Old memories flood back on a drive down West Main Street

Hudson Alexander’s Around The Block

HUDSON ALEXANDER |

It’s funny how memories of the old days can suddenly just pop up at the strangest times.

Just the other day, I was riding out West Main Street in Franklin, when I happened to notice — for the first time — how odd things looked around the old Bennett-Gathmann House, now that the huge old oak tree is gone from the front yard.

My short-term memory kicked in, and I recalled that it had finally fallen victim to “the elements” just a few months back. It had actually been deteriorating for years. But its fate was sealed, I recalled, after a large chunk had fallen off, landing close to the historic old home.

But then my long-term memory kicked in, too. Suddenly I was transformed to a time, over 40 years ago, when Jennie West stopped her car in front of that old house one night. I was just one of the neighborhood kids in the back seat. She said, “Boys, see that big tree there? About a hundred years ago, there was a little boy (Hardin Perkins Figuers), just about your age, who climbed up in the top of that tree — and he watched the Battle of Franklin unfold, back in 1864.”

See … it was that quick. In an instant, I had remembered that night. And I’d remembered how we were all spellbound, listening to the story. But, even more significant, I’d also remembered Jennie West, one of the finest women who ever lived here in Franklin.

Jennie West was born Jennie Cannon in 1918. She descended from a very distinguished family line, which included two Tennessee governors, Newton Cannon and Aaron V. Brown. Cannon, her great-great grandfather, was the last Whig governor ever elected in Tennessee. And she had an older brother, Henry Cannon, who had married the former Miss Sarah Ophelia Colley, who later achieved both fame and fortune as Minnie Pearl, a regular member on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry.

But none of that mattered to us kids … not then … we just knew she was a wonderful lady — and a great Mom for one of our best friends, Dudley West. On any given weekend, back in the 1960s, you’d likely find our little gang riding around town with Mrs. West. We might be coming, or we might be going … maybe to the Franklin Theater — or maybe to a BGA ball game. But we’d all be there. In addition to me and Dudley, our little group included my brother, Pat Alexander; Eddie Roberts; David Ogilvie; Al and Jimbo Thomas; and Lynn Spencer. There’s no telling how many miles we all logged with Mrs. West at the wheel!

Jennie West, or Mrs. Tom West, was many things to many people: I’ve already mentioned that she was a great Mom to Dudley — and to Dudley’s older brother, Tommy. She also served as den mother, along with Peggy Gentry, in our Cub Scout pack. She was a room mother at school so many times that most of us lost count, and she was a “second mother” to most of the kids in our neighborhood. In addition, she was loved by hundreds of BGA students.

One Friday night, in the fall 1966, we were all riding with her to the BGA football game. Mrs. West was especially excited about that game because BGA was playing a team from Deshler, Ala. They were supposed to be the best in all the land of Bear Bryant. She said, “Boys, I know we have a mighty good football team this year, but we’ll find out tonight just how good we really are.”

And she was right. BGA beat Deshler that night, in a classic slugfest, and they went on to post a perfect 11-0 record under Coach Jimmy Gentry. The highlight of the season was a win in the Tobacco Bowl — and a state championship. To this day, many people feel that 1966 BGA team was the best high school team to ever take the field.

It was just a few years later when Dudley West became a standout athlete at BGA. He excelled in every major sport. I’ll always remember how the boys on the BGA football team loved Mrs. West. They were always welcome at the West’s home on Lewisburg Pike, and especially during the hottest part of the summer, when the team was in the midst of those grueling two-a-day workouts. Between sessions, there was no better place for some rest and relaxation.

In looking back, I realize that Mrs. West was a special person — the kind you might only meet once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. If you were riding high, she was always there to cheer you on, your biggest supporter. And if you were down on your luck, she was still there — as a sympathetic listener and a good sound advisor. You couldn’t ask for much more than that.

After befriending an entire generation of kids around Franklin, Jennie West died, of pancreatic cancer, on May 18, 1977. She was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery.


Franklin attorney participated in Hoffa trial in Chattanooga.

Hudson Alexander’s Around the Block

HUDSON ALEXANDER | Updated Apr 7, 2014

I picked up a newspaper the other day and noticed where authorities in Michigan are chasing new leads, searching for the remains of former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa. Reading that story took me back to a time when my uncle, former Franklin attorney Dave Alexander, was caught up right in the middle of the famous jury-tampering trial that landed Hoffa in prison.

