What was the Name of This 1950s “Mom and Pop” Eatery?

In 1953, Johnson City had 62 mostly “Mom and Pop” restaurants in the Johnson City area. Most were located within a short distance of the downtown Fountain Square area for the convenience of shoppers and workers.

Two of my family members owned restaurants in the early 1950s. I mentioned one, The Green Bean, at 514 W. Market in my “Aunt Ween” column last October. The other one operated at 501 W. Market about 1951-52 at the former site of (Carl) Long’s Lunch (previously Long’s Barbeque).

The new owners were Lester and Carrie Bowman and Staley and Jennie Cain. Lester ran Lester Bowman’s Auto Exchange just two doors west at 505 W. Market (previously located at 235 W. Main). Jennie and her sister, Pauline were vaudeville performers, known as the Bowman Sisters, in New York in the early 1930s.

The two families opened the business a couple of years before Pauline established hers. The name of it escapes family and friends; perhaps a reader will know. Mom, Dad and I ate there frequently. In spite of all the nourishing meals they doled out, hamburger and French fries were about all I ever ate.

Staley worked at Lester’s car lot so Carrie and Jennie were pretty much responsible for running the café on a day-to-day basis. I am sure the men came over regularly to chow down the victuals. Lester's job was selling cars, not flipping hamburgers.

Carrie and Jennie placed one bottle of each different brand of soft drink they sold on a high shelf behind the food counter that included Pepsi Cola, Coca Cola, Royal Crown Cola, Old Colony, Double Cola, Orange Crush, Dr. Pepper, TruAde, Mil-Kay Orange (made with real oranges), Hires Root Beer, Dr. Swett’s Root Beer, Upper 10, Red Rock, Tip, Frostie Root Beer, Golden Cola, Grapette, Nehi Grape, Nehi Orange and Cheerwine.

Carrie Bowman was a witty lady who spoke a colorful language of her own. Those who remember her likely recall some of her unique sayings. In her younger days, a man once asked her, “Where have you been all my life?” Her respond was “I've only been born about half of it.” When she spotted an unattractive person, she would say, “They can't help being ugly, but they could at least stay home.” Anything slippery was referred to as “slicker than owl grease.”

After purchasing something, Carrie would often declare, “This ought to last me until I die, if I die when I ort (ought) to.” An impoverished person was “as poor as Job’s turkey.” Someone who made a quick exit took off like “Moody’s goose.” Anyone who went by “Shank’s mare” walked. If an inconsiderate person blew his car horn at her, she would said, “Blow your nose; you'll get more out of it.” Two more quotes were “Pretty is as pretty does” and “Have it your way.” 

Lester once invited my family to eat at the restaurant with a new family who had just moved to Johnson City. They were Mervin and Mildred Pratt. While we ate, they discussed a new business venture they were starting in the city. They quickly got my attention when they said it would be called Dairy Queen and located at 714 W. Market Street (opposite the Kiwanis Park Little League ball field. We lived near there.

A Science Hill classmate of mine, Bill Durham, once told me that his sister, Christine, was the first employee they hired. Living so close to the Queen, I often walked down there for a “Cone with the Curl on Top.” As I recall, they were priced at five and ten cents depending on the size, milk shakes cost a quarter and banana splits were pricey at 50 cents. This was the first time I ever had the option of eating a cone dipped in chocolate and spread with nuts. Mervin’s place was quite popular since it was the only one in town, but that would soon change.

The Bowman-Cain restaurant operated between one and two years before closing, but my love for the “Cone with the Curl on Top” continues to this day.