Take a Look at Union and Cleveland in 1949



photo by Don Boatright

A few days ago I received an interesting query from reader Cynthia Raleigh:

"During the process of scanning my family's old photographs, I came across a collection of my Dad's photos taken while he was attending the Woodard School of Photography in Memphis (he graduated from there in 1949). One of these is a street scene in which, on the left, is a sign saying Studebaker - Klyce Motors. Progressing down the streeet is a Toddle House, B.F. Goodrich - Swayne Latham, and across the street is a Kroger and a small flower shop. I'm wondering where in Memphis this might be located."

Her father was Don L. Boatright, and he took the photo shown here. I'm proud to say that, based on the buildings and businesses in the photograph, and my photographic knowledge of 98.5% of all Memphis streets, it took me only 39 seconds to determine that this was a view of Union Avenue, looking east towards Cleveland. The street, I mean, not the city. Far in the distance, on the right, you can dimly make out the white concrete hulk of Kimbrough Tower.

Cynthia and I exchanged several emails about this interesting picture, and it seems that almost simultaneously we had turned to city directories from the late 1940s to identify most of the businesses shown here.

On the left, the first sign you see is for Klyce Motors Studebakers, which we've written about before. The main dealership was actually around the corner on Cleveland, but (though the building itself is just off the page here), this was apparently their used-car division, and city directories identify the sales manager here as a fellow named Lankford Fields.

Next door, heading east, is the tiny cottage that housed one of our city's first Toddle Houses (also written about before). You can see their distinctive sign. And next to that, the nice-looking white building on the corner is a First National Bank (now First Tennessee today).

Across the street, at the the northeast corner of Union and Cleveland, is the Swayne Latham Tire Company, one of our city's largest and oldest tire dealerships, specializing in the B.F. Goodrich brand. And though you can't see it very well (or at all, really), the business next door housed Wanda's Beauty Shop.

Okay, now let's go across the street — on the right in this photograph. First of all, those rows of stone (or concrete) posts mark the property of Methodist Hospital. Just past them, almost invisible here because back then it was just a narrow two-lane street, is Claybrook. Just beyond that is a charming little clapboard and shingled building that housed Minnie Bethel's Florist Shop; the sign out front advertises "Fresh Flowers Every Day."

Between the flower shop and Cleveland are three businesses jammed together: Kroger, Merritt Bakery, and Liberty Cash Grocers. It always surprised me that two competing grocery stores would be located practically side by side, but I've encountered that all over Memphis in the "good old days."

Across the street, still on the right, is Frank Splann Used Cars, though you can't see it very clearly. That would have been the southeast corner of Union and Cleveland. What you can see (and you really have to squint at this) is what seems to be part of sign spelling out "Willys," which was a car manufacturer, most famous for designing the sturdy Jeeps used in World War II, but I have to wonder if Mr. Splann mainly specialized in Willys vehicles. That seems odd to me; I can't explain the Willys sign.

Equally puzzling is what seems to be a Humko sign hanging outside Kroger (or Merritt Bakery, or Liberty Cash Grocers). Humko had a huge production company in north Memphis, but as far as I can tell, it had no business operation on Union, so maybe the sign is simply advertising Humko products available at one of the stores.

Whew, now I need a nap after such a solid 20 minutes of work. I think that solves most of the mystery of this photo. Joan is actually trying to determine the specific date this shot was taken. She notes that the man walking towards us on the sidewalk has his coat open, so it must not have been too cold. At the same time, there's not a leaf on any of the trees or bushes here, so it was definitely winter. That's all I know about it.

Her father, Don L. Boatright, earned a certificate in "Comprehensive Black and White" from the Woodard School of Photography on September 23, 1949. He did a nice job with this shot. Thanks, Cynthia, for letting me share it with everyone.

UPDATE: For some interesting comments from readers about this photo, visit my Facebook page.

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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