A Conversation with Conrad Majors
and Paul James, Knoxville History Project
Tuesday April 30, 2019 at Greenlee’s Bicycle Shop
This is Paul James with the Knoxville History Project and I’m here today talking with Conrad Majors about the history of biking in Knoxville but particularly his own life story as it surrounds Greenlee’s Bicycles.
Paul: So Conrad, tell me, tell me your name and when you were born.
Conrad: Conrad Majors, Jr. November 19, 1936. Right here in Knoxville. Born in Fort Sanders Hospital.
Paul: So where were living when you were young?
Conrad: Well, we lived on Deaderick Avenue. My grandparents owned a house on Deaderick Avenue in Mechanicsville. I lived there until I was seven. Then we moved to Holston Drive in East Knox County. Route 4, Holston Drive. I left Moses School and went to Chilhowee School and went there through the eighth grade.
Paul: Moses School is still standing.
Conrad: Moses School, yeah. Chilhowee School…the reason they have that walkway there is because I got clobbered by a car there. I was rather a heroic figure at that time. Yeah, I was in the fifth Grade and this guy cut through there…been drinking…there was a bunch of us standing behind the patrol boys ready to go home across the highway. You had safety patrols. He came flying in from the side of the road there and I was too slow getting up the bank and he clobbered me.
Paul: You weren’t seriously hurt?
Conrad: Well, I had a pretty serious knee injury and a thumb that got cut up pretty bad. But it took a few months but I got back…it wasn’t that bad but…they did put that walkway up there and it aught to have my name on it, cos I don’t think they would have put it up there if I hadn’t been clobbered.
Paul: And this was near Chilhowee School…let’s just go back just a little bit. You went to Moses Elementary School?
Conrad: I went to Elementary there and…well, I started out…my Dad was working in the shipyards in New Orleans. I lived there and went to Catholic School, and lived there for a while and in second grade I moved up to Moses School, stayed there for half a year and then that’s when we sold that house…Granny did…and then moved out to Chilhowee Drive and in second grade I started at Chilhowee through the eighth grade. Good school. Good teachers.
Paul: So, when you were hanging out at the bike shop on Walnut Avenue, that you write about on Greenlee’s website, you were six, seven, eight?
Conrad: I started out….well, I don’t remember when I started because they took me up there when I just a baby. But I remember starting about 6 or 7 sweeping floors and getting in the way.
Paul: This was during the war really? (WWII)
Conrad: Yeah. I remember President Roosevelt. He was a father figure. My grandpa was a staunch Democrat here in Republican territory. Which was unusual. Yep. The bicycle shop was a fascinating place. We had at that time… there was the Midday-Merry-Go-Round and the Tennessee Barn Dance up on Gay Street and some of the performers there would come down. My grandmother kept cookies and coffee there all the time and….Homer Jethro and Lowell Blanchard…
Paul: They used to come in the bike store?
Conrad: Oh yeah.
Paul: Now they would have been at WNOX?
Conrad: They were at WNOX. Yeah. Chet Atkins. He came in.
Paul: So why would they come in to a bike store on Walnut Avenue?
Conrad: It was kind of a gathering place at lunchtime. Plus she gave away cookies and coffee and cake and we were right down the street from Western Union.
Paul: Which was on Union (Avenue)?
Conrad: On Union, yeah. And we were just west of the Market Square area. The Market House was full of stalls and their delivery boys rode bicycles. Grandma and Grandpa were open from 6 to 6.
Paul: That’s a long day.
Conrad: Yes it was. A long day and their primary business was from the Western Union boys and the ushers who rode bikes at the Market House. Cos they delivered and they needed their bicycles so we’d be there early and stay late.
Paul: Now WNOX, that was down on the 100 block at that point?
Conrad: On Gay Street.
Paul: It wasn’t that far then. They would have come up Gay, probably turned up Wall Avenue…just a couple of blocks away really.
Conrad: Right. I could cut through the alley there and go through the Emory Store right onto Market Square.
