Reviewed by Kristin
Blue John Remembers is a collection of local remembrances by architect Clarence Baker Kearfott found in the Bristol Herald Courier in the 1950s, likely in 1958. Published in book format by the Bristol Historical Association in 1995, the articles are an eyewitness account of life in the Bristol area from the first half of the 20th century.
I knew we had this book in the genealogy and local history section, but I had never picked it up. When I came across a copy and saw the name Kearfott, I thought “AHA!” While working on the city directory digitization project, I saw hundreds of banner ads showcasing Clarence Kearfott as a prominent local architect. The biography in the front of this collection says that he designed churches, colleges, industrial plants, hospitals, schools, and many residences throughout the area, as well as much of Hungry Mother State Park. His daughter Ruth Kearfott Harris provided a list of buildings and residences that he built, and it goes on for several pages.
Each column is just a page or two in the book, many with accompanying illustrations that give a nice flavor to the memories contained within. Reading about the first automobile in Bristol in 1907, you can envision the snorting horses and the rutted roads as the newfangled contraption came putt-putting along. A more fanciful story is told in the era of the Space Race as Kearfott recalls his imagined trip to the moon way back in 1901, courtesy of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.
Examining the writing with a backdrop of its time, I found a few hints that made it obvious these columns were written by a white man of privilege in the 1950s South. His memories of people of other races or nationalities seemed a bit condescending, although not overtly crass or cruel. Kearfott’s 1916 memory of a German music teacher named Kratochwill was distinctly marked by anti-German feelings, and he noted that public sentiment caused the man to leave Bristol. I did a little genealogical searching and found that Rudolph Arbrecht Kratochwill did indeed teach music at Sullins Academy and Virginia Intermont College, and moved to Greeneville, Tennessee a few years later where he obtained his United States citizenship in 1924.
Likewise, I was intrigued by some other characters mentioned in the columns, and was able to find “Old Taylor,” a black fishmonger in the 1910 census. He was George Taylor, age 63, a retail merchant of fish and oysters. “Aunt Liz Watson” had a unique house across from East Hill Cemetery, hung with bright metal product signs, and a herd of goats. I didn’t find mention of her goat keeping in the census, but she did live at 332 East State Street, and when she died on July 18, 1950, she was recorded as being approximately 115 years old.
Kearfott talks about the Marrying Parson Burroughs, the State Line Dispute, the Harmeling Opera House, Halley’s Comet in 1910, the Aurora Borealis in 1918, indoor plumbing, and so much more. This first-hand account of local happenings is well worth reading.