I will never forget the thrill of watching them. Now, the saddest thing in my life is the lonesome peal of the bells, the ghostly clang of the bells on the roaring, racing engine, shrieking, then tolling, then silent. Just a year ago, they guided my son to eternity.” (Note: Mrs. Puckett’s son was a fireman who tragically lost his life responding to a false alarm fire.)
5. Clyde Walker, 800 W. Maple: I have lived here all my life. I recall the old village of 40 years ago (1890) when the Piedmont Hotel was the leading hostelry. My father had a blacksmith shop on what is now the corner of Buffalo and Tipton streets. He is now head of an ice and coal company.”
6. Mrs. V.L. Rowe, 1100 Montgomery: “I am highly impressed with the steady growth of the city during the past 40 years.” One unidentified man spoke of helping build the original Science Hill Male and Female Institute.
The news article concluded by saying, “Wonder what those born here this year will remember in 1975, just 45 years from now.” That future date would have been 34 years ago.