Paul: Right. I was gonna ask you about that. So, Emery’s 5 and 10 was on the west side of Market Square …
Conrad: They called it the spitting side. The other side was flowers. The west side was a hodge-podge of small stores and tobacco shops and clothing stores and Cas Walker had a market there. People had old-timey trucks backed in there with chickens on a string. Tied there on the sidewalk.
Paul: But they didn’t do this on the east side, just the west?
Conrad: No, the east side was more sophisticated. They had flowers, and wasn’t nearly as much fun. The west side had guys singing, blind people, preachers, and farmers, and…
Paul: It still amazes me that you could fit, all that, including the Market House in that in that little space?! It’s amazing.
Conrad: You turned sideways to walk down the street. A woman there selling pencils, sitting on the curb…
Paul: It was pretty stinky?
Conrad: It did. It was but I didn’t know it. Oh, there were a couple of theaters. There was the Crystal and the Rialto. Itty bitty movie theaters. I never went in either one of those. My Granny said you had to take in two boxes of popcorn when you went in the Crystal, one for you and one for the rats because it would come up and get it out of your hand. (laughter) Well she’s prone to exaggeration. And the Roxy was around on Union. The Roxy had a Vaudeville act you know. I never got to go in there.
Paul: More for older people.
Conrad: Yeah, it was too racy…for a boy, but I wanted to.
Paul: It seems like you have got a unique perspective and memories of, and experiences, of Knoxville.
Conrad: Well, I suppose so because I’m so old, that most of them are dead!
Paul: But you were seeing Knoxville through a 9 year’s old eyes.
Conrad: Yeah, yeah. I’d go to the YMCA, then I’d head to Market Square. Then I’d go to the Strand Theatre that was my favorite Theatre was the Strand…
Paul: It was down on Gay Street, right?
Conrad: Gay Street. Gay and Wall. It was the kid’s mecca. I could see a cowboy movie. Gene Autry was my favorite. He was rather a heroic figure. Then they would have a serial. Every Saturday they’d have a different one. They’d always have the hero hanging over the cliff.
Paul: Like Flash Gordon.
Conrad: You’d have to get back next week to see how he’s get out of it. Then they had a newsreel, it was wartime so it would usually be about the war. If you were lucky they might have some Tennessee football. A cartoon, you know. It just cost 9 cents.
Paul: So your dollar went a long way then?
Conrad: Listen, oh yeah, I had all the money I needed.
Paul: You were well paid then? Do your duties on the morning
Conrad: Well, I got a dollar for being there. My duties didn’t amount to much. But I thought they did, you know.
Paul: That was your pocket money for the week.
Conrad: Yeah, but I had to put 20 cents in Sunday School.
Paul: Did you ever stray down to what we would call the Old City area now? That would probably be out of bounds for you, wouldn’t it?
Conrad: Yeah. I could have gone down there but it just wasn’t my bailiwick! (laughter). I’m sure I went down there. Years later I’d go down there and get a haircut. Cos the Barber College was down there. You went in the back. In the back chair it didn’t cost you anything.
Paul: That was down in the Old City, on Jackson?
Conrad: Vine. Big Don’s Elegant Junk. No, that was on Market Square, had a cigar shop that had a punchboard. A nickel. Are you familiar with a punchboard?
Conrad: A little thing that had hundreds of little bitty holes and you’d take this key-like thing and you’d punch one for a nickel. I did that for years. I never won a dime.
You’re supposed to win something sooner or later. But I never won anything. I think it was rigged. I don’t know. The guy sold cigars and they sold butter and eggs out of there, you know, the butter and eggs racket. I didn’t understand it but I knew it was going on.
Paul: Did you ever go in Harold’s Deli? Harold Shersky’s down on the 100 block?
Conrad: Now my days were before his time. I went in there later on. I knew it was very popular. But after I passed about 12 years old if I was at the shop I did have to work. So running around wasn’t as much as it had been when I was 9 or 10 years old. I could sit outside the Western Union and those guys…they had a hat like a cab driver or a policeman, they had leather leggings down from their knee to their ankles. They had a badge. Really heroic you know for a 9 year old. I could sit out there If there was a telegram right there in the immediate area they’d let me take it. Hamilton Bank, I knew Medical Arts building, all those. I’d pick up a dime. .
