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A Refreshing Knapp – Unicoi County: Past & future

By Ray Knapp

Lisa Whaley stated in her column in the Oct. 9 edition of the Erwin Record “that the Valley Beautiful has an amazing future ahead of it, as long as we never stop believing in its power.” I agree, even with the recent setbacks she mentioned in her column: the pulling out of the CSX Railroad in 2015 and Morrill Motors’ recent decision to head to foreign shores in order to stay afloat in the world market place.

Tough times have hit the county before, and it has always rebounded. For instance, Southern Potteries, Inc. had several names during its existence. Named Clinchfield Ware, when it incorporated in 1916, this company, along with the Clinchfield Railroad, was responsible for the county’s 41 percent population increase from 1910 to 1920.

The railroad moved its headquarters from Johnson City to Erwin and changed its name to CSX. Sporting a turntable and rail car repair capabilities, Erwin became a “Train Town,” for the obvious reason that the railroad employed more people than any other company.

Coming in second place for number of employees was Southern Potteries, Inc. My neighbor, Nathan Hashe, rummaging through some old pictures left to him by his late father, brought over some 1925 pictures of pottery workers posing before the plant. I counted 141. I don’ know if it was the entire workforce at that time, or not, but the plant continued to grow. The hand-painted pottery became more and more popular. By the late 1940s the plant operated 24/7 with a workforce of 1,200 making it the largest hand-painted pottery in the nation. Of course, that pottery is now the coveted “Blue Ridge Pottery.”

With cheap plastic serving ware imported from Japan during the 1950s, the demand for the hand-painted pottery practically ceased, causing the plant to close in 1957. The 1960 census showed the county’s first population decrease in its history as people left to find work.

Following World War 2, Erwin and the rest of the county were enjoying some of the more prosperous times in its history. Nathan pointed out the Drive-In Theatre. Its screen showed as just a small white speck on the aerial photograph. From the back porch of his home on Harris Street, he could watch the Drive-In movies. In addition, Erwin had its own golf course encompassing roughly all the school and school grounds now lying east of South Mohawk Drive.

Furniture stores, grocery stores, drug stores, a new hospital sprang-up to keep up with the growing demand.

My wife recalled her infrequent visits from Flag Pond in the 1950s. She said on Saturdays, as stores unlocked for business, the sidewalks soon filled with people busily shopping.  Not all people were busy. Kids played on the sidewalks until the matinee movie opened at the Capitol Theatre – costing all of 10 cents. Old men sat on the courthouse steps swapping tales and whittling on sticks, while others played checkers. Those benches you see along Main Street would have been a welcome relief to those men, as they were to some Apple Festival goers, earlier this month.

More pictures showed a street passable only by a high-wheeled Model T, or preferably a horse-drawn carriage before its paving in 1917. Some people complain about the way Main Street is now. However, it is certainly an upgrade from those days and the street benches give Erwin a nostalgic touch of a bygone era.

Today there are some empty storefronts along Main Street, as large chain stores have changed shopping habits. Nevertheless, as many are aware, not all shopping is at Walmart, and I can envision many of those empty storefronts reopened with specialty shops that cater to tourists, or locals that enjoy small town attractions, like restaurants, antiques, and design shops that entrepreneurs create to refill the void left by a few failed businesses. 

As old businesses close, or move to some foreign country, I have noticed that new businesses spring up. The Economic and Development Board is hard at work to attract more businesses to the region and like Lisa Whaley, I envision Unicoi County having a great future.