I enjoy walking the streets of downtown Johnson City when everything is relatively quiet and peaceful, allowing me to reflect on the thousands of stores, from pre-Henry Johnson days to the present, which were once open for business.
If the storefronts could talk about all their previous owners, they would say that many were highly successful, operating for years and often passing the torch to another generation family member. Countless others were short-timers who struggled and were forced to abandon their rainbow dreams in search of another pot of gold.
Of particular interest to me are lesser-known establishments that vanished from the scene long ago. Case in point are three of my recent subjects: Lee Hotel (anonymous contributor), the Busy Bee Restaurant and New York Café (the latter two from George Buda).
Several months ago, Paul Gill sent me a photo of the Tip Top Restaurant that was dated May 1904. I was not familiar with it. Paul surmised that it was located somewhere in the vicinity of Fountain Square. I forwarded the picture to Brad Jolly who ran it on the history page asking readers if they knew anything about it.
The man in the apron is storeowner, George R. Brown. Standing beside him on the right side is his wife, Sallie. Their son, Melvin, and daughter, Phoebe, are in front of them. The other men are unidentified.
Recently, I received a letter from Jim Brown with further information about the former eatery: “My father was Melvin Earl Brown who lived all his life in Johnson City. My mother’s name was Lillie. My dad worked 40 some years for Railway Express. His father was George R. Brown (my grandfather) and he owned and operated the Tip Top Restaurant and boarding house, which opened in 1904.
“After my oldest sister passed away in March, we received old pictures from as far back as the 1870s. The Tip Top Restaurant was in some of the first ones we received. Then came another envelope with more pictures, including a newspaper clipping from the Johnson City Press-Chronicle that mentions the restaurant.”
Although Jim’s newspaper clipping was undated and unidentified, I readily recognized it as a portion of a Tom Hodge column. In part it read: “M.E. Brown, whom I have known for years, popped into my office recently. Back in the days when I was going to Science Hill High School and did the public address system for Cardinal Park for Appalachian League games, I saw him every home game.
“At any rate, he came bearing an old photo for me to examine. The photo accompanies this column. The picture was made in May 1904 of the store his father ran at the corner of Tipton and Buffalo streets. That’s of particular interest since that building was recently torn down to make way for the new Downtown Loop.
“His father, G.R. Brown, is in the long apron. His mother stands next to her husband. The girl in front was his sister, Phoebe, and that’s M.E. Brown in front holding the newspapers. His father ran the store – restaurant – boarding house for (a few) years, closing it in 1908. Lodging was at the rate of 25 cents a night.
“The papers M.E. carried at that tender age of six were the Cincinnati Post, which he sold. You’ll note that the streets were unpaved and the sidewalks were of wood. It was not until later that I started wondering about the fresh oysters. Back in 1904, how did you get fresh oysters this far inland? I’ll have to ask Mr. Brown.”
Excluding the Cardinal Park comments, two telltale verbal tracks in the article identified it as the late Tom Hodge. Mr. Brown “popped” in the newspaperman’s office. No one ever just entered his workplace; he or she “popped” in. Second, the photo “accompanied” his column. It was never added, appended or affixed. Such wording was standard fare for the man who made significant contributions to area history over many years.
Thanks to the efforts of Paul, Jim and Tom, we now know something about the Tip Top Restaurant including its downtown location.