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History of Unicoi County athletics depicted in photo collection contributed to museum

Bert Thompson and Unicoi County Heritage Museum Curator Martha Erwin look over photographs of past UCHS sports teams contained in a notebook Thompson donated to the library. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keith Whitson)

By Keith Whitson

The Unicoi County Heritage Museum recently scored big with every sport and received a grand prize. Former Erwinite and athlete Bert Thompson returned to Erwin to visit friends and to give a gift to the museum. The gift was a photo album filled with rare sports photos from the mid 1900s back to the 1920s.

Thompson attended Unicoi County High School, participated in most sports and graduated in 1948. Arthur Isbill was the coach for most of the sports Thompson played. Isbill left after Thompson’s senior year and became the head coach in Asheville, N.C. Later, when Thompson was living in Knoxville, the coach called  him up. “So, one time he called me and told me to come over there and I said ‘Why coach, it’s 100 miles. I asked him what for, and he replied, ‘I said come over here.’

“So I went over and he took me in his garage and opened up one of these trunks – old fashioned trunks people had. When he left Erwin he had taken all these pictures with him. He told me to get what I wanted out of the trunk, so I stayed out there for an hour or more and picked out all the Erwin pictures. He said I could have them.

“I’ve got pictures of the football teams and some basketball, baseball, softball and this that and the other that he had. I’ve got all these pictures here of the athletic teams down through the years. Some girls and some elementary school pictures,” Thompson said.

“So, I had those – and I’m old – I’m 88. I would always show my friends the pictures over the years and everybody wanted them. It reached the point they were wanting them and I didn’t trust what they would do with them, so I thought about Martha. I said maybe her museum would like them. So, I put them in the trunk of my car. I bet you I came to Erwin five or six times a year and I would forget it. I would be about Asheville, NC., going back to Florida, and it would dawn on me, I was supposed to see Martha. So, this time I put them in the front of the car and said ‘Now, Martha is where I’m going first.’”

Thompson said he can identify some of the people in the pictures but many he can’t. “I thought if there was some way Martha could display them and let people come and look at them, that they could write down a name if they knew it. Maybe over the years you might get them all.”

As he and Unicoi County Heritage Museum Curator Martha Erwin looked over the photos and reminisced, they had many stories to share about the players they knew, the families and life in Erwin in past years.

“Here’s a picture of the first Erwin football team in 1922,” he said. “This is Harry Shull and he was a great athlete, the best that Erwin ever had. This fellow here (as he pointed to a photo) is Carl Harrison and he grew up and started working at the First National Bank here in Erwin and eventually was the president of the bank and one of our solid citizens.” He began to remember and tie in connections and tell of what the athletes went on to become.

“This is a picture of me when I was a junior in high school,” he said looking at an old team photo. “That’s me, I was number 71. That’s Robert Boyd. Are you familiar with Ferrell Boyd? They called his daddy ‘Squiz’ and he was little ‘Squiz.’

“James Davis became an engineer on the railroad and was a good man, great football player – small but, dad gum it, he hit like a 200-pounder.” Thompson went on to name others, most of whom are deceased at this point. Gene Davis, Ray Grimes, Bill Thompson, Marsh Love, Thurston Berry, Jack Head, Doug Toney, Sam Fortune, Graham Charles and others were named. Of the group, he and Russell Brackins are two of the very few still living.

Pointing to one teammate he said “This boy here was on the team but he was more of a mascot. He was so little and he was a guard so he just never did get to play. His name was Ed Peterson and he was the pet. We all didn’t hit him hard during practice. He went four years and he never did get past 120 pounds.

“Anyway, all of a sudden, now we’re seniors. We never did beat anybody bad to get ahead, so there was no substitution. But, all of a sudden we were beating somebody, so coach called him up and said, ‘Peterson, go in for Engle.’ He said coach, ‘You better not send me in, I’ve got an ingrown toenail.’ Same Fortune heard him say that and started calling him ‘Toenail’ and from then on he was referred to as ‘Toenail Peterson.’

“We would always lose to Elizabethon, Kingsport and Bristol. We would beat Johnson City all the time. This was in 1946 and ‘47, too,” he continued.

