Chester Martin Remembers St. Elmo

Sunday, October 23, 2016 - by Chester Martin
Fred Sanford Fry and Lena Keef Fry, Mr. and Mrs. St. Elmo
Fred Sanford Fry and Lena Keef Fry, Mr. and Mrs. St. Elmo

I am (highly) qualified to make the brash pronouncement that St. Elmo (Chattanooga's first suburb) is as much a state of mind as it is an actual place.

It is a place that gets into your mind and into your blood, and sometimes under your skin - indelibly. I have witnessed the same phenomenon in distant cities, but I do not think it is so strong an emotion there as it is here with our St. Elmo.

I claim to be "highly" qualified at making judgements about that place because my mother's family moved there a year or two before the year 1900 and remained there for many years.

The impressions that life in St. Elmo made on her between childhood and young womanhood were sufficient to last a lifetime. I heard some kind of reference to St. Elmo every day of my young life - as long as I lived in my parents' home.

When I was born many years after my mom's life there, I heard about St. Elmo daily from her, as she told about all the good people she knew from her church and school affiliations. It was like she never had really left the place! I would never have needed to go there or see a map of its layout to be able to describe it, as she had friends who lived on the steep sides of Lookout, many who lived in the trough-like cross-streets between St. Elmo and Florida, and Tennessee Avenues. She could rattle off the numbered streets much as a motorman on the St. Elmo car line might have done in the year 1905 or '10.

I heard about "Old Mrs. Cathcart" and what happened when she died; I heard about best-friend Kate Gothard and about how she married into a prominent dairy family near Ringgold; of course I also heard about the Frys - whom I knew. Although Tom White  - a "best friend" of my Uncle Chester - I never knew.

My mom was Mabel Willett Young - born at Flintstone, Ga., in 1895. She had an older brother, Chester Dean Young, for whom I am named. While at Flintstone, the Youngs became lifetime friends of Mr. and Mrs. Fred S. Fry. The Frys were first to move to St. Elmo in Chattanooga, and were soon to be followed by my Youngs. Fred Fry bought a house on Florida Avenue near the (present) St. Elmo Methodist Church. Several children grew up in that wonderful house - and it remained occupied by members of the Fry family for over a hundred years!

My dad knew the Frys through an entirely different (church) connection, and so, during the 1940's we would be invited to social events at their house. It would frequently work this way: the larger Fry family who did not live in the Florida Avenue house would be invited for an early Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, and when that meal had been served, the Martins would be welcomed for a later meal. Louise and Elmay Fry were superb chefs and loved to prepare large meals for guests, spending most of their time working in the kitchen. Their laughter resounded throughout the house as they worked. Mr. and Mrs. Fry would entertain guests in the living room as we waited to eat. Mrs. Fry and a friend  had recently taken a long train trip to visit a relative in either Arizona or New Mexico; Mrs. Fry had returned from that trip with a collection of rocks which included some good examples of "fool's gold". She kept this small collection in a glass bowl of clear glass, and she liked to show it off and tell about it. This bowl stayed on the mantel for years and remained a kind of center of attention. Mr. Fry had been a motorman on one or more of Chattanooga's streetcar routes and was always dressed to the nines. His pocket watch was of great interest to me as a child, and I always had to "hear it tick". It had a long silver chain, and he would squeeze it out of its tight watch-pocket and let me put it to my ear. In looking backward now I can use this small scenario to describe the vast difference between "then" and "now". What young boy of our present age could find any fascination or delight in listening to  the mundane ticking of a watch? How "Dickensian" that scene seems as I write this today! (Can you imagine a world without electronic"devices"?)

I loved that old Fry house! I remember how it was altered through the years - the front porch was enclosed back in the late 1940's to create a new room, and a new room was added in the back for a sister who worked in Portsmouth, Va., periodically returning home for a brief stay. Following many a Christmas dinner there, I remember leaving their front door and walking the narrow concrete walkway toward Florida Avenue - facing Lookout Mountain. It would already be prematurely dark due to the gigantic shadow cast by the mountain. This element impressed me as a bit sad after so great a time inside the brightly lit house, and I was grateful as we drove north toward Broad Street where the landscape brightened again.

If St. Elmo takes credit for being Chattanooga's first suburb, it must also take the dubious credit for being the last place in Chattanooga to receive mechanized telephone dialing. (Until I was 10 or 12 years old the Operator would ask you for your "Number, please" when you wanted to place a call from there).

