By Scott Robertson
From ETSU to the foundry to the Shamrock, Walnut Street was the hub of my youth. I was a south Johnson City kid, which meant that I did not hang out at the mall or in the North Roan Street McDonald’s parking lot. I walked Walnut Street.
The street, at least for me, was broken down into three areas: ETSU, the foundry, and the businesses. This was in the days before State of Franklin Road, when business on Walnut Street was thriving.
ETSU, of course, was an institution, as it has been all our lives. The foundry was in its last days, but it was a remarkable sight. Men were covered in black dust and sweat, such as one might imagine 100 years ago in Pittsburgh. These were grown men who carried metal lunchboxes and thermoses, the same way I did, only I was attending South Side Elementary School while they were doing their life’s work. My lunchbox had Johnny Lightning on the front. Theirs were gray. That place, its heat, its dirtiness, its lean and unsmiling workers, made an impression on me. I knew early in life that there was a clear choice on the west end of Walnut Street: higher education next door to hard manual labor. If I had anything to say about it, I would build a career in which I could use my brain to spare my back.
I mentioned thriving businesses. The biggest I recall was the Giant grocery store. There were two Giants in south Johnson City in those days. The Walnut Street store’s companion was on Greenwood Drive where the ETSU Child Study Center sits now. The Walnut Street building now houses CopyNet, between the Acoustic Coffee House and the former Sophisticated Otter. Both those Giant stores are long, long gone.
My favorites businesses on Walnut Street were the restaurants. In those days, for a kid, the highlight of Walnut Street was the Dairy Queen. It sat, gleaming, at least in my mind, on the lot across from what is now One Acre Café. If the foundry was the dark place on Walnut Street, Dairy Queen was its bright center, Mordor and Gondor, to you Tolkien fans.
I’m sure some young South Side students would, every now and again, play hooky and slip down to the Dairy Queen, where the store manager knew the number to the South Side principal’s office by heart. I’m also sure the principal delighted in driving down and retrieving the sweet-toothed truants. I would have no way of knowing this first-hand, of course, but it seems to make sense, don’t you think?
We did not have graduation from South Side when I matriculated on to Liberty Bell. We had something much better. We had a school-sponsored trip to Dairy Queen. The sixth grade teachers walked the entire class down Southwest Avenue to that wonderful place where our normal cafeteria lunches were replaced for one day only by ice cream in plastic baseball caps, sugar cones and banana split trays.
Looking back, it seems almost ridiculously wholesome and innocent. We had completed elementary school so we’d earned a trip to the ice cream shop. I lament the loss of that kind of innocence.
There is nothing in the space now where Dairy Queen once stood. They’ve paved a sixth grader’s paradise and put up a parking lot.
Of course Dairy Queen was only one of several eateries on Walnut Street in those days. The Hardee’s was the first place I ever applied for a job. But the most interesting restaurants were locally owned.
Poor Richard’s Deli was popular among the students and faculty. And then there was TC’s barbeque. I remember mainly the wood architecture, interior and exterior, and lunches after church with members of the college Sunday school class my parents taught. But I don’t remember it well, because there was something of a changing of the barbeque guard happening then. The Firehouse opened on Walnut Street when I was a kid. Tom Seaton’s place thrives on Walnut Street to this day.
In fact, Tom is part of the reason for me choosing to turn Walnut Street into Memory Lane today. He’s taking part in a task force charged with developing a plan for redevelopment of the corridor, along with a city commissioner (Jenny Brock), a county commissioner (Joe Wise), another business owner (Tracy Johnson), two nearby neighborhood residents (Hal Hunter and News & Neighbor’s own Jeff Keeling), a representative of ETSU (Jeremy Ross), a representative of the Chamber of Commerce (Lottie Ryans), a real estate expert (David Lefemine) and a planning commission member (Bob Cooper).
I like this idea. Walnut Street is, at present, a shadow of its former self. However, with the revitalization of downtown and the potential refurbishment of the former General Mills property, its potential for redevelopment is clear. I would love for my grandchildren to have the opportunity to enjoy a thriving, revitalized Walnut Street. Maybe I’ll even get to take them out for ice cream.