Jose Castillo stands atop a rock while leading the walking history tour in Founders Park Sunday afternoon. (Dave Boyd/Johnson City Press)
For local business owner Jose Castillo, the best way to keep Johnson City’s buildings from becoming history is by sharing their own unique histories with as many people as he can.
With that objective in mind, on Sunday afternoon, Castillo led a walking history tour of downtown Johnson City from the pathway around Founders Park, located at the corner of West State of Franklin Road and Sevier Street.
As the group walked through the park, when they arrived at one of the buildings on the tour, Castillo stood in front of them with the structure in the background. Castillo, who, with his wife, Shannon, owns Spark Plaza in downtown Johnson City, said he hoped to instill a desire to preserve the city’s structures by sharing stories of how they came to be, who was responsible for them, and what they added to Johnson City.
“One of the things we want to do out of this is save our history, but that starts with knowing our history,” Castillo said. “We don’t know who we are and where we come from. Until we know that, I think it’s hard for people to understand why we should save things.”
Sunday’s tour marked the second time in less than two months that Castillo has led a walking history tour near downtown. On April 13, he served as the guide for a walking history tour around the Model Mill property at 500 W. Walnut St. Since that tour, he said, more people have been asking about the city’s history, and about what can be done to preserve it.
“One of the questions that has been brought out of this is that we don’t have a Johnson City history museum,” Castillo said. “We don’t have a Johnson City historical association, (and) we don’t have a list of our historic buildings. We have a lot of questions that need to be answered and I think one of the best ways we can do that is by sharing our stories.”
Though he served as the guide for each tour, Castillo did not take sole credit for the events themselves.
“It’s not my history tour,” he said. “This is the culmination of a lot of work of other folks, whether it’s the Tree Streets historic neighborhood association, or West Walnut business owners, or downtown business owners. There’s just a ton of people ... who have all been helpful in this process of gathering and sharing the stories of who we are and where we come from as a city.”
In beginning Sunday’s tour, Castillo picked up where he left off from his previous one by discussing the Model Mill. Specifically, Castillo discussed the specifics behind the grain elevators, which were built by the McDonald Engineering Co. out of Chicago.
“The grain elevators were unique in that day and age in that they were formed by slip forming,” Castillo said. “They created a wooden cast around the form, poured concrete, put metal in, and jacked it up slowly. (McDonald) patented that process, and Johnson City is thought to have some of the first grain elevators built by that process.”
Although East Tennessee State University might not be considered part of the downtown area, Castillo discussed its origins, as well. In 1909, Tennessee was searching for a site for a normal college. Local landowner and industrialist George Lafayette Carter wanted it to be built on a vacant parcel of farmland he owned — which is where it is today — but had difficulty persuading the state’s selection committee to do so. So, according to Castillo, the night before the committee was supposed to leave, Carter took drastic action.
“George L. Carter, overnight, went and hired a whole bunch of engineers from his crew, and they built a road to the top of the ridge right above ETSU,” Castillo said. “The next morning, before the state selection committee left, he grabbed them all, put them in cars, drove them up to top of the mountain and said, ‘Look at the view.’ They said, ‘This is where we’re building the college.’”
The next stop on the tour focused on the Love-Thomas building, which, Castillo said, is known for being the former home of The Sophisticated Otter micro-brewery. Originally, however, the Love-Thomas building, located at 400 Ashe St., was home to a dry goods business when it opened in 1910.
“The dry goods business went out because ... there were about three or four other dry goods buildings being opened,” Castillo said. “George L. Carter bought the building and moved in all of his businesses.”
From there, Castillo directed the tour to the nearby Summers Hardware and Supply Company building, which, when it was first built in 1911, sold types of products ranging from general use hardware to car parts and dry goods.
“He was located right next to the train depot,” Castillo said. “He could sell things, put them on the train, and ship them wherever they needed to go.”
Castillo then moved to the adjacent structure — the former train depot that will, in several weeks, house Tupelo Honey Cafe. More than 105 years ago, however, the depot served as one of the hubs for the Carolina, Clinchfield, and Ohio Railway that was created, again, by Carter.
“Those three railroads that were brought together by George L. Carter allowed him flexibility to build a very long and industrious railroad that he could send stuff all over the Southeast,” he said.
While the tour continued to touch on other landmarks such as the Piedmont Hotel and Oak Hill Cemetery, Castillo asked everyone in attendance to share what they learned, and what they knew already, with anyone who would listen.
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