The evening paper carried this headline on Thursday, Nov. 13, 1941: “Fire Changes Busy Block to Mass of Debris.” Fountain City Bank was in that block and its president, J. Almer Tindell, and the bank cashier, Claude C. Myers, arrived home from a hunting trip to hear the news at 9:30 that morning. Probably the fire still is the largest in Fountain City’s history.
The Mynatt Block at Hotel Ave. and Broadway was in ruins. Not only the bank, but also the rest of the block was destroyed – the Mynatt Cafe, the Fountain City Beauty Shop, Dr. T.S. Cox’s dental office, the C. LeMarr Department store and Sherman Wallace’s Fountain City Barber Shop. Unofficial estimates of the loss were $50,000-60,000.
The conflagration had started about 2 a.m. and it was feared for a time that several other Hotel Ave. businesses would be lost. Across the street, walls were scorched and blistered and windows cracked at the Fountain City Florist, the Nell and Nell Shop, the White Store, Fountain City Furniture and the Thornton Drug Co. Even a number of trees in Fountain City Park were scorched. Only Providence and water pumped from Fountain City Lake by the fire company prevented more extensive damage.
Beginning in about 1890, the site had acquired historic significance as “The Station” for the Fountain Head Railway (the Dummy Line) and the offices for Col. J.C. Woodward’s Fountain Head Land Co. therein. Although there were some 20 stops between Emory Park and Fountain Head, probably most of the 10,000 fares the 5.25-mile railway collected each day were purchased by Fountain City residents boarding at the Station and departing there at the end of each work day.
Claude Carroll Myers had been associated with the bank since Jan. 20, 1926, only two years after it was founded. Born on Feb. 18, 1906, in the Chuckey Community of Greene County, the son of Jake H. Myers and Loretta Painter Myers, Claude had moved to Knox County in 1919. After graduating from Carter High School, he attended Knoxville Business College.
After a short time as cashier of the Atkin Hotel, he got a call from the Fountain City Bank. He rode the streetcar to the bank on a rainy Friday afternoon to apply for the opening. By the time he arrived back downtown he received a call asking if he could come to work on the following Monday.
Almost from that day in 1926 to his retirement 50 years later, Claude Myers and Fountain City Bank would be synonymous to most Fountain Citians.
M.L. Brickey was the cashier at the time and Mr. Myers, the only other employee, was the bookkeeper at $60 a month. Following the precept, he would pass on to others over many years, he soon obtained a loan of $1,800 and acquired a four-room house in walking distance of the bank. His payments were $10.46 a month and he would later say, “Believe me, there were plenty of months in the early 1930s when I never knew where the money was coming from.”
Mr. Brickey left the bank to organize the Fountain City Water Co. in 1934 and two years later Mr. Myers was made assistant cashier. He was elected president in 1945. Claude was a quiet man who often listened and observed while others talked. An amazingly keen judge of individuals and groups, he could almost infallibly sense a credit risk. This ability enabled him to help many individuals and businesses who had limited capital but a vision that Mr. Myers would assist them to achieve.
Many public-spirited Fountain City churches, civic groups and community projects were grateful for his financial assistance in their time of need. Numerous young professional women and men who benefited from his wise counsel and trust will assert that few Fountain Citians contributed as much to the sense of community that persists to this day. This optometrist’s 46-year career was launched in 1948 with assistance from Mr. Myers and Fountain City Bank. Many others of our physicians and dentists can say the same.
His foresight was recognized statewide and Gov. Frank Clement appointed him to the Tennessee Planning Commission. He was also on the Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission but resigned in 1963 to take on a bigger task as a director of the Knoxville Utilities Board where he would serve until 1978.
Due to its conservative management, Fountain City Bank had survived the depression years without defaulting on any of its obligations, unlike many other local banks. The disastrous fire of Nov. 13, 1941, might have been a real roadblock to progress.
Claude Myers immediately assured the public that, while some recently purchased bookkeeping machinery had been lost, the cash deposits and bookkeeping records were protected in the safe. He announced even before the firemen left the ruins that a vacant space across Hotel Ave. had been rented as a temporary location while the bank was rebuilt. At his behest, the Knoxville Clearing House announced that its member banks would serve the bank’s customers temporarily, even accepting deposits for the fire-stricken bank.
By 1942, the bank was rebuilt and entered a period of growth and soon more space was needed. In 1948, the new two-story building at 5225 Broadway (present site of First Horizon Bank) was opened. The bank’s 1924 starting capital was $28,125 but it had progressed to $750,000 by 1948 with over $11 million in deposits.
Mr. Myers management skills had assembled an efficient team of co-workers: Jack E. Ailor, vice president; James R. Cox, cashier; Ralph H. Monroe, assistant vice president; David F. Smith, assistant cashier; Ada Ruth Irwin, assistant cashier; Sarah L. Phelps, assistant cashier and Hubert Vesser, trust officer. The members of the board of directors at that time were: Bruce Gudgel, Claude C. Myers, E.M. Smith Sr. and J. Tolbert Smith Sr.
Always one to support his community, Mr. Myers was a charter member of the Fountain City Lions Club and its past president. He helped spearhead improvement of the park and lake. An avid hunter and fisherman, he was a charter member of the Fountain City Sportsman’s Club and Gov. Frank Clement appointed Mr. Myers to the State Wild Life Commission. A member and one of the founders of the Knoxville Clearing House, he was a member of most of the local, state and national banking organizations. He was a Kentucky Colonel, a Mason and a member of Kerbela Shrine. In his church, Central Baptist Church, he was a trustee and a member of the Baraca Sunday School Class.
A heart attack in 1965 had forced him to cut his workload. The bank became affiliated with the First Tennessee National Corp. of Memphis in 1973, although Mr. Myers remained as president. He had a mild stroke in September 1975 and retired in March 1976 after 50 years at the bank. Claude Carroll Myers died at 73 years of age at St. Mary’s Medical Center on Nov. 15, 1979, survived by his wife, the former Cleo Allen of Williamsburg, Ky., their three children and several grandchildren. He is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
The executive vice president of First Tennessee Bank, Preston Haag, paid him this tribute, “Mr. Myers was a rare individual. Not many of us have been with one bank or other organization for over 50 years. He has given of himself and financially supported the community for many years. His example is a challenge he leaves to us and every other banker in the community.”
The Fountain City Business and Professional Association honors Mr. Myers to this day with the annual Claude C. Myers Award for outstanding businessperson.
Jim Tumblin, retired optometrist and active historian, writes a monthly series on Fountain City for KnoxTNToday.com.