Thirty years ago, a song titled “Grandpa, Tell Us About the Good Old Days” was released by the Judds and became a number one country music hit for the mother-daughter duo. In its reflection of days gone by, it suggested that the grandfather “wander back into the past and paint me a picture of long ago.” Sound familiar? Likely, if you’re a grandparent or if you’ve asked a grandparent to do the same for you. Most of us long to know about the good old days.
For me, some of the best days are lodged in the period around the middle of the twentieth century, with an emphasis on the 1950s. So, when grandchildren ask, I like to tell them about those days in Middlesboro and the Tri-State area. Although it may seem to be ancient times to the younger ones, I can assure them that I lived and worked in a booming town that was an important shopping center for the region and that there were lots of interesting programs and varied activities for people of all ages and interests.
Grandchildren want specifics. So, I decided to paint a word picture of long ago, developing a list of things that I remembered about the town and the surrounding area from that period. The list included recreational activities, cultural programs, sports, education, food, and civic and church opportunities. Although 1950 was ushered in on clouds of war over Korea, I wanted to finish college before facing military service.
As a college student at Lincoln Memorial University, I had found part-time employment at WMIK in Middlesboro in March, 1950, and with it what I thought could be the resources to pay my college expenses, get a degree, and then serve my military obligation. By October, I was working full-time and going to college as a full-time student.
Working in broadcasting was both challenging and rewarding. It opened other doors in the community, including service with the local Salvation Army, a leadership opportunity with the district Boy Scouts, roles in Middlesboro Little Theatre productions, and much more.
The people who lived in the area during the 1950s had a great treasure in community theatre. In 1952, the organization attracted significant acclaim for its staging of “The Hasty Heart” as part of the LMU Artist League Series and for being invited to bring the same stage production to the Guignol Theatre on the campus of the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Exciting times for community leaders and amateur actors to headline performances at two universities! Much of the credit for such success was due Mrs. Kirby Smith, Jr., whose love of theatre and whose education and experience helped build a great tradition.
The LMU Artist League Series brought a variety of artists and shows to Duke Auditorium in those days. The Barter Theater, the Apollo Boys Choir, the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra, and the Julliard String Quarter are illustrative of those featured in the 1950s.
There were other avenues for entertainment during those years, including three big-screen theaters in Middlesboro: the Manring, at the corner of Cumberland Avenue and Twenty-first Street, the Park, on Twentieth Street, and the Reda Drive In on Highway 25-E just north of town. The Reda was promoted as “Kentucky’s Finest Drive-In Theater!”
At Pine Mountain State Park, during the summer months, “The Book of Job” featured the Everyman Players and was staged outdoors in the Laurel Cove Amphitheater. An unusual biblical play that was designed for spoken and chanted choral presentation, the Everyman Players troupe had success at the Brussels World’s Fair, off-Broadway, and on numerous tours. For Middlesboro, Pineville, and the Tri-State area, the production at Pine Mountain was important as a cultural offering and as a tourist attraction.
The Lincoln Players at LMU also presented a variety of plays for the students, faculty, and townspeople. Directed by Professor Earl Hobson Smith, the Players from time to time staged an original play written by Professor Smith.
My thoughts about the good old days included golf at the Middlesboro Golf and Country Club, one of the oldest golf courses in the United States, possibly the oldest that has remained in continuous use since its founding in 1889.
For recreation, there were bowling lanes for both individual and league play, and in the summer months a big attraction was swimming at Devil’s Garden.
In terms of athletics, there were outstanding programs at Middlesboro High School, at Lincoln Memorial University, and in the community, where local organizations such as the Lions Club sponsored little league teams and other sports. At one time, there was a minor league professional baseball team in town.
Perhaps the biggest event, and one of the most important public programs in the 1950s was the July 4, 1959 dedication of the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. The Vice President of the United States was a special guest who delivered an address from the front of the Cumberland Hotel. Many other important state and national dignitaries were here for the dedication. They included the Secretary of the Interior, the Director of the National Park Service, and U. S. Senators and other elected officials from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Nearing the end of the decade, my wife and I were married at Middlesboro’s First Christian Church, and a year later our first child was born in Middlesboro, two of the most important reasons why I might “…wander back into the past to paint a picture of long ago…” the good old days, as I remember them!
William H. Baker, Claiborne County native and former Middlesboro resident, frequently writes about yesteryear and may be contacted at email@example.com
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