Forest Fire


Dear Vance: When I was maybe 4 or 5, my father brought our family to a wooded park in Memphis. There were big crowds, but I don't recall what was going on. What I do remember with startling clarity was a glass-enclosed structure with white columns that contained a horse-drawn fire engine. Do you have any idea where this might have been? — L.R., Memphis.

Dear L.R.: I'm afraid I do. Your doctors were hesitant to tell you the harsh truth, but such a scene existed only in your diseased mind. I recognize the signs of insanity, you see, because madness runs rampant in the Lauderdale family. I blame it on the in-breeding, but what choice did we have? We weren't allowed to mingle with others below us in social status, so that pretty much left the cousins and in-laws.

"Poor, pathetic creature," I thought, as I tossed your letter aside. But now, it seems, I owe you an apology. Last month, as I was glancing through old photos of Overton Park at the main library, I found the image shown above, depicting exactly what you described, L.R. A caption on the back said, "Steamer E.H. Crump," indicating this particular fire engine had been named after our famous mayor.

So I called my pal Joe Lowry, who knows more about the Memphis Fire Department than anybody in North America, and he told me, "The Crump was a steam-boiler-operated, horse-drawn fire engine purchased from the Ahrens Fire Engine Manufacturing Company in Cincinnati in 1910." It had been moved to the park around 1919 and put on display, when all the horse-drawn equipment here was being replaced with motorized vehicles.

These engines were little more than coal-fired boilers on wheels, which generated steam to operate a 900-gallon-per-minute water pump. By comparison, a regular garden hose can spray about three gallons a minute, tops. No water was actually carried aboard; the vehicle pulled up, then as now, to a hydrant. Now I know what you are thinking. By the time the firemen poured in the coal, lighted it up, and then got this thing a-steaming, good grief your house would have burned down. But Joe told me they kept the steam up 24 hours a day. What's more, he said, "The horses were well cared for and trained to take their positions in their harnesses within a couple of minutes."

The gleaming white horses on display weren't real, of course, or stuffed ones. I believe they were fiberglass or papier-mâché models crafted by Tech High School art teacher Mike Abt, who designed most of the old Cotton Carnival floats.

The Crump and steamers like it held no fire-fighting equipment. A separate truck loaded down with firefighters and hoses and ladders and axes and all sorts of other gear always followed the pumper to the fire. Once they got there, the men did what Joe says is still the basic principle of battling any blaze: "Put the wet stuff on the red stuff."

This impressive display in Overton Park was eventually moved to the Armour Training Center on Avery. In 1975, the Crump was totally restored and actually made an appearance at several Pink Palace crafts fairs. In 1988 it was refurbished again for display at the Fire Museum of Memphis.

And that magnificent glass case in Overton Park? It was moved to the Lauderdale Mansion, where it showcases our bowling trophies.

When Mr. Brown Went to Town

Dear Vance: In the early 1970s, there was a barbecue joint on Bellevue close to Central that was unique because coins were stuck in the floor inside. What was the name of this place? — S.H., Des Moines, Iowa

Dear S.H.: The barbecue establishment you remember was unique in a lot of ways. Besides being one of Memphis' most popular eateries, at one time the owners claimed they sold more barbecue sandwiches than any other place in the world — and that is saying something.

I'm talking, of course, about the original Leonard's Pit Barbecue, which — along with the old Pig 'n' Whistle — is one of the most memorable dining establishments in Memphis. Up the street a ways from Graceland, it was supposedly one of Elvis Presley's favorite places, and just about anybody and everybody in our city ate there.

"Leonard" was a nice fellow named Leonard Heuberger, and it was a smart move, if you ask me, to name the place after his first name and not his hard-to-pronounce last name (which would probably make people think of hamburgers, anyway). He opened his first restaurant in 1922 at Trigg and Latham and moved to 1140 S. Bellevue ten years later. The coins — real silver dollars — weren't stuck only in the floor. Dozens of them were also pressed into the counter, and over the years thousands of customers wore them down until they were slick as mirrors.

Most people remember Leonard's great neon sign (right), showing a pig twirling a cane, with the caption, "Mr. Brown Goes to Town." Loretta Hopper, a longtime cashier for Leonard's, told me they originally served both dark meat and white meat, and the dark-meat sandwich was called "Mr. Brown" and the other was "Miss White." The Bellevue streetcar originally turned around right in front of the restaurant, and the sign was supposed to inspire passengers to grab a sandwich and take it downtown with them. Or something like that.

Leonard's closed its Bellevue location in 1991, and a Walgreens now stands on the site. But another Leonard's, in East Memphis on Fox Plaza Drive, has survived. They managed to save the old Mr. Brown sign and also salvaged a second one (not yet working) that showed a pig lying in a grill, smiling happily as the flames consumed him.

Maybe they'd better keep that one out of sight. It's not really something you want to think about while you're taking a bite.

Culvert Question

Dear Vance: Take a look at this old desk blotter (top). Doesn't it make you think of culverts? What happened to Tennison Brothers, anyway? — K.D., Memphis.

Dear K.D.: Yes, it certainly does make me think of culverts . . . and other things that I shouldn't mention in a family publication. How do women get themselves in such unfortunate predicaments? Didn't she know a photographer — or in this case, an artist — was standing right there? And what is that dog doing?

The creator of this fine illustration (titled "Fresh Breeze") was Gil Elvgren (1914-1980), who — along with George Petty — was considered one of the top "pinup" artists in America. His work adorned advertisements, magazine covers, calendars, and in this case, even a throwaway desk blotter for a sheet-metal manufacturing firm. For many years, he was the top illustrator for the national advertising agency Brown & Bigelow, and in fact that's who printed this blotter.

A blotter, for those of you too young to know, was an absorbent piece of cardboard used to dry signatures and other writing in the days before quick-drying ink (and computers, for that matter). Companies soon learned it was a good place to advertise, since these things lay on desks all day long.

I was amused by the direct approach taken here. Someone figured, let's use an eye-catching picture, and then just plant the idea: "Good morning, Boss! Shall we order these CULVERTS today from Tennison Bros, Inc.?" The boss, presumably hypnotized by the scandalous image of this "damsel in distress," would no doubt order more culverts than he needed — if he needed any at all. Such is the power of advertising.

James Tennison started his sheet-metal company in 1936 at 636 Riverside Drive. When the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge opened in 1949 and the streets approaching it got shifted this way and that, the company moved to 450 N. Bellevue. I'm glad to say they are still in business at that location today, and still building culverts and all sorts of big metal things. Something tells me they're not promoting their wares with sexy desk blotters, though. Too bad. M

Got a question for Vance? Send it to "Ask Vance" at memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103 or email him at


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