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This week in Nashville's history is all about receiving visitors. We'll look back at the arrival of a "Solemn Old Judge," age 30, who lived up to the hype about his hiring. We'll witness one of the moments when Nashville first began to realize its potential as a tourist destination. And we'll see how sit-in protesters were greeted at a downtown Krystal one day in November 1960 — and how their response earned them a place in history.
November 12, 1925: George makes hay with hayseeds
This week 82 years ago, one person who rolled into town got a rousing welcome from the morning newspaper, which intuited that his coming could herald something big for Nashville. The Tennessean put George D. Hay on the front page as he arrived to take over the new radio station that National Life and Accident Insurance Co. had started the month before, WSM:
Mr. Hay, whose voice is known wherever radio "bugs" turn dials and adjust amplifiers, drove through the country from Chicago in his new "trick lizzie," as he terms his car, accompanied by his wife and two daughters, Cornelia, 6, and Margaret, 2. They left the Illinois metropolis Sunday and, much fatigued and bespattered with mud, arrived at Nashville.
...This new "Voice of Nashville" needs no introduction to Nashville and Tennessee radio fans. As announcer of WMC, the Memphis Commercial Appeal's station, he won such wide renown and popularity that last year he was awarded the Radio Digest cup as the most popular announcer in the country. For the past 18 months he has been directing the destinies of WLS, Sears-Roebuck's big Chicago station, with ever increasing popularity. From these two nationally known stations he comes to take charge of Dixie's newest and finest outfit and to help make the name of Nashville a synonym for excellence in the radio world.
...Among the new ideas which he introduced at WMC was the Mississippi river steamboat whistle, which he used as a "sign-off." He brings to WSM a new signal, this latest being a railroad whistle which is guaranteed to make the lordly whistles of the Dixie Flyer and Pan-AmerIcan locomotives become shrill with envious anger and the plaintive tootings of the Tennessee Central engines even more mournful. (Original article available at this link.)
Hay would soon be at work at WSM's new studio, in the National Life building at the corner of 7th and Union. Taking to the airwaves in his "Solemn Old Judge" persona (adapted from a police-beat humor column he had written as a Commercial Appeal reporter), Hay set out to make the station a leading promoter of what he called "folk music."
Before the month was out, he had invited 78-year-old fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson to come in out of the sticks and play on the air. The audience responded with a wild effusion of telephone calls and telegrams, and Hay quickly decided to make old-time music a regular Saturday-night feature of the clear-channel AM station, which could be heard for hundreds of miles around.
The rest of the story is well known. The WSM Barn Dance grew and grew in popularity, despite some discomfort among the urbanized controlling families of National Life and other Nashville bluebloods at the redneck caricature personas that Hay encouraged his performers to project. One night in early December 1927, with the Barn Dance about to air just after a performance of grand opera, Hay told listeners that they would now be hearing the "Grand Ole Opry."
The name stuck.
November 9, 1921: Location, location, location
Eighty-six years ago today, the Tennessean noticed that a basic fact that has been one of Nashville's main selling points from the time of James Robertson onward — its accessible location in the center of the eastern U.S. — was making the city more and more of a tourist attraction:
Fifteen thousand auto tourists will spend more than $500,000 in Nashville this year.
The figures are those of the Nashville Automobile Club, which keeps a record of the number of tourists who pass this way. The statistics were made public Tuesday by C. H. Peay, secretary of the club.
The gradual growth of Nashville in popularity with overland tourists is best told by the following figures given out by Mr. Peay:
Year. Number Tourists.
1921 15,000 (estimated)
... Of course, many parties go right through the city without getting anything but gasoline and possibly a meal, but many of them stop over several days to have repairs done on their cars, to purchase tires and to look at the city. (Original article available at this link.)
November 10, 1960: Krystal Klavern?
On this autumn afternoon, three African-American college students walked into a downtown Krystal lunch counter. Without any difficulty, they ordered hamburgers as they stood in the eatery: Negroes were permitted to satisfy their Krystal Kravings as long as they actually consumed their 15-cent burgerettes back on their own side of the tracks.
These students, however, had the temerity to sit down at the counter. When they ignored an order to leave, a waitress took it upon herself to enforce the prevailing racial codes. She dumped water at their feet, tossed scouring powder down their backs and aimed a hose at them. Once they were soaked, she turned on the air conditioner. The students quietly finished their meals and left.
An hour later, two leaders of the sit-in movement showed up, asking to talk with the manager. James Bevel, later a well-known civil rights advocate, and John Lewis — then a stuttering seminary student, now a congressman from Georgia — were told immediately that they must leave. State law, the manager explained, required the fumigation of the premises.
Lewis and Bevel stood their ground. Gasping for breath as the fumes swirled around them, the young men recited the Biblical passage about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace. Eventually, they left.
The Banner did not find the event worth covering. The Tennessean reported on it, quoting a police sergeant as saying that the troublemaking students would not be prosecuted for the disturbance they had caused. Decades later, author Taylor Branch would recount the episode in his award-winning history Parting the Waters: America During the King Years, 1954-1963.
Birthdays of note this week:
- Ad agency honcho David Bohan, Bone McAllester lawyer George Phillips — November 10
- Real estate investor and GOP money man Ted Welch, Courage Capital's Betsy Wills, and fondly missed ex-Nashville journo (turned Berlin-based Telekommunikationsindustrie Geschäftsführer) Clark Parsons — November 11
- Attorneys John Branham and John Hollins Sr. — November 12
- Former restaurant company CEO Henry Hillenmeyer — November 13
- Former Tennessee Senator and Ambassador Howard Baker — November 15
"Nashville now and then" is a week-by-week look back at Nashville's economic, political and social history. Your thoughts, suggestions and questions are always welcome — leave them in the comments section below, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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