HISTORIC DOWNTOWN WALKING TOUR
Take a stroll through Bristol history…
Get an up-close look at this historic town by taking a self-guided walking tour of the many wonderful sites that tell Bristol’s story. You’ll see the Bristol Sign, one of the South’s most unique landmarks; music heritage sites such as the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, the country music mural and the Burger Bar where Hank Williams allegedly stopped on the night he died; the NASCAR mural honoring such legends as Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty; and other sites that bring the history of this storied town to life.
A brochure accompanying this tour can be found at the Bristol Chamber of Commerce/ Convention & Visitors Bureau, 20 Volunteer Parkway, Bristol, Tenn. 37620, 423-989-4850.
It is fitting that two of the most famous things about Bristol should be celebrated by neighboring murals, here on either side of State Street. The first is a tribute to NASCAR and two of its greatest legends, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty, both of whom were successful at world famous Bristol Motor Speedway.
Bristol natives Larry Carrier and Carl Moore were inspired to build a track in Bristol in 1960 after traveling to Charlotte Motor Speedway to watch a stock car race. From humble origins – scratching out ideas and designs on scrap pieces of paper – Bristol International Speedway was born the following year on what had formerly been a dairy farm.
The track had several owners through the years before it was eventually sold to Speedway Motor Sports and Charlotte Motor Speedway owner O. Bruton Smith in 1996. Several expansions were made to the track which was renamed Bristol Motor Speedway, increasing the seating capacity to approximately 150,000, making it one of the largest permanent seating facilities in the world.
NASCAR Sprint Cup and Xfinity races take place twice a year at BMS, in April and August. Drag races are held regularly in Thunder Valley at Bristol Dragway, which is adjacent to BMS, spring through fall with the main NHRA event taking place each June. Even if you don’t have time to take in a race, we still recommend the pleasant drive out to the impressive track just a few minutes away. Track tours also are available through the gift shop.
During the holiday season, Speedway In Lights at Bristol Motor Speedway offers a popular festive light show. Featuring approximately 2 million holiday lights over a 4-mile drive-thru route, there’s fun for all the family, and even an opportunity to drive around the track. In keeping with the seasonal spirit, proceeds benefit Speedway Children’s Charities.
Commemorating the historic 1927 Bristol Sessions, this striking music mural was painted by local artist and musician Tim White in 1987. Featuring Ralph Peer, who organized those momentous recording sessions, as well as some of the most well known artists from them, like The Carter Family, The Stoneman Family and Jimmie Rodgers, the mural is a tribute to Bristol’s expansive musical heritage.
The mural features a wooden stage where, every Tuesday, and Thursday, from May into October, local pickers and artists gather to play. The area also provides one of the main stages at the annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival, held every third weekend in September, which features a variety of local, regional and nationally known artists.
The venue hosts a popular Farmer’s Market every Saturday during the months of May thru October, and on Wednesdays July thru September.
Local legend has it that somewhere near the mural there is a hidden stash of buried gold. According to the story, back in 1876, following the death of her husband, an eccentric older lady by the name of Rosetta Bachelor buried the family treasure there. At the time, the Bachelor’s were one of the wealthiest families in town. Bachelor, herself, was reputed to have been a fearsome woman. She had specially cut slits in her skirt so that she could reach her holstered pistols more easily. To this day, the treasure has never been found.
The arrival of the railroad in 1856 led to the founding of Bristol. By the mid to late 1800s Bristol had become the largest center for commerce and industry between Roanoke, Va. and Knoxville Tenn., a 100-mile radius from where you are now.
In 1899, H.P. King built the region’s first complete department store. The store offered home furnishings and decoration services with free delivery throughout the area, as well as elegant and moderately priced apparel, including locally made beaver hats.
After a brief decline (common with many U.S. cities) in the 1970’s and 80’s, Bristol’s downtown experienced a rebirth and renaissance. You will notice that many of the old department stores are being tastefully transformed, their upper floors being turned into modern and stylish loft apartments. In keeping with the original, more functional design of these buildings, many of these apartments feature stunning, restored hardwood and ceramic tile floors, high ceilings and exposed brick walls.
Here, too, are all manner of offices, banks, antique stores, restaurants, art galleries and specialty shops. If the resurgence of the downtown living experience has been a trend common to many U.S. cities, few places are managing to combine the old and the new to such simple and naturally beautiful effect as Bristol. Here the city center combines a gentle, urban spirit with a leafy, tree-lined atmosphere. Plus, there is the quirk and charm of the Tennessee/ Virginia state line running down the middle of the street. You may notice the markers between the yellow lines indicating the official state lines, all of which helps make Bristol the unique place it is today, just as it always has been and always will be.
