Following is a brief history of one of the oldest surviving small family-owned businesses in Knoxville today as written by the owner Conrad L. Majors, Jr. (January 1, 2014). Others have tried to claim parts of this history for gain, but there is only one Greenlee’s with a direct link to more than 100 years of Knoxville’s past.
In December of 1909, Wm. Greenlee had established, along with George McFadden, a bicycle shop known as Knoxville Bicycle Hospital. Wm. Greenlee had come from Pennsylvania some twenty years earlier to work as Superintendent of the Knoxville Cotton Mill. The original owner of Knoxville Bicycle Hospital was M.L. Wolfe. The business was located at 710 Gay Street, which is also where M. L. Wolfe resided. We know he was there in 1897, perhaps even earlier. The shop did machine and general repair work. I do not know exactly how M.L. Wolfe and Wm. Greenlee got together. I do know Wm. Greenlee and his sons: Leonard, Roy, and Raymond were fixing bicycles and doing other mechanical and machine work out of residences at 1016 Hannah Ave. and 131 Cowan Ave. in 1905. By 1910 M.L. Wolfe had relocated to 412-416 Walnut Street, where he was primarily into automobiles. His old building at 710 Gay Street had been taken over by Rogers & Co., where they were selling and buying bicycles. This is apparently the same Rogers & Co. that later became the Cadillac dealer in Knoxville for over 90 years. Wolfe stayed in the auto repair business at various locations, including Blum Ave. and 426 Maloney road until his death in 1936. In addition to the Knoxville Bicycle Hospital, Wm. Greenlee was also partnered with Clarence C. Chaffin in another bicycle shop called Greenlee & Chaffin Bicycles at 418 Union Ave. This shop had been established around 1906 or 1907.
In his younger days, Roy Greenlee had worked as a machinist for Southern Railway, WJ Savage Company, and Knoxville Foundry and Machine Company, among others. During this era he also worked part time for his Father, Wm. Greenlee. When Roy married my Grandmother, Nettie Bowen King in 1924, they opened up Greenlee’s Bicycle Shop at 923 Central Avenue. At the time they were living with Roy’s Father, Wm. Greenlee, in what was called Mechanicsville, at 131 Cowan St. Wm. Greenlee still owned Knoxville Bicycle Hospital, which by this time was located at 515 Asylum Street, later becoming Western Ave. By 1925 the name Knoxville Bicycle Hospital had, for all practical purposes, been dropped, and the shop has been known as Greenlee’s ever since. Roy and Nettie had closed their shop on Central and went to work for Roy’s Father, Wm. Greenlee, by late 1925. It appears that by early 1928 Roy and Nettie owned Greenlee’s out right, and in September 1929, when Roy died at the young age of 43, Nettie Bowen King Greenlee became the sole owner of Greenlee’s Bicycle Shop.
In September 1929 Nettie and her daughter (Lucille) by a previous marriage lived for a brief time with Roy’s Father at 223 Deadrick Ave. Shortly after, the shop was moved to larger quarters at 500 Western Ave., where Nettie and Lucille lived on the second floor. As we all know 1929 was the beginning of The Great Depression. Times were hard for Nettie, running a business and caring for a young daughter. George McFadden, who had been with the shop since 1909 was an excellent machinist and bicycle repair man. Nettie said many times she could not have made it without him. Often times at the end of the week, when pay day rolled around, there was not enough to pay every one (usually there were 3-4 mechanics/sales people), so the person who had the most pressing need got paid. Hours were sometimes cut, but no one had to be laid off. In late 1934 Nettie remarried her first husband, Julian F. King (my Grandfather). Lucille had gone to Jacksonville, Florida where her Father (Julian King) was working as an electrician. She convinced him to come to Knoxville and eventually Nettie and Julian remarried. The couple lived up over the shop for a time, but purchased a house at 217 Deadrick Ave. in 1936.