Paul: Were you on a bike then yourself?
Conrad: No. You know I never rode a bike downtown. I just walked. I’d cut through the market house. It was various and sundry smells, teeming with people, you know.
Paul: Now you were telling me earlier about, when you were a lad, Barnum and Bailey’s Circus and they would come in and pay you or they would post…
Conrad: No, they wouldn’t pay the shop, they’d give us tickets to hang these signs, I’m talking huge…billboard type. Because those windows went all the way to the ceiling, see. They could stick ‘em up there with a brushy thing and they’d give Grandpa tickets and we’d go to the circus every year. I saw Gargantua the famous gorilla.
Paul: Really? Where was the circus held then?
Conrad: Fields, tents, you know. Three rings. Quite spectacular really. I think it was out on Clinton Highway
Paul: So Gargantua was pretty famous?
Conrad: Yeah. She…well, shoot, I guess he was a he. If I’m not mistaken, someone had thrown acid in his face and his face was contorted. Poor thing. They had him in a glass car. Pictures of this monster. He wasn’t a monster. Poor old gorilla sitting there in that car. I’ve thought about him since then. Yeah. I went to the Fair. The TVA&I Fair. That was pretty big you know.
Paul: You know it’s the 100th Fair this year. Stated in 1916. They missed several during the Second World War) but it’s the hundredth in September.
Conrad: I did not know that. Did you know that the streetcar used to go over there into the fairgrounds? In Burlington it circled behind Hinderlight’s Feed Store, came out across Magnolia, and went into the Fair, went into the park, towards that lake. Circled around a gazebo, that had been there since the World’s Fair there. And came back out on Magnolia. I used to get to ride it. It was fun.
Paul: You’re talking about the bandstand that’s still there? The gazebo?
Conrad: Yes. That gazebo. If I’m not mistaken, it was built for the World’s Fair. And whatever year, before my time.
Paul: That would be the National Conservation Exposition of 1913.
Conrad: Is that right?
Paul: Yeah. 1913 is when it was built. Way before your time, yeah.
Conrad: But the streetcar circled through there. Rickety, raggedy, clingy, clangy, ride. After we moved out to Holston Drive I could ride all the way to Gay Street.
Paul: From Burlington?
Conrad: From Burlington, yeah. From the time I was 12 I guess, Burlington had everything you needed.
Paul: Quite a place to be, right?
Conrad: Yeah. A couple of barber shops. They had a theater. Had a couple of churches. There was a Greenlee Drug Store out there. Not kin to us but they had our name. Brown’s Drug Store, Hinderlights Feed Store, The Milk Depot, that later became Cox and Wright. Pass’s Dime Store. The Weaver’s had a cafeteria there. Before cafeterias of Knoxville they had one right here on Broadway where they rent wheels now. They had one in Burlington. Had one on Papermill. And one on Magnolia. Pretty big operation.
Paul: Where was the Greenlee’s Bicycle shop on Magnolia.
Conrad: 303 East Magnolia. We were there 13 years. And I was in High School.
Paul: Before you came here?
Conrad: When I was in High School we went to 303 East Magnolia.
Conrad: No, I never have. I’d say we’d be up in the top group I would imagine. 1899. At least in Knoxville. We’re the oldest. (laughter!)
Paul: You certainly are in Knoxville!
Conrad: I’m not sure about that (meaning oldest bike shop in America). One time there was a place in New Orleans. There was a guy who stopped in here one time – Gus (last name sp?). He was in New Orleans. He about our age. I don’t know.
Paul: You were telling me before about a fella who worked for the store in the ‘20s who was a bike racer.
Conrad: Yes, I’d have to look his picture and his name up. We’ve got him holding his bike, in his racing gear. And the shop sponsored him. And sent him to Chicago. And as I remember, he came in third in Nationals. That was before my time. So I didn’t know him. I remember Grandma and Grandpa talking about that.
