1959 Middlesboro was “Music City” for a day

Published 11:27 am Thursday, July 18, 2019

By William H. Baker

Contributing Writer

For a 24-hour period, July 3-4, 1959, Middlesboro was host city for the dedication of the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. With all the pomp, pride and caring of the people in the tri-state area, music headlined much of the celebration.

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Dozens of citizens participated in the planning for this special event, and thousands came to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Harry M. Hoe, a highly respected community and business leader, headed up a committee of volunteers to provide planning and direction to a massive undertaking.

With help from the townspeople and representatives from the states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, work leading up to that weekend in July took months of effort. And, from the beginning, an emphasis was placed on planning programs and events that would be enjoyed by people of all ages.

Imagine staging a major country music show at Bradner Stadium on Friday night, July 3, to be followed by square dancing at the Kroger parking lot on West Cumberland Avenue, dancing at the Junior High School Gymnasium, rock-n-roll dance at Joyland Skating Rink, and another dance at the Middlesboro Country Club! All of that in one evening and at no charge to those who attended.

Members of the Middlesboro Lions Club were actively involved in arranging for and supervising the evening dances. About 40 members of the club worked for hours on that Friday to ensure enjoyment and safety for those participating. They had also developed a printed handout with the locations and the type of music at each venue.

The show at Bradner Stadium was headlined by two of the top entertainers from the Grand Ole Opry: Billy Grammer and Stonewall Jackson. Both were enjoying success with songs on the best-seller lists and great popularity on country music radio stations.

Grammer, a veteran musician and brilliant guitar player, had a hit in his recording of “Gotta Travel On” and Jackson was enjoying a number one song on the country charts with “Waterloo.” Theirs was an extended concert for a capacity crowd at Bradner Stadium.

In mid-afternoon on that Friday, there were outdoor concerts on Fountain Square and on the Cumberland Hotel Plaza, where Vice President Richard Nixon had spoken at noon.

On Saturday, the music continued. The site changed. The spotlight was on the formal or official dedication program that featured a keynote address by Fred Seaton, Secretary of the Interior. The music was provided by the 101st Airborne Division Band, a historic military band for an historic performance at Cumberland Gap.

The band’s history began in 1942, just two years after Congress had authorized the establishment of the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. And, to tie the band’s history to that July Fourth appearance in 1959, it’s worth noting that the band highlighted an Independence Day Celebration at Fort Campbell Kentucky, just two weeks ago.

The park dedication featured patriotic American music including the National Anthem, Stars and Stripes Forever, and a vocal solo, America the Beautiful, by Middlesboro native Louisa Hoe who was then director of music at Lincoln Memorial University.

As one who worked alongside Harry Hoe and others on the Dedication Committee, I am inclined to remember not only the excitement of the occasion but also the great effort of citizens who wanted to be engaged in an undertaking that was big for the tri-state area and bigger than any of them individually. It was a time of heightened community engagement that brought the nation’s attention to Cumberland Gap.

William H. Baker is a native of Claiborne County and former resident of Middlesboro. Email:wbaker@limestone.edu