The Shop weathered the Great Depression and began to prosper again toward the end of the decade. During those years from the early 30’s through the middle 40’s much of Greenlee’s business came from the Western Union and the old Market house. Both places had a slew of riders who delivered all over Knoxville and surrounding areas using bicycles. Market Square, which was close to Greenlee’s teemed with life. Fish mongers, flower peddlers, produce handlers and street Preachers—The Market Square had it all. You could buy a live chicken, get a single cigarette or a chew of tobacco, play a 10 cent tip board, take a chance on the illegal butter and eggs racket, or see a movie for ten or fifteen cents. The list of activity was almost endless. You could get a fried baloney sandwich, have your shoes shined and get your pants pressed while you waited, listen to a guitar picking blind man while he weaved in and out on the crowded sidewalk with a tin cup on his belt for donations----all of this within a one block radius.
Nettie and Julian opened the shop from 6:00 am till 6:00 pm Monday through Saturday. Most mornings several riders would be waiting for the doors to open in order to get a flat fixed, a spoke replaced or a wheel trued. Time was of the essence when you had a basket of fresh fish, cut flowers or an important telegram to deliver. You couldn’t wait around. The riders needed service and Greenlee’s filled the bill. It cost 50 cents to fix a flat or true a wheel. The coffee was JFG and the cookies were from Quality Bakery. These were free—Nettie’s treat.
Every Saturday, with a dollar earned from filling the coal bucket, arranging a showcase or simply sweeping the floor, I would head out around 9:00 am and go to the nearby YMCA for swimming and dodgeball. Leaving there, I would cut through the Emery 5&10 Store (stopping to read the funny books and check out any new cap pistols) and come out on Market Square. A few steps north brought me to the Golden Sun Café. A large chili, a Mil-Kay Orange and all the oyster crackers you could eat cost about 15 cents. With a full belly, I headed for the Strand Theater on the corner of Gay Street and Wall. It cost 9 cents to get in, popcorn was 5 cents, a Coca-Cola was 5 cents, Milk Duds were 5 cents, and a Bit of Honey was 5 cents. The movie would be a western; Gene Autry and Bill Elliott were my favorites. You would see a feature presentation, the next chapter of a serial, one or two cartoons, and Movie Tone News. The news was nearly always about the war or President Roosevelt, who was a Father figure to us all. After that it was on to the Blue Circle for 5 cent hamburgers and another Big Orange. Don’t forget Woolworth’s and Kresses. They had great toy counters. Kresses even had a soda fountain downstairs. A huge chocolate soda was 20 cents. If time permitted, it might be another movie at the Riviera. What was another 9 cents to a man of means? Hedy Lemar and Lana Turner were worth the expense in the more adult world. By now it was about time for me to head back to the Bike Shop. Perhaps you wonder how a nine or ten year old boy could be out on his own all day on a Saturday without adult supervision. The fact is, I knew many of the stall workers, shop keepers, cab drivers, and beat cops in the downtown area. What’s more important, it was a different time. People were kind and helpful. Children were safe in downtown Knoxville and it didn’t hurt that I was the grandson of Nettie and Julian, the Bike Shop folks. My last stop before heading back was Millers. They had a fascinating escalator system that was fun to ride. Going up the down side was a challenge. They also had a machine, X-Ray I guess, that let you look at your feet through your shoes. You could get a good fit if you didn’t get cancer first. But I had to be back at the Shop by six because that was closing time, and I knew Mamaw Nettie would fix pork chops or fried chicken for supper. She knew a boy who had spent all the day doing investigative work on the streets and alleys of downtown Knoxville would need a good supper, even though he had been consuming mostly junk food since 10 0’clock that morning.
In 1949 Greenlee’s moved from 500 Western Avenue out to 303 E. Magnolia. Nobody liked leaving the downtown area, but things had changed. The Market House delivery boys and Western Union Riders had gone by the wayside. The war had been over for four years and most customers now had cars. Parking became very limited on the corner of Walnut and Western. In addition, the early 50’s saw a tremendous increase in our lawn mower business. Bicycles were still our most important market, but an electric powered mower sharpening machine allowed us to sharpen three push mowers in the time it took to do one by the old hand file method. The charge to sharpen a push mower was $3.50. When sharpened and adjusted the machines were precision grass cutters as long as you didn’t let the grass get too high. Reel type mowers powered by 4-cycle gas engines were also beginning to sell. Greenlee’s got $10.00 to sharpen any engine powered mower up to a 21 inch cut.