Aside from the good food at Christmas, the Frys always decorated their living room with two simple cylindrical electric Santa lights that were displayed on the mantel. These were identical, and painted in the most rudimentary Christmas colors of red, black and white. About 12 inches tall, they were a regular feature of their minuscule Christmas displays for a long time - until one of them burned out. Although modern, their tall, elongated form added a touch of "Victorian" spirit to the scene, I thought, even reminding me of those elongated carvings of saints on European cathedrals.

Louise Fry was a real worker and turned their tiny back lot into a marvelous garden. She grew a little of a great many things, and her specialty was yellow tomatoes! These were absolutely the most succulently delicious tomatoes on earth! Add them to the summertime cuisine that she and Elmay prepared for so many good luncheon meals in summer - I can still remember the smell of tea being made the old-fashioned way, by boiling, and the physically cool odor of deviled eggs and potato salad was out of this world!  These things are the ingredients that went into the St. Elmo I remember. Both Louise and Elmay Fry worked for the Chattanooga Medicine Company until retirement. There were never two happier people on the planet!

After all the indoor festivities, we would frequently leave the Frys and my mom would request a stop to visit "Miss Laura" on our way home. She was an elderly white-haired lady for all the years I knew her. Others lived there with her, but I believe it was "her" house - and that house could easily classify as the ugliest house, if not in Chattanooga, then at least in St. Elmo! Dark and gloomy, it was built out of a type of brown-colored concrete block unlike any I have ever seen - and it was built like a fortress to last for an eternity! Very recently I have enjoyed touring St. Elmo on Google Earth. That ugly house has had a major uplift! Still a bit ungainly in its look, it has been vastly improved, although my old associations with it linger on.

And when I study the Fry house on Google Earth today, I find it physically to be exactly as I remember it. Only change is that it seems to have shrunk by at least 50 percent. But that is just how your memory can play tricks on you! Back in the day it was so full of joy and good cheer that it seemed much larger. In reality, there was one tiny living room which was always crammed full of company. There was an upright piano, and the 10-foot-high walls had a sprinkling of Louise's paintings, copied from post cards, and framed. A few old Victorian decorations (of short verses or sayings) were placed in odd locations, especially in the spacious dining room. These were later removed, and the ceilings lowered. There was actually a fully active well on the back porch, although I never knew it to be used.

My mom knew a ton of St. Elmo people as a child - some of whom became rather prominent, such as

Col. Creed Bates, the long-time Principal at Chattanooga HS. Buell Anthony became an engineer for Chattanooga's first radio station, WDOD, and through Celested Acheson, she knew Henry Acheson, owner of the famous foundry which is still in operation. Through friends Kate and Ginny Gothard, my mom knew their father, Adolphus Gothard, longtime gatekeeper at Forest Hills Cemetery. (I always liked that cemetery, and am delighted to see that there are now periodical guided "walks" that can be taken through it). There was once a quaint "Ming-Toy Hat Shop" on St. Elmo Avenue - where ladies could have a custom hat made, or buy one ready-made off the display racks. Mother identified with the former North St. Elmo Grammar School, which stood somewhere near the railroad trestle on Tennessee Avenue.

Mr. Fred Fry - great friend of my mother's family - was especially respected as having served as pallbearer for my mom's father, James Lyde Young, in 1903, for my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Sarah Willett Smith, in 1913, for my uncle,Chester Dean Young, in 1917, and for my grandmother, Mattie Young, in 1939! Mr. and Mrs. Fry were given a magnificent 50th anniversary party by their children at their home in 1945 - then, quite unexpectedly, Mr. Fry died two weeks later. So, it is for those reasons that I have to nominate Mr. Fred and Mrs. Lena Keef Fry for the honor of being named the all-time, "Mr. and Mrs. St. Elmo"!

Therefore, at least for me, St. Elmo is definitely a "state of mind" as I never spent but one night there! Most of the good people I knew of, who actually lived there, were friends of my mom's. As I write this story I can actually feel the "texture" of the place - of the many good daytime experiences we had there, and  am glad to have the strong identification with the place if principally only through my mother's remembrances.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )


Fry Memorial Bench at St. Elmo
Fry Memorial Bench at St. Elmo

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