As our readers are now sadly aware, we lost our colleague, Dr. Jim Tumblin, a little over two weeks ago. This will shuffle the deck of our history features, so bear with us while we make some adjustments. In the meantime, please enjoy his first Our Town Story from five years ago for KnoxTNToday.com.
Pratt’s Country Market: Fountain City’s Oldest Business (Est. 1922)
What is Fountain City’s oldest business that is still in existence?
Until a couple of years ago, Babelay and Stormer’s “Fountain City Florist and Greenhouse” (Est. 1939) seemed a possible choice. Since they have closed, Hardy Johnson’s “Custom Shoe Rebuilders” (Est. 1953) and Louis’ Restaurant (Est. 1958) might be front runners.
But some investigation has revealed that a popular local business is many years older than either of them.
When the Tumblin family moved from Fairmont Boulevard to Adair Gardens in 1939, the author’s mother quickly established a charge account at Pratt’s Grocery. Ralph Pratt recently refreshed my memory of the large metal rack with mousetrap-type springs that held the myriad of charge books, one for each customer. He regrets the rack was later stolen when someone broke into his storage barn. Ralph and I recalled how customers were rewarded with a bag of loose candy when the bill was paid each month, not with green stamps or a reduced-price tank of gas. Precious memories!
Actually, the store was already 17 years old at the time. Ralph remembers that two brothers, W.H. “Will” and C.L. “Charlie” Pratt moved from their farm home on the Anderson and Union County line and opened the grocery store at the junction of Tazewell and Jacksboro pikes and Sanders Lane in 1922. In 1959, Charles (1892-1946) and Opal Nelson Pratt (1898-1982) bought out Will and assumed full ownership.
East on Tazewell Pike, just a few hundred yards from the store, stood the Pratt’s large two-story, frame house. Here Opal cared for and cooked for the Pratts’ 11 children, plus grandmother Elizabeth Leach and Cleve, an orphaned and handicapped boy who came to live with them and later became store handyman. Much as Jim Ted Collins and Bobby Sandman did in future years, Cleve captured the heart of all who knew him.
But that wasn’t all. Opal Pratt also had eight boarders at one time and managed to attend any and all services at her beloved Smithwood Baptist Church nearby. If any Fountain Citian ever qualified as one of Wilma Dykeman Stokely’s “Tall Women,” it was Opal Pratt. A stained-glass window in their sanctuary recognizes her dedication to the church.
Not long after Charlie Pratt became full owner, he constructed a new building and Pratt Brothers became Pratt’s Market. At that time, the store was a full-service grocery and meat market and offered home delivery and credit.
On the opposite corner of the Smithwood intersection, Hill’s Market was their friendly competition. For a time, as the three Tumblin boys were growing up, “Doc” Harry D. Stewart at Smithwood Drug Store provided the Smithwood intersection a trifecta. If their meager allowance would not allow a half-pound of chocolate drops at Hill’s or Pratt’s, maybe it would buy an ice cream soda at Doc’s soda counter.
The Pratt children began working in the store early by stocking, re-arranging and delivering groceries. Their grassroots knowledge of the business would prove beneficial later as some moved into management positions.
Charlie Pratt left a void when he passed away in 1946. He had accommodated his customers in many ways, including the loan of his pick-up truck for moving a family or hauling firewood. And, the family had provided baby-sitters, carried the elderly to the bus line, transported children to school, acted as a community bank by holding and cashing regular and pension checks, paid utility bills and generally supported those in the community who were hurting during the Great Depression and the pre-World War II years.
By the 1970s and early 1980s, Bill, C.L. and Ralph Pratt had assumed the management. Their sisters, Thelma Solomon, Wilma Dewine, Johnny Key and Betty Adams were often there preparing and packaging produce and generally greeting and serving customers.
After their mother, Opal Pratt, passed away in 1982, there was a brief hiatus as the estate was settled and management decisions were made. Eventually, C.L. decided to go into the landscaping business and Ralph decided to build Pratt’s Country Market, specializing in fresh fruits and vegetables, on property to the east of the former building. He also offered eggs, bacon, luncheon meat, cheese, Mayfield dairy products, honey, jellies and jams, snacks and soft drinks. Other specialties included seasonal flower and fruit baskets and flower and vegetable plants in the spring.
Ralph and his son Perry now share the major operational duties while his daughter Penny and son-in-law Steve Searcy also frequently serve customers. And, one can often see a fourth generation, Carlton, Charlie, Dalton, Juliana and Thomas, perpetuating the proud name and tradition for yet another 95 years.
The exemplary service that Pratt’s Country Store has provided to customers far and wide was recognized at the recent Honor Fountain City Day when Ralph and Perry Pratt were honored as Fountain City’s Men of the Year.
Jim Tumblin, optometrist and historian, wrote a monthly series on Fountain City for KnoxTNToday.com. He died June 3 at the age of 95. Ralph Pratt died on June 1 last year.