Mention the name East Brainerd these days and it conjures up visions of massive commercial activity, shopping, suburban affluence, fast food, and fine dining. A newly-arrived suburbanite having just immigrated from across the Ohio or Mississippi Rivers would not recognize the East Brainerd that existed when my family moved out here in 1967.
It would be another 20 years before Hamilton Place Mall was built and served as the new center of commercial gravity in the region.
At the time, the land occupied by the mall belonged to The Wolfman, who owned a lot of exotic animals, including wolves. Several families occupied a small neighborhood where The Terrace and Hamilton Crossing are now. The other side of Gunbarrel Road was all wooded.
In 1967, East Brainerd meant the area along East Brainerd Road, then a barely two-lane country road branching off Robert E. Lee Highway, between Interstate-24 to just past its intersection with Graysville Road. Originally, the community was called Concord. That name lasted until its main road changed from Bird’s Mill to East Brainerd following the consolidation of Sunnyside, Dutchtown, and Belvoir into Brainerd.
Before 1926, Bird’s Mill Road dead-ended at Jenkins Road, which continued down what is now Mackey Avenue. Parker’s Gap Road, with which Graysville Pike intersected shortly thereafter, branched off Jenkins toward Apison and Cleveland. Bird’s Mill Road started life as Mission Road, from the outskirts of Chattanooga to Brainerd Mission and then beyond, changing its name when Philemon Bird purchased the mission property from Thomas Crutchfield in 1852.
The much wider region now called East Brainerd approximates what was called Chickamauga for decades after the Cherokee Removal, long before the National Military Park existed and gave the Georgia town of Crawfish Springs its current name. But that’s another story.
Forty-five years ago, the area was largely farmland. There were a few modern suburban subdivisions in the area, but they were small, some no more than a single short street: Concord Highlands, Bella Vista, Radmoor, Kenmoor, Royal Oaks, Liles Addition, Irwin Acres, East Brainerd Terrace, Meadowlark Acres, Audobon Hills, and Engelton Heights. All were aimed toward middle-class and working-class families.
The rest was mostly farmland, pasture, and farmland and pasture that had been subdivided on a piecemeal basis. Some people in the neighborhood grew crops, including corn, for their own consumption. Several had small herds of milk cows. A few people had chicken houses, some of which are still standing, though not in use. Many had horses. The Wilson family owned a dairy where Christ United Methodist Church is now, and they had a large chickenhouse across East Brainerd Road.
From the freeway, private homes for the most part lined East Brainerd Road, with a couple of churches and a comparatively few businesses. There was no Concord Golf (then a marsh), no Brown Acres Golf (it was a dairy farm), and no Eastgate Golf (also a marsh, now the Walmart Center in Brainerd). Downtown, there was no UTC yet either, just the Chattanooga City College and University of Chattanooga from which it came.
The big “new” auditorium at Concord Baptist Church (founded 1848) had not yet been built; the congregation was still worshipping in the smaller one now used by the Korean Baptists. Across the road where the current Mapco station, Subway restaurant, and small strip mall are now were three homes, the center of which served as the residence of the church’s pastor.
Halfway down Concord Road toward South Chickamauga Creek still stands the over a century old Higgins home, then inhabited by a grandson of the man who built it with his wife and children whom I went to school with for twelve years.
At the very crest of Concord Ridge, where the Amberleigh Ridge Apartments are now, the old Bork house remained. The Corbly house still stood at the crest on the other side of the road.
As it hard as it may be to fathom, at the time Gunbarrel Road was little more than a lane and a half wide; two cars passing each other would have to ride the shoulders. Its composition was tar and gravel, except for the section near Shallowford Road which was more often dirt.
South Gunbarrel Road wasn’t much more than one lane. The Glenn house, built by the Boyd family before the Civil War, stood on the side of the hill halfway to Davidson Road, which was still a dirt path between cow and horse pastures years after annexation. The Davidson house is still there even today, and the Eaves home at the site of the old Lyndsey Blackwell place too n the corner of Davidson and Julian Roads.
The Elise Chapin Wildlife Sanctuary at Audobon Acres at the end of North Sanctuary Road, which extends from South Gunbarrel, exists as it always has, minus its pine trees cut down due to beetle infestation and plus a new visitor center. In the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s, a commune of hippies squatted there, including one claiming to be Jesus and another to be Johnny Potseed.