In January 1964, Uncle Dave left his Franklin law office and traveled to Chattanooga, where he represented one of Hoffa’s co-defendants in U.S. District Court. Altogether, there were five co-defendants charged, along with Hoffa. The trial, which drew national media attention, was hailed as the most significant Tennessee court case since the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925.

Prosecuting the case were two well-known lawyers, John Jay Hooker Sr. and James Neal, along with several others. At times, the trial became heated and almost got out of control. There were several angry and emotional outbursts in the courtroom, mostly from Hoffa’s personal defense team. His lawyers vehemently denied charges that the union boss had tried to bribe a Nashville jury in 1962 — and they lashed out at government officials, accusing them using an arsenal of under-handed tactics, including illegal surveillance.

Uncle Dave once told me that Hoffa’s lawyers were probably right. He said he felt like the FBI had watched every move he made, once he’d arrived in Chattanooga. He also told me he tried hard to distance his client from the Hoffa gang. While Hoffa and the others stayed at one of the most lavish hotels in town, Uncle Dave booked his client into more modest quarters — but, ironically, into the same quarters where members of the jury happened to be staying. Every morning, Uncle Dave made sure his client was in the hotel lobby, highly visible and surrounded by his family, so the jurors could see him in a different light — secluded from the others.

The trial dragged on for almost eight long weeks. But in the end, Uncle Dave’s strategy paid big dividends: his client, a man named Nicholas Tweel of West Virginia, was the only one acquitted. The rest of them went to prison. Hoffa remained there until 1971, when President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence to time served.

Another high-profile case where Uncle Dave played a key role was with the tragic train derailment and chemical tanker explosion at Waverly, Tenn., back in 1978. For days, this event grabbed headlines across the country. There were 15 people killed in that accident. Uncle Dave was hired to represent their families. He really played hardball with the corporate lawyers sent down to represent the interests of the railroad and the chemical company. In the end, he negotiated a multi-million dollar settlement for the families — a rare feat for those days.

And then there’s this case, one of the funniest I ever recall. Back in the late 1950s, Uncle Dave was hired to represent a local man who had been charged with a very serious offense of rape. In court, as prosecutors finished laying out their case against this man, things weren’t looking too good. But then it was Uncle Dave’s turn to present his case. He called his client to the stand, but there was one major problem: his client had a serious speech defect. He would stutter and he would stammer and he would ramble, on and on- and nobody in the courtroom could understand a word he was saying. Well … nobody except for Uncle Dave. He convinced the court that he could understand the man quite well, the result of the extensive time spent with the man while preparing the case for trial. For some unknown reason, perhaps because they knew of no alternative, the court went along with Uncle Dave’s line of thinking. So … Uncle Dave would ask a question, wait for the client to ramble along for a few minutes, and then proceed to tell the court what his client had said. In effect, that old sly fox, Uncle Dave, was asking the questions — and then answering them, too! Needless to say, his client in this case was found not guilty.

For almost 50 years, Uncle Dave tried cases in the courts of Williamson County. He once told a newspaper reporter that he’d tried well over 100 murder cases, alone. Some of the local lawyers who practiced with Uncle Dave’s law firms, over the years, included Ned Eggleston, Jim Campbell, Eddie Sanders, my father, T.H. (Huddy) Alexander Jr., Jim Petersen, Mark Hartzog, Don Harris and Ed Silva.

After suffering a series of strokes, Uncle Dave died March 19, 1995. He was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery.


1950s murder trial continues to attract local interest.

Hudson Alexander’s Around the Block

HUDSON ALEXANDERUpdated

I’ve said it before, but now I might need to say it again: it never ceases to amaze me at all the comments I continue to get regarding the four-part series I wrote in The Herald last year on the Burge murder trial of 1950. There’s no telling how many emails I’ve received on this subject, not to mention the numerous comments from people around town who still remember the case like it happened yesterday.

To recap the case briefly, for those who are joining the discussion late: back in December 1949, a young Pennsylvania woman’s body was discovered early one morning behind the gymnasium at Franklin High School, back in the days when the school was located off Columbia Avenue. It was a grisly murder scene. The victim’s throat had been cut “from ear to ear”…her head almost completely severed. After an intense probe, police arrested: Bettie Burge, then 60, who operated a notorious boarding house within 100 yards of the crime scene; and her 37-year-old son, Sherman Burge. Officers found bloodstains on the floor in the boarding house, along with several pairs of bloodstained overalls belonging to the son.

