Today in Johnson City History: May 13

May 13, 1897: The Comet reported that the Hon. F.P. Burch, state agent for the Tennessee Centennial, came to Johnson City in consideration of moving the Boone tree to the Centennial. The reference was to trailblazer Daniel Boone, who had carved “D. Boon cilled a bar in year 1760” on a beech tree in what is now known as Boones Creek.

May 13, 1914: Three men were fined $10 each for trespassing in the reservoir. This would be a bit more than $252, or $756 total, in today’s dollars.

May 13, 2009: East Tennessee State University announced that the school would shut down its in-house printing press operation by September, eliminating 11 positions. University Press did offset printing, letterheads, business cards, brochures and other quick copy items where thousands of copies were printed for various departments on campus.

Sources: The Comet; Johnson City Court Records, 1914; Johnson City Press.

Today in Johnson City History: May 12

May 12, 1929: First Methodist Church moved from the corner of East Main and South Roan streets, the current site of the King Center, to its present location, 900 Spring St.

May 12, 1963: Our Savior Lutheran Church was dedicated.

May 12, 1979: Willie Nelson and Leon Russell played at Freedom Hall Civic Center.

Sources: Johnson City Postcard History Series; Bobbie H. Shirley, Freedom Hall; History of Washington County, Tennessee.

Johnson City 150 Years: The Darden/Strain family

Brothers Bill and Steve Darden share a rich genealogy of family roots deeply engrained in Johnson City’s history.

Steve, a former mayor of Johnson City between 2005 and 2007, played an instrumental role in the creation of the Tweetsie Trail, while Bill retired as a senior pharmaceutical consultant at Proctor & Gamble Pharmaceuticals and currently serves as U.S. Phil Roe’s district director.

The Dardens’ great grandfather, William Augustus Darden, moved to Northeast Tennessee from Georgia in the mid-1800s and eventually married Virginia “Jennie” Elizabeth Strain on Dec. 5, 1866. Darden worked for the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railway, eventually earning the rank of superintendent. He died in 1896, and along with his wife, are buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Johnson City overlooking Founders Park. 

On Jennie’s side of the family, her father William John Strain came to Washington County from Pennsylvania in the 1700s. During the Revolutionary War, he served in the North Carolina militia and later was part of the constitutional convention to start the State of Franklin. 

Strain also served as the first justice of the peace in Washington County, and a court magistrate for the State of Franklin and later Tennessee, holding office for 32 years. 

“When I became interested in knowing our history as a region, it was just so meaningful to us to trace back to such an important historical time,” Steve said. 

William Augustus Darden and Jennie Strain had a son named Thomas Matson “Matt” Darden, who was Steve and Bill’s grandfather. Matt moved from Limestone to Johnson City with his wife, Lula, in the 1890s and worked for the U.S. Postal Service. 

Matt and Lulu Darden had seven children: Dorothy May; Helen; Vincent; Martha; Thomas and William Reed, who was Bill and Steve’s father. 

Steve said his father originally worked as a banker before enlisting  in the Army just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

“Probably like a lot of rural people, (enlisting) was a way to get away. Then World War II broke out and he was a gunnery sergeant and followed Gen. (George) Patton through the Bulge,” Steve said. 

Following his discharge, William Reed came home to Johnson City and opened the Rainbow Corner Restaurant along West Walnut Street in 1948. 

“At the Piccadilly Circus in London, there was a USO Club establishment called the Rainbow Corner,” Bill said about his father. “Our dad used that name when he came back and opened up the restaurant here at 337 West Walnut St., right across the street from the Ashe Street Courthouse.” 

Steve and his brother both worked at the restaurant during their youth. 

“It was the only real restaurant between ETSU and downtown. So there was quite a mix of people who ate there: College students, neighborhood dwellers, lawyers, judges, jurors and county officials,” Steve said. 

“There was a very colorful judge at the time, Chancellor Dayton Phillips, who was known to try cases (inside the restaurant) actually sitting there in the corner booth. Lawyers would come and sit, they’d tell him their clients’ arguments and he would rule. Local politics was talked there, and it was just a real open place and probably had a lot to do with our careers, and volunteer endeavors and so forth.”

According to Bill, there is no doubt in his mind that his brother became a lawyer because of all the attorneys he interacted with at the restaurant. 

The restaurant eventually shuttered in 1983 when William Reed retired. 

“One of the greatest joys that I have in life at this point is when someone will come up to tell me they used to eat at the Rainbow Corner,” Bill said. “It was kind of a hangout, ‘Happy Days’ kind of place. They had curbside service and a jukebox. I know when dad retired they had a cake and lot of people came through to shake hands.” 

