Nashville Memories: The Rich Man’s Wife

By Carter G. Baker.

The contractor had completed a lengthy job on the beautiful white house out on the Boulevard.  Bathrooms had been remodeled, the kitchen gleamed with new appliances and tile floor, and much repair work had been done on the upstairs gables. The owner, a wealthy businessman, had paid each Friday’s weekly draw on time without any questions, so the contractor had no worries as he drove up to the house that evening to submit his final bill of fifteen hundred dollars.

Just as the chimes rang, the front door was opened by the family’s houseman, who escorted the contractor back to the owner’s private office.  This sanctum sanctorum was large with dark paneled walls and an Oriental rug. Trophies, mounted critter heads, and a few books lined the walls. The upholstered furniture was all burgundy and the only illumination was a dark red shaded desk lamp centered on the huge mahogany desk.

The owner responded to the contractor’s greeting with a grunt and looked briefly at the proffered invoice. He opened a large checkbook and quickly wrote a check which he curtly handed to the contractor as he slammed shut the book. “The bill is for fifteen hundred and this check is only for one thousand,” said the contractor.

In an exasperated tone of voice, the owner quietly replied, “I told you that the bushes around this house cost five hundred dollars each – each – do you hear me?  And if any of them were damaged, you would pay! So, no, there is no more money. One of your idiot clumsy workers fell off the roof and destroyed that bush. You should have supervised him better.”

The contractor took a deep breath and, looking directly at the man behind the desk, said, “There’s a reason my man fell off the roof, sir. He was looking at your wife sunbathing in the nude in your backyard – something she did every day.” He didn’t mention her frequent nude walks through the house on her way to her sunning location. All the workers enjoyed those.

The owner’s face grew a dark red; it seemed to match the upholstery in that grim room. Without a word he opened the checkbook, wrote a check for five hundred dollars, and, handing it across the desk, said, “You know the way out.” 

“Thank you,” said the contractor as he turned and left. This time there was no houseman to escort him, and he only wanted to be gone quickly.

The next morning the checks were taken to the owner’s bank and turned into cashier’s checks in case the owner decided to stop payment on them. If he did now, it was too late. Sometimes the contractor wondered what was said between the owner and his young wife.  But he never heard, and he never saw them again.

Nashville Memories: The Man Who Shot Buses

by Carter G. Baker.

Nashville was a very different place when I worked downtown during the early 1970s. There were some real characters on the streets. These weren’t your low-grade panhandlers. No, the misfits and down-and-outers of those years when law enforcement and mental health services were a little less mindful really knew how to get your attention.

There was Shorty, sometimes known as Scooter, who had somehow lost both legs and had to push himself around on a little cart that looked like a skateboard. He could generally be found around Church Street and Seventh Avenue. Shorty had a drinking problem and would sometimes be found tipped over in the gutter where he’d run off the sidewalk; the steep hill on Seventh was his nemesis.

A more malevolent stalker of the downtown streets was the well-known and dangerous Foot Stomper.  His predilection for stomping women’s feet with his size 12 brogans as they walked down the sidewalk was infamous. Many an unsuspecting woman had her foot broken by him and was no doubt crippled for life. He’d be taken to jail but after his release would go right back to his ruthless habit. He just couldn’t seem to stop himself.

But my favorite of all the downtown denizens was the Shooter, a heavy-set guy who hung around the bus stop at Union and Fourth Avenue North. His favorite time to come out was rush hour, when there was a steady stream of buses heading up Union and he could perform his magic. He’d stand in front of a bus and pretend he was shooting the driver. Holding his hands in front of him like a kid playing at shooting a pistol and making bang-bang sounds, he would dance around until a bus started moving toward him. Then he’d quickly scamper to the sidewalk and wait for the next one.

There was one bus driver who just couldn’t stand him. This driver was a very tall man – at least six feet, six inches. I’d known him since childhood, as I rode the bus all over Nashville in the ‘50s. I was most surprised when we moved over on Richland Avenue to discover that he lived just a block away on Central. 

One warm afternoon, the tall driver had finally had enough of the Shooter jumping away from his bus at the last second. He arranged for a supervisor to be there with a policeman, and when the shooter performed his act, the officer arrested him.  Much to my sorrow, I never saw him again.

The driver told me this story one afternoon as we cruised out West End toward my stop. Whatever happened to him, I wanted to know. The story was that some relatives from down in the country came and got him. They took him somewhere that didn’t have buses to tempt him. I still sometimes wonder whether going cold turkey helped him, or whether he went completely over the edge after he was bereft of his beloved Nashville Transit Company buses. Or maybe he discovered school buses in that small town and had a happy retirement.  I hope so.

“Washed and Dryed after Being Executed”: Historical Humor from the Metro Archives

by Ken Fieth, Metropolitan Nashville Archivist.

Working in an Archives is akin to teaching school: over the years you accumulate favorites. The Archives staff has discovered records displaying both deliberate and unintended humor. Several of the items presented here have proven to be the favorites of many a staff member and visitor.

Some of our earliest records are tavern licenses. These were issued to individuals who had been granted permission to run a tavern or “Ordinary” in Davidson County. Apparently, many such licenses were granted since a form was created and printed for use.

The 1780s language is quite specific as to the business requirements for the budding entrepreneur. In order to run an establishment in Nashville, one must “. . . conftantly find and provide in his or her faid Ordinary good wholefome, and cleanly lodging and diet for travellers . . . nor on the Sabbath day suffer or permit any perfon to drink any more than necessary.” [sic]

We’re still working on what, exactly, that means.

The following handwritten entry appears on the City of Nashville Arrest Blotter, December 31, 1930. “If every body that broke the law was locked up, they would be no body left to carry water. W. A. Gibbons, Lieutenant.” It must have been a long New Year’s Eve. Did the Lieutenant ever get his water?

