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Finding vestiges of Johnson City's days gone by

Rev. Jeff Briere, Community Voices • Sep 4, 2019 at 2:52 PM

I enjoy reading Bob Cox’s series, “Yesteryear.” He brings us newspaper advertisements from years ago. The prices are incredible, of course — $2.25 for a dress! $4 for a pair of shoes! Amazing.

What’s very interesting to me is the language advertisers used then and how different it is from the language we read in print advertisements today, or hear on TV. I think the more formal language of 70 or 80 years past reflects a more formal way of life, a more studied approach to living. People spoke in complete English sentences, not tweets.

Aside from vintage newspapers, there is another way that we can learn about life in Johnson City many years ago. All you have to do is take a walk in one of the older neighborhoods in town and look for vestiges.

In the neighborhood where I live, the older part of Carnegie Village, vestiges can be seen from sidewalks or from your car or bicycle. But a good place to start is an alley. Older neighborhoods often have unnamed alleys that run between the streets. People used to put their garbage cans in the alley and the trash truck would come around and empty them. Still happens in some parts of the city. Walking down an alley, you might see a carriage house.

Look for a two-story structure with wide doors, few windows and in a position behind the house. A hundred years ago, in 1919, auto mobiles were just beginning to be seen in smaller cities like ours. Many people still depended on horsepower, and they built carriage houses to park their carriage and stable the horse. Today, carriage houses are often refurbished and modernized into rental units. But some still stand unused and are reminders of a bygone transportation system.

From the sidewalk, an easy-to-spot vestige is a coal chute. A hundred years ago, coal was a popular heating fuel, and it was delivered to houses by wheelbarrow. Drivers would fill a wheelbarrow with coal, roll it up to a house and dump it down the coal chute. Inside the basement, a coal crib was just below that coal chute. In the winter months, people had to concern themselves with stoking their furnaces with coal so the heat would continue through the night.

Later on, oil became popular and then, natural gas, and in time, electricity was used to heat homes. Many people turned their coal chutes into windows, but some are still around. Look for an opaque cover, probably made of metal, over an opening just below the first floor of a house. It will be hinged at the top and could be locked. It will be about two feet wide and maybe 18 inches tall.

As you walk through the older neighborhoods, look for houses that have two brick chimneys. One will be larger, positioned nearer the front of the house, probably taller and perhaps display some decorative brick work. The second will be smaller, less ornate and positioned nearer to the back of the house. You might ask yourself why a house would have two chimneys.

The larger one would have served as the flue for the fireplace in the front room. The second one probably served two purposes; it was the flue for the coal-burning furnace, and it might have done double duty by being the flue for a wood-burning stove in the kitchen.

In older neighborhoods, walking down the sidewalk, you will notice cement walkways from the edge of the property, passing through the tree belt, to the street. A hundred years ago, people entered and exited their carriages from the street in front of their houses. They entered and left their house by the front door. So they built walkways from the street to their property.

Today, many walkways are still there, although most people enter and leave by the back door, since they park their cars in garages.

But occasionally, you will see a walkway through the tree belt leading to an empty lot. A hundred years ago, there was a house there.

On your walk, notice the sidewalk. Some are wide, wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side. Others are somewhat narrow. If people didn’t ride, of course they walked, so sidewalks were important then.

And people walked a lot a hundred years ago.

The Rev. Jeff Briere of Johnson City is minister of Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.

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