Everyone called it "Monkey Mountain."
Today, it's a nicely manicured park with soccer fields and a walking path. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this area was a vast wasteland, rutted with deep ravines and vine-covered trees. Naturally, it was a magnet for any child living in the neighborhood, who could play "army" or Tarzan or anything they wanted in this jungle. Not too long ago, I made a rare public appearance before the Sea Isle Park Neighborhood Association, and my visit prompted long-ago memories of just what, exactly, Monkey Mountain actually was.
Danny Milam, whose family lived in the area in the 1950s and '60s, remembers it this way:
"I read with interest your article in the July edition, "Estate Planning." I lived in that area when I was young (on White Station Road, just north of Sea Isle Road) and never knew about the grand plans for the area. Pity it never came to fruition. It would have been cool.
"But then again, if it had, my family probably couldn't have afforded to live there.
"The undeveloped area around Sea Isle School was enormous. Even with the development of a park with a lighted baseball field, there was still a hefty tract of unimproved acreage that just sat there for years. In the area slightly northeast of where a lake was proposed was an odd land formation featuring many deep rills and ditches that couldn't be explained. If it had been on a steep hill, one could understand all the rills and crevasses, but it was flat. (This is Memphis, after all.) Now that I've read your article, I wonder if perhaps some preliminary earthwork was done and then abandoned when the grandiose plans for Country Club Estates fell through.
[It IS possible, I suppose, that this "land formation" was leftover fill from the developers scooping out the lake proposed for the area. — Vance]
"It looked like an area used for WWI-era trench warfare. In fact, that's how we used it, employing dirt clods instead of rifles to fend off the enemy combatants. Yes, the ditches were deep enough to crouch in and seek cover from an assault.
"Everyone in the neighborhood called this tract of odd topography "Monkey Mountains." No one knew how it got that name, or why, because there was certainly nothing there that brought up images of mountains. A better name would have been "Monkey Canyon."
But (and this is my point) how many of you know that James Jones, the hard-drinking, tough-as-nails author of this book, along with many others, actually wrote it while he was living in Memphis — at Leahy's Tourist Court, of all places? Not many, I bet.
But it's true. In 1943, Jones had been shipped to Kennedy General (later Veterans) Hospital here to recover from injuries he received in action at Guadalcanal. He must have liked it here, because he returned with his wife, Lowney, in 1950, and settled down at Leahy's to write the greatest novel of his career.
With assistance from a former Memphian named Birch Harms (it sounds like a made-up name, doesn't it?) I tracked down an old friend of Jones, Captain Patt Meara, now retired and living in Florida, who told me the whole story, and a lot more — including all those times he and Jones went to the (in)famous Plantation Inn over in West Memphis to enjoy a band with an up-and-coming young singer by the name of ... Isaac Hayes.
I tell the whole dramatic story in the September issue of Memphis magazine. So turn your computer off right now — do it! — and go pick up a copy if (for shame!!) you don't already subscribe.
In the meantime, here's an old postcard of Leahy's when it had seen better days. The old house was torn down a few months ago.
BOOKJACKET IMAGE COURTESY OF PATT MEARA — Look carefully at the credit line and you'll see that Meara took the photo that ran on the dustjacket of the first edition.
So I thought I'd change that by telling you about them, and I think you'll be impressed. After all, it's true that a Lauderdale (I needn't name names) served as the model for "Authority" (shown here).
But first, let me chat about the courthouse, which the authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide say exudes "serene classical confidence." As I do, myself! This truly magnificent building opened in 1910 to replace a jumbled collection of courtrooms that had previously been jammed into rented space at the old Overton Hotel at Main and Poplar. A plaque outside notes that this is the largest and most ornate courthouse in Tennessee, and it would be hard to argue with that. The city fathers (and mothers) wisely chose the sturdiest materials available (blue limestone from a quarry in Bedford, Indiana) and the best designers for this important civic project.
A courthouse building commission (you can't do anything in Memphis without forming a commission first, you know) selected the prestigious firm of Rogers and Hale, with offices in New York and Chicago. James Gamble Rogers was the primary architect, because (according to the official Report of the Commission published in 1910), he "was found to be specially qualified in designing buildings of a monumental character."
But about those statues ...
First of all, it's impossible to miss the big billboard-sized sign, adorned with a giant painted owl. If that didn't get their attention, a smaller sign was placed right at the curb, facing the oncoming drivers, and telling them to STOP, EAT, and DRINK.
And why not? Just look at the neat rows of white cottages, with their eye-catching red roofs and brick pillars holding up the front porches — all the comforts of home. Over to one side (at the left in the card) was some kind of octagonal (or at least hexagonal) concession stand, its arched windows decorated with yellow awnings and colorful flower boxes.
Then there's the main building, presumably housing the cozy cafe, which offered Clover Farms Ice Cream, Clover Farms Malted Milk (just 20 cents), and something called the Big Boy Cone — that was just a dime (and decades before any Shoney's Big Boy made an appearance in town). The joint also sold Clover Farms Bottled Milk Chocolate, according to the great sign.
Summer Avenue, officially designated U.S. Highway 70, was also called the Bristol Highway because it supposedly stretched all the way across the state to the city of Bristol in the northeastern corner of Tennessee. I say "supposedly" because I've never actually journeyed that far on it. But because it was such an important traffic artery for tourists and business travelers, it certainly attracted some of the most memorable "roadside" attractions in Memphis, including the Silver Horseshoe Motel, Leahy's Trailer Court, the Crescent Lake Tourist Court, and — most famous of all — the world's first Holiday Inn.
I have no idea where the Owl Lunch Service was actually located on Summer, but it's a safe bet that what's there now doesn't have half the charm of this old place.
