WHITTLE: 'Burma Shave' road signs marked girl's early Middle Tennessee journey
DAN WHITTLE, Columnist
It started with "Sunday go-to-meeting clothes" and "long drives" in the 1940s.
"It was Sunday, and time to go to church," recalls Patricia Castleman Whittle, at age 68. "I've always loved to 'dress up,' and go to church...still do."
Being blond and a pretty child, not to mention a family's only "little girl," there was more excitement to come for this Nashville native girl on most Sabbath days of her youth!!
"Those were the days Aunt Nellie and Uncle Robert Crowell (Nashville firefighter) would come by our house in Nashville to pick me up in their antique car after church, and take me for Sunday afternoon drives through downtown Nashville and out on country roads, like the roads going to Watertown and Auburntown," noted Patricia. "Sometimes, we'd stop by a road side picnic table between Murfreesboro and Woodbury...have a picnic...and watch the big trucks go by..."
There were "layers" of excitement attached to these Sunday trips down Memory Lane.
"Oh, what was not to like, being the only little girl in the family at the time?" Patricia traced back in time. "It was exciting each Sunday, when they chose me to sit in their Model A's rumble seat. Aunt Nellie said she loved to see my curly blond locks of hair blowing in the wind as we motored down by the Cumberland River."
The journey had adventuresome stops and experiences. The little girl in the rumble seat became a Sunday afternoon "personality" of sorts in downtown Nashville.
"After showing me off all around downtown Nashville for the tourists to wave at in the rumble seat as we slowly drove by the famous Grand Ole' Opry house (Ryman Auditorium), Uncle Roberts' next stop was to get me an ice cream cone when heading out in the direction of Donelson and Lebanon," Patricia added. "Sometimes Uncle Robert (deceased) would hit a bump in the road, especially on unpaved country roads, that I'd nearly bounce out of the rumble seat. Sometime, I'd get ice cream all over my beautiful little Sunday dresses that Mother (Katherine Nickens Castleman Moser) made as a gifted seamstress.
"Mother (who resides today in Smyrna near her daughter) is among a dwindling number of Nashvillians to have seen the Cumberland River frozen in 1940," Patricia noted. "She didn't get out on the ice, but some did...with today's chemicals and pollution on the river, it may never be seen frozen over again.
"During Mother's childhood, her father (Samuel Lee Nickens) would take her on a street car to where he worked at the Standard Candy Co. overlooking the river," Patricia shared. "He would check on the candy and if the 'cooling room' was working properly, Mother discovered her first typewriter. It was high adventure for her to type on that old typewriter. And they would eat candy on the trip back home on the street car...she loved going with Granddad Nickens on her childhood Sunday afternoons of the late 1920s and early 1930s..."
Sunday afternoon drives in the 1940s provided "signs" that marked the journey of Patricia's childhood.
"We couldn't wait to get out past the Fairgrounds and on out the country roads," Patricia recalled. "That's when we made a game of reading the Burma Shave road signs with their rhymes between Nashville and Nolensville, and then on the road leading down to Shelbyville...a lot of Sunday's we'd make a complete circle of Nashville, along Old Hickory Boulevard before it was chopped up with by the creation of Percy Priest Lake.
"I was good at reading, so my aunt and uncle would let me be the first to read the next Burma Shave road sign as we motored slowly in their Model-A Ford along the two-lane highways," Patricia recalled.
Patricia, still an avid reader, recently shared her "notes" about the origin of the Burma Shave signs...a unique way of road-side marketing that changed marketing concepts throughout America starting in 1925.
She recalled two of her favorite Burma Shave signs from the 1940s:
"Hinky Dinky, Parley Voo, Cheer Up Face, The War is Thru" - Burma Shave.
"His face was smooth, And Cool As Ice, And oh Louise, He Smelled So Nice" - Burma Shave.
"I've always read everything I can get my hands on, so I was excited when I found a history book about the origin of Burma Shave at a recent yard sale," she described. "I instantly bought the book and thought of those Burma Shave road signs from my childhood, with little messages and jingles on them."
Patricia's personal interest of local history goes back to Nashville's founding.
Her Castleman ancestors were among first white settlers, as listed by author James Ewing, a former newspaperman at the old, now defunct, Nashville Banner, in his book "Tennessee Tales."
The setting was April 1, 1781, when war existed between white settlers and Cherokee Indians.
"Among those in the thick of the battle were the Castleman brothers: Abraham, Andrew, Joseph, Hans and Jacob," Ewing credited.
Jacob is in Patricia's lineage of grandfathers.
Author Ewing detailed a battle scene involving the Castlemans: "During the night of April 1, 1781, a large party of Cherokees set up an ambush some distance from the fort (Fort Nashborough). During the early morning hours, three of them (Cherokees) approached the fort, fired their guns and ran away. Impulsive and perhaps a little foolhardy, 20 of the pioneers mounted their horses and gave chase. Too late, they discovered they had been lured into a trap. With Indians firing at them from every direction, they dismounted and returned the fire...
"Frightened by the gunfire, the horses bolted, leaving their riders on foot," Ewing accounted. "A line of Indians moved in to cut off their return to the fort. At this critical moment, it appeared the settlers would be mowed down. But Mama Robertson (wife to Capt. Robertson) was not finished. She unleashed a pack of 50 fierce dogs... (that)...created a diversion to permit most of the pioneers to return to the fort."
Writer Ewing described Abe Castlemans' determined pursuit of attacking Indians.
"Abe, who was called 'fool warrior' by the Indians, organized a party to track down their attackers. Seven of the boldest, including Abe, followed them across the Tennessee River near the present Nickajack Dam, adorned themselves with Indian dress and war paint, and defeated a hunting part of 50. They returned with another tale to tell during the long nights at Fort Nashborouch..."
Patricia and her father, the late Tom Castleman, are descendants of the Castleman brothers. Patricia's Aunt Virginia Mavaleen Castleman, of La Vergne, remains the only living sibling to her father.
"Jacob Castleman, who is in my ancestral line of grandfathers, helped design Fort Nashborough," Patricia accounts. From historic Indian battles to modern- day metropolitan Nashville, the Castlemans have made "the journey," including simpler, more peaceful times of lazy Sunday afternoon drives in a vintage Motel-A Ford's "rumble seat" on country roads lined with Burma Shave signs.