“I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER”
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Formal – annual and semiannual event, associated with crepe paper streamers, aluminum foil, staples, a band that cost several hundred dollars above the norm, rented tuxedos and breathless newspaper descriptions of the young women’s gowns,held by fraternities and sororities.
National Convention – Annual gatherings of all chapters, cities chosen for fun that could be had, lightly chaperoned by hand picked adults.
Car Wash – Fundraising usually done with raffles for appliances or people, or in this case washing cars.
All Night Party – A concept whose earliest written record appears in 1927, at the close of the silent film era. Eighteen to twenty-four hours of merriment. This invitation notes that movie will be a “talkie”.
For a relatively small town, mid-century Jackson, TN was truly unique in hundreds of ways (this distinction was, of course, lost on us then). But one unique thing about Jackson was, it had the fundamental elements to party and the people to make it happen. It seems odd to reflect on it. Back then, we spent most of our time complaining that, we couldn’t stay out later or find liquor more effectively… and why the hell was it that when we finally began to notice women around us in school, they had already noticed the guys 2 years older than us? Sure! we could date girls 2 years younger than us, but they were in Grammar School! mmmm, let’s move on.
What was really awesome was that we were partying at all. The odds were against it. An unbiased observer would assume that there was no possibility, small town, no hope.
And yet… on Saturday night the air would fill with music as the heavy green metal doors at the Alexander School auditorium, would open into the cold Winter night. Outside, you could see your breath but through that door you could hear the Platters or Johnny Mathis, and once inside, you could shuffle awkwardly around the dance floor making direct contact with brightly colored mohair sweaters and experience and entirely new, different sort of perfumed warmth and humidity. It was 1957 and Teen Town had been created.
So how did this happen? The Jaycettes, wives of Jackson Jaycee members, decided to create Teen Town and to pull us away from Name That Tune and Your Hit Parade on a black and white set… at home… with our parents. This was the auditorium at Alexander School, a place where important things had already happened to us, where we had watched the coronation of a Queen on live television, and where we had seen the final game of the 1956 World Series between the New YorkYankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. So it was in that very auditorium that someone made possible another life changing experience… and we came to understand the importance of mountains of soft, fuzzy, man-made mohair and rock and roll.
Our second opportunity came from our friends who had cleverly schooled their own parents to the dangers of partying “out there” and could gain access to large sections of their own homes to party more “safely”. The best of these involved multi-story, residential structures, but of all of these, there was nothing better than a basement. Basements provided for limited, controlled, monitored entry of adults and early warning, and ideally, several exterior exits at the opposite end, or an open window with less than a 2 story jump. Carol Ann and Buddy Sadler’s, Fern Dodson’s, Steve Hamilon’s, Johnny Tigrett’s, the Wyatt’s… these homes still exist without any historic markers, now owned by other people with no idea of the joy their property once brought to us.
I recognize this living room. It’s at G.G. Dolbeer’s mom’s house. It’s a polaroid from long ago, still has finger prints from being passed around before the thing dried.
There was of course the Gold Room at the New Southern and the Captains Ballroom.
Fraternities in high school began in prep schools in the Mid West, New England and in the South in the late 1800’s. Boarding schools were a setting similar to college, with dorm life and living away from home. High school fraternities became popular organized through national organizations that eventually established in a city rather than within a single school. Among the first, city oriented, public school based fraternities was TKO when the national fraternity established chapters in Atlanta and Memphis. TKO in Jackson started about 1927.
CLICK TO MAKE BIG Front Row – Frankie Cooper, Danny Anderson, Jimmy Flake, Pat Stewart, Row 2 – John Wimberly, Steve Cole, ?, Bill Guy, Frankie West, Richard Dolbeer, Robert Medlin, Tommy Homesly Row 3 – Mike Marshall, Dennis Jacobs, Jimmy Bond, Tommy Bennett, John Jennings, Billy Mack Graves, Jimmie Aiken, Jack Camp Row 4 – Smitty Smith, Bubba Lane, Garland Clyce, Mabry Hardin, Ronnie Elrod, John Hearn, Winston Smith, and Jerry Jennings. If an atom bomb had hit the SPO Fraternity that Sunday JHS would have had no National Honor Society or football team. SPO’s excelled in sports and brains.
Breathless Newspaper Coverage
Although some Jackson high school teachers were concerned with anything that was exclusive, (the essence of exclusivity, after all, involves excluding), fraternities in Jackson, TKO, SPO, DBS, KBX, Demolay when taken together, included just about anyone who wanted to belong. The real barrier to membership was our own parents. A case could be made that almost anyone who wanted to be a member became a member. Sort of the best possible scenario, the feeling of exclusivity without a real need to exclude. And, of course, the basic rule, since the Roaring 20’s, a big party is much better than a small one and the real goal was to party.
Jackson had high school fraternities. It seems preposterous. It was preposterous. Too young to sign a contract, yet bands and large venues were booked, tickets were sold, and money was made. Lots of money, to be reinvested in future parties. Although at its core were exclusive, secretive clubs, the majority of the parties were open admission for economic reasons, to make it possible to pay for the band. If there was no football game on Friday night, the party could start at 9:00 PM and end at 1:00 AM. If there was a game, the party moved to Saturday night from 8:00 PM ending at midnight.
