“The Colorful Eighties in Nashville” — Reminiscences of Marmaduke B. Morton (1859-1943) as published in the Nashville Banner, 1930. Compiled by E. Thomas Wood as a text for an evening class on local history at Montgomery Bell Academy, 2005. (Compilation copyright 2005.)
21 Sept. 1930: “South’s Reawakening — Confederate Brigadiers in Saddle —The Old Maxwell House — Noted Orators”
The dining room was a specimen of architectural beauty, and there viands fit for the gods were served by a small army of Negro waiters. Men loafed in easy chairs and talked politics, and discussed other subjects, while the impact of billiard balls and the clinking of ice in cut glass tumblers, as the spotless bartender stood behind the speckless counter and poured amber mixtures from decanters, could be heard. Upstairs on what would now be called the mezzanine floor the curly heads and bustled bodies of women, with all the witchery of the Old South, could be seen peeping over the railing into the rotunda to see what their husbands and sweethearts were doing.
28 Sept. 1930: “Horse Racing and Sportsmen — Scenes During Race Meetings — Old Saloons and Livery Stables”
The livery stable keeper, like the man who dispensed drinks in white collar and immaculate shirt, with hand-painted necktie, was noted for his wisdom. The loafers around the stables referred all disputed points to him. He delivered his dictum with becoming gravity. He looked horsey, and had an unutterable contempt for anyone who did not “know” a horse. He had sleek, blood bays, sorrels, grays, blacks — a dappled black was a star beauty — rich chestnut sorrels and occasionally a star, milk white.
When [women] went to the seashore they were allowed to go into the surf in bathing suits. These suits were of flannel, red or blue, with baggy legs drawn together at the ankle with a puckering string. In one of these bathing suits a girl looked like the devil. A boy was allowed to put his hand under her body after they were in the water, and hold her up while she learned to swim. It generally took her a long time to learn.
An event of world-wide importance to newspapers occurred in Nashville in 1885. It was the successful use of the typewriter In taking telegraphic messages. John A. Payne, commonly known as “Johnny Payne,” was the pioneer. Addison C. Thomas, superintendent of the traffic department of the Associated Press, came to Nashville in May of that year, and found, Payne, a Western Union operator, taking the press reports on a typewriter. He at once captured Payne and took him on a tour of the Associated Press papers through-out the country, and introduced his innovation everywhere.
It was the custom for all the Negro hands to gather on the swinging gangplank as the boats backed out and started on their journey, and sing boat songs and spirituels, while a leader gestulated and led the singing. No one, who has stood on the Woodland Street Bridge as a steamboat passed down stream, and has witnessed the scene described and heard the wonderful chanting of these natural-born musicians, will ever forget the thrill of it.
Some feared that the wires swung all over town would bring down the lightning from the clouds during thunderstorms and burn everything up; and were reassured with the statement that the wires were really a protection against lightning…. Then everybody was told that the electricity in the cars would interfere with the time-keeping qualities of the watches, and that the only preventive was to be very careful and also to have a non-conductor plate put in the watches. The jewelers did a thriving business for a while.
2 Nov. 1930: “Military Spirit and May Drills — Porter Rifles and Other Crack Companies — New Waterworks and Bursting Pipes — Hermitage Club Organized”
The old water pipes had not been constructed to stand this additional pressure, and besides, many were rusty and dilapidated. When the water was turned into them from the new reservoir many of them burst — not all at one time, but from day to day. Geysers spouted at various points over the city. One was especially notable. The main on Seventh Avenue in front of the First Christian Church burst, and the water spouted fifty or sixty feet high, carrying with it rocks, dirt and other wreckage. The church and an adjoining residence were badly damaged. Holes were knocked in the roofs by the falling stones, and the interior of the buildings drenched with water, destroying plastering and furnishings. It was said that a live catfish eighteen inches long was thrown out upon the street. This fish was supposed to have got into the main when a baby.
9 Nov. 1930: “Kings of Commerce — Strong Array of Lawyers — Outstanding Physicians — Spectacular Fires”
A fireman climbed the ladder, and, standing on the top rung, reached up, caught the woman, threw her across his shoulder, and began to descend, as the cheering of the crowd split the heavens. The woman, who was young and good looking, said in a clear voice: “Put me on the ladder. I can go down by myself.” Before she reached the ground the crowd grabbed her and carried her in triumph over their heads. A large number of women from the red light district was present, and these women, always full of sentiment, strange as it may seem, clothed those who had lost all in the fire from their own wardrobes.
16 Nov. 1930: “Decade of Political Events — ‘Bob’ Taylor’s Star Arises — A Republican Filibuster — Negro Office Holders in Nashville — Many Unusual Incidents”
With the passage of the Dortch law in the late eighties the Negroes were practically eliminated from politics. Prior to that time they were active and aggressive. They entered into every campaign and their speakers canvassed the town. One of their “rabble rousers” was Henderson Young. He claimed that Hannibal, the Pharaohs, the Queen of Sheba and most of the heroes of antiquity were Negroes. All the older citizens of Nashville will remember him as well as John Cochran, “The Buzzard Orator.” The Negro orators were frequently the targets for eggs and tomatoes, but they paid little attention to such slight interruptions.
23 Nov. 1930: “Nashville Becomes a Great Center of Education — Some Great Teachers — Old Metropolitan Police Force — John L. Sullivan’s Arrest and Trial — ‘The Headless Horror'”
There was a number of others, from time to time, who served on the detective force, among them, Alex Bolton, popularly known among his associates, when he was not present, as “Horsehead.” He was one out of a number on the force who were friends of Frank James, when he lived in Nashville under the name of Mr. Woodson. Every once in a while the force was given a tip to look out for some member of the James Gang, but it never occurred to them that its chief was their friend Mr. Woodson.
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.
7 Dec. 1930: “Some of the Famous Ministers of the Gospel of the Old Regime”
The Cumberland Presbyterian Church was a strong denomination, dominated by strong men in the eighties. The First Church was located on Fifth Avenue where the Central Church of Christ, with its great organization for social service, now stands. One of its great preachers and pastors was Rev. A. J. Baird, the father of W. B. Baird. He drew people of all classes, and always preached to packed houses. He was a friend of “publicans and sinners,”and was a sort of father confessor to the gamblers and the “down-and-outs” generally. His work had far-reaching results.