John Hitch and His Backyard Museum
He's been at it for nearly five years, but now, he's working under a deadline. By midday, Sept. 2, it's got to be finishedFloyd's Barbershop, the Bluebird Diner, Wally's Service Stationall of it's got to be done if he's going to be ready in time for his big Labor Day weekend wingding, complete with food vendors and porta-potties, to which you are cordially invited.
The gas pumps will be lit and the Firestone Tire displays will be out front of the service station where Goober and Gomer used to work. The Mayberry police car, a 1951 Studebaker, will be painted and restored and there'll be black-and-white checkered linoleum on the diner floor. The Darling family truck is available (but may not be ready, since there's just so much a man can do in the heat of the summer), and the place will be a veritable country music museum of the sort John tried to get the city of Knoxville to build a long time ago. He has made up his mind that this project is going to get done this summer, come heck or high water.
"I get some of the nicest compliments there ever was," he says. "At first, I was scared to death that the neighbors would think I was building a junkyard. I didn't want them to think I was a fruitcake. What I've got here is collectibles. It's stuff I love, and it's unreal, the people who have come here. There's a little store right below the house where people will stop and ask for directions. They'll ask them if there's a guy around here building Mayberry... "
John Hitch is a big-hearted, twinkly-eyed, semi-retired country music impresario with an astonishing collection of museum-quality country music memorabilia in his basement and a hand-made reproduction of the town of Mayberry taking shape in his backyard. He got the germ of the Mayberry idea at a family reunion when a second cousin mentioned he'd redone a child's bedroom in a Mayberry motif. John loved The Andy Griffith Show's Mayberry too, and decided that the Mayberry theme would be an effective vehicle for his museum dream. Given his entertainment background and his experience as an auto body man, John figured that recreating Mayberry'd be a piece of cake.
He and his wife Ruby always have a big party the Saturday before Labor Day, and by that date this year, John plans to have moved a goodly amount of his country music and Mayberry memorabilia out of his basement and into the backyard village. Aunt Bea's kitchen, complete with chintz curtains and a jar of kerosene cucumbers on the shelf, will stay right where it isin the room behind the Hitches' real kitchen, adjacent to the back porch that doubles as a sound stage every Labor Day weekend. Out in the yard, Burma Shave-style signs ("A wintry night ... Gets cold and shivery... On a moonlight sprint...To an outdoor privy") lead the way to the outhouse.
"People'll be coming in from Nashville, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Georgiaanybody can come. Just bring your coolers (no liquor, please) and we'll be out here from 12 to 12 the Saturday before Labor Day. We'll have country, gospel, bluegrass, and just have a big time."
John's construction project is a labor of love, but started as a reaction to intense frustration over Knoxville's failure to honor its country music roots.
"I talked to mayors for years, but never could get anything done," he says. "We've let that heritage get away from us, so I told Ruby, 'Now that I'm retired, I'm going to build me a museum myself."
He made a couple of trips over to Andy Griffith's home town of Mt. Airey, N.C., to make sure he's got his authenticity down. And he and Ruby have joined a Mayberry club, although he says the club's young Gen X membership puts him to shame when it comes to knowing chapter and verse of Mayberry trivia.
"We felt like a mule at the Kentucky Derby. They knew everything about it.. They can tell you what everybody wore in every single episode..."
He shares his treasures and his memories with anyone who knocks on his door.
"My mamma was a woman and my daddy was an auctioneer, so I love to talk."
And he has plenty to talk to his visitors about, having hosted the Tennessee Valley Barn Dance for 15 years at the WNOX auditorium, where he was the successor to the legendary Lowell Blanchard.
One of his best stories is about the gig that brought in the most money he ever made in one night in the music business. It was when he booked George Jones into the Capital Theater in Maryville, and old Possum, true to form, didn't show.
"I'd been going over to Maryville to promote the show, and I had to preach a sermon every time I sold tickets. Nobody believed he'd show up. Well, that Friday morning came, and they called me from Nashville. They said 'We've got the band here, but we can't find George.'
"I told them 'You better send the band, 'cause they'll kill me here in Maryville."
John thought of a way to salvage the show. He got a George Jones sing-alike guy named Ronnie Sullivan, and called up Brenda Carter, who'd sung a song called "Milwaukee" with George.
"We did the barn dance show for the first hour, and I told them if you want your money back, you can leave nowto make a long story short, everybody sat there. Ronnie sung, Brenda sung, and there might have been two people asked for their money back."
The booking agent called and told John not to pay the band, for legal reasons in case litigation was in the offing. So he took them to a late-night dive called the Smoky Mountain Club, where he planned to buy the boys a good meal and something to wash it down with. They parked the bus outside and went in. After they'd had a bite to eat and a drink or three, they started playing. And playing. And playing.
"At 7 Saturday morning, the band was still singing. I went to settle up with the manager and said 'How much do I owe you?'
"He said it's me that owes YOU,' and he gave me $1,200. That was one of the best nights I ever had. The next week was Sonny James, and wouldn't hardly anybody come, because they didn't believe he'd show up."
John's name is on two different places on the giant treble clef on Gay Street memorializing Knoxville's country music greats.
"I knew I was going to be on one part of it, to tell you the truth. They took up money for it, and if you'd give $50, they'd put your name on it. But on the other side of it, you had to be voted on there. And at the time they were doing it, I wasn't in music anymore, and music is kind of funny, you know. If you're out of it everybody just kind of forgets you. One day Ruby called me from work and said 'Let's go see if your name's on there...'
"I didn't want anybody to see me looking for my name, because it would have been so hard on me if it hadn't of been there, so we went down that night about 10 o'clock, and it just tickled me to death when I found it."
Note: To get to the Hitches' house, take Chapman Highway south, one mile past John Sevier Highway. Turn left at Hentron Chapel, go 4 miles, past Gap Creek School. Take the first right past the school (Bays Mountain Road); the Hitches' is the first house on the left.
July 20, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 29
© 2000 Metro Pulse