Coinciding with the golden age of Hollywood, this majestic movie palace was built in 1931 – a masterpiece of art deco craft, blessed with an opulent, richly embellished interior, plush seats and a stunning array of Venetian style murals.
Throughout the coming decades, the Paramount was the heart of Bristol society, and indeed, continued to prosper right through until the 1960s. By the early 1970s, however, the twin impact of television and a nationwide drift toward suburban movie theaters, at first threatened its future, and then ultimately, forced it to close. Even closed, however, it still stood imperious, like a dusty jewel shining down on State Street.
When it was lovingly restored to its full, original splendor in 1991, it was cause for a massive celebration. The renovation included an hydraulic lift that was also installed to raise the theater’s (also restored) Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Organ to stage level.
The Paramount reopened with a gala celebration featuring a poignant hometown performance from Bristol native and international singing star Tennessee Ernie Ford, just a few months before he passed away. Be sure to look for the inlaid granite star on the sidewalk in front of the theater commemorating Ford, as well as a select few others.
Since reopening, it is renowned, not just for year-round films, lectures, concerts, dance and theater productions, but also for many special occasion gala showcases and premieres.
Over the years, major artists such as Tommy Dorsey, Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter, Bill Monroe, Debbie Reynolds, Chet Atkins, Bob Newhart, Loretta Lynn, Dr. Ralph Stanley, and Emmylou Harris have all appeared here. In 1997, a show celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Bristol Sessions was attended by music fans from all over the world. Fittingly, it included performances from descendants of The Carter and Stoneman families.
Over 10 hot days in the summer of 1927, on this very spot, in a dark curtained room with blankets on the wall above an old hat warehouse, a 35-year-old Kansas-raised New Yorker by the name of Ralph Peer invented country music…
Okay, so the first country record may have been by Fiddlin’ John Carson in 1923, and the music itself, various strains of folk, blues and gospel, string band music, fiddle tunes and mountain balladry, had been around for years (centuries in fact). However, the 1927 Bristol Sessions were the first country music recordings to be mass produced and distributed, which would be come known as the ‘Big Bang’ of country music.
Working as a talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Company, Peer placed an ad in the Bristol Tennessee-Virginia News Bulletin inviting local singers to attend a series of auditions and recording sessions at the makeshift studio on State Street. The initial response was slow but shortly after the Bristol Herald Courier ran a follow-up story mentioning not only that participants could be paid up to $100 a day, but also detailing how local musician Ernest ‘Pop’ Stoneman (from nearby Galax, Virginia) had earned $3,600 in royalties the previous year. It should be noted, the average farmers income at that time was in the region of $650 a year. Unsurprisingly, “this worked liked dynamite” Peer would later say.
Certainly, to A.P. Carter who sold fruit trees and ran a gristmill on isolated farmland in the shadow of the nearby Clinch Mountain, it was too good an opportunity to miss. So, A.P., along with wife Sara, their children Gladys and Joe, and (seven months pregnant) Maybelle, piled in to brother Ezra’s old Model A Hupmobile and drove the 25 miles to Bristol.
People came from all over southern Appalachia for the sessions, including Jimmie Rodgers who arrived by train from Asheville, N.C. Originally part of a group, the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers, Rodgers performed solo following an argument with the group. His solo performance led to a legendary, but short career.
The Sessions helped launch the careers of the Carter Family, as well as Rodgers. The Carter Family has been recognized as country music’s “First Family” due to the influence of their works on succeeding generations of country music artists. Well known Carter Family songs include “Keep It on the Sunny Side”, and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Rodgers is considered the “Father of Country Music” and was the first artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He passed away of TB just six years after his Bristol Sessions recording.
The Taylor-Christian Hat Company warehouse where the Sessions took place burned to the ground in the 1940’s. Today a marker stands in its place.
In 1998, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution recognizing Bristol as official the Birthplace of Country Music.
Although Peer is best known for his country music recordings (‘hillbilly’ recordings as they were known at the time), he also made many jazz and blues recordings, including some with esteemed African-American artists like Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Blind Willie McTell. Peer returned to Bristol in 1928 and recorded, amongst others, the locally renowned African-American duo Stephen Tarter and Harry Gay.