What followed, in January 1950, was a four-day trial that proved to be one of the most intense and sensational events ever held in the Circuit Court of Williamson County. Everyday during the trial, the courtroom was packed with curious spectators. In the end, both of the Burges were convicted of first-degree murder and sent to prison. But a co-defendant in the case, who turned state’s evidence, was acquitted on charges of being an accessory to the murder. He testified that Sherman Burge had killed the woman in his mother’s bedroom- and, he said, Burge had then forced him to assist in dumping the victim’s body on the school grounds.

The most recent comments I’ve received about this case — and certainly some the most

Interesting — came during a phone call just last weekend. The voice on the other end of the phone that night was a familiar one. In fact, it was an old friend of my family, going back some 50 years.

“I enjoy your columns in the paper,” she told me. “I really liked the ones you wrote about the Burge murder trial. I remember that real well. But I thought you should know that there’s part of it you got all wrong.”

“Really…what was that?”

“Well…you wrote, in one column, that it was just a myth…and not true…that they’d tried to dump the victim’s body in the incinerator behind the high school — and they DID try to dump her there!”

“How do you know that,” I asked. “There was nothing to indicate that in the trial transcript.”

“No … you’re right. It wasn’t in the transcript,” she said. “But I know it to be a fact. You see…I had a brother who ran a business in town, and the state’s star witness used to hang out down there with him all the time, back in those days. They talked about it. He told my brother, first-hand, that they’d tried desperately to dump her body in the incinerator that morning, but they couldn’t get the door open. So they wound up dumping her up there behind the gym.”

“So why didn’t he say anything about that in court?” I asked. “And why didn’t he mention it to Marshall Morgan, the reporter, when he did his newspaper interview during the trial?”

“My brother said the man was scared to death, and especially after he’d become the star witness for the state. He didn’t want to say any more than he absolutely had to…he wasn’t about to volunteer any more information because he already feared for his life.”

“Oh … and there was one more thing, too,” she said. “He told my brother that the Dean woman, the victim, had been in Franklin — and in the Burge’s boarding house — on several occasions before the night of her murder. She’d showed up before to get money from Bettie Burge, in exchange for her keeping quiet about another murder that Burge had been implicated in a few years earlier.”

At the end of our conversation, there were two thoughts that immediately came to my mind:(1) Although the major players in this case have been deceased for many years, just maybe they didn’t take all the secrets in this case to the grave with them, after all; and
(2) If the door to that incinerator had opened early on that fateful morning, we probably wouldn’t be discussing the case today. You see …with just that slightest twist of fate it could have become, quite possibly, the perfect crime!


Dortch Stove Works helped Franklin through Depression.

Hudson Alexander’s Around The Block

Updated

It would be almost impossible for most of us to even imagine the hardships suffered by those who lived through the Great Depression. But there was an occasional glimmer of hope, even in those dark days of economic gloom and doom. And that was the case when Dortch Stove Works announced plans to set up shop here in Franklin.

The welcome news came in December 1932 from Oscar Dortch, a Maury County businessman, remembered by many as a “natural-born industrialist.” Dortch had amassed a fortune in the phosphate business, back during the “boom years” at Mt. Pleasant, in the early 1900s. He’d ventured into the stove business in 1919, at first setting up shop at Bridgeport, Ala. He’d started his business in an old shed, and he’d planned to stay there. But when his Alabama workers made demands that would have rendered his shop unprofitable, and then called a strike, Dortch simply closed his doors and moved the shop to Nashville.

Dortch, like most good businessmen, seemed to always have a knack for being at the right place at the right time. That was certainly the case in 1932, when the auctioneer’s hammer came crashing down on the former Allen Stove Plant here in Franklin. Built in 1928, at the present-day site of the Factory at Franklin, out on Franklin Road, Allen Stove had a modern facility and state-of-the-art equipment. But unfortunately, by 1930, they’d become an early casualty to the Depression. On auction day, Allen’s property and assets, once valued at over $400,000, went to the high bidder — which happened to be Dortch- for a mere $80,000.

In March 1933, Dortch Stove Works was open for business. And in short order, they placed 125 local workers on the payroll. Mr. Dortch was president of the company. He brought in his son-in-law, Edward Criddle, as vice president; his nephew, G.O.

Stanley, as secretary; and Tom Lance as treasurer. Ben Latta was placed in charge of the office.

By 1934, the company was working 300 men and the payroll had expanded to about $1,000 per day. In those days, the plant’s capacity was four railcars of stoves per day, and it was operating at full capacity. There were thousands of stoves sent to retailers all over the country.

