Photo by Ken Coffey
Grainger Today Correspondent
Ray Shirley recently called to say he had what is believed to be Grainger County’s first television set, a 1949 Arvin, and he wanted to donate it to the Rutledge Heritage and Cultural Center, located in the historic Nance House/Tate Store.
Alexander Graham Bell exhibited his telephone at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876, and Marconi used sound waves to lead to the first radio stations opening in 1920. In 1927, a Herbert Hoover speech was televised over wires between two cities. That same year, Philo Farnsworth transmitted a picture over the air, instead of by wire. In 1931, a Los Angeles auto dealer televised an hour a day, but since no one had a television, plans were offered for people to make their own television receivers.
In 1935, NBC gave away 150 televisions and began a broadcasting schedule. The first scheduled program was the cartoon “Felix the Cat.” Public demonstration of television “pictures through the air” occurred the opening day of New York’s 1939 World’s Fair. That same year, television cameras covered the premier of “Gone With the Wind,” as well as a variety of other events. By the early 1940s, NBC had invested millions of dollars in the development of television. In 1941, the U.S. licensed 10 commercial television stations with the present day WNBC broadcasting two hours of boxing June 30 of that year. Its first broadcast commercial was for Bulova watches. Five months later, World War II began, and commercial television pretty much ended for a time.
Television technology, however, continued, with the government adapting it to secret weapons. Following the war, the government began issuing free licenses across the country in 1946. Early television would broadcast basically anything they could get, with “Public Prosecutor” becoming the first made-for-TV drama. Television began an explosive growth, and the first “Emmy” was awarded in 1949. Starting with 6,000 sets throughout the country in 1946, there were 12 million sets five years later, at a time when a television cost at least a week’s pay. Theaters and restaurants would be empty on Tuesday nights because people were at home watching the Milton Berle Show. New York became to television what Los Angeles was to film.
Grainger County Historian Ken Coffey took a trip to Johnson City with historian Jim Claborn and friend David Garland to pick up the first television to be used in Grainger County. Afterward, they met with Shirley, and he told the story of how his family had come to own the television.
Shirley was born in Grainger County in 1933. He was one of three sons born to Earl and Grace Davis Shirley. His brothers are Wayne and Edward Shirley. He recalled when his family got their water from a cistern, and had an outhouse. Earl had carried the mail, been a director of Citizen’s Bank & Trust Co. of Grainger County, a church deacon and served as the mayor of Rutledge. He and Grace had taken care of an elderly woman who left them a house and 20 acres of land, part of which had been a baseball field. The Co-op later bought part of the land. Shirley said he remembered Dr. Bryant buying the telephone system in Rutledge. In 1947, Shirley’s father decided to open an ESSO station, where his boys worked for $7 a week.
“The building had cost us $2,500 to build, and they laughed at us and said that Daddy wouldn’t even be able to pay his light bill,” Shirley said. “A lot of people here were working in Jefferson City and Morristown. We had a sign two miles out of town that told that our station was halfway between Knoxville and Kingsport. Daddy didn’t want to open on Sundays, but they aggravated us to death and he finally gave in and started opening at 1 p.m. He did business on credit, and we also had ice cream, cold drinks, peanuts and a lady brought us sandwiches to sell. We had high test and regular and two big 4,000 gallon tanks.”
In 1949, Ray’s father went to Knoxville and returned with a television and 40 feet of steel poles to use for an antenna. A motor turned the antenna for reception. At the time the only station they could pick up was in Charlotte, North Carolina. It would be 1953 before Knoxville’s WATE went on the air. Shirley recalled that a test pattern would come on a half hour before programming would begin, and that the station would go off the air at 9 p.m. and show the test pattern again. He recalled people coming to their house just to watch TV. Young Ray especially liked the “Howdy Doody” show.
“I was a sophomore in high school and wanted a car. My dad told me that when I graduated from high school that I could buy a car. When I graduated, I had $600 and a new Chevrolet cost $1,652.49. The car didn’t have white walls, but a dealer in Knoxville told me that he’d give me a set of white walls if I could get Daddy to buy his tires from him. I put the white walls on, and we sold the tires that were on the car.
“I went to Carson Newman College. Only three in our graduating class went to college, and I wasn’t prepared. We had relatives in Jefferson City, and Mrs. Milligan at Milligan Clinic gave me a job and paid $1 an hour, instead of the regular 50 cents. The school had let a professor go when he was caught with a glass of beer. I was a sophomore when I first saw Linda Wright at Arlington Baptist Church in March 1953. My roommate said that her and his mother were good friends, so I met her and went to her house in Knoxville and asked her to go out. Both our parents were very strict. She decided to go to Carson-Newman. After her first semester, I rode to New York with them and asked her to marry me. She said that she’d think about it, but accepted. Her mother had her grandmother’s ring, and I gave it to her.
“In 1954, we decided to go ahead and get married. We went to Morristown for a blood test where the doctor said that we were fixing to raise a house full of boys. We wound up having sons, Lynn and Michael. We went to the big Lonas house and knocked on the door to ask them if we could get married there and they agreed. Revered Pack from Rutledge married us. Her schoolmates had told on her, so we went to Knoxville to tell her parents. We had $5 between us, and service station gave us a tank of gas. Then we went to Rutledge where Daddy came in with an oil can. I told him that I had brought him a daughter-in-law. He looked at my mother and told her that she’d heard what I said. My mother said that if we had married, then we’d have to make the best of it.”
Shirley was drafted in April 1954. He headed to Ft. Jackson for basic training and then went to Ft. Gordon for Signal School, where he was chosen to be a switchboard instructor. A memorable time for Shirley was going on a 90-day maneuver in Louisiana. The trip in the back of a 2 1/2 ton truck took three days. He recalled having to empty all the gas cans before going through a tunnel, where the brakes on the truck went out. Arriving at Ft. Polk, Shirley’s group set up on the fort’s highest hill and shot over the next hill. After finishing at Ft. Polk, he would go to Monroe to take a troop train to Augusta, where he met his wife, who was living off post. Having been promoted to PFC, it was Christmas when Shirley’s parents came for a visit. He said they made a big point of him returning to Carson-Newman upon his discharge.
Having made friends with the electrical co-op manager, Shirley got a job there taking payments while attending his junior year at college. After graduating in 1958, he worked in Knoxville for the Park National Bank. When his father-in-law told Mr. Ryan that Shirley could sell, Ray was offered a job at the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company in Johnson City. That job started at $65 a week, and required moving to Johnson City. He worked for the tobacco company for 25 years before leaving. He held later jobs at the Broadway Motel and Walmart.
“We were city farmers, and I’m proud of having grown up in Rutledge,” he said.
Special thanks to Jim Claborn for his assistance.