On July 19th, the anniversary of Wortham's birth, his devoted fans (mostly former Boy Scouts) leave empty cans of the delicious concoction at his gravesite.
Why he is buried here is a mystery, since he was born in Vienna, Austria (as you might expect), traveled to America in the early 1900s to work in a tin-can factory outside Baltimore, and then spent the rest of his life in Vienna, Virginia (where it is pronounced, as many do the sausage, Vi-EEN-a).
So I was more than a bit surprised when I was roaming through the Lauderdale Library the other night, seeing if I had tucked away a bottle of Kentucky Nip on one of the high shelves, when I pulled out a dusty bound volume of RAILWAY AGE magazine and began to read it.
And there, for the first time, I learned about the Memphis Gas Explosion of 1921 — a horrendous event that killed 11 people here, injured more than a dozen others, and leveled houses and business for blocks around. How is it possible that I have never heard of such a thing?
Here's what RAILWAY AGE had to say:
On January 24, 1921, vapors from a tank car of gasoline on the Union Railway spur on Front Street, Memphis, Tennessee, became ignited and resulted in a blast that killed 11 people and badly injured 19 others. Probably 40 or 50 men, women and children received slight injuries from falling debris or from burns. The explosion wrecked an oil plant, leveled a block of frame buildings, and broke window panes within a radius of five blocks, the estimated loss being $200,000.
So what caused this disaster?
"A workman at the plant opened the tank car without relieving the pressure within." According the story, the wind carried these vapors "across the street ... and the vapor became ignited by open fires in the frame buildings on that side of the street. Instantly there was a terrific explosion which demolished every house on the west half of that block, as well as destroying buildings in the blocks north and east.
It was fairly early in the morning, and my first thought was that an awful tragedy had occurred. Somebody, perhaps distracted by all the pricey knickknacks around them, had inexplicably left their baby behind, strapped into a high chair, and the poor thing had starved to death, overnight. He certainly didn't look very well off, that's for sure.
But, being the brave man that I am, I took a deep breath and took a closer look, and discovered that this was a DOLL. A very lifelike doll, I might add. Or perhaps I should say a very "deathlike" doll. And clad in a bright UT-orange jumper, which really didn't help.
I tagged this post "Mysteries" because I am truly baffled why any company would produce such a disgusting, depressing doll. And — just as disturbing — why would anyone buy it? What is it, part of the new "Dead Baby" line of children's toys? And judging from the price tag looped around his wrist, a real bargain at $195!
Here's a closer look at his face. Cute little fellow, isn't he? Don't you just want to run your hand through his thinning, grizzled hair? And I promise you, it IS a doll.
Well, Audrey Smith, the former owner of that establishment, and — at one time or another — all the other Putt Putt golf places in town, has contacted me to set the record straight. Here's what he had to say:
"The Putt Putt was at 555 Perkins Extended and was owned by R.D. Buie of Hickory, North Carolina. [This would have been on the WEST side of Perkins, at Southern — Vance] They lost their lease in 1963 and I purchased the entire course on October 1, 1963, and ran it for one month before closing it. That winter I negotiated a lease across the street at 560 Perkins Extended where Chili's now sits. That winter and spring I moved everything including the sod (weeds) across the street and rebuilt the Putt Putt, which opened that June of 1964. It remained there for seven years. That Putt Putt sign (above) was at that Putt Putt. In 1966 I also built the Putt Putt at 5484 Summer Ave that is still there to this day in 2010, though remodeled several times."
Aubrey then sent additional information, about all the other miniature golf courses that were built in Memphis over the years. See if you remember some (or all) of these:
"My previous comment should clarify the 560 Perkins Extended and 5484 Summer Ave locations, but the Mt. Moriah location was built around 1975 and was closed in the late '90s, when I sold the property. The waterslide was at the Golf and Games location at 5484 Summer Ave in the early 1970s and was there for four years. It sat exactly where the bumper boats are now. The waterslide was owned by Dan Wilkinson, Milton Knowlton, and Richard Kramer, who leased the spot from me. I never owned the waterslide, but was only the landlord. The unfortunate accident occurred in the first year of operation during a private party for Libertyland employees. About 14 [people] fell 40 feet through girders and concrete and miraculously NO ONE DIED. There were a few broken bones and one serious injury to a young lady who was paralyzed. The next year the slide was purchased by David Martin, who ran it for three years.
"As for other miniature golf courses that I remember in Memphis in past years, in the 1950s there were at least two on Lamar: Fran-Ricks and Pla-mor. In the 1960s and 70's Cherokee Bowling Lanes had an indoor Putt Putt. Cloverleaf briefly had a miniature golf. Summer Ave. had one in the 50's, where Imperial Lanes now is. Libertyland had one. Of course both Als locations had courses. Putt-n-Stuff was at Perkins and I-240 for a few years.
"Imperial Bowling Lanes had an indoor course for awhile. More recently there were Bogey's and Celebration Station, both recently closed. The Putting Edge at Peabody Place may still be open, I'm not sure, but it would be the only miniature golf course now in Memphis besides my Golf and Games Family Park Putt Putt and Incredible Pizza. — Aubrey Smith, owner, builder and operator of Golf and Games Family Park at 5484 Summer Ave, Memphis, TN"
Thanks for the information and memories, Aubrey!
It was an honor to know him, and though he is gone, his memory lives on in all the public art he created throughout our city, from the sweeping sculpture of Rhodes College President Charles Diehl on that school's campus to the wonderful plaques (below) that adorn the Memphis Dermatology Clinic in Midtown.
Ten years ago, one of my colleagues at Memphis magazine profiled Rust in a cover story. You can read about it here, and you should. Rust definitely made Memphis a better place.