One local man who realized the economic importance of Dortch was Waldon Smithson, who went to work at the plant in June 1937.

“That plant was mighty good for Williamson County,” Smithson told me, during a recent

interview. “But in those days, it sure wasn’t easy to get a job out there. It took me two weeks, sitting out on their front porch every day, to finally even get a chance at a job.”

According to Smithson, it was customary for a group of eager job-seekers to gather in front of the plant each day. They were all there, hoping to get hired on by Atwood Vaughn, the plant superintendent. They knew, if Vaughn ran short of help inside the plant, he’d always check first out front for available workers.

“We were just beginning to come out of the Depression when I got hired,” Smithson said. “I remember that Mr. Jimmy Lanier was the company paymaster at that time. He’s the one who put me to work. I started out at 23 1⁄2 -cents an hour. And by 1941, I was making about 35 cents an hour. At our peak, we had about 500 employees, with about 125 in the steel shop alone.”

Officials at Dortch Stove Works had at least two major labor disputes. They sought relief through Chancery Court in 1938 and 1951, when striking workers disrupted work at the plant. In 1955, Dortch Stove Works was sold to Magic Chef, a stove company based out of St. Louis. Magic Chef continued to manufacture stoves at the facility until the early 1960s.

Even today, as you pass by The Factory at Franklin, if you look real close, you can still see a faint imprint bearing the name “Dortch Stove Works.” The years have faded the old paint. It’s almost like an old ghost from the past … a bygone era … but one that helped pull a lot of people through some tough times around here, too.


Tornadoes have done their damage in Williamson County

Hudson Alexander’s Around The Block

Updated

We are right in the midst of tornado season, one of the most dangerous and potentially deadly times of the year. The most recent reminder of this came via the severe round of destruction dealt to our Middle Tennessee neighbors up in Sumner county, around Gallatin, just a couple of weeks ago.

Many of us still have clear memories of the strongest tornado ever recorded here in Williamson County. According to Mark Rose, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, that came early on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1988. An F4 tornado ripped a path, 150 yards wide and six miles long, from the Rebel Meadows subdivision, just north of Franklin, to the Brenthaven area of Brentwood.

Within a matter of minutes, there was a massive amount of property destroyed that day. It included 54 houses, 13 apartment units, 31 businesses and six airplanes, which had been parked at a private air strip just off Mallory Station Road. In addition, one man lost his life when his roof collapsed. And the total damages were placed at $50 million. Thank goodness that tornado struck back in the days before the Cool Springs area became such a prominent center of business activity. It could have been much worse.

Since 1868, when the National Weather Service began keeping records, there have been 21 tornadoes recorded in Williamson County. Out of that number, 10 of them — or nearly half — have occurred just in the months of April and May. Perhaps the most unusual event on record, and also the most deadly, came on April 29, 1909, when two separate tornadoes touched down exactly one hour apart.

It was around 10:15 p.m. when the first of these came rolling out of Hickman County into the White Oak area, just across the county line. The loss in timber alone in this section was placed at $100,000. From that point, the storm moved into the Greenbrier section, where it destroyed two stores, several churches, and numerous farm houses, barns and outbuildings. There were also numerous reports of livestock killed by flying debris. This would be typical of damage reports all along the storm route that night.

One of the saddest stories took place at Leiper’s Fork. The home of Mr. and Mrs. Jeff Marlin was completely demolished. Two of the couple’s sons were blown over a 20-foot bluff and into a nearby creek. Their bodies were recovered the next morning at about daylight. A third son died two days later as a result of injuries sustained during the tornado. And five days later, Mrs. Marlin died from her injuries at a Nashville hospital. Mr. Marlin was badly injured, too, but he survived, along with an infant child, a 16-year old son, and two young daughters.

As the storm moved eastward, it cut a path into the Southall community, causing major damage and dealing additional death blows. From there, it crossed over to Columbia Avenue, where it completely wrecked everything along both sides of the pike, from Winstead Hill to the area just adjacent to Battle Ground Academy. Many historians believe it was during this phase of the storm that winds along the periphery also toppled the steeple that used to sit atop the Franklin Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

The tornado proceeded over across the Lewisburg Pike area, out Murfreesboro Road, and by 11 p.m. struck for a final time, near Clovercroft. In the end, this first tornado, an F3, cut a path 45-miles long through Hickman, Maury, and Williamson counties. It left 10 people dead and 40 more with serious injuries.