Paul: Jack Neely was saying to me earlier, when we taking about coming here today, it seemed to him that perhaps that biking was really popular in the late 1800s. And
Conrad: It was.
Paul: And after the First World War, adults tended to ride them less, and it became more of a kids thing. And then came back again in the ‘60s when you got the lightweight, 10 speeds, etc.
Conrad: Yeah, the ‘60s and ‘70s. And we got a big boost when gasoline shot way up.
Paul: Ok. In the early ‘70s?
Conrad: A lot of people bought bikes…we sold a lot of them. Yes, it runs in cycles. Boom and bust. So, we weathered a lot of it. My Grandmother saw the first automobile. The first airplane.
Paul: Now the first airplane did come to Burlington, didn’t it?
Conrad: Well, when they first came to Knoxville. She lived through World War One, World War Two, Korean War, Vietnam. She saw so many things. I wish I’d have asked her more when she was alive. I wish I had, but it wasn’t important to me then.
Paul: We’re always like that aren’t we? I’m going to show you…let’s look at these pictures (on the laptop) and let’s finish there today. Sound good?
Conrad: Whatever you say! That’s good.
Paul: This first one is from the McClung Collection (photograph of Greenlee’s Bike shop on Walnut Avenue, circa 1930s). So they would post…these are the windows where they would put up the circus posters?
Conrad: They were in here (pointing to right side of building on Western Avenue), they were windows right there. They would put up the circus posters. That’s where they would put them. This was a service cab company (outside of the store on Western Ave.) A cab stand. There was a box on the pole. Grandpa ran his corner. There was a call box to the police department on that corner. That might have been before they put it there. That picture is earlier than anything I had ever seen of that building.
Paul: Its 1920s or early ‘30s perhaps.
Conrad: Grandma and my mother lived up on the third floor at one time.
Paul: But you never lived there?
Conrad: No, I never did. I used to go up there a lot.
Paul: Here’s another shot of just the corner.
Conrad: That’s the same place and there’s the windows you see.
Paul: That’s where they put the Barnum and Bailey circus posters?
Conrad: That’s right, yeah. Covered up the windows with them. The mechanical part (of the business) was upstairs. There was an old elevator shaft where some guy had gotten killed. This was lore. I didn’t see this. They took out the elevator and put a rope in there with a pulley and when they wanted to work on a bike they’d put a hook through and they’d pull it up and all this was a big whole room up there and that’s where they did all the mechanical work, you see. And down here were new bikes and showcases. One of them is over there somewhere (pointing into the current store behind us).
Paul: Do you remember anything about Asylum Avenue right here? Western Avenue, sorry.
Conrad: Tinsley Tire Company, Cameron’s Restaurant, Goosey’s Little Market, Red and Gray Tire Company…and the Fox’s Den, a beer joint.
Paul: What was Goosey’s Market?
Conrad: It was just a little…the lady’s name was Ms. Goosey. A dear person. She’d give me a banana or something just about every day. And I’d go over there and look forlorn and stand out front and she’d come out and say “hey Conrad, here’s a banana.” And on up Walnut Street was Riverside Hatcherie, Real Barber Shop, Claxton Mayo’s up further (on Wall Avenue). Across Walnut here was Parker Brothers (across the street from Greenlee’s) which became a huge hardware store. They started out on Walnut Street. They were good people. I remember them quite well.
Paul: Now we’re looking up Walnut….
Conrad: George Loo’s laundry
Paul: Do you remember the laundry?
Conrad: Oh man. George Loo’s Laundry was fascinating. The doors were open and you’d look back in there and these 150-year old woman and they’re ironing. They didn’t have electric irons. They had big flat hot stoves you see. And there were half a dozen heavy irons and some of them were heat…and this was in the summertime…those things were heating and they were ironing, 4 or 5 women in there, and I remember, even as a child, I felt sorry for them, you know. Talk about a sweat shop or slave labor. That was just the way it was. Western Auto…I guess that’s it right there…on the corner of…
Paul: That’s where J.C. Holdway restaurant is now. That’s Union Avenue there.