At the crossroads of East Brainerd and Gunbarrel Roads in 1967 was Bill Higgins’ Grocery, where the Hamilton at Gunbarrel strip mall is now. The Sinclair gas station stood where Conoco is now. In the corner where Rite Aids is now was an empty field that used to be a knoll until dug out for fill dirt.
In the remaining corner that’s now a grassy lot, a short order diner called Rogers’ Grill did business, as East Brainerd Auto Sales did later. Behind Rogers’ Grill sat a few tiny rental cottages in the area where Concorde Apartments are now.
Owenby Sheet Metal was next to Bill Higgins Grocery, and Owenby Branch ran between them. A private residence stood between Owenby Sheet Metal and East Brainerd School.
The school sat on the corner of East Brainerd and North Joiner Roads, and there was a brick sign on the corner. Across the street, where Heritage Funeral Home now sits, was the house built by William T. Walker. In fact, it had been “Squire” Walker who donated the land upon which the school, first called Walnut Grove School, was built in 1912.
Walnut Grove School was originally on South Gunbarrel Road, where it was built in 1889 to replace the Mackie School (est. 1878) formerly on site of the current Heritage Park. Its name changed to East Brainerd in 1926 along with that of Bird’s Mill Road.
Down the road a bit from the school was St. Martin of Tours Episcopal Church (founded 1960), which at the time was using the old Jolley home for its parish house, what Baptists might call a fellowship hall. Directly across East Brainerd Road from the Jolley house lived the Rains family in their historic farm dwelling, aged over a hundred.
Where the East Brainerd Church of Christ (founded 1946) moved into its present quarters in 1972 was Worleyanna, former home of the late W.T. Worley, a railroad engineer in the early 20th century. Worley laid out the village named after him in the area where Brainerd Heights is now, near which was a whistle-stop on the Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis railroad (now CSX) next to what had been called Ellis’ Crossing for half a century.
Across the road from the abandoned house was the East Brainerd Riding Academy, whose grounds included the areas now occupied by the Marriot complex, Hidden Creek Apartments, the fire station, Taco Bell, and BiLo.
Across from where BiLo Grocery stands were the two Henshall houses, the original built by George Henshall named Narrowbridge (since torn down), and the later pseudo-Georgian house that now serves Heritage City Park as Chattanooga Heritage House.
Heading east toward Parker’s Gap, there was another small cluster of commercial buildings around the intersection of East Brainerd and Graysville Roads.
The first thing you came to on the south side of the road was the L-shaped Village East strip mall, which at the time held Jojo’s Ice Cream Parlor, a beauty shop, and a couple of small stores. Still in business, it currently houses the Sugar Shoppe, Skinpricks, Educational Outfitters, and a couple other shops.
Next to Village East was one of the earliest Golden Gallon stores, a small drive-thru dealing mainly in milk, eggs, bread, cigarettes, and beer. It now serves as the core of Armando’s Hamburgers.
On the other side of Golden Gallon was an independent gas station, and next to it, right on the corner of East Brainerd and Graysville Roads, was a food stand called Butch’s Ham & Egger.
Around the corner from Butch’s Ham & Egger were a dentist’s office, the Elks Lodge, East Brainerd Baptist (founded 1950), and Christ United Methodist (founded 1962; site of New Haven Baptist since 1988).
On the other corner of the intersection sat the main grocery store for the area, the Piggly Wiggly, taking up the whole building now housing Mapco, Dollar General, and O’Reilly Auto Parts. It had been Brewster’s Grocery before. Next to Piggly Wiggly was Rogers’ Drugs.
Across East Brainerd Road was East Brainerd Shopping Center, a strip mall twice the size of its current configuration. At one end, recently housing The Suit Man, was the Food King, and at the other end, now-demolished, was the Mullins 5¢ & 10¢ store. In between the two were Liles’ Drugs, a Dollar General, and Mr. Bob’s Barbershop.
Immediately to the left of East Brainerd Shopping Center was Cawood’s Barber Shop, and it’s still there. Mr. Bob’s still exists also, but under new ownership and in a different location over by Ace Hardware, which didn’t exist in 1967.
To the left of Cawood’s and further back from the road was a smaller strip that housed Bill’s Diner, a Laundromat, and a small shop (and later had Spectaters, until April 2012). Back where the Regions Bank is now was a self-serve car wash.
Behind that whole set of shops on the north side of East Brainerd Road was Pitner Field, the one public baseball field in the area, serving both East Brainerd and Westview. It actually contained three lighted fields with stands and concessions. Pitner Field served as the sole home for youth baseball until the new complex was built on Jenkins Road. Some games were also played at the field behind St. Martin’s, but those were mostly girls’ softball.
