A Short History of the Nicknames of Burlington

In Restless Native by Chris Wohlwendleave a COMMENT

Apparently if you grew up in the east-side neighborhood of Burlington in the 1930s, a nickname was a requirement. Almost all of my parents’ male friends were known by a moniker beyond their birth-certificate name.

There was Corky. And his brother, Wheeler. They owned Moulton Brothers Amoco station. There was a guy called Babe and another who went by Cooner. One of my uncles answered to Buster. My dad was known as Fats. Until my mother put a stop to it, I was called Little Fats.

There was Smut, and his son, Slim. The operator of the movie theater was called Bunny. There was a man who went by Son, and a bootlegger called Cotton. The husband of one longtime Sunday-school teacher—and a permanent subject of church-wide prayers—was known as Sparky. The woman who played the organ at church was married to a man called Bugs. Ottie was the older brother of one of my mother’s best friends.

The gunsmith who lived in a garage down the alley from my grandparents, a Cherokee, was known to everyone as Indian.

Even Knoxville politician and grocer Cas Walker had a nickname, though it probably was exclusive to Burlington. Everyone called him Boomer. If we were on our way home and needed milk, Dad would say, “I’ll stop at Boomer’s.”

And there was the legendary Dodie, who had left home while a teenager to wander around the country, riding the rails. Periodically, when a freight car brought him back to the area, he would show up at one of the gas stations to bring his old friends up to date on his adventures. Then he would hit the road again.

Once, when my dad was telling a story of his youth, he mentioned a man who attended our church whose last name was Hockenjosh. What was his nickname? I asked.

“Didn’t need one,” my dad said, implying that a surname like that was differentiation enough. There was certainly no problem with his being confused with another church regular, a fixture of the gospel quartet featured at Sunday-night services. His name was Ailshie—pronounced ale-shy.

There were others who were nicknameless. Burlington’s Esso station was owned by Mayford Mitchell, his given name distinctive enough so that no other name was necessary. Something wrong with your car? “See if Mayford can help” was all that was needed. Everyone knew whom you were talking about.

My grandfather on my mother’s side didn’t need a nickname either, since his given name was Boss. But no one called him that—he went by his initials, B.L.

The nicknaming didn’t seem to carry over to females. In most cases, the given names were enough. My grandmother, Boss’s wife, was Etta. My mother’s circle included Ola Mae, Rosalee, Venita, and Lela.

Nicknames were not the only idiosyncratic uses in Burlington nomenclature. The last name of the woman who lived next door to Boss and Etta was Stover. And, as far as we knew, that was the only name she had. My grandmother would send me next door to “see if Stover can loan me a cup of sugar.” 

While he was still single, my dad ran the Texaco station a block or two away from where Corky and Wheeler operated. It was at the intersection of Rutledge Pike and Holston Drive, the last stop heading northeast out of town. And, like Mayford’s and Moulton Brothers’ and other service stations of the era, it was a neighborhood gathering place.

As such, it figured into many of my dad’s laconic tales. One story provided my introduction to Cooner. Early one warm evening, dad said, he and Cooner were sitting out front, swapping stories, when a bootlegger of their acquaintance pulled in.

“He had a sack full of quarters and half-dollars that he wanted to change into bills,” dad said. “I couldn’t help him and steered him to the five & dime up the street.

“I guess he was in a hurry because he left the motor running in his Ford. When he was out of sight, Cooner jumped into the Ford and drove off.”

What did the bootlegger do when he saw what happened, I wanted to know.

“He wasn’t too happy. He cussed and kicked and yelled for a while. Finally, he called somebody to come get him. They drove off, headed out Rutledge Pike.”

What happened to Cooner, I asked. “I don’t know,” dad said. “I never saw him again.”

Chris Wohlwend
Contributing Writer

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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