Conrad: Union Avenue is coming this way.
Conrad: The Western Union was over here. And Western Auto was right there.
Paul: That’s the Daylight Building. TVA was in that building opposite back then I think.
Conrad: Might have been. Now when I was going to the Y I would turn right heading for Locust. Mack the Cleaner was on the corner of…where the Christopher Kendrick condominiums are (Kendrick Place). And Mack the Cleaner pressed your pants while you waited. He had a picture of a guy in a barrel on a neon sign out there and there were some ladies of the evening who frequented…they lived there. They were real nice…I didn’t know who they were…they nice to me. I went by there on my way to the Y and they’d holler at me.
Paul: So on the other side of the street from Greenlee’s was Emery’s 5 and 10. Was there an alley way?
Conrad: I had to go across the alley. Now Service Bicycle Shop was up here, a little bitty bicycle shop on the left. A good mechanic, his name was Tommy Mall. Excellent mechanic. And he had a boy named J. M. Gibson who worked for him and who later came and worked for me. In 42 years he missed three days. Isn’t that amazing? Fix anything…lawn mowers, bicycle, electrical. Just couldn’t read or write. I sure miss him. We grew up together.
Paul: Next picture…the Knoxville Bicycle Hospital. A really old photograph.
Conrad: This is George McFadden on the right and he was one the first partners with Mr. Greenlee. This was my grandmother’s father-in-law. The man on the left is W.M. Greenlee. He was one of the original owners of the Knoxville Bicycle Hospital which later became Greenlee’s Bicycle Hospital.
Paul: Is this on Gay Street here?
Conrad: I don’t know. I wish I did. Because they started out on Gay Street.
Paul: You wrote that it started out at 707 Gay Street,
Conrad: It was for a little while. I wish I knew. I’ve been asked that more than once. Mr. Greenlee came down here from Pennsylvania I believe. I know it says here that Mr. McFadden did the work and Mr. Greenlee handled the money. They were partners. (On the back of the photo it says “left side of Walnut Street, 1910)
Paul: See what we have next then (next photo). Looking inside the store (on Walnut and Western Ave).
Conrad: That (display) cabinet (in photo) is that one right over there (in the current shop).
Paul: You’re not in the photo are you?
Conrad: No, I’m not but I know some of these people. That’s my Grandma and my Grandpa (second and third in from the left). That’s a guy named Lance Stewart. We had a Western Union clock, I can remember it quite well. That’s it (hanging on the wall in the photo). Never wrong. See that chimney going up, there was a pot-bellied stove there that we burned coal to heat the place. And back there, you can barely see it, that’s the old elevator shaft that was open and they used to pull the bike up
Paul: This is the 1920s?
Conrad: Early ‘30s.
Paul: Next photo…this is another one with Mr. Greenlee on the left band Mr. McFadden on the right.
Conrad: You see, he was still working when I was a little boy. He taught me how to build wheels, true wheels, and so forth.
Paul: It definitely looks like a different building.
Conrad: Yes it does. I have that picture somewhere but it doesn’t have any information on it. This building has only one floor so can’t be the building on the corner of Western Avenue. I think onetime they were on Depot Street. And on Central. One time I went up to the library, the History center on Gay Street, and looked them up in the City Directories.
Paul: It’s interesting to do that isn’t it? You can put together someone’s career looking at those directories.
Conrad: I put together when they were at different locations. See Grandma was married to my paternal Grandfather, Mr. J,.F. King. They divorced and she married Roy Greenlee. I don’t know when but Roy Greenlee was a machinist and the Greenlee’s fixed bicycles out of a house there in Mechanicsville. I forget the name of the street. Deaderick Street was where we lived but Mr. Greenlee owned several pieces of property and there are other streets right there close, Arthur and so forth. Anyway, when Roy Greenlee died my Mom went to Jacksonville Florida and found my Grandpa and brought him back. I wasn’t born yet. But he was an electrician. So him and Granny got married again. She was married three times, twice to the same man!
Special thanks to the Aslan Foundation for programmatic support.