TKO, SPO, Demolay, KBX, and DBS. KBX and DBS had parties at the New Southern Hotel. TKO, SPO and Demolay had events at the Armory and at smaller venues all over town. The drill was always the same, rent a hall, book a band, and get people to come and make more than it cost. It was private enterprise at its best. It worked.
It may have been that this private sector alternative to good times that encouraged Jackson High to avoid holding a senior prom during those years. That fact could have diminished the opportunity to party in a community that appeared to separate academics and parties like church and state.
A Smattering of History
In 1926 a chapter of Theta Kappa Omega was established and Billy Kirby was the first Grand Master. He was followed in 1927 by Frank Franklin, and the following years, respectively, Hal Wallace, Earnest Rainey, Hunter Taylor, Tom Ashby, Jack Holland, Earl Cain, Earl Williamson…… there were many others.
At some point in the early 1950’s an upstairs floor of a downtown building, above Lucille Cleaners on Church Street became available. J. T. Hamilton owned the entire block and made the rooms, previously used as offices, upstairs available to the TKO group. These became known as the “Teke Rooms”.
The year Jimmy Exum pledged the fraternity, 1957, he remembers moving chairs and equipment from the downtown building “rooms” to a new building, a huge log cabin on Highway 45 North.
These second Teke Rooms had been constructed as an authentic log cabin with masonry chink between 18″+ horizontal beams stacked and alternated at the corners. The pitched roof was also supported by 18″+ tree logs. Parking was in The Tavern parking lot, a small roadside bar with just a few regulars that came by at night. Parking was also along the East and West side of highway 45, in both directions from the tavern.
The log building had been the Chickasaw Club until the noise and reputation encouraged neighbors to pressure for it to close. The log building was built in 1940 by Randal Vann and rented by Billy Merriweather, a bootlegger who sold his goods on Riverside Drive. It was located behind Merriweather’s retail tavern property but was down the hill in the back. The retail beer joint was “The Tavern” and was operated by Mr. Vandiver (Judy Vandiver’s uncle), who sublet the bar from Billy Merriweather. There was a small parking lot on either side and behind the The Tavern. Eventually the neighbors prevailed and the Chickasaw Club was forced to close. Peace and quiet until…
The TKO fraternity made a deal with Randal Vann. The fraternity would pay $50 each month for the property. It would be used for weekly meetings and parties. Apparently this arrangement was acceptable to the neighbors. The least of two evils.
So, Fall, Winter and Spring, you and your date would walk the concrete stairs down the hill. The bank was steep and the ground below low enough to put the two story structure below ground level above. At the base of the hill to your right was a door, with a single light bulb above it. As you walked in immediately in front on the far wall was a bar, to the left. a large fireplace. To the right of the bar, next to a wall mounted pay phone, was another smaller door, that led to stairs and to a card room just above. There was a smaller fireplace upstairs that used the same chimney. There was a small women’s restroom at the South West corner of the dancefloor, there was apparently no real need for a men’s facility, as space outside was plentiful with the privacy afforded by the single light bulb for exterior lighting, (mentioned earlier).
Willie Morrow, who worked at the Joe Bobbitt Barbership in Hicksville acted as bartender, serving, of course, only soft drinks.
The fireplace area was used for the chaperones to attempt to keep warm and also kept them safely in their own area and away from the heat of the dance floor. Favorite chaperones were Lucile Hamilton, Elizabeth Exum and Martha Hensley.
Oddly, inside this all wood structure, smoking was permitted. There were two gas heaters on either side of the dance floor but the heat from those assembled generally heated the space except on very cold nights.
Many bands performed over the years, some of the best were Phillip Reynolds, Frank Ballard, Billy Browder (now T.J. Sheppard) and Tony Snyder and the Embers. (Frank Ballard later made a successful bid for Madison County Commission, based in large part to his loyal support from years of Friday and Saturday nights with us. Frank had a lead guitar, Red Matthews who played with the guitar behind him as the night went on. Jimmy Exum also remembered Avery “snowball” Davis. (probably because of his white hair). Snowball later worked at WDXI. Jimmy was treasurer of TKO, he hired and handled the financial arrangements with the bands, as did Tom Hensley.
David Muhr, Mike Smith, Steve Hamilton, Buddy Sadler, Barry Tuchfeld, David Phillips, Janice Stanlin, Mrs. McMillian, Fern Dodson, Mrs. Smith, Patricia Serles Morgan, Ben Tisdale, Brad McMillian, ?, Charles Young, Forrest Durrand.
Seems like there should be one. At some point this all went away. A sheltered bubble-existence that gave breathless social feedback to a limited few in the newspaper, began to run up against reality. We were the center of our universe but there was always North Side and South Side, and all the sides of our small town culture that eventually gave way to something else, much more real and more meaningful.
You can look at the past and wonder at our lack of sophistication, the sheltered existence, but it may be better to just be thankful for the experiences, however naive and immature. In it’s most fundamental state, it’s a time that won’t come again and it’s a story; a story to save.
Special thanks to: Susan Walton Banks, G. G. Dolbeer Bray, Judy Engle Herron, Steve Hamilton, Mrs. McMillian (Brad’s Mom), Bill Mainord, Tom Hensley, Jimmy Exum, Mike Smith, Steve Little, Patricia Morgan Milner, Harry Henry, Ed Hunt and Jack Wood/Tennessee Room-Jackson Madison County Public Library.
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