CARYVILLE THROUGH THE YEARS
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.
The following account of Caryville, Tennessee, was written by former Mayor Scott Collins and inserted into “Coal Mining Towns,” a book compiled by Marshall McGhee.
Across the United States during the late 1960s, the country was experiencing traumatic changes such as the escalation of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the civil rights movement. Although it did not share the magnitude and the nation’s turmoil, the community of Caryville was undergoing dramatic changes of its own.
For decades Caryville had been a thriving community, drawing its wealth from a booming coal industry. Hundreds of families earned their livelihood from the likes of Sun Coal Co., Peewee Coal Co., Red Ash Coal Co., Diamond Coal Co., among numerous others. With the prosperity of the coal mines, came a flourish of business interests such as State Bank, the White Store, Cross Funeral Home, Dr. Gallaher’s medical office, Duncan’s Dry Goods, McGhee’s Gulf Station, the Shirley Tiller Store, the Triangle Grill, Union Movie Theatre, McCulley’s Restaurant, and McGhee’s Skating Rink, plus many others too numerous to mention.
During the coal boom days, it was not unusual to see throngs of people in the Caryville area trading tales in the shadow of the Railroad Depot on the “Liar’s Bench,” enjoying a frosty float at Cross & Son Drug Store, or catching a ride in a taxi cab from Harry Shultz , Dock Craig, Donk Disney, or the other drivers that clustered around the Taxi Cab Stand. Caryville, like the surrounding coal camps, had a softball team. Fans would flock to the “Ballfield Diamond” to see local talents such as Charlie Duncan, Bob Cross, Fuzz Asbury, John Taylor, Millard Burrell, Robert Lowe, and others compete with teams from all over the region. For those wanting to travel, a short walk to the Triangle Grill could get you a ride on a Greyhound bus to Knoxville or other destinations.
As the times moved on, the foundations on which Caryville had been built began to crumble. The Caryville community had survived floods, devastating fires and other hardships, but when coal mines shut down one by one, the community was dealt a series of staggering blows that had been the death of other small communities. However, Caryville is not typical of the other communities, which surrendered to economic hardships. When it appeared that Caryville may have been ready to become another ghost town, the same pride that resurrected the town from the Fire of 1944, resurfaced to face its greatest challenge.
With an iron-clad resolve to persevere, a spirited group of community leaders and businessmen joined together to save their community. Rallying around survivors such as Warren & Neville Wright’s Grocery Store, John Wormsley’s Grocery Store, McGhee’s Gulf Station, plus others, the community leaders formulated a plan that would be the salvation of the Caryville community.
A community Action Commission was organized with the ambitious goal of converting the “Community” of Caryville into the incorporated Town of Caryville. A determined effort by community activist such as John McGhee, Arzo Hale, Hobart Bartley, John Wormsley, Millard Burrell, James A. (Buddy) Cotton, Cade Sexton and Jerry Cross led to a question being placed before the area residents of Caryville: Should Caryville become an incorporated town?
Supporters of the drive argued that incorporation would be the salvation of the community. Without incorporation, they reasoned, Caryville would be swallowed up by LaFollette, and lose its unique identity. Furthermore, Interstate I-75 was near completion and would provide an infusion of new life into the ailing community. Other rationalizations included improvements in police protection, representative government, street lights, and improved utility services. However, the movement was not without opposition. Opponents were satisfied with the way things were. They stated that everything that the proponents were promising were services the community already had access to, so why incorporate and add “government red tape.” However, the citizens voted to incorporate Caryville, and new life was brought to the town.
On April 6, 1968, voters went to the polls to elect the first Town of Caryville Mayor and City Council. In the Mayor’s race, John McGhee received 124 votes to become Caryville’s first Mayor. Luke Ridenour collected 39 votes and William J. McCulley had 21 votes in the competition for the Mayor’s seat. Elmer L. (Reuben) Massengill earned a one-year term as a councilman in Ward I, gathering 152 votes,. Hobart Bartley, Jr., also ran unopposed and won a 2-year term in Ward I, gaining 143 votes. In the race for councilman in Ward II for a one-year term, T.C. Watson outdistanced Leon Blankenship 124 to 52 votes, respectively. Arthur Yancey won the first two year term for Ward II by outdistancing Roy Presnell 121-57.
Although these pioneers had won a major battle to preserve the life of their Town, there remained numerous obstacles and hardships to overcome before they could once again enjoy the prosperous times the coal boom had provided.
Mayor John McGhee, along with the newly elected council of Rueben Massengill, Hobart Bartley, T.C. Watson, and Arthur Yancey, received their oaths of office in a ceremony at Caryville Jr. High School on May 30, 1968. After Council Judge Jack Roy Alexander swore in the officials, Judge Lee Asbury introduced County Clerk Ted Miller and Congressman Joe L. Evans, who officially presented the Town of Caryville with its charter.
Mayor John McGhee called the first official meeting of the Mayor and Board of Aldermen to order on June 3, 1968, at the Caryville Community Center. The first order of business was to establish and adopt city codes and ordinances that would set the structure for the new government. Arzo Hale was named municipal judge, recorder, clerk and treasurer. Other initial actions included advertising for a police chief (salary $300 a month), discussion of sanitation services, the creation of a Beer Board to collect beer taxes and discussions to create revenues for the Town’s limited budget.
Although the town government was now established, in order to continue the success that spawned incorporation, citizen involvement was an absolute necessity. George Ritter, Marvin Powers, Millard Burrell, Don Wormsley and James A “Buddy” Cotton were selected for the Citizens Advisory Committee. Also, a planning Commission, consisting of Mayor McGhee, Councilman Massengill, John Taylor, Cade Sexton, and Jerry Cross was created.
Further citizen participation was required to assist the Mayor and Council with implementing an annual budget. Buddy Cotton and Jerry Cross were appointed to work with Vice Mayor Bartley and Councilman Massengill in establishing a budget. The Town’s financial resources were severely limited. The recorded annual for fiscal year 1968 was a paltry $2000.
Despite their meager resources, the Mayor and Council rallied with citizens to provide services. A referendum was approved to levy a local option sales tax: Leon Blankenship volunteered his services for the maintenance of Main Street; the Optimist Club provided recreation opportunities as well as other civic projects; Arzo Hale and Hobart Bartley purchased “cold mix” asphalt to repair city streets, It was this spirit of dedication to a dream that has molded Caryville into the prosperous Town it is today.
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