Johnson City kicks off year-long celebration for 150th anniversary

Zach Vance • Jan 6, 2019 at 12:14 AM

Let the year of festivities begin.

Johnson City opened its 150-year anniversary party Saturday with a kickoff celebration at the old J.C. Penney building, where young and old pored over historical photos, learned about the Sesquicentennial Commission’s legacy project and browsed through the contents of a time capsule buried in 1969, the year Johnson City last celebrated an anniversary.

Hanging above the time capsule display was an old Johnson City flag that former Mayor Charles Gordon retired in a December 1969 ceremony at Fountain Square.

But, that flag wasn’t all the former mayor left for present-day city leaders; Mayor Jenny Brock read aloud a letter Gordon addressed to the present-day mayor — although the salutation was incorrectly addressed “Dear Sir:”

“It is our sincere prayer that as you read this letter that peace and happiness prevails throughout the world and that all peoples on earth are living in harmony with one another and that our Christian faith prevails,” Gordon’s letter to Brock stated.

Some of the items found within the capsule included a December 1969 issue of Playboy; a telephone directory from 1969; a 12-ounce can of Schlitz beer; a sample of municipal water; a tube of lipstick and a collection of pills prepared by Bailey Williams Pharmacy.

Commissioner Larry Calhoun found some humor in a 1969 East Tennessee State University Buccaneer annual that featured himself and the mayor as college students. He also came across his old phone number in the telephone directory.

“There are not a lot of us on the commission that were around and very active in 1969, but it was interesting to see the 1969 ETSU Buccaneer (annual) where Mayor Brock and I were pictured. We look a little different than we did in 1969, but all of these items really brought back a lot of memories of when I was 20 years old,” Calhoun said.

While studying an old photograph of a downtown Johnson City theater, lifelong city resident Ken Moore said it amazes him how much Johnson City has evolved through the years, even since the last anniversary celebration, which he remembers.

“It’s super neat, especially for these young folks to look through all these articles and stuff we remember,” Moore, 67, said. “The city has changed tremendously since then, and it’s all for the better. Absolutely.”

A recent graduate of Science Hill, Jesse Chapman found interest in searching through an old Johnson City Press-Chronicle scrapbook of the centennial celebration that had been stored in the time capsule.

Brock said the July 21, 1969, edition of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle edition with the headline “Men Walk on Moon” really brought back memories for her as she recalled driving home from Asheville when the moon landing was announced over the radio.

Among the hundreds of guests in attendance were eight decendants of Johnson City’s founder and first mayor, Henry Johnson.

After researching her family’s lineage, Brooke Landers-Ledford, a fourth-generation decendant, said she tracked down an old family dinner bell and clock that was originally used by Johnson. She said the city plans to display those items during the coming year. Landers-Ledford’s grandmother, Mona Landers, is Johnson’s great, great granddaughter and oldest living relative.

Considering the history of the Penney building, Commissioner Todd Fowler said it was a fitting location to launch the sesquicentennial festivities, and he was pleased with the turnout.

“The turnout today was wonderful. We’ve got people from all different walks of life that came in today to see this. So I think it’s a great kickoff for this year, and I think better things are to come,” Fowler said.

Brock said this celebration is just as much about planning for the future as it is commemorating the past.

“We’re a generation that’s been chosen to celebrate the significant milestones in our history. The thing we’re all thinking about is the legacy we leave so that 50 years from now, 100 years from now, they look back at 2019 and see from the history circle ... an accounting of who we are, how we got to where we are, and then leave space for the future to be recorded there,” Brock said.

With construction expected to start in the coming months, the Sesquicentennial Commission is currently raising funds to build a natural playground and history circle at King Commons Park. The history circle will be a plaza detailing significant events in Johnson City’s history.

Before 2019 concludes, Calhoun said the city will bury another time capsule, to be opened on the city’s 200th anniversary in 2069. On Saturday, guests took turns recording their own video messages to be stored inside that capsule. The city is also taking suggestions on what should go inside the capsule.

The sesquicentennial celebration will continue throughout the year, with each month given a specific theme.

January’s theme is railroads, and the city will host a “A Day with Tweetsie Trains” on Jan. 12 and 19 at the George L. Carter Railroad Museum at ETSU. A train-themed film presentation will also take place at 1 p.m. at Memorial Park Community Center. 







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