Fire Destroys Gondolier Restaurant December 30, 1979

Early Moring Fire Destroys Dayton Bypass Business

An early morning fire on December 30, 1979, lit up the sky along US Hwy 27 Bypass when the Gondolier Restaurant caught fire. Dayton’s Fire Chief Jack Arnold said that a Rhea County Sheriff’s Department deputy- Ken Nolan discovered the fire while on patrol. Two engines from the Dayton Fire Department were on the scene within 2 minutes and were later joined by the departments new Snorkel truck.

When firefighters first arrived, the south end of the building which was housing a dining room was engulfed in flames which already had burned through the roof. Despite the efforts of the fire department, they were unable to contain the blaze.

Agents from the Tennessee Department of Tobacco & Firearms were called in to investigate the cause of the blaze. There are no records of the investigator’s findings.

Chief Arnold reported that the building was a total loss. At the time of the fire, Paxton Sawyers owned the building while Spiros Dolos owned the business inside. According to the two owners, the building loss was estimated at $125,000 while a loss of $115,000 was on the contents.

This business had been in operation here for two years prior to the fire. At the time of the fire, the business was located on the center of the two lots at Hwy 27 & Blyth’s Ferry Road, where Jacks Car Wash & Vanderwall Funeral Home stands today.

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“Happy Times” With Jimmy Cunnyngham

The Vol. 50 staff of the Rhea County High School’s 2024 AERIE Yearbook dedicates their publication to the legendary photographer Jimmy Cunnyngham.

A Dayton native, Mr. Cunnyngham, graduated from Rhea Central High School in 1957. Three years later, he started his own photography business with the assistance of his wife, Shelby. His two sons, Andy and Micheal, eventually worked alongside him.

The Cunnyngham Studio was responsible for all pictures in the yearbooks for Rhea Central High School from the years of 1959 up until the consolidation with Spring City High School. The Studio was also responsible for the portraits in the final three yearbooks for Spring City High.

Mr. Cunnyngham and his family then worked for Rhea County High School until 2006, either as the official school photographer or as an activity or sports photographer. During that time, the studio photographed approximately 12,000 high school seniors. He never charged the schools anything for his services; the only profits he made were from families purchasing the actual portraits.

As a photographer, Mr. Cunnyngham was well known for saying his iconic catchphrase when taking photographs. Today, even when alumni from his active years hear the words Happy Times, they likely cannot help but flash a smile, remembering how Mr. Cunnyngham would make them do so before every photo. His desire to produce excellence in every published photo inspired THE AERIE staff to pursue excellence in their publication, even at the risk of having to deliver the publication later than expected.

On the afternoon of June 20, 2024, at the Clyde W Roddy Public Library, Rhea County High School’s yearbook adviser, Austin Marsh, presented a copy of the 50th volume of the yearbook to the library and to the legendary local photographer Jimmy Cunnyngham. The 2023-2024 yearbook staff dedicated this special edition to Cunnyngham in recognition of his historical photographs, which span decades of the school’s history.

Local historian Dean Wilson provided the photographs, taken from Cunnyngham’s original studio negatives, to enrich the commemorative yearbook. The dedication to Cunnyngham on the final page highlights his invaluable contributions and enduring legacy and details his service to the high school from its inaugural year in 1974-1975 until 2006.

The final sentences of the dedication page in the yearbook read as follows: “Contrary to his own beliefs, we do remember, recognize, and respect his contributions to documenting and preserving Rhea County, history with determination, passion, and excellence. Generations of Rhea Countians thank you for your service to our community, Mr. Cunnyngham.”

Mr. Cunnyngham continues to live out his retirement years in Rhea County with his wife Shelby.

Jim Cunnyngham Studio
(Pictured L-R) Brittney West-Library Director, Jimmy Cunnyngham, Shelby Cunnyngham, Andy Cunnyngham and Austin Marsh- Yearbook adviser for Rhea County High School.
(Photo by Dean Wilson)
(Photo Courtesy Austin Marsh-Yearbook adviser and Megan Prince-Yearbook Staff)

History would be incomplete without Cunnyngham Studio’s vast archive of negatives. See the link below to get information on obtaining your families old portrait files on a digital USB Disk.

