Court Guardians

Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.

Dear Vance: What is the story of the two iron dogs that stand outside the entrance to the Juvenile Court building on Adams? How long have they been there?

— M.K., Memphis

Dear M.K.: Hard to believe, but those noble canines have guarded that property for almost 140 years, making each of them almost a thousand years old, measured in a dog's life. And boy, they've been in plenty of fights.

They weren't raised as pups in Memphis. According to old newspaper accounts, the pair of statues was purchased somewhere in Europe in the 1870s by a fellow named William Decatur Bethell. At the time, he supposedly paid $5,000 for them, an awful lot of money back then. He placed them in the garden of his estate here, and I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't really know where that was. The Lauderdales, you see, didn't really associate with the Bethells; I'd rather not say why. But it doesn't really matter, for they didn't dwell there very long.

Sometime in the late 1870s, Bethell decided to move to Denver, and didn't want to lug those heavy dogs along, so he gave them to his cousin, Mrs. H.M. Neely, who lived in a grand Victorian-style home at 616 Adams. Perhaps "gave" is too strong a word; lawyers would later argue that he had merely "loaned" her the dogs.

This legality came up many years later, in 1965, you see, when the city acquired the old Neely Mansion and demolished it to make way for the new Juvenile Court building that stands on the site today. Members of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities, who operated the Woodruff-Fontaine House next door, decided the dogs would look better in the yard of that home than outside Juvenile Court.

And so quite a legal tug-of-war took place, as various people tried to make sense of who, exactly, owned the dogs. Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner finally stepped in and told reporters, "I don't want to get into a dog fight over this." Yes, he actually said that. But he decreed that since nobody could prove ownership, he was keeping the dogs at his front door, and they've been there ever since. During this battle, by the way, experts examined the dogs and determined they are actually cast bronze, not iron, which makes them rather expensive. But nobody could ever determine what breed these were supposed to be, from collies to Labrador retrievers. Turner himself always insisted they were St. Bernards.

The dogs had already survived another battle years earlier, during World War II, when well-meaning citizens thought donating the big sculptures to a scrap-metal drive would be a great symbolic gesture, inspiring citizens to contribute tin cans and other useful materials. Judge Camille Kelley, who ruled the court back then with an iron fist, pointed out that the dogs were actually hollow and wouldn't really amount to much if they were melted down. And besides, Kelley made it very clear that nobody was going to take away "her" dogs. So that was that, and the dogs have stood there ever since. Most people who drive down Adams probably never notice them.

Savell's Story

Dear Vance: When I visited Memphis as a child in the 1970s, my grandmother would take me to a convenience store at the corner of Union and McLean to buy baseball cards. That building is now the location of Las Savell Jewelry. When did Savell buy the building, and what was the name of that convenience store?

— F.M., Memphis.

Dear F.M.: The store where you purchased your baseball cards was one of the many Stop-n-Go Markets that dotted the Memphis landscape in the 1970s. I chatted a bit with Las Savell, a true gentleman in every sense of the word, and he told me he purchased the building in 1984.

"We already had a smaller store on Union Avenue, right next to Kimbrough Tower," he said, "and we used to close that and come down here and work until 2 or 3 in the morning to get this place ready." The totally revamped store has been used as a location for several films made in Memphis, including The Rainmaker, and it's enjoyed plenty of excitement in other ways, too.

"One day a fellow came in here," said Las, "and he told me, 'I crashed my car into this place once.' Luckily, that was before we moved in. He was driving west down Union, must have been drunk, and somehow ran his car right through the front window."

Gosh, it was mortifying to hear that. I assured Las that I would fire our chauffeur immediately.

Memories of Moler

Dear Vance: My grandmother lived in Memphis during the 1950s and 1960s and went to Molar's Beauty College. Do you have any idea where this college was located, or its story?

— V.T., Memphis.

Dear V.T.: I can't tell you much about this establishment, which was spelled Moler, by the way. The Lauderdale Library, however, did have a nice postcard showing two views of the rather cramped interior, with rows of pink vinyl chairs, hair dryers, and a beautician smiling behind the counter.

In the 1960s, Moler Beauty College was located at 146 Union Avenue, across the street from The Peabody, and it was owned and operated by two brothers, Clinton and John Hile. The postcard claims it was "the largest and oldest beauty college in the Mid-South, training prize-winning operators for the best beauty salons." What's more, Moler offered "guaranteed beauty service to the public" — though they don't say what that guarantee was, exactly — and had been serving the Mid-South "more than 60 years."

Since the card isn't postmarked or dated in any way, that mention of 60 years doesn't help me pinpoint the school's origin. The images on the card have a 1960s feel, so I'd guess Moler had been around since the early 1900s, though it didn't open a branch in Memphis until the 1950s, along with a barber college.

There's still a Moler College (they apparently dropped "Beauty" from their name) in Gretna, Louisiana, but both the beauty and barber schools here closed sometime in the 1970s. The original site on Union is now a Holiday Inn Select. 

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