“I’ve had people as recently as two or three years ago come up to me and say, ‘Your dad gave me the first job I ever had,’” Steve said. “It really makes you feel good that your dad touched a lot of people’s lives.” 

William Reed Darden died in December 2010, but his wife, Lucille Stephens, will celebrate her 93rd birthday later this month on May 24. 

To watch the full interview with Bill and Steve Darden, visit

Today in Johnson City History: May 11

May 11, 1816: Benjamin F. Swingle was born in a section of Washington County (now Unicoi). Swingle was an influential citizen here before and after the Civil War. He was connected with the County Court for 27 years and was clerk and master of Washington County for 12 years. At the beginning of the war, he was postmaster at Unicoi City, then known as Swingle. He died May 10, 1911, one day short of his 95th birthday.

May 11, 1899: The Comet carried the obituary of Jesse Potter, the 9-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. J.G. Potter. The boy had died at home of spinal meningitis. “He had been ill but a few weeks, and his death was a severe blow to his family.”

May 11, 1903: A street fair was held in Johnson City. The fair concluded on May 16. Thousands of people attended.

May 11, 1969: The Johnson City Press-Chronicle ran a picture from 1912 of a recruiting wagon. The recruiting wagon was used around 1912 to recruit students to East Tennessee Normal School.

Sources: History of Tennessee; The Comet; Dr. William A. Bridgforth; Johnson City Press-Chronicle.

JC 150 Video: Father and son are a chapter in city’s history

Vance W. Cheek Sr., and his son, Vance W. Cheek Jr., share a special place in Johnson City’s history. The two are the only father and son to serve as mayor of the city.

Cheek Sr. is a retired banker. He served in the late 1960s, and was on hand when the city buried a time capsule that was opened earlier this year to mark the start of the Sesquicentennial Celebration.

His son, an attorney, served on the City Commission in the late 1990s. Cheek Jr., who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, remembers his time on the commission as a period of transition and rapid growth for Johnson City.

Both Cheeks share a broad sense of civic pride, and say they are grateful to have had the opportunity to serve the city.

The position of mayor in Johnson City is one that city commissioners elect from within their own ranks.

When you were on the City Commission, what years did you serve as mayor?

Cheek Sr.: “I was elected in April 1969. I served four years on the commission, with the last two as mayor.”

Cheek Jr.: “I was elected in 1997. I served as vice mayor during my first two years, and after the 1999 elections, I became mayor.

Who were your colleagues on the commission and what was the relationship of the board like at the time?

Cheek Sr.: “I served with Charles Gordon, Hal Littleford, Dick Machmer and Dr. Bill Pennebaker. It was a very cordial commission, particularly during my first two years.

“Charles Gordon was the reason I was on the commission. He talked me into running.”

Cheek Jr.: “I served with Bob May, Dan Mahoney P.C. Snapp and Pete Paduch during my first two years. The last two I served with Paduch, Mahoney, Ricky Mohon and Duffie Jones.

“Obviously, it was a contentious commission with Paduch being ahead of his time in having a combative nature about him.”

What history do you feel you made as mayor or during your time on the commission?

Cheek Sr.: Our commission’s project was expanding sewers in Johnson City. Most of the city was still on septic tanks, so our main project was getting more of the city on the sewer system.

“It was a busy four years. The 100th-year time capsule was buried when I served. I’m the last man standing from that 1969 commission.”

Cheek Jr.: “The fact that I am disabled — I’ve lived my whole life with a disability — we knocked down some doors.

“We had unprecedented growth during my four years. The table was set for me by the commissions of the 1980s and early 1990s. I cut a lot of ribbons in my four years for the hard work that was done by previous commissions. They made me look good.”

What do you hope the historians will say about your service?

Cheek Sr.: “I think we were all visionaries on the commission at that time. I had leadership qualities. I have always been a leader in anything I do. It’s one of my better assets.”

Cheek Jr.: “I just turned 50, so it’s hard to think in terms of legacy. I think I still have some things to write, but I hope people will look back and say I was fair.”

What event or person do you believe has had the greatest impact on Johnson City’s history?

Cheek Sr.: “We’ve had so many great leaders and visionaries in this city, it’s hard to single out one person. I think the building of The Mall (at Johnson City) had a tremendous impact on the city. It depleted retail sales downtown.

“The founding of the medical school at East Tennessee State University was another milestone that happened during my term. It has been a tremendous boost and has had a positive impact on the entire region.”

