This week in Nashville history: You gonna eat that?

As we close in on the end of Nashville Banner scribe Marmaduke Morton’s 1930 serialized memoir of the city he covered in the 1880s, the tale of a long-ago dining contest awaits…

30 Nov. 1930: “Achievement of Nat Baxter, Jr., and Col. A.M. Shook — Duncan R. Dorris — The First Nashville Press Club”

In those days of the long ago the perennial crop of country boys who flooded to the urban Utopia “to make a fortune,” slept in garrets, over stores and in various cubby holes, and ate at cheap rate hotels and cheaper boarding houses. The railroads were then growing young industrial giants, and all the boys, who could not get to sweep out somebody’s store, sought a job with the railroads, all expecting soon to become magnates of large dimensions. Quite a bunch of these young countrymen were handling freight at the N. C. & St. L. freight depot on Church Street, and they were in the habit of going to the St. Cloud Hotel for dinner, where they could get cabbage, beans, potatoes, country ham, fried chicken, milk, coffee and pie, dumpling or pudding, all for 25 cents.

Three of these promising youngsters were Bill Huggins, Bill Napier and Jake Stevenson, the latter’s nickname springing from the fact that he had recently emerged from the Mud River Bottoms in Logan County, Kentucky. All three are now prosperous and well-known elderly gentlemen, known to the public as Mr. W. T. Huggins, Mr. W. W. Napier and Mr. E. B. Stevenson, Sr.

New theories were being advanced even at that early date and one day, as the boys were getting ready to leave the freighthouse for dinner a hot argument developed over the theory that no matter how much a man might eat, he weighed the same after eating as he did before. Jake took the affirmative and Bill Napier the negative side. Bill Huggins was umpire. Bill Napier asserted that sometimes he weighed five pounds more after eating a hearty meal than he did before. Notwithstanding he was considered a gastronomic marvel, this seemed impossible, and so Jake proposed to bet him $5.00 that he would not weigh five pounds more when they returned from the St. Cloud.

The boys put up the money, and Bill Huggins was appointed weighmaster and stakeholder. Arriving at the hotel Napier drank buttermilk and sweet-milk, ate raw tomatoes as an appetizer, and then proceeded to eat everything else he could lay his hands on. Returning to the railroad, Bill Huggins weighed him, and he tipped the beam at just six pounds more than when he left.

Mr. Napier says that Mr. Stevenson has been unsuccessfully trying to get that five dollars back ever since.

If Eldon Stevenson’s name rings a bell, you may know him as the father of Eldon B. Stevenson Jr., a top exec at National Life & Accident Insurance Co. and benefactor of Vanderbilt University, where a building bears his name.

+++++++++++++++++

Young Mr. Lytle

Eighty-five years ago today, the Sunday Tennessean carried its usual book page, curated by Vanderbilt Professor of English Donald Davidson. The page, viewable in full here, was densely packed with high-minded reviews of serious literature. Davidson was moonlighting not only for the newspaper but also for a poetry journal, The Fugitive, which would publish its final issue the following month.

Fugitives Davidson, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren would all go on to become prominent men of letters in the ensuing decades. Joining them as a co-author of the Agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand in 1930 would be Middle Tennessee native Andrew Nelson Lytle.

For the November 29th book page, Lytle took on the breakthrough second novel of Norwegian-Canadian Martha Ostenso, Wild Geese. The future Agrarian found much to like in Ostenso’s tale, set amid the fertile fields of Manitoba:

With Knut Hamsun, Johan Bojer, and now with Miss Ostenso, it is the soil itself that grasps the attention. The characters as they speak, eat, act and think, speak, act and think for the soil. The acrid odor of manure permeates the pages, and when the author digs into the hearts of Amelia, Ellen, Martin and particularly Judge, the analogy to a plow throwing back the rich, black loam is irresistible.

This country has long hungered for a literature of the soil. Miss Ostenso is to be hailed as the first vigorous pioneer. Our eyes shall follow with enthusiasm the paths she blazes.

Six decades on, one fine afternoon in September 1986, a carload of young men ascended Monteagle Mountain to pay a call on Mr. Lytle at his log cabin in the Assembly. Fortified by a solid-silver julep cup full of W.L. Weller Special Reserve (“Don’t bring me Jack Daniel’s,” the sage had instructed. “They’ve ruined that stuff.”), Lytle held forth at length about history, culture, symbolism and much else. Here are a couple of snippets recorded that day:

[Audio.] “That’s why soldiers polish their shoes. You cannot confront the last great experience with shoes like I’ve got on now…. So you confront these things ceremonially. They’ve forgotten the meaning of it, and the moment it turns into the industrial — in the First World War, you see, they dug holes in the ground and crawled in ‘em like rats, and were all killed — ignominiously…. This was an ignoble way to fight. And the generals took no risk. They were back there like boards of directors meetings. All of our proletarian world, this servile world we live in now, is just that, because you’ve lost ceremony.”

[Audio.] “What is divine in man, don’t you see — I’m saying that the creator, for whatever reason, he became an artist…. That’s what is divine in man: he wants to make things…. ‘Progress’ means, finally, the perfectibility of man — which is both a heresy and an impossibility.”

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About Tom

I'm an old news man, any way you look at me. Not as old in years as some local journos I much admire, but committed to bringing old news from Nashville's deeper past back to life.
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One Response to This week in Nashville history: You gonna eat that?

  1. Pingback: Two 1880s eating contests- | EatFeats

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