Smythe Electric: Once a Pioneer Business in Downtown Johnson City

Today’s column is the fulfillment of a column that was initiated with Beverly Smythe Jackson just a few weeks before her passing this summer. Her parents, W.F. Burgess “Shorty” and Florence Smythe, once owned Smythe Electric Company in downtown Johnson City. Three grandchildren of the storeowners, Senter Jackson, Susan Wilson and Carol Burleson, shared treasured memories about the business. Mr. Jackson furnished me with three old city directories containing references to the store’s beginning.

About 1917, Russell Bishop, an electrician residing in Maryland moved to Johnson City and became secretary-treasurer and manager of Tennessee Electrical Supply Company, Inc. (J.W. Ring, president and Thad Cox, vice president) at 109 Spring Street. When construction on the new 10-story John Sevier Hotel began in 1923, Russell contacted his friend, Shorty, who was over six-foot tall and lived in Maryland, about a job opportunity.

Smythe came to Johnson City where he met and married Florence Browder. By 1928, Russell was proprietor of Bishop Electric Company, Inc. at 108 Spring Street, directly across the street from his previous employer. He hired Shorty as secretary-treasurer. Between 1930 and 1935, Bishop sold his business to Mr. Smythe and moved back to Maryland. The new owner relocated his store to 238 E. Main, the former location of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. During the Depression years, Mr. Smythe gave his wife a dollar each morning to cover the day’s expenses.

“The grandchildren fondly recall being at Smythe’s when parades traveled along Main Street. Because large crowds congregated along the street blocking the view from inside the store, tall ladders were moved to the front windows permitting the children to climb them and sit on top where they enjoyed a grandiose view.

Another doting memory pertained to the small wooden sound booths with doors on them that permitted customers to play store records (breakable and later non-breakable) to determine if they wanted to purchase them, something ideal for music lovers. Mrs. Smythe was depicted as a wonderful person with an incredibly loving heart who never got angry with anyone. She often walked across the street to Kress’s and brought back an oversized bag of popcorn, enough for the entire family to enjoy. 

Florence waited on customers in the front of the store while Shorty worked in the back with his electricians. The grandchildren remembered one in particular – Jackson Cornett, who specialized in home and commercial wiring. The rear area was crammed full of equipment with boxes stacked from floor to ceiling. The back door opened into a parking lot that faced Jobe Street (now State of Franklin Road). The area upstairs was a storage area.

In later years, businesses were closed on Sundays and Wednesday afternoons. The latter time was usually reserved for family activities such as going to see a movie or taking an exhilarating ride around the countryside in Shorty’s World War II Willis open-top jeep. 

Christmas at Smythe Electric was a festive time that meant decorating the store profusely with colored lights, holly and artificial snow. One favorite item that customers looked forward to and expected each season was a life-size replica of the RCA Victor’s (“His Master’s Voice”) dog, a fox terrier. 

Since Shorty was in the electrical appliance business, he always had instant access to new products. He built the first radio that appeared in Johnson City. He located the antenna on top of the John Sevier Hotel and positioned the speakers out front, causing a steady line of cars circling the hotel as people came from far and wide to hear the new product. He initially sold radios and then marketed the first televisions in the city. The family enjoyed TV in the store before it became available to the public.

When the store closed in the early 1960s after serving the community for about 30 years, Mr. Smythe opted not to locate a buyer for the business; instead, he sold the merchandise leaving the building empty. Today, Smyth Electric Company is just a pleasant but fading memory from Johnson City’s yesteryear.