A few days ago I saw a short film-clip from "way back" in my life, awakening a lot of nostalgic memories. Before making any comments, I should probably define what I mean by "way back" which is the time between the 1930's and 1960. The film I saw shows a segment of Market Street – in color – with several store-fronts I immediately recognized.
How neatly they had all been designed, and how appropriate they were for the products sold inside the stores. Market Street was always “the” main commercial street in town, although there was/is a street by that name (Main). Market Street, as verified in that film-clip, was a very lively place in those days, with parallel parking and no trees to block views of the store-fronts.
It was only after 1960 that trees and other plantings were thought necessary to beautify the city – an idea I endorsed.
After all, “old” Chattanooga was beginning to relinquish some of its status as commercial center to the newly developing Eastgate Center and Brainerd Village on the eastern side of town and Northgate in the Red Bank area. Local city-planners and architects worked together to beautify the downtown, and the feeling was that Market Street should not be a straight line anymore, and it would be far more interesting to have it split into short, slightly diagonal stretches, or offsets, between each traffic light. Earlier, Market Street had to be absolutely straight so as to accommodate streetcar traffic; the streetcar tracks did not work well with anything but straight lines.
But returning to that film-clip I saw, I wondered again about the artistic store-fronts, and who might have designed them. Could some of them have been the magical handiwork of Mr. Earl Bagby who owned a Display studio on Cherry Street near 9th Street (now MLK)? Bagby had a shingle hanging out over the sidewalk on the west side of Cherry, but his work layout was up a really dark and wide stairway. At the top, however, you were likely to find yourself in the middle of a huge Christmas display in preparation for delivery in a few months to one of Chattanooga’s large department stores: probably Loveman’s, as I think that Miller Brothers built all their seasonal displays in-house, and were mainly inside their large show-windows. Mr. Bagby was always friendly, talking with art students (as I was) very freely while working alongside his several helpers. I never thought to ask him if he also designed store-fronts, but suspect he did.
So, let it be known that our little city was very attractive to look at as you walked along Market Street. The main shopping area was between Market and Broad Streets, from Sixth Street to Ninth (MLK), with literally hundreds of small shops that sold men’s and lady’s clothing, shoes, shirts, jewelry, and many other features. There were dime stores on both sides of the street, and all those had lunch counters which were always fun to patronize. But no “restaurants” existed which sold food in the evening, except those that might be embedded in hotels which only catered to their guests. True, there was a very popular and much patronized cafeteria (the S&W) which served evening meals, but you had to take a tray and wait in line. Now we have a very different city altogether, as witnessed by the north end of town, which appears really lively the times I have been there, and many restaurant choices for dinner.
Old Chattanooga also had a goodly number of movie theaters – only one of which remains: the Tivoli, formerly a first-run theater. The State Theater on Market Street was a second-run theater, getting the Tivoli’s features as newer films arrived at the Tivoli. Another theater catered to the kids, where they could see cowboy movies with Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Gene Autry, and many others. My mom paid 30 cents for daytime admission to the Tivoli, and I paid only 9 cents: a 10 cent kids’ admission would have required a penny’s sales tax, so the theater owners only charged 9! Rates were higher at night.
Yes, in the old times most downtown workers fled home at 5:00 p.m. – back to their comfortable suburban areas, where even fewer possibilities for “eating out” existed. These suburbs had names like “St.Elmo”, “North Chattanooga” (known even earlier as “Hill City”), “East Lake”, “Highland Park”, and “Brainerd” (named for David Brainerd, a Christian missionary, long deceased, whose name was given to the new Cherokee Mission, founded on the exact site of modern Eastgate Center). “East Lake” has been much in the news lately because of the total refurbishment of its very old and widely remembered park. People came from miles around to enjoy fishing in the large lake and just sitting under the shady trees. It served as a great place for large social events with its alligator island, skating pavilion, and the lake itself. Joggers still safely use it and the renovated park will doubtless have a new life which will last for years if well cared-for.
Although Cameron Hill was not considered a suburb in its own right, it was effectively just that. Some really wealthy people lived there with magnificent views of the river and downtown. As lamented by many people of my generation it was partially cut down in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s “to get fill-dirt for the new freeway system” then under construction. All those residents were forced to move, just as we were in Brainerd, whose homes were in the path of the new freeway, I-24.
I have connections with both St. Elmo and East Lake: my mother grew up in St. Elmo, attending the North St. Elmo Grammar School. It stood just north of the railroad trestle on St. Elmo Avenue. She later used the St. Elmo streetcar line to connect with other lines which would bring her to the brand new Central High School. That school, “old” Central High, faced Dodds Avenue on what is now the campus of McCallie School. Streetcar fare was 5 cents; transfers were free.
My mother had a much beloved aunt and uncle who lived in East Lake: Uncle Solly (Solomon), and Aunt Betty (Smith) Henry. Their house is still standing 100 years later, and is in good condition. Uncle Solly was a building contractor; his house and several other examples of his work are still in use. I am not sure if my dad ever delivered mail to the Henry’s, but his first permanent mail route in Chattanooga was in East Lake (see picture) and he knew tons of prominent people who lived there.
Dad had remained a farm-boy until 1912, and came to Chattanooga to work at Christmas that year. (The year the Titanic sank!) On the farm he could work on neighboring farms for 10 cents an hour, but the Post Office paid an amazing 30 cents per hour! He applied for permanent work and was called, to start in August of 1913 – giving up farming forever. He had been born near the Center Post community on Broomtown Road (G.a Hwy. 337) south of LaFayette in 1884; I plan to write about that area again very soon.
So, if you are still reading this, you see the power of a picture – a motion picture (and in color), I admit, but if you have ANY interest in Chattanooga at all of Old, you need to check out one or more of John Wilson’s several books on the subject. They make great gifts for anyone, on any occasion, and are loaded with high quality pictures from the many collections he has acquired. They would be especially meaningful to any local grandparents!
I speak from experience!
* * *
Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter, sculptor and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.