The Whistle (A Blast From The Past) (Editors Note: You can listen to a recording of the 10 o'clock whistle at the bottom of this page.)
New whistle is installed in 1993
There is virtually no way that you could have grown up in Elizabethton, TN in the mid 1900's without memories of the 10:00 whistle which blew every night at exactly 10:00 p.m. It was so consistent that local folks would use the whistle to set their watches and wall clocks. The whistle which first blew in June of 1938 was a three stage brass steam whistle that was mounted high atop the North American Rayon Corporation building. The whistle was connected to a steam line and originally was blown by pulling on a cable that was attached to a steam valve. It was initially used as a shift change signal. The original schedule had the whistle blowing four times a day. The first whistle sounded at 6:55 a.m. and another at 7:00 a.m. You would also hear the whistle blowing again at 12:00 noon.
But for most Carter Countians, the most memorable time for the whistle to blow was the 10 o'clock whistle which blew every night at precisely 10:00 p.m. This whistle later became a curfew signal for the town.
In the later years, the whistle was no longer needed but continued to blow at 10:00 p.m. each night since it had become such an integral part of the community. Back before cell phones, internet , digital clocks and atomic time synchronization, the whistle became a scheduling tool for the community. The noon whistle alerted everyone that it was time for lunch and when the 10 o'clock whistle blew, every child in town headed for home, usually in a hurry.
There were a couple of other times the whistle was used. During WW II the whistle was used as an air raid warning. As was customary during the day, occasional air raid drills were held and folks in town were instructed on what they should do during an actual air raid. According to some local cartercountyhistory.com readers, this was very scary for the young children of the day. One reader stated she recalls hearing the air raid horn and she and her family would huddle on the living room couch and wait for the drill to be over. She remembers that it was a very scary time for a 4 year old.
The other use for the whistle was when there was a fire or other emergency situation . According to another local reader, a series of two short blast followed by two long blasts would alert the fire department to dispatch to the scene. I personally remember hearing the emergency warning when I was a child in the 1960's. Living on Broad Street, we could clearly hear the whistle blow and knew that soon to follow would be a couple of fire trucks blasting through the neighborhood.
In 1993, after more than a half a century of abuse, the old whistle succumbed to scalding steam, harsh weather and years of service. It became so corroded and damaged that it would no longer function. The President of N.A.R.C. at the time,Charles Greene, made the decision to replace the 55 year old whistle. It was not easy to find a replacement. After a diligent search of North American Rayon records, it was discovered where the whistle had originally been purchased. The company that originally supplied the whistle was known as Lunkenheimer of Cincinnati and fortunately the company was still in business at the time. A new whistle was ordered and was received and installed two months later.
According to a 2002 Elizabethton Star newspaper article, during the 1990's most of the United States fiber industry, along with the textile industry, had fallen prey to imports and poor foreign trade legislation. As a result, NAR produced its last pound of rayon and the new whistle blew its final farewell in October of 1997, ending a decades long tradition.
The article also stated that the very same people who worked at the local rayon mills and set their clocks by the steam whistle have helped make Elizabethton what it is today. The whistle, now and in the future, will serve as a reminder of those days when Elizabethton was a booming, industrial town an of those people who lived and worked among us.
In 2002, Charles Greene, President of North American Rayon Corporation, presented the whistle to the Elizabethton Public Library. According to a plaque affixed to the display, "The intent of this presentation is to pay tribute to the thousands of individuals who were an invaluable part of North American Rayon Corporation's monumental history. This history expands throughout the worldwide fiber industry, as well as the local history of Elizabethton and surrounding areas."
The whistle can be seen at the Elizabethton Public Library in the Archives room upon request. Special thanks to Delbert Loudermilk for having the foresight to record the whistle on September of 1997 and his willingness to share. The recording is courtesy of the Archives of the City of Elizabethton at the Elizabethton-Carter County Public Library. The staff of CCH would also like to say thank you to Joseph Penza, Carter Count Archivist, for his support in this and other CCH endeavors.
Below is a brief recording of the N.A.R.C. whistle as it sounded in its last days. Most readers agree that this sound brings back many childhood memories. Enjoy!