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.
Several months ago — okay, maybe it was more than a year ago — time is but a blur these days — I was at an estate sale in Raleigh and wandered into the backyard, where I spotted this neglected creature, just standing by the fence, looking as if he had been there for years. He — or it — stands about four feet tall and is apparently a chef, sporting black-and-white checked pants, a blue apron, and even wearing wire-rimmed glasses, all (except the glasses) nicely crafted from fiberglass, carrying a tray that once held — what? I'm not sure why he has Shrek-like green skin, unless the sun discolored him that way.
The figure looks vaguely familiar, so I'm convinced that years ago he stood outside a Memphis restaurant. Some type of pizza parlor, perhaps?
Does anybody remember where this fellow originally came from?
And in case you're wondering: No, I didn't buy it, though the fellow would have looked quite fine on the front lawn of the Lauderdale Mansion, perhaps collecting mail or — even better — donations from visitors.
My good friend Robert Lanier recently sent me an Associated Press clipping from a Washington, D.C., newspaper, which I filed away in the cobwebby recesses of my once-great mind, under the general category of “Can’t Possibly Be True.” But lately I’m discovering that quite a few things readers uncover — and share with me — turn out to be not only true, but even stranger than I expected.
Here is what Mr. Lanier’s AP story said. The headline was “NAZI IN FULL UNIFORM ARRESTED IN MEMPHIS” and it was dated August 14, 1945:
“A German paratrooper, wearing his military uniform complete with the swastika and German eagle, was arrested on Main Street yesterday. The prisoner gave his name as Sergeant Heintz Heimann and said he escaped from the prison-of-war camp at Crawfordsville, Arkansas. He said he wanted to see the city, but was afraid to discard his army clothes for fear he would be shot as a spy.”
Did such a thing really happen, or was this some kind of misguided prank or stunt? Well, here’s the full story from the August 14, 1945, Commercial Appeal, headlined “P.O.W. TAKES STROLL ON MAIN, WEARING SWASTIKA AND WINGS”:
Elmwood Cemetery has many fascinating and beautiful monuments, but few are as intriguing as the stunning granite obelisk dedicated to former Memphian Granville Garth. "Born in Memphis" it says, and then "Lost at Sea," and anyone who reads that inscription has to wonder what happened.
Since we're really not that close to the sea, you understand.
The carving at the base of the monument tells cemetery visitors that Granville was the son of Horace and Alice Garth. He was born in Memphis on August 11, 1863, and he met his fate 40 years later on Christmas Day, 1903.
So what happened to this poor fellow?
Just look at this thing! What were they thinking? Most architects try to make a building relate, in some way at least, to its environment. But boy, whoever planned this structure just decided that a soaring 20-story building would fit right in among its humble two-story neighbors.
The postcard doesn't give the proposed location for this building, but it looks like Main Street or Front Street to me. And there's no date, but the teeny-tiny horse-drawn cart and open roadster in the street (can you see them?) suggests it's from the early 1900s.
And what a strange design! Barely three bays (or windows) square, and with all that ornamentation around the upper floors, the building looks extremely top heavy to me. A strong wind, like we had here a few weeks ago, would possibly blow the thing down, so it's probably a good idea it was never built.
Though it would have looked very fine on the horizon, I guess.
Memphis has always been proud of its entrepreneurs: Fred Smith, Kemmons Wilson, Pitt Hyde, and most (but certainly not all) of the Lauderdales. And joining that exclusive club is the anonymous inventor of the Zip-Pin Diaper Pin Lubricator.
Now I have to confess that I never realized there was any need for such a device. Oh sure, I knew that diaper pins could stick a baby if you were careless — or drunk — while you were trying to jab those things through a thick diaper. Well, somebody decided that one way to prevent these accidents was with the Zip-Pin.
I found an ad for this intriguing product in a 1975 program for the Duration Club, a charitable organization that put on an annual fund-raiser, among other good deeds. As you can see, though it's not really clear HOW it accomplishes all these things, the Zip-Pin offered many benefits: "no more bent pins, eases pins thru diapers, reduces chances of sticking baby." It apparently was some kind of "special lubricant — non-toxic" which, I assume, you smeared on the pins. Good gosh, it even "prevents dangerous rust." And as if that weren't enough, it "keeps pins safe and handy," which is a pretty vague claim, if you ask me.
There's no address for the company, just a P.O. Box, and no name of the inventor, so that's all I can tell you. I wonder how long the Zip-Pin company stayed in business? And were they trying to play off the name of the Zippin Pippin roller coaster, or was that just a happy coincidence?