The second tornado that night struck at 11:15 p.m. about four miles southwest of Nolensville. It cut a huge path over a mile wide through the area. Just like the previous storm, it caused widespread property damage. Many Nolensville residents said it was the worst storm to ever strike there — even worse than the notorious cyclone of 1900, which had cut a path only a few hundred yards wide. After striking Nolensville, the storm moved into Rutherford County. Two people were killed and 20 injured in that second storm. It went on record as an F2 tornado.

Here in Williamson County, we’ve only had two F4 tornadoes in our history: one that we already mentioned, from 1988, and the other way back in 1877. We’ve never had an F5 tornado.

Let’s hope we never do!

Hudson Alexander was “born and raised” in Franklin. Visit his website.

© 2006 Williamson Herald


Fond’ memories of return to school seem to be tradition.

Hudson Alexander’s Around The Block

Updated

The start of school this year has put me in a predicament once again — one that I haven’t had to deal with in many years. And my predicament is this: how do you tell a child, and especially one so special in your life, something that’s really…shall we say…a little less than truthful?

Here’s my point…just the other day, my pretty little 5-year-old granddaughter came crawling up in my lap. After giving me a big hug, she looked up at me with those big blue eyes, and said, “Pap, I guess you know I start to kindergarten tomorrow. Do you think I’ll like it?”

Now why did she have to go and ask her Pap a question like that? It didn’t take but a split second for my mind to go racing back to the fall 1959 — to the very day when I was coerced into crossing that little wooden bridge at Inge Smith’s kindergarten over on Battle Avenue. I recalled what a pain it had been to leave my little brother back at home. He got to see what was going on with Mr. Moose and Mr. Green-Jeans on the Captain Kangaroo TV show. All I got was a bum deal: I was thrown headlong into a new situation, with a bunch of new kids, and I had to learn a whole bunch of new stuff. If it hadn’t been for the kindly assistance from those two saintly ladies who helped out there, Mrs. Eloise North and Mrs. Maxie Lawrence, I don’t think I’d have ever even survived that first day of kindergarten!

“So Pap, do you think I’ll like school,” she asked again, this time interrupting my memories on the subject that stretched back some 47 years ago.

I drew a deep breath, let out a long sigh, and then thought about it again, for just a brief time.

“Why…yes, baby, I think you’ll love kindergarten,” I said, with a straight face that might’ve won the national poker tournament. “This is an exciting time in your life. And I’ll just bet you’ll be the prettiest little girl in the whole class, too.”

Then, I thought…since I’ve already started down this dark road, I might as well lay it all out there…hook, line, and sinker.

“You know, Taylor, Pap sure wishes he could swap places with you tomorrow. Pap would love it if you’d go to work in his place tomorrow, while he got to have all the fun and go meet all those new little friends at kindergarten. That would be a good deal for Pap!”

She looked up, sporting that little innocent smile…you know, the kind that radiated a sense of newfound courage, mixed in with some sheer determination not to let her Pap pull one over on her. Now…I should have been satisfied with such a performance. But I wasn’t. The last time I’d told one that big was way back there… in fall 1982, when my oldest son, Jason, was about to start kindergarten at Franklin Elementary School. Or maybe it was in fall 1986, when my youngest son, Little Hut, was about to enter kindergarten at Liberty Elementary School.

Either way, I thought those days were long gone…now I’m in that familiar predicament again — and this time it’s with the grandchildren! I’ve got three more coming up behind little Taylor.

A couple of days later, I was still moping around the house, still pondering this deep dilemma, when I stumbled across…so help me…a newspaper column that my grandfather, T.H. Alexander, had written on this very subject back in the fall of 1927. You have to understand here that my grandfather died 13 years before I was born. But, somehow, I just knew he’d penned this column, knowing I’d find it one day. He had these interesting remarks in his column, which was called “I Reckon So,” and published in The Nashville Tennessean and other southern papers:

“Now that the kids are going back to school, I notice almost all the Southern editors are writing editorials on school days and calling them the happiest days of life. Me..myself..personal, I don’t agree…but schools have just returned and my own boy with honest grimaces and candid distaste has resumed his schooling.”

“Old timer,” I said to him only yesterday, “this is the happiest time of your life. The cares and worries of the great world need not bother you. You need not bother, like your dad, on what to write today to bring beans and bacon tomorrow. Yes, these are the days.”

“But deep down in my heart I know I have lied to him! I am simply helping perpetuate the Great American Tradition.”

So…that’s what it is! The Great American Tradition. I never thought about it in quite that light, but…hey…I can live with that. Thanks, Granddaddy!

© 2006 Williamson Herald


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