Roy Exum: New Book Heralds ‘Chatanuga’

Sunday, November 24, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

My late grandfather was a man of many projects, juggling them in the air with glee as he more adeptly handled the matters of the day, and I was sitting in his office for a few minutes back in the late 1970s, as I did every morning, when he announced, “I have asked John Wilson to write a book about Chattanooga … we need to have the story told well!” 

That is one version of how “Chattanooga’s Story” came into being, but a better reason may have been that John, a dazzling young guy from North Carolina who could sniff out a story better than most alive when he began at the News-Free Press in 1971, had already written a book called “Lookout” several years before about what the Indians in the early 1800s once called "Chatunuga Mountain.”

Back in the day Mr. Ed Cargile was our master printer, and he was evermore a gem, but our specialty press had a struggle with John’s first book, so when “Mr. Roy” spent some big bucks to buy a slick new Miehle printing press from Germany that was ideal, he needed something to feed the expensive machine and John was eager to record the history of our city.

Whatever, “Chattanooga’s Story” was soon born, and it was a mammoth undertaking that no one except John Wilson, with his determination and attention to detail, could have accomplished. John had come from his home in North Carolina to attend Covenant College and had developed an immense love for our entire region, walking every mountain trail that he could and studying what made us, far more intensely than he ever regarded a college assignment. Soon, his love for history and his curiosity unmatched, he came up with 474 pages that, to this day, are regarded as the historical standard of Chattanooga’s beginning.

Of course, the trouble with history books is that once they are printed, the pages may stop, but history and the events that comprise the exacting science keep moving right along, often at a pretty good gallop. So it was with a knowing grin and a happy heart that I learned my friend John Wilson hasn’t been sitting on his hands exactly, and an updated “Chattanooga’s Story” has just rolled off the machines at College Press in Collegedale.

The new book, 512 pages in a coffee-table size, takes the best elements from the 1980 edition and blends them with what has happened in the last 30-plus years, and suffice it to say, it was well-past midnight last Saturday before I finally stopped reading what has further shaped and formed our area and our people.

The beauty of “Chattanooga’s Story” is that it starts with a small Indian village the Native Americans called “Chatunuga” and tells how when the first white settlers came, the Indians were desperately trying to appease the government to allow them to stay, rather than march the despicable “Trail of Tears.” It tells how Ross’s Warehouse became Ross’s Landing and how the white man’s tongue changed the village’s name to “Chattanooga.”

I have copied pages from the 1980 version countless times in an effort to teach outsiders about the city’s role in the Civil War, which we now celebrate after 150 years, because unless we preserve the heritage as it really happened, our failed attempts to study history will force us to relive it. After some of the things we’ve endured, we have enough on our plate. But to understand the many families and the businesses and the schools and the commerce is to understand what makes Chattanooga such a haven for tourists, outdoor venues and a healthy economy today.

“Chattanooga’s Story” is a fun one, but to those of us who have spent our lives here, the book is far more a historical trove than a time line. Every time I am drawn to it I connect to the many families I have known and marvel how we have evolved from “here”” to “there” and wonder why most of us haven’t noticed the many changes that are actually quite natural.

The other telling trait of John’s update is that instead of going through courthouse records and interviewing all the people he talked to for the first book, he has “lived” every day of the last 34 years as an up-close eye witness. As the publisher of, he has an Internet and a wealth of research ability that he did not when the first “Chattanooga’s Story” was written.

So as Jenny Gienapp did the design and the layout with fast computers and servers, there were no “galley proofs” or “photo engraving” because the world has changed in almost every way. My goodness, the new book was stored in “a cloud” and access to pictures and information has never Googled until only in recent years.

With the advent of such marvelous technology – and Snopes (!) -- it has never been as important to “tell the story well” and to preserve the who-what-why-how-and-where that actually created such a Camelot as ours. The updated soft cover book is a must for every pair of eyes that yearns to know who we are and it is with profound gratitude that I express my deep appreciation to John Wilson for such a testament to our heritage. The updated “Chattanooga’s Story” would thrill my grandfather every bit as much as it has me.

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You can find out to how obtain your copy and others by clicking here.

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DISCLAIMER: John Wilson owns and I am an Opinion writer for the same. He has never told me what to write and I have never asked. We have been dearest friends since the early 1970s and will remain as such whether he keeps the lone mention of my name on Page 445 of the updated version or not, but I am flattered and humbled to be among the thousands who are mentioned in the newest version of “Chattanooga’s Story.”

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