Chester Martin Remembers The Old Downtown Occasioned By A Happy Accident

Monday, September 11, 2017

I recently was trying to delete a lot of my old pictures from Picasa - ones that had lost all their original meaning. Tinkering around with the mouse and  keyboard - using the less-familiar right-click feature, suddenly there was an entire screenful of videos that go back for years! Totally "computer illiterate", I was astounded to get this unexpected bevy of wonderful relics, mainly of my family's past. The squeaky clean and angelic faces of my grandsons from 15 years ago (and more) are now almost unreogniable from their present, more mature faces.

The newfound videos played on continuously, bending my mind out of shape before I finally stopped them, but in those few minutes I virtually witnessed my entire family grow up.

There were five-year-old Forrest, and three-year-old Ian watching Christmas cartoons in our den - where I am typing this story atm. Now 25 and 23 they bear little resemblance to those cute little kids in the videos.

Later in the day I was musing how nice it would be to have some similar videos - from the 1930's, '40's, '50's. etc. Just some "movie" view of the old city with a lot of funny looking cars - all the old downtown businesses, etc. Chattanooga had about a million jewelry stores on both side of Market Street and all the side streets...Kay Jewelry, Edwards and LeBron, Fischer's Jewelers on the southwest corner of 8th and Market. It (Fischer's) had an ancient clock that stood on the corner, high above the sidewalk for all to see - pictured in high flood waters with men paddling by in boats! That picture has been published and re-published, but I first saw it in Mr. Paul Heiner's great book series (4 volumes) called, "Chattanooga Yesterday and Today". Across 8th Street from Fischer's was Frank Varallo's Rone-Regency Jewelers. Frank tragically lost his son - an Eagle Scout, but he valiantly kept the business going, and it is in the Hamilton Place area now. Is anyone out there who remembers "Varallo's Chili"? (It compared with the very best!)

While waiting for the bus, several times I have observed young couples pull into a parallel parking space on Market Street,  get out of the car to admire a jewelry store window, then after a few minutes get in their car and drive on to another jeweler's. One would surmise that they were perhaps shopping for engagement rings - but who knows! (That was back when Market Street was a straight shot from the bridge all the way through town, and there was parallel parking on both sides of the street).

There were florists in the immediate downtown area as well. The one I remember best was from when I worked for radio station WDOD in 1954 and '55 - Edith Goetz Florist. She advertised on that station, and I believe her shop was on 8th Street next to Rone-Regency.

New Yorkers might laugh, but to my way of thinking the three blocks of Market Street between 6th and 9th (now known as Martin Luther King Blvd.) was "our" Park Avenue. All the fanciest shops were along here, but also included the wonderful old-fashioned "dime" stores: Woolworth's, Kress's McClellan's, etc. Each of those had a distinct personality all its own and a different smell from all the others. Sometimes the aroma of candy counters hit you first, and sometimes it would be the lunch counter. There was never any of that ubiquitous "Potpourri" odor so common in stores today. As you moved about the store your nose might detect the smell of sized fabrics, or the peculiarly pleasant odor of freshly hatched - dyed, and mildly perfumed baby chicks. Sometimes the hardwood floors creaked as you walked over them - a totally different feel from that of concrete! Oh yes: "Our" Park Avenue also included Burchay's Fine Furriers, a truly elegant place for our local ladies to shop. Fortunately for us a quick-thinking local artist stopped the wrecking ball from smashing that shop's Art Deco exterior! THANK YOU CESSNA!

Two grocery stores also existed in the downtown area - one of them only recently closed: Buehler's, and one that has been closed for many years: Dewee's. Dewee's was immediately adjacent to Lovemans Department Store, on the south side,  and when it closed was taken over as a new addition to Lovemans.

Upper Market Street - from 6th to the bridge - had a goodly number of shops that appealed to country people. Here, in the old days, you might pass along the sidewalk hearing the enthusiastic voice of a "barker" who had a knack for pulling you into a store and selling you a new suit of clothes before you returned home to Soddy Daisy! Sears' large store occupied the entire block from Market to Broad at 6th Street. It was a fantastic place where you could buy a houseful of furniture, a tape-recorder, or a new wall-switch for your house. The basement hardware area was a feast for men's eyes! (By "hardware", I do NOT mean what you are thinking of today. Computers were decades in the future - at least for home or office use. The Internet did not as yet exist).