Cheek Jr.: “My father. His leadership at Home Federal was a civic partnership. You’ve got to have somebody who knows what this city can do, and will do.”

Today in Johnson City History: May 10

May 10, 1894: The Comet reported that Johnson City’s police chief, Mr. Remine, had witnessed a “great ball of fire about the size of a big cheese fall out of the heavens and roll along the ground for thirty or forty yards.” The phenomenon lighted up the neighborhood with a lurid glare, but it soon disappeared, making a sputtering noise and filling the air with sulphureous odor.

May 10, 1911: Johnson City’s first hospital opened at 712 2nd Ave., which is now East Fairview Avenue. The newly opened Memorial Hospital had a capacity of 10 beds. Three years later, the hospital moved to a house on 7th Avenue (East Chilhowie Avenue) in the Carnegie Addition.

May 10, 1955: Johnson City voters voted to become a home rule municipality.

May 10, 1980: Heart performed at Freedom Hall Civic Center.

Sources: The Comet; History of Washington County, Tennessee; Municipal Technical Advisory Service; Bobbie H. Shirley, Freedom Hall. 

Today in Johnson City History: May 9

May 9, 1889: Street grading was progressing rapidly in the new Carnegie addition. Th Comet reported that Mr. E.P. McCarty put a force of hands and three teams at work. The old fields were already beginning to look like a town.

May 9, 1901: The E.T.&W.N.C. railroad had put in a side track at the Harris Manufacturing Company plant. It was a three-rail siding to hold standard and narrow-gauge cars.

May 6, 1912: Readers of The Comet were not-so-subtly urged to turn out for the opening day of Appalachian Baseball League play with the game between the Johnson City Soldiers and the Mountaineers from Asheville the following Monday. “Acting Mayor Burchfield has issued a proclamation for the merchants to close their places of business and attend with the rest of the population! Make it a point to be present and make a noise like an enthusiast or appear before the recorder the next day and submit to maximum fine.”

May 9, 1951: The Johnson City Press-Chronicle reported that Louis Young, George Oldham, and T.F. Beckner Jr. were elected to the City Commission. Viola Mathes and T.W. Roland were elected to the Board of Education.

Sources: The Comet; Johnson City Press-Chronicle.

Today in Johnson City History: May 8

May 8, 1890: J.F. Crumley and G.C. Harris were preparing to build a store house on Main Street adjoining the National Bank to front on Main and Market streets. The ground was being cleared of trees, and work on the excavation for the foundation was to commence in a few days.

May 8, 1907: The Roan Street Baptist Church formed with 102 charter members. The church was formed after a split in the First Baptist Church congregation. The two later remerged to form Central Baptist Church. 

May 8, 1951: Edward Cowell, a Johnson City City commissioner, left office. His term was from 1949-1951.

May 8, 1982: The first class graduated from Quillen College of Medicine.

Sources: The Comet; Johnson City Postcard History Series; City of Johnson City; Greater Johnson City A Pictorial History.

Today in Johnson City History: May 7

May 7, 1949: Babe Didrikson Zaharias played in a golf exhibition at the Johnson City Country Club.

May 7, 1988: Sawyer Brown performed at Freedom Hall Civic Center, as part of Springfest.

May 7, 2009: About 130 Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines, an infantry/rifle battalion made up of five companies, left the local armory for deployment to Iraq.

May 7, 2010: Receiving his doctoral hood at from ETSU’s Quillen College of Medicine, Norman Litchfield became the fourth of four brothers in his family to earn a medical degree.

Sources: Greater Johnson City A Pictorial History; Bobbie H. Shirley, Freedom Hall; Johnson City Press

Today in Johnson City History: May 6

May 6, 1897: The First Baptist Church had at last made a selection of a pastor in the person of the Rev. D.A. Glenn, of Tazewell, Virginia. Rev. Glenn and family had arrived May 1 and at once began house keeping at the parsonage, on Myrtle Street. The church had been without a pastor since the resignation of the Rev. Frank Barnett in October.

May 6, 1952: The Johnson City Press-Chronicle carried an article about Henry and Shelly Bridges; Mrs. Bridges was the former Shelly Thomas. They lived in Shelbridge, now the home of the president of East Tennessee State University.

May 6, 2010: The first class graduated from the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy.

May 6, 2011: Tony Skole earned his 300th career victory as East Tennessee State head baseball coach as the Bucs knocked off North Carolina State 5-1 at Doak Field.

Sources: The Comet; Archives of Appalachia; Mary Hardin McCown Collection; Larry Calhoun; Johnson City Press