Our 25th president had been elected to a second term in office in 1900 and, for reasons that he never made clear to me, decided to embark on a goodwill tour of the country the following year, taking with him five of his cabinet members. The party left Washington, D.C., by train in mid-April and made a looping journey through the sunny Southland. Newspapers reported that the individual railroad cars, "among the handsomest ever constructed in this country," were given names. The president's special coach was the Olympia. Others were Omena, Guina, St. James, Pelion, and Charmion. Just in case anyone asks you.
After a brief stop in Corinth, Mississippi, the train arrived at the Calhoun Street Station (site of today's Central Station), on Tuesday afternoon, April 30th. An artillery squad fired a 21-gun salute, and Company A of the Confederate Veterans (yes, there were plenty of them still alive) formed an honor guard as McKinley and his entourage filed into fancy carriages for the drive to Court Square. The newspapers of the day noted the irony, "as the men in grey with the western sun beaming fiercely on their grey heads and stooped forms marched as a guard to the former leader of the blue and the Grand Army of the Republic." We were still cranky about the way that whole thing turned out, you see.
He was apparently quite a character. Born in Ireland in 1889, he served an apprenticeship with blacksmiths and foundries in Liverpool, England, before emigrating to the U.S. in 1915. He moved to Memphis, so I understand, because his sister was already living here, and by the 1920s had established Culligan Iron Works, a thriving business that survived until the mid-1970s.
Culligan became good friends with Holiday Inns founder Kemmons Wilson, and as a result his company wound up forging most of the decorative ironwork — railings, signs, bannisters — for the majority of Holiday Inns around the country, which was a plum contract, let me tell you. He pretty much pioneered the ornamental iron business in this city, crafting ironwork for The Peabody, Methodist Hospital, the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, the old Shelby County Jail, and quite a few private homes here.
I know of a home near Rhodes College that has wrought-iron gates forged by Culligan Iron Works, which feature unusual twists and turns, with the top railing of the gates hammered into a pair of ducks' heads. He was known for creating elaborate and fanciful designs.
For a blacksmith, he led a rather elaborate and fanciful life. He did work for Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley (though he did NOT do the famous gates at Graceland), and in the files of the Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis are several photos of a dapper, tuxedo-clad gentleman dancing the night away at various social affairs around town.
Now I know you might think those are photos of ME, but look closely, and they are indeed Joe Culligan.
Well, half a century ago, traffic engineers must have decided to make that intersection a bit more challenging — by running a railroad diagonally across it. To make it even more interesting, the railroad track was elevated, so automobile drivers had to zig-zag around heavy cast-iron support beams. You had to really look hard to find the traffic light, dangling from one of the trestles. And making a left turn here, with your visibility so restricted, while a freight train rumbled overhead, was just about the most stressful thing you could do.
I found a photograph of this curious intersection, taken around 1950, judging by the cars and that sleek old city bus. The view is looking eastward on Central, with Fairview Junior High in the background. The Pan-Am gas station on the corner (just the sign is visible), has been replaced by a Kwik-Mart.
I also found an old map (below) which shows the route of the railroad — identified on the map as the "Union R.R." — cutting right across the campus of what was then Christian Brothers College, which must have been quite a headache for the school's students and faculty. Click on the image to enlarge it. Can you see it?
Somebody finally came to their senses and removed this eyesore, though I can't say when that happened, exactly. There's no trace of its path today on the Christian Brothers University campus, and on the opposite (or southwest) corner, the former right-of-way was converted into Spanish War Memorial Park, a nice bit of green space in our city.
PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES
Well, not always. I turned up a pair of old Memphis Press-Scimitar articles that told about the darker side of operating one of these contraptions.
The first story was headlined, "Merrymobile Man Claims She Drew Pistol on Him." This being Memphis and all, I don't know why this story surprised me, but dang — who would assault a Merrymobile driver? Well, Mrs. Shirley Marie Lucas, did. In July 1963, she operated the Pecan Hill Trailer Court at 2340 Raleigh-Millington Road. She later told police that she "loved children but hated litterbugs," so one day when a Merrymobile came to a stop in front of her property, fearing that those beloved children might throw their popsicle wrappers on the ground — horrors! — she told the driver to move on. When he refused, she pulled a pistol on him!
