Friday, March 26, 2010


Check out the latest post on my PRINCESS THEATER BLOG for details!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


We all love to collect things, but how many of us collect things that weigh from less than an ounce to things over 30 tons at the same time?! Joe Davis, of Harriman, Tennessee, does and he has been collecting anything
remotely "railroad" since he was five years old. Everything from old tickets, rails, train wheels, switching equipment, lanterns, crossing signs, depots and deport equipment, to full size authentic railroad cars!

Over the past 64 years you would expect Joe to have quite a few things, but to have is yard, his basement (electric models), and three or four outbuildings full would be the lest one would expect from a life long collector. However, even the two cabooses and boxcar sitting on the tracks in his front yard are packed full of railroad memorabilia! Joe wouldn't hazard a guess as to the value of his "heavy weight" collection, but at minimum it's cost him some fourteen hernia operations!

Included in the collection is the old "yard engine" from the "American Kraft Mills" paper plant that operated until 2000. Joe has also constructed a full-size depot next to his home that is fully operational, if it were sitting near the main line. He has a ticket agent and a lady and her son (life size manikins), waiting for the train in the waiting room. There are clocks, switching equipment, water fountains, phones, benches, calendars, photos of trains, and the ticket counter is complete down to the stamps and pencils required to operate.

The windows are from real depots around the country, the bars on the windows are real, the luggage and freight handlers and scales are real, and the specific location depot signs are real. I was thrilled to see the "Emory Gap" sign (an area of Harriman where I lived during my junior and senior years) smartly hanging on each end of the recreated depot.

You might have thought Joe would have made a career in railroad work, but he wanted to be home nights, so he worked in forestry and spent his off day time researching and collecting.

The Tennessee Central Railway Company operated the line and built the depots I was used to seeing in Roane County somewhere around 1922, but the company sold out in 1968 to Southern. It was during times of change that Joe came about a lot of his collection, like when the town of Oakdale decided to get rid of the old caboose that sat in its city park for years. The car was a boxcar-to-caboose-conversion and they were happy to strike a good deal with Joe. Being a conversion, it was super heavy, requiring two cranes to sit it in place on the tracks Joe built himself.

The cabooses and boxcar are all neatly coupled to the "yard engine" and all sit quietly on their permanent tracks along side authentic crossing signals and destination signs. Except for the tons of wheels, brakes, springs, signs, etc. stored beneath them, you would think they would just roll on down the line!

You will notice one contraption that sits directly behind the last caboose...the thing that looks like scaffolding sitting on wheels - what is it? You'd never guess, unless you were in the railroad business and ran lines with tunnels! It was specially constructed to run through the Roosevelt Mountain Tunnel, just up the Walden Ridge Mountain out of Rockwood, Tennessee, to break off the icicles that formed in the tunnel during winter!

You see, Joe doesn't care about specific railroad things; he cares about anything associated with the big trains. If it says railroad, train, or locomotive on it, or was ever on, or near, a railroad, he wants it and keeps it. As his sign says, "This is a museum, this junk is not for sale!" If he collected stays...don't even ask!

Interestingly enough, he also collected the old depot signs that were indicative of the racially divided times, like "White & Colored" restroom signs, and one saying "Colored Intrastate Passengers' Waiting Room". "What if they were traveling 'interstate'", I wondered! I remember that era so well as a kid, but I was too young to really understand the significance of them at the time. Of course, I came to understand that the whole period of the 50s and 60s, and before, was a disgrace to our country.

I laid two large photos I found of a KKK rally, held in Sheffield, Alabama in 1924, out on some steps and photographed them. Amazingly they fit together quite well. Joe just saw the train and depot and wanted them for his "railroad" collection!

We'll have to go back one of these days and thumb through his photo collection. He did find his collection of 1901-1914 photos of the Waldensia Coal and Coke Company, and gave them to me to scan. I have already posted them on Flickr. However, he has many albums full of old Harriman/Roane County photos that I'd love to see. Maybe one day we'll get back for another visit.

I have only used a small portion of the 140 shots I took the day we visited, but many more are posted on my Flickr page. Look for the "Joe Davis Railroad Collection" set down the side of the main page, or scroll through all my latest additions until you find them.