Last year, I posted a photograph of a rather strange metal sign (above) that I had discovered dangling by chains from the underside of the Frisco Bridge. Who was S.L. Lipe, I wondered, and why was he memorialized in this unusual fashion?
Well, a reader named Phoebe researched back issues of a publication called "All Aboard," which is the company newsletter for the Springfield Division of the BNSF (Burlington Northern & Santa Fe) Railroad, and in the July 2004 issue she actually turned up an obituary for Scotty L. Lipe. Here's what it says:
Sometimes a faded photograph, battered postcard, or yellowed newspaper clipping can reveal the most amazing stories. Case in point: a folder I stumbled across one day in the Memphis Room at the main library labeled “Clay Eaters.” Thinking this might be the name of a defunct rock-and-roll band (and admit it: It would make a good name), I found the folder contained a single newspaper article about one of the strangest episodes in our city’s history.
Back in 1934, it seems residents south of DeSoto Park noticed that a portion of the riverbluff near Wisconsin Street was slowly but surely disappearing. Police set up a stillwatch to nab anyone hauling dirt away from city property, but what the cops discovered was something they weren’t expecting.
People were creeping up to the bluff at night and — EATING IT.
The Commercial Appeal reported that men, women, and children were chewing away at the banks “like so many cheese hills” and had already removed more than a ton of clay and dirt.
Oh, the strange things that I have found over the years. I recently told everyone the story (or what I knew of it) of Thomas Doran, the “Armless News Boy.” So to continue that happy theme, I thought I’d share this interesting old promotional flyer from Chas. R. Bowman, a fellow from the little town of Williford, Arkansas, who called himself the “Legless Key Tag Maker.” If you think THAT is strange, read on . . .
First of all, it’s an order form, and since the bottom part has been snipped off, I assume someone previously ordered key tags from Mr. Bowman. In fact, he begins this interesting epistle by expressing his thanks, with a compelling mix of gratitude and pity that have long been the hallmarks of any correspondence from the Lauderdales. Here’s what Mr. Bowman has to say:
MY DEAR FRIEND: Your nice order received, and have filled it as requested. I wish to thank you many times for the kindness shown me, and will appreciate anything you may throw my way, as a fellow handicapped as I needs all the help in his line I can get. Am in bad health and need all the cheer I can get. Yes — lung trouble. I feel sure after you have read over my price list, you and your friends will favor me with another order.
Good grief — no legs and now lung trouble! He goes on:
I’ve written before about gravestones in Bethany Church Cemetery, a shady burial ground tucked away in the county north of Collierville. It’s filled with old and interesting markers, but none are so intriguing as a row of seven flat stones marking the last resting place of the children of the Archer family. Why are they so mysterious? Because the gravestones show that, over a period of 14 years in the 1920s and early 1930s, eight children were buried here, and not one of them lived more than a few months. Anyone who stumbles upon these simple markers must wonder: What on earth happened to these poor children?
The graves are all in a row, lying within a long stone border. The inscriptions on the seven stones read:
Elwynne May Archer (May 26, 1921 - May 26, 1921)
Twin Dorothy May Archer (Dec. 22, 1922 - June 15, 1923)
Twin Alvaray Archer (Dec. 22, 1922 - June 5, 1923)
Evelyn Fay Archer (Feb. 4, 1924 - Feb. 7, 1924)
Twins Archer Baby Girls (Nov. 26, 1928 - Nov. 26, 1928)
Max Callicutt Archer (Sept. 6, 1929 - Oct. 8, 1929)
Glenda Elizabeth Archer (May 1, 1935 - July 2, 1935)
Was he a Memphian? Most biographies give very basic information about his life, but I have seen more than one photograph of Decker stamped "MEMPHIS" at the bottom, which indicates that — even if he wasn't actually born here — he must have visited this city during one of his American tours.
As you can see from this photo, at 21 years of age, he stood only 31 inches high and weighed only 45 pounds. According to a blog called The American Sideshow, Decker was born in 1855, but nobody seems to know where, exactly. The blog entry continues:
"Naturally, he claimed to be the Smallest Man in the World. When touring dime museums throughout the country, Decker took a cue from other popular little people [such as "General" Tom Thumb] and often bestowed a military rank upon himself. The midget was often called Major or more prestigiously, General.
In addition to being known for his size, Decker was also known for his intelligence and was said to have been a mechanical genius. Unfortunately, the little man with the big brain had his life cut short. Charles Decker passed away in Chicago at the age of 38, on Oct. 28, 1893."
