Chester Martin Remembers A Visit To Downtown Chattanooga In The 1940s

Friday, October 16, 2015

My dad was gone from home for a full 12 hours each weekday, and then had to work a full half-day on Saturdays. In the 1940's that was not considered excessive, as everyone was conditioned to think of the "war effort", but it was boring for housewives like my mother, and their children, like me.


My mom had grown up in Chattanooga's first suburb, St.

Elmo, which already had an excellent public transportation system of streetcars, known as the "carline". Comparatively few people had cars until after WWII, (even then few had two cars) and so "catching the streetcar" (or bus) was as natural as breathing. Everyone knew their bus's schedule, and the whole transfer system: it was all in their heads. (Of course in St. Elmo it had always been electric streetcars, and no buses.)


So, when my mom wanted to take a little respite from her almost constant scheme of cleaning house and working in the yard, she would suddenly take a notion to go downtown. It seems like Friday was the hottest day for such a trip, and she always had several reasons to be going.


We would catch the inbound bus at the corner of our street, South Terrace Avenue at Belvoir Avenue, (which has NOTHING to do with the present South Terrace road, which accesses Interstate Highway 24.) We paid our fares of SEVEN cents each, and the bus proceeded on Belvoir Avenue, northward to Brainerd Road. Although vastly changed over the years, through many excavations, additions, and/or deletions of buildings, Brainerd Road is unchanged. NO traffic lights in those days, however, and only one tunnel...the south tunnel being the original.


Mom and I would most always get off the bus at the corner of Houston and McCallie, to walk north, one block, to Oak Street to visit mom's very elderly "Aunt Linnie." Some said her real name was Lena, but she refused to be called anything but "Linnie".(Her real name was Melinda Rawlings Smith, and she had never married). I would listen to them talk about all manner of wonderful things which had happened long before I was born. Aunt Linnie lived in a one-room apartment on the second floor of a rather ugly, dark-brown, wooden, Victorian house, with 10-foot ceilings, like hundreds of others then in the area. (A Centenary UMC parking lot is there now). I found amusement in the Oak Street streetcars which went "singing" by under her windows, racing to make their next stop on time, farther east.


Beginning in the fall of the year, black street vendors started appearing on the street, driving their one-horse wagons, and recognized by their unmistakable cry of "COOOOOAL". (The clip-clop of the horse's hooves also kinda gave away what was happening) .It is said that the poor people like Aunt Linnie could pay $100 for a $7.50 ton of coal, by buying it in such small quantities - 15-25 lbs. per purchase. Same principle in buying ice, which was delivered the same way - by horse and wagon. To signify the quantity of ice needed, the home-owner would hang a simple cardboard or tin plaque by his door with the desired poundage at the top. Other quantities were printed on the other three sides so the plaque could be adjusted for various amounts.


When we left Aunt Linnie's, mom and I would proceed west on Oak Street toward town. As a child, I was fascinated with the ancient sidewalk paving stones. These were octagonal, and designed to rise from "level" to conform with the growth of the oak trees over many years which lined the street. By my time the sidewalk had gradually lifted to the point of non-navigation near the tree roots, but the main path itself remained pretty level, and I made a game out of taking a long step from one stone to another, skipping one. As we walked along, I would have to step up on some of the many mounting blocks we passed - left-overs from the 1890's when "Dobbin" (the horse) was still king. All the elegant families of the Victorian era had horses, and/or carriages, and these stones were amenities from that age. I never knew when the last one disappeared, but they gradually all did. Oak Street was once one of Chattanooga's most "ritzy" streets.


Most frequently, mom and I entered "downtown" via 7th Street, having crossed Georgia Avenue and proceeded past the Hamilton County Courthouse, the old Park Hotel, Elk's Club, etc., to Market Street. AHHHHhhhh, Market Street!  Mom and I were both "at home" here! It was like TEN trips to the Mall (in today's world), and there was something for everyone. Mom most frequently headed for Miller Brothers Department Store, which was at the corner of 7th and Market Streets. I followed. (Every city across America, of any size, had at least one "landmark" department store. These stores, more than anything else, defined a city. Country people from miles away, saved their money for an occasional trip to "town" and their favorite department store. Miller Brothers had four floors, plus a mezzanine, and it generally turned out that mom had planned the day so as to arrive there about lunch-time. Miller's had a "tea room", as I recall, which was on the third floor, and was a bit more exclusive than the GREAT cafeteria on the fourth floor. We hurried to beat the long lines which always formed, and took our filled trays most often to a window table overlooking Market Street. From that vantage point we could look down on the State Theatre, whose marquee always told which movie was last to play at the Tivoli. The Tivoli was a first-run theater, and its movies always went from there to the State, and later, to lesser theaters around town, as there were no suburban theaters, except one. The Park Theater was a suburban theater, but the only one. It was on McCallie Avenue, in Highland Park, at Highland Park Avenue, and has only recently been torn down (2007-2008).