No, Joe will not part with his life's collection, but I wonder what would happen if the City of Harriman built a nice building nearby in which he could properly display and visit his collection? Would he allow that? There are definitely enough artifacts in Joe's collection to make a wonderful "Joe Davis Railroad Museum" in Harriman. Such a display would bring folks from near and far to see and enjoy.

It should be seen...there's just too much authentic history there just to be seen by a few hundred - it should be seen by thousands! It would also mean that railroad buffs from all around might also donate items for display. The collection would all be safely kept there, under controlled temperature and humidity conditions, to be enjoyed perpetually. What a win for us all that would be!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Down In the BaseMENT - Part 2

I wrote "baseMENT" like that because I wanted to emphasize the "MENT" like my granddaughter Lily does. I don't know who taught her the word, but it's just so country the way she puts the accent on the last syllable, and I love it! She sounds like her Momma Judy!

Lily has been shown and warned about opening the door to our basement because it appears in the hall as just another bedroom door. When the door is opened it is dark and you can't see the steep steps below. We always carefully guide visitors to this door, turn on the downstairs lights, and then down the steps ahead of them so no one gets injured.

When Katie Bug, one of our other granddaughters, was about 11 or 12, she invited a friend to come with her to visit us. Before either of us could react, the little girl opened the door and walked out into the darkness, expecting a bedroom floor, and fell all the way to the basement!

UPDATE: Katie reminded me tonight that the girl was wearing a hula hoop when she fell! I also installed the lock I've been putting off I can relax when kids are running the halls.

Judy lunged for the basement door, flipped the lights on, and was at the bottom in seconds, while Katie stood stunned at the top. I was in the kitchen, frozen to the floor, waiting to hear the worst, knowing she had either broken something or had been killed...seriously!

I was so relieved to hear Judy ask her if she was okay and the girl answer, although very embarrassed. She's alive, I said almost aloud, and thanked God for protecting her! It was truly a miracle and I still thank God for making it turn out well.

I've written posts about my baseMENT previously, once about repairing computers there, and again about some of the things I've made there. However, I thought I would do one about my junky work area, mostly so Bruno and Jeff can enlarge the shots and make funny comments about what I've collected!

Bruno, especially, loves workshops or "man holes", old engines, and anything he can tinker with and bring back to life! He knows how I peruse his shop photos, even the photos near his computer, for odd and interesting artifacts. He should have a ball with these.

I must explain the "Thunder Mule" license plate, because even he would not figure out that this hung on the front of all my Mustangs except for the '68 (just noticed there's no '89 shot in that linked post). It's a phrase my brother, Wade, came up with while looking at my '89. I found it to be very appropriate and so it stuck!

I might also say that I have no idea how those WMA signs got there...I think a game warden gave them to me!

As for the Superman work apron, it was originally made for me by a lovely co-worker when I worked at the Roane County NEWS, back in my newspaper advertising days. Something happened to the first one, and another lady (Diane Strahm), at another job, saw an old photo (see attached) of the apron and made me another.

If there are any other questions about things in these shots, please leave a comment.

I am very proud of the 8 foot table shown (it sits to the right of the tool bench). I made this out of 2X6s and 1" marine plywood. I would wager that it would easily support a car! It's very sturdy and makes a wonderful flat surface for special projects like gun cleaning, painting, gluing, building birdhouses, etc., and repairing computers!

The workshop is fairly functional with a drill press (not a good one), a grinding wheel, a vice, a table saw, a miter saw, a router station, and lots of tools, some of which were left to me in my dad's old tool box. Some have "TVA" stamped on them, but like me, he would have had the same thing to say, "I don't know how these got into my tool box...probably by some foreman somewhere as a reward for all my hard work!"

There are bins, jars, and sack full's of nuts and bolts, handed down from my dad, and nails. Everyone needs antique nuts and bolts! There are even some things there I don't even know the use of, or how they even got there, which makes standing there sometimes very interesting and rewarding.

The basement has gotten cluttered over the sixteen or so years we've lived here. There are tables, cabinets, an office desk and chairs that Judy got when her company closed its doors, the upper part of an entertainment center that had to be removed to make room for our 46" HD TV (It was better than buying a new outfit and very ingenious on my part, I must say!), a deer head, tree stand, exercise equipment, lawn tools and other implements of destruction, a gun safe, camping and hiking gear, and seasonal decorations that Judy handles, and, of course, my Hot Wheels® collection! You will remember this collection used to be in my bedroom!