In 1952 I was sixteen years old; Papaw King died that summer. Nettie and I ran the Shop together, although she stayed home most of the time when school was out. George McFadden still worked occasionally, but when I hired a young J. Gibson things changed dramatically. J. Gibson was an excellent mechanic on both bicycles and lawn mowers. Jimmy, as we called him, did not have much formal education, but when it came to mechanical things he was a genius. He was so fast that he nearly doubled our production. I soon realized that my contribution was to be in the business end, and that I should let Jimmy run the repair department. A faithful and loyal employee, he missed three days of work in forty-three years. The Shop remained on Magnolia during the 50’s. Nettie and Jimmy ran the shop until I finished college, except of course, we worked together during the summers and holidays.
In 1962 the shop was moved to its present location at 1402 N. Broadway. By this time Nettie was in her early eighties and although the spirit was willing the body was not able to handle the work load. I began a 34 year teaching/coaching career, so it was up to Jimmy and another great mechanic, Glen Edwards, to run the Shop. Glen had come to us when Appalachian Motors, a small engine repair shop in South Knoxville, closed down. He was, in my opinion, the best small engine man in Knoxville. Honest to a fault, he made our mower business even more successful. Glen had that rare ability to defuse a tense situation with a joke or a story. He would listen to a customer’s complaint and because he really wanted to help, the customer soon realized they were going to be treated fairly. Even when he knew the customer was being unreasonable, Glen could fix it. And fix it he did for 25 years.
The bicycle business began to change drastically in the early 60’s. Multi-speed bikes with light, high quality steel frames began to replace the beautiful, but extremely heavy, coaster brake models of earlier times. Dishing wheels, adjusting bottom brackets, installing cables, and tweaking derailleurs required a whole new learning curve for the professional bicycle mechanic. Jimmy and Glen adjusted quickly and Greenlee’s was off and running into a new era.
Nettie died in 1986. We mourned her passing, and I was greatly moved by the large number of people who came to pay respects, and even more so by those I did not even know who came by the Shop in the weeks that followed and told me of some kindness she had shown them. They had received a part or some type of repair for free when they did not have money to pay. Some of those who came were in their 60’s. She was remembered. In 95 years Nettie had lived through two World Wars, prohibition, the Roaring 20’s, The Great Depression, The Korean Conflict, and Vietnam. She saw the first automobiles, airplanes, radios, television sets, telephones, and all the other things that electricity and atomic energy brought to the consumer.
By the late 60’s and early 70’s, bicycles were going through another phase. What some industry buffs called “Muscle Bikes” began to appear in California. Kids were taking 20” bikes and equipping them with banana seats and long horn handle bars. Schwinn was the first manufacturer to cash in on the ideal by coming out with the Stingray Series. The ultimate was the Krate group (Lemon Peeler, Orange Krate, Apple Krate, etc.). Another great seller for Greenlee’s was the Raleigh Chopper with its Stick Shift, Hibars, and Fancy Banana seat. They were a hot item until the Federal Product Standards stepped in around 1974 and changed things drastically for safety reasons. By this time the kids in California had already started another era—bicycle Moto Cross or BMX for short. Race tracks with banked turns, team uniforms, and knobby tired 20 inch bikes became the rage. Some of the smaller companies like Redline, GT and Diamond Back sponsored teams and continue to do so until this day.
The 80’s and 90’s brought new ideas and innovation to the industry. Increasingly exotic frame materials, more sophisticated drive train systems, shock forks, and hydraulic disc brakes came to the marketplace. Pushing this change was the increasing popularity of Mountain Biking and Mountain Bike Racing along with the never ending search for perfection among the Road Bike set.
Always, Greenlee’s has adapted to these ongoing developments, and as nature’s “Most Perfect Machine” continues to evolve so also will Greenlee’s Bicycle Shop.
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