But, on leaving the cafeteria someone had cleverly come up with the notion to locate the store's large toy department on the same floor. This was the area where Santa made himself available to the kids at Christmas, and I even remember this going on BEFORE anyone had thought up the commercial (and profitable) idea of "getting your picture made with Santa". Miller Brothers had a mezzanine, on the 7th Street side of which was a long, strung-out music department, and where I had my first early encounters with Nell Krichbaum (Connally). She had a teasing way which rather intimidated me at the time, so that I preferred to avoid that department. It was only years after living near her on Sunbury Avenue in Brainerd that I figured out who she was.


After lunch we would leave the fourth floor and venture downward through the rest of the store - linens, bedspreads, etc., which bored me a lot, but it was a woman's pleasure to be shopping thusly.


Outside of Miller Brothers Department Store we could turn almost any direction and find instant gratification. There were about three dime-stores in the next block south of Miller's, and they all were sufficiently different that they were all attractive. The wonderful smells of candies and roasted nuts mingled with all sorts of merchandise (the sizings of the cloth products, for example) and perhaps a lunch counter filled the air, and on many occasions mom and I would eat at a dime-store instead of Miller's, to enjoy their delicious toasted sandwiches. Another great place for a delicious .35 cent "special plate" lunch was the highly popular S&W cafeteria. Lines were frequently very long, and their floor-space so comparatively small that they later added a balcony above the main floor.


On the sidewalk again, we might catch a glimpse of my dad and his mail truck, collecting his mail boxes on either side of the street. Such a sighting called for me to make a mad dash and catch him while mom caught up with us. Dad was tall and slim, never weighing over 150 pounds in his working years. He was a kind of icon on the streets of Chattanooga, and everybody knew him. When I would catch up with him he most likely would be holding a great handful of mail, just taken from an open box, which still had his key in the lock. His chain of keys was awesome, and I always wondered how he kept straight which key went to which lock. (About 2006, I had business in the old James Building downtown, and when I left I went over to inspect the mailbox at the base of the "mail chute", and there was the very same heavy brass lock my dad used to open decades before, and, of course, the same ponderous brass mailbox).We would visit briefly with my dad and frequently (not always) make arrangements to meet up after he got off work, in order to go home.


After lunch, we usually went south, on the west side of Market street, which was lined with old-fashioned bakeries (Colonial), "dime stores", like Woolworth's, specialty shops like Planter's Peanuts, where they roasted their peanuts in huge, round, cast iron ovens in the back of the store, emitting their delicious odors all up and down Market Street. (It was fun, also, to meet up with Mr Peanut somewhere along the sidewalk near that store; it was kind of "good luck" when this happened.) There were jewelry stores, like Edwards and LeBron, and Fischer's.(The Fischer Clock was a downtown landmark which enjoyed several restorations, and stood at the southwest corner of 8th and Market, near the store entrance. Each dime store had its own distinctive aroma...both of the exterior and the interior. Sometimes the candy department hit you first, or sometimes the grill, where fancy sandwiches were being prepared. Then, downstairs, there was frequently a pet department containing birds, fish of all descriptions, and for ME, there were TURTLES, sadly, now forbidden from sale in Tennessee. (Just take a trip to Florida, though, and bring back all you want!)


Crossing the street could be turned into a small, fun event in those pre-teen years: mom might go scurrying across the street while the light was on yellow, but I would time my crossing so as to land on the streetcar island in the middle of Market Street. There were several of these, and they served streetcar passengers only. Buses had designated stops at every corner, but the streetcars stopped only at the raised islands.


At 8th Street we would frequently .cross Market so as to access the other major department store, Loveman's. This store was not nearly so "kid-friendly" as Miller's, but they had a truly fine record department, run by Mr. Rolly Curtis and his sister for years. I remember buying some of my first Burl Ives records there while I was still in high school. I bought Ives' Songs of Ireland, and his "Coronation Concert" there shortly after my 1953 trip to England and the Continent. There was a record I SHOULD have bought, called "Elizabeth is Queen". No idea why I didn't get that one.


When all done with the downtown - maybe after having seen a movie at the Tivoli or the State, we would walk out 11th Street to meet Dad at the Post Office garage when he got off from work, and go home with him in the car. I guess he knew he could expect to see us after work, especially on Fridays when he would take the car (our '41 Plymouth), and even if such a meeting had not been pre-arranged.


(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 )


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