It's not clear what happened next, though I assume the driver did indeed move on, but the story says that charges of "disturbing the peace" against Mrs. Lucas were dropped, and she pleaded not guilty to carrying a pistol. I'm sure the Merrymobile driver decided to just avoid the trailer park after that. I certainly wouldn't risk my life selling popsicles.
That's the unfortunate driver, Robert Tramel, in the photo above. The newspaper said he was "mopping his brow after the stormy court hearing."
The other event, from a child's point of view, was probably more horrifying. Just imagine a little toddler, clutching his money in his hands, waiting on the curb after hearing the cheerful tinkle of the Merrymobile bells — only to see the little cart fly by IN FLAMES! Oh, I would have nightmares for years after witnessing such a terrifying sight.
At the age of 5, Noe tells us in his booklet, "a severe attack of spinal meningitis left me in a delicate condition. In my early youth, a siege of double pneumonia developed into chronic lung trouble. For years I was sickly and weak, spending all I could earn for medicine and doctor bills." Oh, it's a sad story.
While pining away, Noe says he read about a 45-year-old man who regained his health through regular exercise, so he set out to do the same, by purchasing a set of dumbbells. He soon discovered a problem with this approach: "During this period I was a salesman for a large corporation," he relates, "and my carrying these heavy dumbbells around with me created considerable joking and ridicule on the part of the other salesmen and hotel clerks." Well, no wonder. Who carries dumbbells in their luggage?
So Noe came up with his own, more portable, gadget — a pair of wooden handles clamped to a strip of rubber — which he called Noe's Graduated Exerciser. I'm not sure, exactly, what the "graduated" part of the name means. But you grabbed each end and pulled it, and Noe writes that this device, "primitive as it was, proved capable of doing all the things that the other, costlier exercisers failed to do, and more." In fact, in just 16 months, Noe claimed that his weight jumped from a puny 139 pounds to a robust 172, his chest expanded by 8 inches, and his waist size dropped from 31 to 28 inches.
Somebody on eBay has a rather interesting item for sale: a Memphis Police Department "Detective Division Circular" for a missing person, dated October 15, 1924.
Now, I imagine the police department searched for quite a few missing persons over the years, but I wonder if the official alerts were worded as dramatically as this one. Carrying the banner headline, "A Prostrate Mother's Appeal," the circular describes a young man named Howard Conrad, who disappeared from our city on September 26, 1924, and "has had a mental breakdown, which renders him unfit to hold a job [though] may attempt work."
The very words the doctors have used to describe me!
The circular continues: "There is a price on Conrad's head — one hundred dollars. It is not like the price that is placed on a criminal's head, for his capture dead or alive. It is the price of Mother's love. The parent's courage is strong. They believe they will find their son, if those who know a parents' love for an afflicted child will only help. Will you?"
The circular urged officials to check all hospitals, asylums, public institutions, and county farms. Then it added this bit of curious information about young Conrad: "Acts as one who uses dope and visits such places. May be giving another name and will not give parents' address, which is 2225 Madison Avenue."
That house is still standing today, just east of Overton Square, though the Conrad family apparently moved out many years ago. I wish I knew how this sad tale played out, but I have no idea if Howard Conrad ever turned up. And I didn't think it would be fair to the eBay seller to include an image of the "Missing Person" notice here, but if you'd like to take a look at this interesting document from the past, go here:
The brainchild of a local ice-cream vendor named Robert Heffelfinger, these red, white, and blue merry-go-rounds on three wheels rolled down suburban streets in the summertime. The putt-putt of the little one-cylinder engines and tinkling bells suspended from the aluminum canopy told every kid in the neighborhood, "The Merrymobile's here!" and they'd scramble outside and wait on the curb, their fists clutching nickels and dimes. The driver could reach into freezers on either side of his seat and hand out ice-cold popsicles, Buried Treasures, Drumsticks, Eskimo Pies, and other mouthwatering delights. The prices were a treat, too. Back then, a popsicle cost six cents, an ice-cream sandwich a dime.