Although this landmark electric sign is viewed fondly by locals, it has actually had a checkered history. The sign was donated to the cities by the Bristol Gas and Electric Company and erected in 1910. It was originally located on the corner of Third and State Street (on top of the Bristol Supply & Equipment Company building) which is to the right of the sign’s current position. Back then, it read ‘Push! That’s Bristol’ instead of a “A Good Place to Live”.
Unfortunately, three years later it was found that the sign was so heavy it was causing structural damage to the building on which it sat. The sign was re-located to its present, more appropriate position, with a foot in each state, in 1915.
Over time some bulbs would persistently fail to light, and in combinations that, on one occasion, led to the sign reading “Pu– That’s Bristol” and on another ”–sh That’s Bristol”. So, in 1921 there was a contest to find ‘a new and fitting slogan for Bristol’, which resulted in the sign’s original, slightly curious motto, being changed to the less confusing, more appealing, ‘A Good Place to Live’. (Incidentally, the runner-up was ‘Bristol, The Best Place to Live’). The new slogan was considered to be “modest in claim and truthful in statement”.
Over the next 60 years, the sign would fall into disrepair and local campaigns would be launched to save it as well as tear it down.
Today the sign is on the National Register of Historic Places and maintained by both cities. Decade after decade, it has been the subject of countless photographs. Oh, and the impact of the sign during the day is as nothing compared to the grand spectacle of it lit up at night.
Bristol Train Station
Simply walking around and looking across to the lovingly restored train station building makes it almost seem possible to feel the history and sense the importance of what is actually Bristol’s fourth station.
Bristol was originally founded because of the railroad. When surveyors picked this spot for the railway, an enterprising man by the name Joseph R. Anderson began to develop what is now Bristol. The first train station on this spot was opened in 1856, but was burned down during the Civil War. It was hastily rebuilt in 1867, before a new station replaced it in 1881. This current structure was built in 1902.
Despite the freight trains that still regularly clank and roll their way slowly through here, it is hard to imagine just how busy and thriving this place used to be. More than 20 passenger trains a day would regularly pull in and out of these long platforms. Further adding to the bustling air of chaos and excitement, during the early years there was a break in the tracks at the state line due to different size track gauges. This required all passengers, livestock and freight to be removed from one train and relocated onto another on the adjacent track on the other side of the state line.
Although the last passenger train pulled out of here in May 1971, the station was lovingly restored for the town’s sesquicentennial (150th birthday) in 2006. Like the nearby Bristol Sign, the station is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Civil War in Bristol
During the Civil War, Bristol was a Confederate city and an important railway stop during the war. Not just because it was a means to travel between the North and South, but because it was home to four Confederate hospitals. Many of the injured soldiers were brought into Bristol by train.
Further up East State Street, at the top of the hill is East Hill Cemetery where the graves of soldiers from both sides of the Civil War now rest in peace. Open to the public, the cemetery is recommended for anyone who might have further interest in the heroism and tragedies of those days. Dating back to 1857, the cemetery has a special Civil War section, and includes the graves of some 300 soldiers. Most are unmarked, have faded or been made illegible by the passage of time. But some do survive for posterity, serving as moving reminders of those times.
Spread out over 27 acres, there are 4,000 known graves here, including, at the crown of the hill, that of General Evan Shelby (a hero of the Revolutionary War and French Indian War). Other notable figures buried here include Bristol co-founder Samuel Goodson. Also, off to one side, you will notice a railed off section, behind which lies the old slave cemetery.
The “Marrying Parson”
Aside from the economic and historic importance of the train station, there are other more quirky stories associated with it. Like that of the Reverend Alfred H. Burroughs, a local Baptist minister who, in the 1870s, fell on hard times and came up with a novel answer to his woes… Back then, Tennessee – unlike Virginia – had no laws requiring parental consent for a marriage. So, after performing a wedding for a young couple who had eloped on foot across the mountains in order to marry in Bristol, he got the novel idea for what was to become a surprisingly popular service…
Burroughs became known as the “Marrying Parson”. It is said that from 1879 to 1914 he was on the platform to meet almost every passenger train that steamed into the Bristol station, always on the lookout for likely eloping couples. Throughout the South, word spread and his fame grew.
By 1890 his business was doing so well that he leased the Nickels House Hotel, where he performed wedding ceremonies in a plush new bridal suite. The hotel was located across the street from the train station, where the bank now stands. His income, which was from the weddings themselves and from renting rooms to the newly married couples, was further supplemented by the selling of engraved marriage certificates. He once remarked that he made more from selling these certificates than he did from performing the actual marriages.
