Johnson City 150 Years: The Darden/Strain family

Zach Vance • Updated May 11, 2019 at 5:30 PM

Brothers Bill and Steve Darden share a rich genealogy of family roots deeply engrained in Johnson City’s history.

Steve, a former mayor of Johnson City between 2005 and 2007, played an instrumental role in the creation of the Tweetsie Trail, while Bill retired as a senior pharmaceutical consultant at Proctor & Gamble Pharmaceuticals and currently serves as U.S. Phil Roe’s district director.

The Dardens’ great grandfather, William Augustus Darden, moved to Northeast Tennessee from Georgia in the mid-1800s and eventually married Virginia “Jennie” Elizabeth Strain on Dec. 5, 1866. Darden worked for the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railway, eventually earning the rank of superintendent. He died in 1896, and along with his wife, are buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Johnson City overlooking Founders Park. 

On Jennie’s side of the family, her father William John Strain came to Washington County from Pennsylvania in the 1700s. During the Revolutionary War, he served in the North Carolina militia and later was part of the constitutional convention to start the State of Franklin. 

Strain also served as the first justice of the peace in Washington County, and a court magistrate for the State of Franklin and later Tennessee, holding office for 32 years. 

“When I became interested in knowing our history as a region, it was just so meaningful to us to trace back to such an important historical time,” Steve said. 

William Augustus Darden and Jennie Strain had a son named Thomas Matson “Matt” Darden, who was Steve and Bill’s grandfather. Matt moved from Limestone to Johnson City with his wife, Lula, in the 1890s and worked for the U.S. Postal Service. 

Matt and Lulu Darden had seven children: Dorothy May; Helen; Vincent; Martha; Thomas and William Reed, who was Bill and Steve’s father. 

Steve said his father originally worked as a banker before enlisting  in the Army just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

“Probably like a lot of rural people, (enlisting) was a way to get away. Then World War II broke out and he was a gunnery sergeant and followed Gen. (George) Patton through the Bulge,” Steve said. 

Following his discharge, William Reed came home to Johnson City and opened the Rainbow Corner Restaurant along West Walnut Street in 1948. 

“At the Piccadilly Circus in London, there was a USO Club establishment called the Rainbow Corner,” Bill said about his father. “Our dad used that name when he came back and opened up the restaurant here at 337 West Walnut St., right across the street from the Ashe Street Courthouse.” 

Steve and his brother both worked at the restaurant during their youth. 

“It was the only real restaurant between ETSU and downtown. So there was quite a mix of people who ate there: College students, neighborhood dwellers, lawyers, judges, jurors and county officials,” Steve said. 

“There was a very colorful judge at the time, Chancellor Dayton Phillips, who was known to try cases (inside the restaurant) actually sitting there in the corner booth. Lawyers would come and sit, they’d tell him their clients’ arguments and he would rule. Local politics was talked there, and it was just a real open place and probably had a lot to do with our careers, and volunteer endeavors and so forth.”

According to Bill, there is no doubt in his mind that his brother became a lawyer because of all the attorneys he interacted with at the restaurant. 

The restaurant eventually shuttered in 1983 when William Reed retired. 

“One of the greatest joys that I have in life at this point is when someone will come up to tell me they used to eat at the Rainbow Corner,” Bill said. “It was kind of a hangout, ‘Happy Days’ kind of place. They had curbside service and a jukebox. I know when dad retired they had a cake and lot of people came through to shake hands.” 

“I’ve had people as recently as two or three years ago come up to me and say, ‘Your dad gave me the first job I ever had,’” Steve said. “It really makes you feel good that your dad touched a lot of people’s lives.” 

William Reed Darden died in December 2010, but his wife, Lucille Stephens, will celebrate her 93rd birthday later this month on May 24. 

To watch the full interview with Bill and Steve Darden, visit https://bit.ly/2vPNY2v.

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