Did he ever live in Memphis? I just don't know. Does anybody?
This sounds like a strange confession, I suppose, but I actually enjoy finding old postcards that show scenes in Memphis that are unfamiliar. It gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning — because there's something about my twisted mind that says, "I must find that same spot today." And then when I do, and compare the now-and-then images, well ... it's curiously satisfying.
Just as it is damn frustrating when I can not find the image depicted on the card.
And here is a perfect example. A rather dull postcard, really, showing an old car, or possibly a delivery van, crossing (or parked on), a fine-looking stone bridge in Riverside Park (nowadays known as Martin Luther King Riverside Park). We know this because it's actually printed on the front of the card. The back of the card, just so you'll know, give us no clues: it was never used, and never stamped or postmarked, so it doesn't give us a date.
Sorry for the moire pattern caused by my cheap scanner, folks. (Moire? Look it up.) Anyway, if you scrutinize the card, all you'll glean is that the roadway seems to run parallel to a rather deep chasm and then takes an abrupt turn — maybe not a 90-degree turn, but a turn nevertheless — and crosses over a really fine stone bridge, with stone posts at each end. I can't tell if the bridge spans a creek or just a ditch, and I also can't tell what the road does on the other side. The landscape in the background is frustratingly vague. But here's the thing: I've driven all over Riverside Park, and — unless I'm missing something — there is no place where the road does this, and more to the point, there is no stone bridge.
So where was this? My readers — okay, make that ONE reader — very quickly found the location of the building that I thought was an old school (see the post below about the Calvary Rescue Mission), so once again I turn to you for help. Find this location today, please, so I can get some rest.
In the May issue of Memphis magazine, my ne'er-do-well colleague Michael Finger tells the compelling story of East End Park, one of this area's most elaborate entertainment complexes. Opened in the late 1880s, East End featured rides, games, fireworks shows, and some of the most bizarre vaudeville performances you could ever imagine. I mean, it's not every day that you see somebody called "The Human Bomb" in action. But I don't intend to tell you the whole story here. Please purchase a magazine — a bargain at just $3.99 — and read it for yourself.
But this isn't about East End Park. Instead, I wanted to mention its neighbor, a little-known amusement park in Memphis called Fairyland Park, which stood (according to some accounts) just east of East End, with an entrance on Poplar or — depending on who you believe — Madison. And I bring all this up because somebody on eBay is currently selling an old postcard (above) showing the Fairyland Park Theatre — a rather elaborate building, judging from the image. Too bad it doesn't show more of the park, though.
The eBay item number is 390045848837, and the current price is $24.99 — unfortunately, a bit more than I can afford at the moment, though I suppose the Lauderdale Library could apply for a grant or something.
I just wanted to share that with you. If anybody knows anything else about Fairyland Park, well, you know how to reach me.
Last week, I posted an old (and undated) photograph of what I assumed was a school building, and asked readers if they knew where it was. Well, it only took keen-eyed realtor and history buff Joe Spake about one hour to find the building and send me a nice photo as it looks today (above). As you can see, it's changed very little over the years, and is now home to the Calvary Rescue Mission. Too bad that their sign covers up some of the fine architectural ornamentation on the front of the building, but I'm glad it's still standing. The address, if you want to see for yourself, is 960 South Third.
But was it a school? Apparently not, and a second look at the original photo makes me realize this was a broader group of people (in age, I mean) than would have attended a school. So I dug through old city directories, which is how I spend my Saturday nights, and determined that in the late 1930s through the late 1940s (when the original photo was taken), the building was the First Assembly of God Church, the Rev. Albert Pickthorn, pastor. Later, the Rev. James Hamill took over.
Okay, I know that thousands of you — why, perhaps even hundreds of thousands — have been wondering what happened to my blog, where I posted such compelling stories as "The Clarksdale Giant," "The Clay Eaters of Memphis," and "The One-Armed Newsboy."
Hmmm, now that I list some of them, perhaps they really weren't that compelling after all. They certainly seemed so when I was writing them. When I was drunk, I mean.
Anyway, I was using a blog software program called "Vance Lauderdale's Blog-0-Matic" and wouldn't you know it, the dang batteries in the thing went dead, and even Radio Shack couldn't find the right voltage. So we've switched to a new, better program, but you'll have to put up with me until I learn such basic blog skills as typing, spelling, reading without moving my lips, and going to Sunday School.
In the meantime, though, I thought I'd post a photo of an old school that I discovered tucked inside a book purchased at a recent estate sale.