“The 1937 team was the first Blue Devils, before that it was the Yellow Jackets. That’s an odd year, too – the ‘37-’38 team. The fall of ‘37 they were the Blue Devils football. But, they didn’t have enough money to buy uniforms for the basketball team. So, the basketball team was still the Yellow Jackets,” he said as he chuckled.

“Here’s W.A. Wilson,” he said as he continued looking through the pages of photos in the album. “He was a freshman when I was a senior and he became one of the best football players they ever had up here.”

One picture marked “1924 State Champions” was in the stack. Thompson and Erwin both think the photo was from 1921 or 1922. “Any rate,” Thompson continued, “In those days they didn’t have state champions. This team went undefeated in the state of Tennessee. But, they got beat one time by Bristol, Va. Knoxville Central High School was the other only defeated high school in the state. So, the newspaper people and media wanted to have a game between Central High School and Erwin. They invited Erwin to Knoxville. Martha’s (Erwin) uncle ran them wild. They called him ‘Lightning.’ Harry ‘Lightning’ Shull. He ran them wild down there and Erwin beat them,” he proudly proclaimed.

“When he brought this book up yesterday,” Erwin said, “I drooled over it but didn’t think I would get it. This is coveted. Everybody wants it. This is our history. I love it.”

As Thompson began reflecting on his childhood, growing up in Erwin, he recalled his love of the movie theater. “It would cost you 9 cents to go to a movie on Saturday,” he said. “My daddy used to give me a dime on Saturday. I’d go down there and I’d stay at that Capitol Theater and be down there early at 9 o’clock and watch them over and over.

“Then, the next thing I knew, I started not getting a dime from my daddy. So, I was walking to town one time and this woman stepped out and hollered at me and asked me if I could mow her yard and I said ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘I’ll give you a quarter if you mow my yard.’

“I walked back up the street and got the lawn mower and went back down there and mowed her yard. It just about killed me, she had let it grow up so high. She gave me a quarter and I could go to a movie for a dime, buy a box of  popcorn for a dime and a Coke for a nickel.

“Then all of a sudden I turned 12. Anybody from age 12 and up, it cost them 35 cents to go to the movie. That woman still payed me a quarter to mow. Here I was grown and still going to high school and be walking down the street and she would holler at me to mow that yard for a quarter again. I mowed her yard for a quarter for about 10 years and never did get a raise in pay.

“I used to go down to Clinchfield Drug Store, you’d get a cup of coffee for a nickel and free coffee for the rest of the day. If you were the type of person to drink more than one cup, you just come back and they would give you another clean cup and all. That’s the way Martha and I were raised,” Thompson said.

“Another thing about the drug store,” Thompson said, “15 cents for a chocolate malted milkshake. I didn’t get many of them. Who had 15 cents? Nobody.

“The good ole days were not really the good ole days. It was a nickel cup of coffee, but I didn’t have a nickel. Things are better now, I don’t care what the price is.

“Even though Erwin lost the railroad, I still got news for you – you are living better than we did in the ‘30s,” he said.

“When I was in high school, Russel Brackins and I played ball together. Nobody had any money and I remember right across from the depot of the railroad was a restaurant, BJ’s I think. They had hamburgers and all this stuff.

“So, Russell Brackins and I are out at night, later than we should have been. We wound up in that restaurant. We were just sitting there to stay warm because it was cold outside. And, all of a sudden, here comes Guy Parker. He was going out on the train.

“He goes and orders something and looked around and said ‘What about you boys? You want something to eat?’ We told him we didn’t have any money. He said ‘I’ll pay for it.’ He told them give these boys what they want.

“I remember we got hot roast beef sandwiches with gravy, French fries and a Coca-Cola. He paid for it. Buddy, I worshiped Guy Parker after that. I was just a little ole boy.”

After high school, Thompson joined the US Air Force, got discharged and came home, where he got married. He went on to attain a BS, Masters and PHD, while working as an instructor at several universities. He lived in Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Michigan and Illinois.

His wife is deceased and he continues to live in Melbourne, Fla., but visits Erwin often. His recent trip, he brought home a bit of the county’s history in the photo book. What Thompson had protected and cared for over the years is now has the home advantage and a new game in life.