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In 1874, area residents celebrated July Fourth at Austin Springs Hotel

Bob Cox • Jul 15, 2013 at 9:34 AM

For several years prior to 1874, the “Glorious Fourth of July” in East Tennessee slowly depreciated into a lackluster holiday, doubtlessly smothered by the aftermath of a bloody four-year Civil War. That was about to change.In summer 1874, citizens living around the upper Holston and Watauga river regions decided to put politics aside for one day and gather on the beautiful aerial bluff at Austin (spelled Austin’s) Springs for a summer excursion of recreation patterned after olden times. That year, a goodly number of area residents boarded early morning trains and disembarked on the rocky heights of Carter’s Depot, known today as Elizabethton. They were greeted by Mr. R. Kidwell who extended his hospitality to visit and enjoy his new and elegant nearby hotel. Mr. Frank Austin was also there to accommodate the crowd by furthering their journey to the hotel in two hacks and three boats. The Watauga River was unusually low that day, making the five-mile journey between Carter and Austin Springs a bit risky. They decided to lighten the boats by transferring some travelers onto wagons.A nearby music group, known as the Cornet Band, who were heading to the hotel to entertain guests, remained on one of the boats and had a pleasurable voyage along the river’s rocky shores, passing under sycamore boughs of the Watauga River. A huge black perch was observed jumping into one of the boats, which was received with hospitably by the one who caught it. Unfortunately, one rider, Ben Massengill, met with misfortune. While he was standing with his left hand hanging over the edge of the boat, another river vessel bumped into it, jarring him and causing a valuable gold ring to slip from his finger and into the water. When all of the river vessels at last grated on the shale foundations of Austin’s bluff, the riders took a refreshing pause at the cool spring and then rested under the shade of evergreens, which encircled the hotel. A visit to Austin Springs placed the caller in the tranquil and majestic woods that was situated in the midst of the often tortuous Watauga as it winded through the magnificent alluvial soil farms of nearby neighbors, the Valentine, Jacob and William T. DeVault families. Upon entering the premises, an estimated crowd of 200 people was congregating for the celebration. The atmosphere was alive with music, 10-pin lawn bowling, swinging and games of croquet. Lively conversation permeated the air beneath the spruce, laurel, and oak until the Austin family began seating guests at their bountiful tables for dinner, serving them a tasty meal that was worthy of the resurrected holiday. Before the celebration was concluded, young people assembled in the hall for a dance to the music of the violin. Mr. Isaac Jobe of Bristol, having a fine hack and good span of horses, invited a few guests to go with him on a delightful trip to the little town of Johnson City, located 80 minutes away. While there, the group took a hasty view of its wide streets and nice buildings, visited Mr. Peltier’s new newspaper office (subject of a future column) and dropped by the vine clad dwelling of a damsel that Mr. Isaac sought after but had not yet won. Finally, the party paid a visit to the office of Reverend Clisby Austin where they found him surrounded by an array of bottles, into which he was pouring his great discovery in the way of bitters. Without the slightest interruption of his work, the preacher voiced his disapproval to the dance that was going on back at the hotel. He continued labeling and filling the empty bottles, with his bitters, which were deemed to be the best in the world (subject of a previous column). When the thunder of Captain Coffee’s big steam engine was heard at the door audibly signaling that time was up, they boarded the train, leaving behind Austin with his bottles and Isaac with his lady friend. The July 4th celebration of 1874 became a fixture of yesteryear. Email Bob Cox at boblcox@bcyesteryear.com or visit www.bcyesteryear.com.

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