Moving to the gentler side of things leads us to the honorable estate of marriage. The Court Clerk, William Barrow, sometimes felt duty-bound to inform future generations about his opinion of the happy couple before him. Many marriage licenses bear his often-caustic opinions.

Clerk Barrow wrote on an 1825 license: “. . . solemnized the rights of matrimony between the within parties, the groom’s first wife had been dead for at least five weeks.” Another gives a glimpse through the window of time onto Nashville’s energetic if not entirely wholesome 1820s waterfront district: “I married the within named person and his wife at the upper ferry at Nashville—no person present but a drunk stonemason whose name I do not know.”

A witness is a witness, inebriated or not.

It has been said that a last will and testament is just that. Human nature being what it is, these can make for fascinating reading. Take, for instance, the great aunt from Memphis who was concerned about the wisdom of her nephew’s choices. Her 1920 will granted him a generous portion of her estate provided “he marries no one from Jackson, Tennessee.” It was a large estate – did the prospective bride ever move to Memphis?

It is mostly ordinary people who make up the history of our city, and ordinary people haven’t really changed much in the last 216 years. History can be as dull or as lively as you wish; it just takes a little looking to find the lighter side.

By the way, the title was taken from a (literally) mangled 1830 marriage license. Leaving things in the pockets of clothes to be washed is not a new problem! But we never know what might provide a bit of amusement for later generations.

Nashville Memories: The Worried Wife of Deer Park

by Carter G. Baker.

Back in the boom years of the 1920s when Prohibition was the law of the land, it was impossible to have a real cocktail party legally.  The liquor had to be bought from a bootlegger, and there was always the chance that it might be contaminated with an additive that could cause serious problems of a neurological nature.  One possible result was called “jake leg” or “iron foot” because of the way the victim staggered along looking as if he’d had a stroke.

However, knowledgeable Nashvillians had a way to protect themselves from unintentionally poisoning their guests – or themselves – with bad whiskey.  A cheap insurance policy came in the form of an old sot who hung around on West End or Elliston Place in the Vanderbilt area.  This fellow would drink anything that had alcohol in it, and he had turned his unique talent into a source of income.  For fifty cents or a dollar, he would taste a sample of your bootleg liquor or sip from the jar of moonshine your cousin had brought in from the country.  You might hope it hadn’t been distilled through an old car radiator full of lead, but you didn’t know for sure.  The tester would take a few swallows and give you an opinion of the quality of your cocktail makings.

One memorable Saturday evening a well-known Nashville lawyer and his wife hosted a dinner party at their lovely Belle Meade home.  The food was delicious and the bar, stocked with taste-tested Bedford County moonshine, was well-attended.  These elite citizens of a much smaller Nashville, where everyone knew everyone, had a wonderful time and left in a happy mood, singing the praises of the host couple.

But the next Wednesday morning as the wife drove along West End Avenue in her big Packard automobile, she saw a most disturbing sight. The old booze tester was limping along looking for all the world as though he had a bad case of jake leg.  Mrs. Lawyer panicked, found the first pay phone she could, and called her husband to tell him that they’d given their guests bad whiskey, and that he needed to get down there right away and find out what was going on.

The husband made his excuses to the client sitting in front of him – a man who had, in fact, attended the party – and raced out toward Centennial Park looking for his quarry.  He found the old-timer sitting on the stone wall in front of the park rubbing his foot and looking rather feeble. A few questions quickly lifted the curtain of fear as the old boy said that he didn’t have the jake, but only a bad corn on the ball of his foot.  With a sigh of relief, the lawyer handed him a quarter and sent him off to buy some corn plasters.

The lawyer immediately drove to Kensington Place where his wife waited at a friend’s home, fearing the worst. He set her mind at ease with the good news and they went on their way, a much happier couple.  Still, they resolved that night never to serve corn liquor at a party again.  From that day forward, they spent a few more dollars and bought the bonded blends shipped down from Canada and sold through a reputable bootlegger. 

Nashville Memories: Take Me Out to the Ball Park

by Carter G. Baker.

It was a warm summer evening back in the early 1950s as three or four ten- or eleven-year-old boys gathered at one of their houses near Blair Boulevard.  The Dad who lived there was taking the boys out to Sulphur Dell to watch the Nashville Vols play baseball. Full of excitement, everybody loaded into the old black ’48 Chevy, and they were on their way.

Photo of Sulphur Dell from the collection of Skip Nipper. Used by permission.

The Dell was back behind the Capitol down beyond where the Bicentennial Mall is now.  Back then, big old brick houses and little wooden ones filled the area right up to the edge of Capitol Hill itself.  By then, the neighborhood was so rundown that no one wanted to go down there.  But Mr. Dad drove right in, as it was a shortcut to the ball park.

The streets were full of kids running around and folks hanging out on their porches talking.  Suddenly, the car full of boys grew silent and their eyes popped wide open as they watched a trim teenage girl without any clothes on run out of a house and right across the street in front of Mr. Dad’s car.  He came to a quick stop to keep from hitting her, and everybody stared as she ran up onto another porch and disappeared behind a ragged old screen door.

No one said a word, but they all stared at that door in the hope that she’d run back out and cross the street again.  As Mr. Dad began driving on down the street to the Dell, he looked over his shoulder at his dumbstruck passengers and said, “You know, boys, you just never know what you’ll see in the quarters!”

With that, the spell was broken and everybody was soon slapping their fists into their gloves in anticipation of the foul ball they just knew they were going to catch. Arriving at the ballpark, each one bought a Coke for a nickel and settled in for some baseball.  None of those boys can remember the score of that game, or even who was playing, but they never forgot what they saw “in the quarters” behind the Capitol on that summer night some sixty years ago.