Bartlett carpenter recalls life on Shelby Street

Bartlett-Sesq-logo-SMALL-WEEditor’s note: This series will run weekly throughout 2016 to highlight Bartlett’s history in honor of its 150th anniversary this year. Today’s column reproduces portions of a May 1981 article from The Bartlett Express.

When Arthur Perry was a small boy, he lived aboard the steam-billowing trains of the L&N. His daddy repaired the rails, and his mother was a cook for the crew who kept the iron horse speeding on its way. But late one night, when Arthur was eight years old in 1908, his family moved to Tennessee as the train dropped them off “up the tracks” from Bartlett, a Bartlett far different from the one today.

“It was so dark we just didn’t believe we could be in the right place,” Perry recalled. “Sure enough here comes the train backing up the tracks. We got back on and they left us off the second time at Bartlett.

“We lived in one of the railroad section houses which were all here on Shelby Street where we live now. Back then it was called Spring Street, but I never saw any springs.”

Perry, 81, is a carpenter by trade and said he has “worked in most every major building here in Bartlett.”

As a boy he helped his daddy, who had gone into farming in EIlendale, to make wooden spokes for the wheels of cars.

“We’d cut down the trees out in the forest,” he said. “My daddy had an ax exactly four inches wide. We’d cut that tree into wooden rods about 26 inches long with four inch squared sides. We’d load the rough spokes into the mule wagon, go down Stage Road, once called Plank Road, to Jackson and into the Chelsea Wheel Company.”

For some time he lived with C.B. Fraser, who owned much of the real estate in Bartlett. Fraser had a large farm, growing cotton, corn and strawberries. Perry worked for Fraser in the daytime and received school lessons from Mrs. Fraser at night.

“There were three times the number of blacks in Bartlett as there are now,” he said. “Almost everyone worked the farms. When the farming stopped, a great many of the farm workers went to work at the streetcar barns at Binghampton” (now Broad and National in Memphis).

He continued, “I remember when we used to ride the three-car train from Bartlett to Ellendale on Sunday afternoon for 15 cents to visit our family and friends. We’d catch the one o’clock train out and come back on the seven o’clock. Some Sundays we’d attend the Fullview Baptist Church right here by the tracks in Ellendale. We had two black churches in Bartlett. There was the Bethlehem Church here on Shelby Street, now First Baptist, and the Central Baptist Church over there on Bartlett Road, That one is closed now; the membership declined and the building was in such disrepair it would have cost too much to make it safe.”

Perry said he believed that church building is the oldest building in Bartlett, probably built in the early 1800s. “It should be made a historical building or something,” he suggested.

Perry also has a pole in his yard that was once part of a horse hitching post at the Bethlehem Church in 1910.

What was Stage Road like in the ’20s and ’30s? Perry described it: “The train depot was on the southwest corner of Stage at the tracks where the little row of pine stands beside the laundry now. At one time there were three cotton gins in operation, two on the south side and one on the north side. The Tatum Grocery store was over there at the corner where the Bartlett Baptist Church is. Railroad people and men from town used to sit in there and swap stories and ‘trim sticks’ (whittle). Maybe that’s where I heard about Hang Man’s Bottom,” he said ominously. “It was a dark woods place between Bartlett and Raleigh. People daresn’t go there at night ’cause they supposedly hanged a man there one time. It happened before I got here. I guess Hang Man’s Bottom was that area down where Lynchburg Street is now.”

Perry has keen recall of the people, places and events which make up the story of Bartlett’s past. His life has spanned Bartlett’s life for the past 73 years, years which have seen a decline in Bartlett’s black population and the mushrooming of a modern suburban city.

Written by Judy Jenkins Davis, special to the Express.