Most Memphians know about the lovely Japanese Garden in Audubon Park, and the arched red bridge there may be one of the most photographed attractions in Memphis (especially popular with yearbook photographers). Those of us of a certain age may remember the older Japanese Garden in Overton Park, a lavish construction that was destroyed because of anti-Japanese sentiment following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
But few people, I’ll wager, remember the Japanese Garden that was constructed downtown — mainly because it was located in a rather unusual location: on the roof of the 100 North Main Building. I managed to find a photo of the garden (above), along with a trio of attractive visitors, in the old Press-Scimitar archives at the University of Memphis Special Collections Department.
Anyone familiar with the 1932 cult-classic movie Freaks has seen members of the Doll Family — a family of “little people” (two brothers and two sisters) who performed in films and circuses for more than half a century. Grace, Harry, Daisy, and Tiny adopted the stage name Doll, but their real last name was Schneider, and they were born in Germany and then brought to America at an early age.
And why am I telling you this? Because I stumbled upon a 1936 Memphis Press-Scimitar article that discussed the Dolls’ “foster parents” — who just happened to live in Memphis, in a very unusual house on Poplar. The article was written by Eldon Roark for his popular “Strolling” column, and here’s what he had to say. The headline was “Business Good With Midgets”:
“If you want to know how business conditions are, just ask any sideshow midgets. They have a most reliable barometer. And if you don’t know any midgets to ask, then see Mr. and Mrs. A.E. Willis, 2599 Poplar. They are the “foster parents” of the famous Doll family of midgets, now on tour with the Ringling Circus, and they get regular reports from them. There are four in the midget family — Daisy, Grace, Tiny, and Harry. Professionally they go by the name of Doll, but their real name is Schneider. They are from Germany.
Several weeks ago, one of my colleagues asked if anyone had ever “ask-vanced” me about the headstone in the woods at Shelby Farms that marks the grave of Robert and Mary Mann, who died in the 1890s. It was, she said, along a trail that runs close to an old barn that is falling to pieces and — another surprise — a couple of abandoned cars from the 1950s.
The truth is that in recent months, I have actually received several inquiries about this mysterious tombstone, the barn, and the cars. But I did nothing about it because delving into this would require superhuman physical effort — namely, walking in the woods — and the Lauderdales have never been known for their wilderness adventures. Also, none of the previous queries gave me the precise location of these oddities, and the idea of getting lost in the forest, covered with ticks and brambles, just made my skin crawl.
But one pleasant Saturday afternoon, my colleague offered to guide me to this strange site, so off we went. I can’t really tell you the exact location, except that it’s in the far northeastern corner of the park. You basically start from Gate 13, hike across a field, then plunge into the woods and trudge along a dirt trail for what seems like 40 miles. And if you look closely, you’ll start to notice many interesting things.
For 15 years, Benjamin Priddy had been driving a Shelby County school bus, picking up and dropping off students at the little schools in the Eads, Arlington, and Collierville areas. During that time, his driving record had been impeccable.
But on October 10, 1941, Priddy made a fatal error that would result in the worst school tragedy in Shelby County history. That afternoon, he picked up a busload of kids from the George R. James Elementary School, a little schoolhouse that once stood on Collierville-Arlington Road, just southwest of Eads. Driving along the two-lane county roads, he had dropped off all but 17 of his young passengers, when he made a sharp turn to cross the railroad tracks that once cut through the heart of the little farming community. Although he had a clear view of the tracks at the crossing, for reasons we will never know he pulled directly into the path of an N.C. & St.L. passenger train roaring towards Memphis at 50 miles per hour.
The tremendous impact almost ripped the bus in half, tumbling the wreckage into nearby woods. Priddy was killed instantly, along with seven of his passengers; many of the other children were horribly injured. In those days, few families in the county had telephones. News of the tragedy spread by word of mouth, and frantic parents rushed to the scene, piled the little victims into cars and trucks, and rushed them to the nearest hospital in Memphis, more than 20 miles away. “It was one of those sights you never want to see again,” one father told the Memphis Press-Scimitar. At Baptist Hospital, other parents found themselves “in a madly revolving world suddenly but surely spinning off its axis.”
On November 25, 1949, “Miss Memphis” Gladys Dye snipped a red ribbon and Memphians were treated to the grand opening of the city’s newest shopping complex — the Bomah Center at the southeast corner of Union and Cleveland.
According to an old Commercial Appeal article (which was also the source of the somewhat grainy photos here), “special activities are planned by some of the firms in the building.” Jenkins-Leach Appliance Store (shown below) would give away a new Frigidaire refrigerator as an attendance prize to some lucky customer, and Wallace E. Johnson — builders of the one-story L-shaped building — announced they would give away a brand-new Pontiac.