Way back in the dark left corner (not shown in photo), there is a 2 yard by 9 yard room just made for an indoor firing range. I used yards because 9 yards is the perfect "combat" small arms range distance! I still want to put up some steel and sand at one end and blast away. However, I could never haul a 1" thick 6X9 foot steel sheet back into that corner with even three people helping me. Still, it's a great pipe dream that could still come true.

I know that someday all this junk has to be hauled away. It's sad to think about, because it's all a part of me, part of my dad, but there is no room for this in any one garage, basement, or kitchen tool drawer. If it isn't just dumped, it will have to be parceled off through some tedious "yard sale" to strangers.

The same thing happened when my dad passed...I got some, and Wade took some, but most of it was trashed. All our "someday dreams" die with us! Yeah, it's sad, but it's not unique to any of us.

So, the bottom line here was to give Bruno, and anyone else interested, something to do in his spare time - rummage through my basement! Have at it!

Thursday, March 11, 2010


If you drop off the Westel Exit (338) on I-40 in Cumberland County, and travel north up Mr. Vernal Road, past the old Westel Powell School, until it intersects with Milestone Mountain Road, and then travel west on Milestone until you round a big curve and start down a long hill, you’ll be very close to some serious history. It is history evident of the “second great industrial revolution”!

At the very bottom of the hill, you will cross a modern-day concrete bridge over Mammy’s Creek. Hidden immediately to the right of the bridge is Lake Waldensia. Stop on the bridge and roll your windows down and listen, you should be able to hear the water as it falls over the old Lake Waldensia Dam, where a water wheel once powered a sawmill. The dam’s reservoir once provided all the water needed for washing the area’s mined coal.

This lake also served local residents as a respite from summer heat well into the 1980s.

If you pull to the left on the far side of the bridge, and park near the yellow gate, you will be about 50 yards from a double line of beehive coke ovens that were constructed around 1904.

These abandoned coke ovens, neglected for over 80 years, are covered in undergrowth and even large trees. It’s surprising to learn that they once represented a bustling and burgeoning industry – the coal and iron industry.

I first discovered this area back in the late 80s when I hunted deer near the then Bowater pine forest. The land was sold to the State of Tennessee in 2006.

I first thought these ovens were part of Civil War history, but I’ve since been educated. Nonetheless, it is a very mysterious looking place and it’s kind of creepy, especially if you are alone, to see nature slowly reclaiming it. Now, only dark ghostly mouths, ringed with red lips and mossy brick teeth give up the secrets of the place. It makes you think twice about stepping inside one of the earth’s dark open mouths for a better look at the white ringed vent openings in its roof!

In the latter part of the 19th century, the steel-making industry came to the secluded forests of the Cumberland Plateau and transformed it into a bustling development of progress.

The availability of coal in the Tennessee Mountains and the demand for steel were so great, that entrepreneurs from around the country ventured to the Plateau to make their fortunes in “black gold”.

As the steel industry continued to grow in the early 20th century, fields of coke ovens and smelting factories began supplanting forests throughout the Plateau region.

One of those companies was the Waldensia Coal and Coke Company. The Waldensia Company purchased 8,000 acres of Cumberland County, Tennessee land.

The Waldensia Company under took in 1901 the effort to build a large complex to support their coal mining and coke making business. Among the supporting facilities were 80 cottages, a commissary, a hotel, offices, a school*, a post office, a train depot, many coke ovens, a large coal washing facility, and a railroad! It was all completed in 1904.

*I’m not sure if the little red school on Westel Road was this school or not, but it was built in 1901, burned in 1924, rebuilt and abandoned in 1955. Therefore, the time period is roughly the same.

A sawmill was also constructed to prepare the wood for their building needs, and most of the required logging was done on their own property.

The lake was created by the building of a dam on Mammy’s Creek, where it still stands today. Since the lake and dam are on private property today (2009), you have to view the lake, and falls that cascade over the dam wall, through a large growth of hemlocks. I was told by the owner that someone had recently fallen on the property and was currently suing him over a broken hip. Therefore, “private property” signs have been posted and a fence is being built around the beautiful lake.