At one time, some 80 Merrymobiles operated out of the Merrymobile Ice Cream Company's headquarters on Broad, but by 1973 the fleet had dwindled to a dozen. When the firm went out of business a few years later, most of the little cars ended up in a dump in Tipton County (or so I heard). But a handful survived, and one from the early 1950s, identified by a metal tag as number 43, sat forlornly outside Sid's Auto Frame Alignment Shop in Millington for years.
But I recently turned up a 1927 newspaper advertisement for the store's sporting goods department, and just look at the amazing selection. If you have trouble reading the ad, let me just mention a few of the items for sale, and their 1927 prices:
Spalding golf clubs (irons) — $3.50
Spalding golf clubs (woods) — $5.00
Narragansett Livewood tennis racquets — $2.95
Louisville Slugger baseball bats — $1.85
League baseballs — $1.25
Shakespeare automatic fly reel — $4.50
... and lots more
Golf bags came in "all sizes" with the prices starting at just a dollar and stretching all the way to $45, which was a stupendous amount of money to spend on a golf bag in the 1920s. For you, I mean, not for me.
Note that they also sold a baseball glove called the "Dazzy Vance" (a fine name indeed) for the rather steep price of $8.50. Nothing with the Lauderdale name on it ever came cheap, I assure you.
Over the years, I've gotten quite a lot of questions, comments, and suggestions from readers. Almost two dozen, I'd say! But my favorite correspondence of all, I might as well admit, is the kind that does my work for me. And such is the email that I recently received from my good friend, Melissa Anderson Sweazy, a super-talented photographer and writer (and author of the upcoming book, Veiled Remarks: A Curious Compendium for the Nuptially Inclined).
Melissa wrote to tell me that the old Memphis Daily Appeal newspaper from the 1860s — that's right, the EIGHTEEN 60S — is now online, where you can peruse it at your leisure. It's not available in Memphis, where you might expect, but is archived (along with many, many other newspapers) at the University of Texas in Tyler, Texas.
And my oh my, it's a treasure trove of historical tidbits. Not only are there plenty of compelling stories about the Civil War, but the newspapers back then were just packed with oddities. Such as this little item, from March 26, 1861: "We learn that the 14 men and 15 women at the Home for the Homeless are all troubled with sore eyes."
Home for the Homeless?
In Memphis magazine’s current City Guide, I told readers that I wanted to see how much they really knew about the history of the city they call home. Most people can recite one or two basic facts about Elvis, or Sun Studio, or Piggly Wiggly, or the many accomplishments of the Lauderdales. But I tossed more than 30 questions your way, about considerably more esoteric subjects, though I made it clear that if you had been reading the magazine’s “Ask Vance” column, you should already know the answers.
Finished the quiz? Then put your pencils down and compare your results with the answers below. There’s no prize for winning. Just the immense pride you should feel if you did well.
1. For years and years, what well-known Memphian kept telling listeners, “Keep dialing and smiling. Bye-bye now”?
c. J.C. Levy, owner of the Dial and Smile telephone joke line (above, recording a baby elephant, probably as part of one of his telephone gags).
2. In 1952, a massive blaze at the Quaker Oats plant in North Memphis consumed thousands of:
d. Corncobs. That’s right, corncobs.
3. In the 1950s, a Memphian opened a business on Lamar with the curious slogan, “Where You Won’t Get Bit.” This was, of course:
b. Bittman’s Appliances, owned by Herbert Bittman.
4. Who were “The Original Memphis Five”?
a. A jazz quintet formed in New Orleans in the early 1900s.
5. What stands on the former site of the Grand Opera House, which burned in 1899?
c. The Orpheum Theatre.