Dear Vance: I have seen old photos of Court Square (above) that show some kind of Civil War cannon in one corner of the park. What happened to that cannon? -- D.D., Memphis.
Dear D.D.: I have seen similar photos, and in fact a leisurely stroll through the halls of the Lauderdale Library turned up an old postcard (see next page) of Court Square, and if you look carefully, over in the lefthand background you can see several dapper gentlemen gathered around that very cannon.
Oh, how times have changed. Back then, it was apparently considered perfectly acceptable to stand around a cannon and spend all day just chatting away about the weather, or politics, or shopping, or what have you. But now, if someone -- someone like me , I mean -- tries to spend, oh, four or five hours in our company lounge, gossiping with my co-workers and sharing those thrilling stories about my youthful days in Heidelberg, my editor invariably tracks me down and tells me to get back to work. Man, lighten up!
Anyway, let me tell you about that particular cannon. From some faded newspaper articles I discovered, I was able to determine that the Court Square gun was not left over from the Civil War, but was a relic from the Spanish-American War of 1898. One newspaper story says the gun was placed in the park in 1917, but the photo above clearly shows a 1901 date on the base of the gun. That base wasn't original, by the way. As you can see, it was manufactured by the Memphis Trades and Labor Council. They did a fine job.
The gun was a downtown conversation piece until 1942, when city leaders decided that Court Square no longer needed defending, and they consigned the old cannon to a World War II scrap-metal drive. An old newspaper article noted that the piece was mostly brass and probably weighed more than 3,000 pounds, so melted down it would make quite a few rifle cartridges.
It didn't go without a minor skirmish. The veterans who donated the piece at first weren't too happy that it would end up on the scrap heap, but they quickly changed their mind. In fact, a fellow named Fred Bauer Sr., who was past-president of the Spanish-American War Veterans, told a reporter, "While we value this trophy which was captured in the Spanish-American War, the war veterans are willing to give it up to help our nation win the present war."
That wasn't the only piece of artillery to be donated to the war effort. Memphis, it seems, was fairly bristling with big guns before World War II, and they all went into the melting pot, or wherever these things go to be recast into something else. We also lost the Civil War-era cannons and mortars that faced the river in Confederate Park, a cluster of guns that stood atop the Indian mound in DeSoto Park, another pair that guarded the Doughboy Statue in Overton Park, and a dozen cannons displayed here and there in the National Cemetery. The cemetery guns alone weighed more than 70 tons, so that was quite a contribution to the war drive.
Luckily, the Lauderdales were not asked to donate the family collection of artillery, and a formidable grouping of howitzers still stands on the front lawn of the mansion, where they keep the pesky orphans at bay. Once you give those kids a nickel or half a biscuit, they just never leave you alone.
I know donating all these vintage guns was for a good cause at the time, but now it makes me feel a bit uneasy. Except for half a dozen battered cannon left over from the Korean War that stand -- somewhat out of place, if you ask me -- in Confederate Park, Memphis has no guns guarding our riverfront. And if those rowdy folks over in Arkansas ever decide to invade our fair city, we will be completely helpless to stop them. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Dear Vance: Can you tell us about Harbin's Tourist Court? We found a drinking glass at an estate sale advertising its location on Highway 51 South, but don't know where it was, exactly. -- K.P., Memphis.
Dear K.P.: Well, I can't tell you where it was, exactly, but I'll give you a general idea.
Harbin's Tourist Court was operated by an enterprising fellow named J.C. Harbin. I'm sure he had a first name, but no postcard or newspaper article I've seen ever mentions it. Way back in 1919, he opened a combination tourist court, cafe, and dairy on land at Highway 51 and Raines Road. I wish I could tell you a more precise location, but the old postcards rarely gave -- or even needed -- a more specific address, and because that was outside the city limits, the place wasn't even listed in Memphis phone books. I believe it was on the northeast corner of that intersection, but I could be mistaken.
Regardless, it was an excellent location, because Highway 51 was one of the main routes into Memphis from the south, so weary travelers encountered a place to spend the night or grab a bite to eat as they drove into town. Over the years, Harbin enlarged the place, adding a row of handsome white clapboard cottages and even a swimming pool. His postcards advertised "Fine food, Beautyrest mattresses, swimming pool, baths, steam and gas heat" and declared the place was "easy to find."
But progress was lurking around the corner. When Kemmons Wilson opened his nationwide chain of Holiday Inns which -- along with other motel chains -- offered clean, low-priced rooms without any surprises (good or bad), many of these mom-and-pop tourist courts began to shut down. In the mid-1950s, Harbin, being the savvy businessman that he was, closed his little roadside complex. Instead, he opened a modern shopping center, which was called Harbin's Center. But what is confusing is that I have been told that the shopping center replaced the tourist court, while somebody else told me it was actually built across the highway from it. I just don't know. I do know that Harbin's Center originally housed 15 stores, including a By-Ryt Food Store, a beauty salon, a laundromat, a Gridiron restaurant, and other businesses.
Back then, this was quite an ambitious undertaking. An August 17, 1955, Memphis Press-Scimitar article noted that this was "the second major commercial development to be started in Whitehaven in the last 90 days." Among other innovations, Harbin's Center would boast of "ample off-street parking spaces provided in front of the stores, and there will also be a large flood-lighted lot at the south side of the supermarket." As opposed to all those other shopping centers without parking lots or lights, I guess.
J.C. Harbin passed away many years ago, but his shopping center is still standing, today housing Royal Furniture, Shoe Warehouse, and an assortment of other businesses. And at the end of the building, I found the very same Gridiron that moved in half a century ago. They must be serving some mighty tasty chow there.
Got a question for Vance? Send it to "Ask Vance" at Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis , TN 38103 or email him at email@example.com