When the hotel was demolished in 1898, Burroughs bought a house on Elizabeth Street where he set up an even more elaborate bridal suite. He continued to perform weddings right up until his death in 1916. Esteemed local historian Bud Phillips estimated that in his lifetime Parson Burroughs married in excess of 5,000 couples.
Any story of Bristol would be incomplete without addressing the age-old issue of the liquor industry. More than a 100 years ago, in 1909, Bristol Virginia faced what has been considered the most noted contested local election in the history of the city. This campaign captured the attention of both states and was significant for communities throughout the nation.
In 1909 both Bristol’s were dry following very contentious liquor referendums in May and November of 1907. This prohibition mantra was not a local trend, for within two years of 1907 larger and smaller cities throughout the nation, such as Worcester, Mass, Atlanta, Memphis, Knoxville and Johnson City, went dry. By 1909 the Georgia Legislature imposed prohibition throughout the state and Tennessee was within months of passing a statewide prohibition of liquor.
In the spring of 1909 petitions were being circulated throughout the streets of Bristol, Va., to bring the matter of liquor back to a vote. By the time it was noted in the local newspapers, the solicitors had confidence that they had more than enough to call for a vote. By town ordinance they had to gather equal to 20% of those that voted in the previous election, which totaled 160 people. On June 2 of that year 275 petitions were delivered and filed in the office of John H. Gose, clerk of the Corporation Court. The next day Judge Price verified the petitions and called for a town election on July 8. Members of the pro-liquor movement in the city made the claim that the city should take advantage of their sister city going dry in order to attract the wholesale and retail industry that will bring large taxes to the city and bring prosperity.
Immediately, the local Christian Women’s Temperance Union (CWTU) fired the first shot by organizing a meeting the following day to counter claims and draw support from the women of the city. Also, some of the signers cried “foul” stating that they were deceived into signing the petition and vowing that they would not vote for liquor during the election. Others admitted that they believed in prohibition, but wanted to allow it to come to a vote.
Within days people began ringing their hands as sides were being drawn. It was commonly thought that the “wets” could not overcome the decisive majority from the last election, but not wanting to be lulled to sleep, Temperance leaders of the city organized quickly. Within weeks Temperance leaders from across the East Coast descended on Bristol and impressed both sides about the significance of the pending election. The prohibition movement was making huge strides throughout the United States, but they could not afford to back-up in the region. By July 1, 1909 every saloon and mail-order house in Lafollette, Nashville, Chattanooga and Memphis would close its doors, which would make Tennessee dry from Bristol in the East to the Mississippi in the West. This was the most far reaching bill produced to date by the Tennessee legislature.
In Virginia the battle was fierce. Prohibition advocates criticized the government of Washington & Jefferson and thought of them as being in the pocket of the liquor industry. Petersburg, which was dry, reverted back to saloons in previous months and locally the Abingdon dispensaries were counted as some of the most ardent liquor supporters. The Bristol, Va. election was essential to prohibition, which would help restrict the flow of liquor across the street into Tennessee and keep the rising tide in balance favoring prohibition.
The day of the election came, drawing spectators from every section of both states. The hotels of both cities were full, drawing their own spectators from the citizenry. Representatives from the liquor industry, now displaced in Chattanooga and other Tennessee cities, were sizing up the territory in the event the measure would pass. Both sides expressed confidence in the outcome to the largest ground swell of citizen involvement in the history of the town. There was very little violence, which was credited to the abolition of the drink two years earlier, but a contest that covered every inch of ground, educationally and politically.
The polls opened at sunrise and closed at sunset with the announcement on the floor of the Bristol Virginia Courthouse at 9:15 p.m. The town had gone wet by a majority of only 32 votes. In the view of the prohibitionists, the town went silent, with pro-liquor advocates, hundreds of them shouting in the streets, celebrating for over an hour, according to city leaders.
As a result of the election, dozens of saloons and mail order houses reopened in the city within months. The demand for retail space and storage was especially overwhelming to an already established construction boom in the city.
The Bristol, Va. election assured that Bristol, Tenn. prohibition would fall in November 1909. Bristol, Virginia-Tennessee, which was the primary business center between Roanoke and Knoxville, also remained the regional center of the liquor industry until liquor was prohibited nationally in 1916.
Located in Bristol were WCYB’s radio program and later television programming, with coverage in five states – Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Along with an impressive roll-call of famous musicians, artists and dignitaries who have been featured here in Bristol is a fondly remembered local radio personality named Eddie Cowell.