I suppose this means that the cool waters of the lake and the shade of the hemlocks will never be freely available to the general public again. Such a shame…why do Americans have to sue so much?

But…more on the coke ovens pictured (click to enlarge).

Generally, the coke ovens found in the Cumberland region were used to convert the bituminous coal mined in the local mountains into industrial coke, a relatively clean-burning fuel used in the smelting of iron ore. In a process known as “coking,” coal was shoveled into beehive-shaped coke ovens insulated with a layer of dirt and then ignited.

After laborers sealed the doors with brick and mud, the coal was left burning under low-oxygen conditions for two or three days and could reach temperatures of nearly 2000°C (or 3600°F). In this process, the volatile parts of the coal were combusted and escaped as gases through a hole in the roof – what remained was the desired coke, which was almost pure carbon, and the by-product slag.

The property was sold to the Chicago-Tennessee Coal & Coke Company in 1908, which operated the facility until 1921. After the closure in 1921, Connellsville Coal & Coke Company bought the property in 1925 and continued to operate it until 1929.

The “Great Depression” brought about the end of the mines and ovens forever.

Now, it’s all but lost to time and privatization. There are certain areas of our country that should be considered “wilderness pockets”, protected and preserved for posterity.

More photos HERE.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010


I alluded to the fact that I ate dirt between the ages of 3 and 4, in a post titled "Learning To Face Life's Little Problems", but I'm not sure I ever detailed the compulsion I had for it. Quite frankly, I liked the taste of dirt!

It is sometimes said that you have to “eat a peck of dirt before you die”, and, because of my childhood vitamin and mineral deficiencies I’m probably well on my way out!

I think it all began with one innocent pinch of cigarette ashes…BAM…I was hooked on that ashy taste. However, it grew out of a lust for some mineral or vitamin, probably iron, that I was not getting in my normal diet. So, I experimented around the yard and everywhere I visited for a year or two around the turn of the 50’s decade.

Once while visiting us in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, my uncle once saw me pick up a chunk of common yard dirt and put it in my mouth. He quickly brushed it from of my hand, picked me up, and stood me in the midst of the freshly hoed dark soil of my dad’s garden, saying, “Here, get you some clean dirt son!

He, like a lot of parents and people who study bacteria today, was not overly concerned about me eating dirt. A case in point is this video clip of Dr. Bonnie Bassler, a professor at Princeton University, who is a molecular biologist.

My Uncle Earl stood proudly by and watched me taste the rich black dirt. My mom, of course, was not quite as open minded and would always make me put it down and immediately wash my hands and try to wash my mouth out.

The basic truth is bacteria teach the body the specifics of creating the right kind of antibodies that protect our bodies throughout our lives. Think about it, with bacteria, not just crawling all over everything, but covering everything, we stay amazingly well.

Oh sure, we get the occasional cold, but without an immune system that has been educated by bacteria we probably wouldn’t have survived the first year of life. Just look at me…I survived all this time after eating cigarette ashes and dirt!

I can still remember the lime taste of the earth around Five Points, Tennessee where my grandfather raised cotton and corn. The soil was almost white, with tiny little bits of rust colored rocks in it. The soil is lime rich and I bet those rust bits were from iron, which is exactly what I needed. It made the best clumps from which I would scrap off a mouth full with my upper front teeth.

My mom took my little skinny body to the doctor and asked him how she could get me to eat more “real” food and stop eating dirt. His solution, which worked, was to give me a big brown bottle of some vitamin elixir containing a lot of iron.

I was soon eating more and growing toward the mass I am today, and never picked up another clod of dirt to eat again. Although, like I said, I remember its taste, with all its variety of tastes today.

I think about this every time I see my granddaughter Lily crawl under the table at a restaurant. We try to keep her hands clean and out of her mouth, but it’s inevitable that she will get some dirt into her mouth. I remind myself that her body is learning to produce the antibodies that will keep her alive and well for a long time.

I wish someone had told Howard Hughes this, and I hope Howie Mandel reads my blog! Dirt is actually good for us guys! However, you must remember that garden dirt is cleaner than yard dirt!