A couple of miles down Graysville Road, a mile beyond the Tennessee-Georgia stateline, is the town of Graysville, Unincorporated. The town, or village, had several houses, a small post office, the ruins of the old Gray’s Mill, and the Graysville Mercantile. The mercantile carried many of the same items as modern convenience stores, but its staple of business was its butcher shop.
Beyond its intersection with Graysville Road, there was nothing commercial on East Brainerd Road until Ryall Springs. There were, however, a few cabins left over from the former Shady Rest resort, which gave its name to the small area around it, along with small homes.
Where is Ryall Springs? Along the main road between Morris Hill and Banks Roads. Two signs at either end used to announce its presence as “Ryall Springs, Unincorporated” before the city of Chattanooga annexed everything east to the Morris Hill Road, one of them at the former station for the Morris Spring (where the signs for the Hurricane Creek subdivision are now).
In the corner of Morris Hill and East Brainerd to which Christ United Methodist moved in 1988 stood the Wilson dairy, which used to deliver fresh milk around the vicinity. Up Morris Hill Road was, and still is, Morris Hill Baptist (founded 1909). Until 1914, it met in the Morris Hill School, which stood where the graveyard is now.
Before school and the church, the immediate area around Morris Hill was known to residents as Lizard Lope. The school was founded by locals in 1898 due to the long distance to Walnut Grove School on Gunbarrel Road, which began after the more accessible Mackie School (on the site of Heritage Park) closed. Along with the Morris family, one of its founders was Liam Ryall, Irish immigrant father of Thomas Ryall, who built Ryall Springs as a summer resort.
Shortly after the new church moved into its building, Morris Hill School moved down Parker’s Gap Road (now East Brainerd) and became Westview School.
In that small community of Ryall Springs in 1967 were a service station and Wolfe’s Tavern, and on the former Banks Farm (now Mountain Shadows subdivision) another riding stable. Now the excellent Bones Bar-B-Q restaurant, a fresh food store, and a convenience store, are there, along with the old service station under new management.
In 1967, there was nothing more again until the East Brainerd and Ooltewah-Ringgold crossroads. Near there were Westview Elementary, Westview Cumberland Presbyterian (founded 1854) across from it, and Kimsey Grocery on the now empty corner. The Gibson farm and dairy occupied the area that is now East Hamilton School.
For five miles in any direction from there—north (until Ooltewah), south (until Ringgold, Georgia), or east (until Apison)—there were only farms, dairies, and horse pastures.
In the opposite direction from where we started (this time heading west), Elbert S. Long School (now Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts) stood on the corner of Vance and East Brainerd Roads, just past Brainerd Hills Baptist (founded 1946).
The Vance house has sat on the corner across Vance Road since the early 20th century, and in 1967 the former O.C. Blackwell house was still across East Brainerd Road from the school.
Across the railroad tracks on the left was Whorley Masonic Lodge at what used to be called Ellis’ Crossing before the overpass was built, and at the top of the hill was Brainerd Hills Presbyterian (founded 1948).
Next door was an independent filling station and a strip mall, behind which was the Brainerd Hills subdivision. Across East Brainerd Road from those was (and is) Brainerd Hills Shopping Center where the area’s post office, Chickamauga Station, had been located since 1955 with Briar & Tobacco, a diner, and various small shops.
Behind the shopping center was an older neighborhood called Brainerd Heights, which was formerly the village of Whorley, formerly Vinegar Hill, formerly Old Chickamauga Town of the Cherokee. Chickamauga Road runs through it and becomes Airport Road on the other side of Lee Highway, entering a neighborhood called Wrinkletown before proceeding to Shepherd, where the railroad’s Chickamauga Station and Shepherd P.O. used to be.
At one time, Shepherd had been named Chickamauga, and its elementary school, only recently desegregated in 1967, bore that name until its closing in 1987.
The nearest major shopping areas were Brainerd Village Shopping Center (opened 1960), built on what had once been Skyway Drive In Theater, and later enclosed Eastgate Shopping Center open-air mall (opened 1965), anchored by Loveman’s, Miller Bros., Woolworth’s, and JCPenney.
In 1967, if you wanted to see a movie, you could go to the Marbro Drive-in on Robert E. Lee Highway where Sam’s Wholesale Club is now. Eastgate had a single-screen walk-in theater, its admission being 75¢ for adults and 50¢ for children. Brainerd Village Cinema joined it in 1969 and Showcase Theater across Brainerd Road in 1970.