Broadcasting on WCYB radio back in the 1940s and 50s, Cowell was something of a prankster. Stories about his antics still appear today in local papers, such as this one in the Johnson City Press:
Broadcasting on the night of January 23, 1954, Cowell reported live on air that an enormous monster was on the loose, reaping havoc throughout downtown Bristol. He reported that the creature was over 80 feet tall and 40 feet wide, and was smashing into buildings and swishing down trees with its powerful 100-foot tail. Redolent of the time in 1938 when Orson Wells terrified the nation with his famous ‘War Of The Worlds’ broadcast, Cowell kept updating listeners with new, spoof information as it was supposedly arriving at the station…such as the ‘fact’ that a warplane had been deployed from Washington, DC to bomb the beast in an attempt to save the city. The radio station and local law enforcement offices were inundated with more than a thousand frantic phone calls from all over the East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia area.
The monster story proved to be his undoing. As a result of it, a local resident filed a formal complaint with the FCC and Cowell was subsequently compelled to stop his outlandish antics despite a storm of protest in favor of the beloved local showman.
Located on the site of the old Bristol, Va. Courthouse, this peaceful and respectful setting honors all of the nation’s war veterans. The five life-size bronze sculptures that pay tribute to our servicemen and women are the main focus, but there is also a Cobra AH-1F combat helicopter on display, as well as an eternal flame symbolizing the fight for freedom.
Plans for a community park on this site date back more than a 150 years. It’s wonderful to know that Cumberland Square Park is now finally fulfilling the original design and purpose of the city’s founding fathers. In the summer concerts are held on the stage and it is also a stage area for the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival.
Bristol’s reputation as a mecca for music was launched in 1927, along with the careers of musical legends the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and others, in what has been lauded the “Big Bang” of country music — the historic Bristol Sessions.
How big a role did the Bristol Sessions play in country music? The legendary Johnny Cash called them “the single most important event in the history of country music.”
In 1998, Congress designated Bristol the official “Birthplace of Country Music.” Today, the Birthplace of Country Music® (BCM) keeps local music traditions alive and continues to tell the story of the musical and cultural heritage of the region, its role in the birth and development of country music, and its influence on music around the world.
The Birthplace of Country Music® Museum, a 24,000 square foot facility, which opened in August, 2014, in affiliation with the Smithsonian Institute, tells the story of Bristol’s musical heritage. The Museum provides the BCM with a new, permanent facility to house its operations, including the museum, educational programs, and artistic programming.
The museum documents Bristol’s story as the Birthplace of Country Music and the Bristol Sessions through permanent, technology-infused exhibits, a special exhibits gallery, educational programs, multiple film experiences and a theater dedicated exclusively to live, year-round music performances.
Hank Williams is widely acknowledged as one of country music’s greatest songwriters. His number one hits include “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” and “Lost Highway”.
Although he was doing well professionally in the early 1950s, his personal life was deteriorating. Dealing with back pain, Williams was reportedly abusing alcohol and drugs. The night Williams died, he was forced to take his car to his next show, unable to fly due to bad weather. He spent the ride from Knoxville, Tenn. lying under a blanket on the back seat of his baby blue Cadillac.
Allegedly his car stopped in Bristol, right where you’re standing, at the location of the Burger Bar. According to some, Hank got out and went inside. Others maintain he must have been dead already. Charles Carr, Hank’s driver, attests that he was very much still alive at this point. “I remember Hank got out to stretch his legs,” he recalls. “I asked him if he wanted a sandwich or something.” ’No,’ replied Hank.”I just want to get some sleep.'”
From here, the Cadillac headed north, up the narrow, winding Appalachian mountain roads. The next stop was in Oak Hill, W. Va. Carr was, by now, worried about Hank. At the stop a man came out, looked in the back and shook his head. ‘He looks dead to me,’ he muttered. By the time they got to a nearby hospital, there was no doubt that Hank had passed. He was only 29 years old.
If some of the details of this story are occasionally disputed, the facts are set. In the early hours of New Year’s Day, 1953, Hank Williams passed this way. It was the night an artist died and a legend was born. Since then, for more than half a century, more and more fans from all over the world have stopped off at this spot to pause for a moment and pay tribute to a man who touched the hearts of millions and influenced American music forever.
Incidentally, Hank’s single that was riding high in the charts at the time of his death was a peppy little number called, ‘I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive’.
The following individuals and/or businesses have offered their support in this tour creation:
• Local Historians – Bud Phillips, Tim Buchanan
• Research –Birthplace of Country Music, Bud Phillips, Bristol Convention and Visitors Bureau, Tim Buchanan
Special thanks to Tennessee Department of Tourism, Virginia Tourism Corporation