Coach Houses



 

Dear Vance: Years ago, I remember a place on Poplar called the Coach & Four. I told my father that next door to it was a stadium entrance with gates and a ticket booth. He says this isn't so. I hope you can clear up this matter. — T.K., Memphis.

Dear T.K.: Oh, the mind is a funny thing. At least that's what my lobotomist used to tell me before my yearly "treatments." But it is strange how memory can distort things. Just one example from my psychiatric files: I told my therapist about a recurring, vivid memory of a certain summer day at Sardis, long ago. I was water-skiing behind the Lady Lauderdale, when I circled the lake at high speed, hit a wooden ramp in the water with a whoomph, sailed through the air, and landed perfectly while everyone in the nearby boats applauded such a feat. My therapist chuckled at this tale. "Now, Vance," he said. "You know this could not possibly have happened." And when I glance down at my pencil-thin legs, pale-white body, and generally puny physical condition, I have to agree that it is unlikely I would have performed such a water-skiing stunt. Surely I must have imagined it.

Then one day, wandering aimlessly through the Lauderdale Mansion, I glanced at the dozens of dusty trophies lining the fireplace mantel, awarded for our various achievements in spelling bees, roller-skating, bowling, and square dancing. And there it was, a plaque clearly inscribed: "Vance Lauderdale. Sardis Lake Water Skiing Champion, August 1, 1968."

So what do you make of that, Doctor?

Anyway, when I first read your letter, T.K., I assumed that your memory was faulty. After all, as far as I knew, there was never a restaurant called the Coach & Four on Poplar (though there was a hotel, with restaurant inside, by that name on Lamar).

But something kept gnawing at what was left of my brain, so I began to examine old photographs and newspaper clippings in the Lauderdale Library, and that's when I realized that you are probably remembering a well-known eatery on Poplar called the Coach House (above), which was operated by a woman named Lessie Gates. Then I pulled out my collection of aerial photographs, and it hit me like a stone. Just behind the Coach House was Hodges Field, a football stadium that saw plenty of gridiron action during the first half of the 1900s. The main entrance was on Jefferson, I believe, but it's entirely possible — if not downright probable — that it would also have another entrance (complete with the ticket booth you remember) off Poplar. And that entrance would have been practically next door to the Coach House.

In short, T.K., I believe you are correct, and your father is mistaken. Try to tell him so in a nice way.

I don't know who Hodges was. I suppose I could have found out, but it didn't interest me. What did catch my attention was reading about all the terrific games that were played at Hodges Field. In the first place, not many people know that the University of Tennessee Medical School (now called the Center for Health Sciences) once had its own football team, who played at Hodges and also at Russwood Park. How those hard-working medical students found time to practice is beyond me, but in the early 1920s, the Doctors — yep, that was their team name — played schools all over the area, including Ole Miss (beating them one year 33-0) and Southwestern Presbyterian University (now Rhodes College), which in those days had one heckuva powerhouse football squad.

But the Doctors didn't always play regular colleges. I have a 1923 UT-Memphis yearbook that documents their amazing season, with seven wins and one tie against such unusual opponents as the American School of Osteopaths and the Missouri School of Mines. The yearbook's sports editor certainly had a way with words. He noted that captain Clayton Ford "came to the Docs from the Praying Colons" (whatever that means), and in the game against Centenary, a fullback with the wonderful name of Bully Doak "was the main cog of the cyclone machine that knocked the country gentlemen coo-coo." Other players that year included Graveyard Graham, "Kaiser" Wilhelm, quarterback Bully Beck, Weinie Weinell, Peadie Leak, "Dutch" Leggett, "Little Man" King, Undie Underwood, and "Horse" Birk. You just don't run across stuff like that in Sports Illustrated these days.

Historian Paul Coppock observed that the team was mainly organized to draw attention to the medical school here, and therefore increase enrollment. By 1930, when UT-Memphis was on stable financial ground, the football team was benched. They just weren't needed anymore. That's a shame. I guess most of these players went on to become doctors, but do you really want to be treated by a physician nicknamed "Graveyard"?

After the Doctors stopped playing, Hodges Field didn't fall silent. It became the home field for one of the most remarkable teams in Memphis sports history. Clarence Saunders, the clever fellow who made a fortune when he founded the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain, formed his own professional football team in the late 1920s. Their complete name was the Clarence Saunders Sole Owner of My Name Tigers, because Saunders had been involved in a legal squabble after losing his ownership in Piggly Wiggly in some Wall Street mishap, and was battling to keep the rights to his own name. It's too complicated to go into here, but he won, and even started a second chain of stores called Clarence Saunders Sole Owner groceries. And so he used the football team to promote that venture as well, though most sportswriters of the day just called them the Tigers.

But what is astonishing is that these Tigers had teeth. They played NFL teams from around the country and chewed them up in just about every game. In their 1928 season, they soundly defeated such opponents as Nashville's oddly named O'Geny Greenies (score: 33-0), the St. Louis Trojans (67-0), the Cleveland Panthers (43-0), and Oklahoma's tough Hominy Indians (13-7). The next year, their only loss was a 39-19 matchup with the powerhouse Chicago Bears, led by the "Galloping Ghost," Red Grange. Their greatest glory came on the afternoon of December 16, 1929, when the world-champion Green Bay Packers came to Hodges Field and lost to the Tigers, 20-6. A bunch of sore losers, the Packers whined they weren't used to the intense humidity down here. In December?

Saunders, never one to spend too much time on any one endeavor, eventually disbanded the team because he didn't want to travel to other cities for games. The most surprising — and depressing — part of all this is that in 1930 the fledgling National Football League, highly impressed with the Memphis Tigers, actually invited Saunders to join their organization, and he refused. If he had said yes, Memphis would have a professional football team today. Just think about that.

After the Tigers folded, Hodges Field was used quite a bit for high-school matchups, especially for teams from Humes and Tech. But in the late 1960s, the growing Medical Center needed the space, so the old bleachers came down to make way for the new Veterans Administration Hospital.

Now, about the Coach House. In 1958, Lessie Gates took a nineteenth-century mansion on Poplar that had been operating as an antiques shop and transformed it into one of our city's most distinctive restaurants. It was quite a place, and at one time even had an antique coach displayed in a glass case outside the main entrance. "For a long time I have felt there was a definite need in Memphis for a restaurant of this kind," Gates told reporters. "One that would combine an exclusive dining service, deluxe-course dinners, and an appropriate setting."

The new restaurant offered private dining rooms, floors of brick, huge mirrors, and what the newspapers described as "treasures from this country and abroad." The courtyard out back was turned into a French-style open-air café.

But sometimes the stories I tell in "Ask Vance" have unhappy endings, and this is certainly one of them. On a March morning in 1965, Lessie Gates was found murdered in a back room of her restaurant. Police later determined she had been killed by one of her own employees. Gates was so popular and well-known that the crime shocked the entire city.

In later years, the building became home to an equally famous restaurant, the Four Flames, which was consistently rated one of our city's best eateries. The four white pillars out front, topped with gas flames, became a Memphis landmark. On most Saturday evenings, you could find the Lauderdales ensconced at our favorite table just off the main hall, where we stuffed ourselves on pheasant under glass, poached salmon, and Velveeta sandwiches.

But as with most restaurants in town, even the best ones, the Four Flames ultimately closed. The building is still standing, its exterior little changed over the years. Today it houses the Memphis Child Advocacy Center. 

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

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