Eastgate, converted to a triplex in 1975, was where I saw most of my movies all the way through university, including every one of the original classic Star Wars movies. I remember the lines waiting to get in to see the cult flick “Billy Jack”. I went there to several midnight showings of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” too.
When we first moved to East Brainerd from East Ridge, we lived on Givens Road, later moved to Oak Drive, ending up on Igou Gap Road while I was at St. Nicholas Kindergarten, then meeting at Grace Episcopal on the corner of Belvoir and Brainerd Roads. Igou Gap Road at the time was dirt and gravel.
On Givens Road, we got close to the Lambert family, the adults of which I came to call Uncle Les and Aunt Carol. They had horses, partly because of Uncle Les’ connection to the Tennessee Walking Horse circuit, and while we were there he built a barn that is still standing in spite of the Keystone subdivision now there.
The family in the house next to us on Igou Gap Road also had a barn with a few horses; the pasture is now the shopping center which contains Goody’s, Target, Earth Fare, Panera, and other stores and restaurants.
The neighborhood I spent most of my childhood in, all the time I was at East Brainerd Elementary and then Tyner Junior High, was at one time the old Ziegler farm. We lived a few houses down from the schoolyard on what is now North Joiner Road; until the year before it had been Walnut Grove Road, so-named after the original name of the school. The name of the school was changed in 1926 along with the name of Bird’s Mill Road to East Brainerd.
Ziegler Road, was the first access into the neighborhood, and runs back to where the Zeigler home once stood as far back as the Civil War. In 1967, the old Zeigler homestead was the site of a horse farm known as Casaloma Acres. John Henry Road was built by two brothers who lived in the neighborhood, and the same for Clyde Road. Bush Road was cut out 80 years ago by the Owens who lived at the end of John Henry and by the afore-mentioned Zeiglers.
The original Joiner Road north of East Brainerd Road was named for the Joiner family who lived at its end where the Conger family later lived. It enters East Brainerd Road directly opposite the current North Joiner.
The Ryan farm across from us hosted a small herd of cows, as did the house and pasture next to it, the Coffee farm. Sometimes we had milk delivered from the Morris dairy I mentioned before, sometimes it was store bought. Other times, when Dad forgot to buy milk, for breakfast we had milk fresh from the cow, not even pasteurized. Down the road, in the pasture lot along Zeigler Road between Gunbarrel and North Joiner, was a much larger herd of cattle. Casaloma Acres had horses.
Suffice it to say I got used to the smell of cow dung growing up, so much that in the Philippines I missed it as much as I did the sight of hills and mountains and the sound of trains.
Besides the gardens, crops, and various farm animals (there were some chickens too), the neighborhood hosted no less than five beauty shops. Two of them were right beside each other on Clyde Road, which only had three houses on either side. Two more were a couple of houses apart on North Joiner and the last was on Zeigler.
It sounds idyllic, and sometimes it was. Mostly it was boring. Of course, you could say that led us into getting more creative to entertain ourselves in the days before cable TV and the World Wide Web which could be a good thing. But it also led to the stupid, like car-surfing.
For nearly two decades, nothing much changed. Sure, Red Food Store (now BiLo Grocery) was built in the late 1970’s and Hardee’s in its original location across from Pizza Hut, also built then. The Concorde Apartments, too, near the East Brainerd-Gunbarrel intersection. The new subdivisions catering to more affluent residents began to grow up on the eastern outskirts of East Brainerd proper.
I left the area for the U.S. Navy in January 1986 and stayed in the Philippines with the U.S. Refugee Program two years beyond my 4-year tour of naval duty.
When I returned to Chattanooga at the end of 1991, there’d been many changes in the area since I first left. The most momentous of these was the building of Hamilton Place Mall in 1987, the largest in Tennessee until 1998. But even in early 1992, Gunbarrel Road was still a barely two-lane, partially dirt road with little on it, though that didn’t last much longer.
Through the mid-1980’s, the road through Rabbit Valley called Ooltewah-Ringgold Road was mostly lined with farms. A couple of the dairies along the road were still operating when I had graduated from U. T. Chattanooga. By the end of 1991, the valley was almost wall-to-wall subdivisions. Gunbarrel Road was for a brief time still the same one-and-a-half lane tar-and-gravel road it had always been. But not long after I returned, the commercial expansion spurred by the new mall exploded across the landscape, rendering East Brainerd as we know it today.