North of Sears on the west side of Market was a REAL hardware store owned by the Crisman family of Red Bank. If you were lucky as you walked near the store you might bump into Bill Farley, long-time head of their display department. He was ruddy complected with thinning red hair, and could always be counted on to give you a cheerful smile - plus a joke or two that would always make you laugh. On Saturday mornings a small crowd of working people would suddenly converge on Crisman Hardware's Broad Street entrance to hold a short meeting - a kind of designated meeting spot before our present age of restaurants with meeting rooms. Crisman's main floor was crammed with all kinds of hardware items - hand tools and power tools of every shape and description. A rather complete sporting-goods department was just inside the Market Street entrance and there were spaces for demos of the Shop Smith machines they handled. Another large department contained a large assortment of wood stoves and all their component parts. "Housewares" included a large assortment of kitchen implements, ceramic dishes, etc. Plenty of farmers still needed such products as horse collars, anvils, wagon parts, etc., Crisman had it all - and farmers came from far out-of state to search Crisman's stock long before there was ever an Amazon! The two Crisman brothers that I knew, who inherited the store from their father, were called Mr. Bryan, and Mr. John by all their employees.

There were at least two theaters north of 6th Street - one on the east and one on the west, but I forget their names - the one on the west side MAY have been the Rialto. A classier theater was between 6th and 7th on the east side of Market - the State. It got the Tivoli's films as soon as they had served their time at that first-run theater. The Tivoli, show-place of Chattanooga, was/is on the west side of Broad Street, next door to the former Fowler Brothers furniture, which also had a fine home decorating department. During WWII Fowlers obtained several large shipments of family heirlooms from England - sent by people who preferred to send their treasures to America rather than leave them for Hitler's invaders. A much newer theater than the Tivoli and State was called the Rogers Theater - on the west side of Market near 9th Street (now called Martin Luther King Boulevard). They had a wide entry-way, and that is where I saw Chickamauga Charlie doing some of his famous hilarious promotions.

Southwest of the present Tennessee Aquarium site were some streets parallel with Market and Broad, beginning with Chestnut, Pine, Cedar, etc. These traversed the foot of Cameron Hill and were heavily wooded with tall oak and other deciduous trees. A quiet and pleasant neighborhood, the centerpiece was the former mansion-like homeplace of the Whiteside family, converted into the Cosmopolitan Funeral Home. From any of these streets which paralleled Market you could reach 9th Street (now MLK) which led up to the crest of Cameron Hill where many wealthy people lived, and which was crowned by Boynton Park. There were excellent vistas of the river and parts of North Chattanooga from it. (Fine for picnics, too!)

The "old" 9th Street was narrow - just like 7th or 8th Streets are today.  Between about 1955 and 1960 the new Olgiati Bridge was built to accomodate traffic on US Highway 27. This new traffic from north of town was to exit at the new and developing Golden Gateway. 9th Street therefore needed to be widened to handle all the new traffic - and that act snuffed out one of the most interesting streets in old Chattanooga! The north side of 9th between Market and Broad had an important bus-stop. That short block had at least two pawn shops and the same number of taverns. These businesses worked together to create a not-displeasing atmosphere, and I remember seeing (from the outside) the taverns being filled with uniformed soldiers - probably enjoying a trace of civilian life for the last time before being shipped out from Fort Oglethorpe. On the south side of that street were businesses such as People's Studio which did a lively portrait business. The gentleman who owned it spoke with a thick foreign accent and was always pleasant and smiling. He made my first passport pictures. Someone said he was Armenian, but I do not know for sure. I regret that I never knew his name. Next door to  People's Studio was a really super second-hand book store called Read More Books which also bit the dust. That was a serious blow, because Chattanooga was virtually devoid of book stores at that time.

Okay, folks, I could go on and on. But just remember how this story got started - with an inept understanding of my home computer! I right-clicked on the wrong button and surprisingly got a flood of long-forgotten videos which started these musings on the past. Am pleased that things like this could happen to ME - for it certainly could not have possibly happened to my parents, or to any other generation before them! (Wouldn't it be nice to have videos of all your great grandparents???!!!)

I guess the upshot of this story is that we should be grateful to live in this modern age. Very nice to see our children and grandchildren again as they were 20 or 25 years ago! Nice that we have a good city, worth remembering - and that so many of the old views are preserved in collections like those of John Wilson - and other local  historians.


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

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