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Saying goodbye…Family reminisces, saves keepsakes from home set for demolition

If you drove by the old apartment building on the north side of West Elk Avenue on the evening of September 30, you might have seen a group of folks hard at work, armed with pry bars and chisels.
If you wondered what they were doing, the answer is pretty simple: they were literally digging up their past.
There was a mixture of laughter and tears for members of the Brown family and a few of their close friends who were there to say goodbye to the old place. They hoped to take a little of it with them — pieces of marble from a patio from long ago. They reminisced and agreed those keepsake pieces could be used in various ways at their present homes — a way to weave part of their past into new memories yet to be made.
“Saying goodbye to this place is hard,” says Betty Barnes of Elizabethton.
The old eight-unit apartment building, purchased in the early 1980s by her grandparents Paul and Ellen Brown, “was the only place our family could ever really call home,” Barnes recalls.
It is now one of several buildings on the north side of West Elk scheduled for demolition to make way for a street-widening project by the Tennessee Department of Transportation known as TDOT SR-91.
Barnes agrees the work is long overdue.
But yet, it will be tough to see that building come down.
“When my dad and my brothers and my sister moved back to Elizabethton, we moved into one of my grandparents’ apartments here,” she said. “I remember telling my friends at school that I lived right across from Summers-Taylor and they knew exactly where it was. It was the only real home we ever really had as kids.”
Barnes’ dad, Danny Brown, was in the Air Force and Barnes and her siblings were used to moving around a lot, mainly living in Michigan and Florida.
“When we got back here in 1982, I was able to start at Elizabethton High School and graduated from there in 1986. My brother was just in kindergarten, so that apartment is pretty much the only home he remembers as a child.
“To look at it lately, you wouldn’t have thought it would have been very nice. It went down a lot after my grandmother died and my grandfather just didn’t have a heart for it. But when they first bought it, they did a lot of remodeling and it was really pretty inside.”
Betty does remember one odd thing about her grandparents’ apartment building. “When we moved in, I looked around outside and there were a lot of old tombstones; apparently they used to sell tombstones there. When I saw that, I said to myself, ‘Well, that’s kind of freaky.’”
Now she thinks back on that and chuckles.
“Maybe some of that leftover tombstone marble is what they used to make this patio,” she said with a laugh. “Who knows?”
Barnes’ grandparents, Paul and Ellen Brown, were well-known in the community. Her grandfather owned Paul’s Auto Electric and worked on anything that was pre-computer; her grandmother worked alongside him.
“She didn’t worry about getting her nails dirty,” Barnes said. “She’d tear the car apart and then turn it over to my grandfather to do the rest.”
Indeed Ellen Brown knew her way around a car. In addition to her mechanical skills, she was a demolition derby champion.
“I have a great photo of her with her checkered flag and a trophy at the Mt. Clemens (Michigan) Speedway,” Barnes said. “She could outrace about any man around.”
Over the years, several members of the Brown family enjoyed living in the apartments. In addition to Betty’s grandparents, her dad and siblings, two of her uncles also lived in the complex.
Other tenants that Barnes can remember included a mailman, some restaurant folks, a vacuum salesman and a barber — “just regular ordinary folks,” Barnes said. The apartments also became homes away from home for team members of the Elizabethton Twins “back in the day.”
There were Thanksgivings. And Christmases.
So many memories.
“When my brother and I went down there the other day, we cried like babies,” Barnes said. “It’s hard to believe this is happening.
“But it’s a much-needed upgrade,” she added. “That road needed to be widened a long time ago. Trying to turn there, it’s like taking your life in your hands. It will be good to have a turning lane. And, after all, nothing is permanent.”
Still, it’s hard to see such change. Some demolition has already begun.
“It’s just that we hadn’t been there in a while and when we got there, the back of it has been completely gutted. All the fixtures were gone. Just to see that when the last time you were there there was furniture there.
“It makes me very emotional to talk about it,” she said, her voice catching. “The first time we drive by there and they’re bulldozing it down it’s going to be rough.”