Today’s column pays homage to my Aunt Ween, Pauline Bowman Huggans, who spent most of her life in Gray (Station) and Johnson City. She acquired the moniker from a young family member who had trouble pronouncing her first name. We called her Aunt Ween until she died in 2003.
The Bowman Sisters: Pauline Bowman Huggans (left) and Jennie Bowman Cain
Pauline traveled with her legendary father, Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman, and sister, Jennie Bowman Cain, with a group known as the Blue Ridge Ramblers on the Loews Metropolitan Theatre Vaudeville Circuit in 1931-32. They performed on stages all across the east that included New York City. The sisters were billed as part of the 12-member Ramblers and separately as the “Bowman Sisters.” The group later switched to the Smalley Time Vaudeville Circuit.
After arriving in vaudeville, Aunt Ween developed a crush on Jack Pierce, a fiddler who played in several bands including the Tenneva (Tenne for Tennessee and va for Virginia) Ramblers that once teamed up with The Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers (a.k.a. The Singing Brakeman and The Blue Yodeler).
In the mid 1920s, Charlie and three of his brothers, Elbert, Walter and Argil, participated in political rallies in East Tennessee for the Honorable B. Carroll Reece, a U.S. Representative from the first district of Tennessee who served three terms (1921-31, 1933-47 and 1951-61). After the couple died, Pauline routinely put flowers and maintained an American flag on their graves at Monte Vista Cemetery.
Pauline did something surprising in 1934. She took a break from vaudeville and returned to Gray to visit her mother, Fannie Bowman, who lived with several of her children in a rustic two-story log house on Roscoe Fitz Road. She arrived unannounced and peeked into the kitchen to see her mother laboring over the old wood stove preparing a meal. She was stirred at Fannie’s dedication to her family but saddened by the excessive wrinkles in her weary face. At that moment, she vowed never to return to vaudeville. She would honor that commitment.
Pauline’s husband, Jimmy James (stage name), was playing trombone with the Frankie Carle Orchestra and came to Johnson City to convince his pretty wife to return with him on the road tour. Pauline later commented how difficult it was to give up the man whom she dearly loved to be with her mother, but she knew it was the right thing to do. Also, she was thankful to be back in the serene beautiful mountains of East Tennessee.
In 1954, Pauline owned the Green Bean Restaurant at 514 W. Market Street. It was less than a half-mile from my home so I frequently went there to eat. My standard fare was a hamburger and French fries, so when I came through the front door, she immediately threw a beef patty on the grill. Her café had a jukebox along the right side that contained mostly country and western selections such as, Ernest Tubb’s “ I’m Walking the Floor Over You,” and Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time).”
In later years, Pauline would occasionally call me and tell me she had just made a big pot of my favorite pinto beans seasoned with a Smithfield hambone. Once, I drove to Johnson City and consumed several plates of beans that were complemented with some tasty cornbread and cold milk. Pauline was 90 years old and in declining health, but her memory was sharp. With each visit, I quizzed her about her vaudeville experiences. She sometimes repeated herself, but she never contradicted anything she had previously said. Her recall of names and groups was remarkable.
I miss my Aunt Ween. I also miss her hamburgers and French-fries from the Green Bean, her entertaining and informative vaudeville stories, her singing with Jennie in her living room and especially that big pot of Smithfield hambone flavored pinto beans and cornbread.