Cunnyngham Studio’s Negative Archive

The dedication page and this article was written and provided as a courtesy by Austin Marsh-Yearbook adviser and Megan Prince-Yearbook Staff


Pendergrass Park Receives A Complete Makeover

Shown above in the the left photo is Mrs. Juanita Pendergrass with some children enjoying the Witches Hat". The right photo shows the newly renovated park on opening day. (Black & White Feature Photo Courtesy of the Glass Family Collection.)

The Park Was Officially Named After School Teacher Juanita Pendergrass in 1967

For decades, children have enjoyed their trips to Pendegrass Park in downtown Dayton. It is believed that the park opened in the very early 1950s. A local teacher, Mrs. Juanita Pendergrass, volunteered her time after school watching the children in the park.

After the death of Mrs. Pendergrass in 1967, they decided to officially name the park “Pendergrass Park” in her honor. Throughout the years, the park continued to grow with the addition of more and more recreational items. The old “Witches Hat” certainly was a favorite of children. Long gone is the old wading pool, which sat on the far east side of the park. Children spent many hot days wading in the pool trying to get relief from those hot summer temps.

In July 2023, the park closed temporarily for renovation. The City of Dayton and Blue Cross broke ground for a brand-new Pendergrass Park. The renovation completely transformed the park into a new recreation site, which includes a water splash pad for the children. The Pendergrass Park renovation was made possible through a four-million-dollar Blue Cross Healthy Place grant.

The newly renovated park reopened on Friday April 26th of 2024. In the years to come while our children spend countless hours enjoying the new park, we as parents and grandparents can reminisce about the good ole days when we were youngsters visiting and playing here at the park.

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Rhea EMS Founded by Gene Cochran in 1973

Thomas Gene Cochran in 1980  (Photo Courtesy of Cunnyngham Studio Archives)

Daryle Cochran continues to operate Rhea EMS which was founded by his father.

In the fast-paced society we live in today, it is just about impossible to travel on Hwy 27 through Rhea County without seeing a familiar-looking orange and white ambulance racing up or down the road. We are fortunate to have the Rhea County Emergency Medical Services (Rhea EMS) available to us in case of a medical emergency. Let’s look back and see how the Rhea EMS started.

It seems a little-known fact today that approx. 60-70 years ago, funeral homes operated ambulances that rushed to accident scenes and took the sick to hospital. Funeral directors, after all, were already on call 24 hours a day, and they had some medical knowledge.

Funeral home ambulances not only took the injured to the hospital, but they also gave newborn babies and their mothers a lift home. The equipment was often sparse–a stretcher, a blanket, a first aid kit, or a tackle box filled with gauze and bandages.

Coulter, Sawyers and Vaughn Funeral Homes provided ambulance service to the areas for years prior to the creation of the dedicated ambulance service, which began in the very late 1960s.

A Dayton Herald Newspaper article on July 17, 1975, reported that the Dayton Ambulance Service, which was started by Gene Cochran just two years earlier, had been approved by the Tennessee Board of Health. Approval of the ambulance services must be certified before the county can receive any state and federal aid for emergency medical service.

The ambulance service to the north end of the county was provided by the Smith Ambulance Service, which was established in 1968 by Jerry Smith. To meet requirements of the Board of Health, an ambulance service must have a specially trained Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) on duty 24 hours a day.

Gene Cochran obtained his Emergency Medical Technician license number 3644 from the Tennessee Department of Health on the 4th day of December in 1975.

It wasn’t very long until Gene obtained ownership and began providing ambulance service to the entire county. After obtaining ownership, Gene renamed it the Rhea County Ambulance Service, which today is referred to as the Rhea County Emergency Medical Service.

In the early years, Gene was hands on to nearly every call that came into the service. He ate, slept and breathed the job. Being on call was a way of life for Gene, who kept a radio with him 24 hours a day. He often joked about how he even had it close by when taking a shower.

As the years progressed and the county grew, it became necessary for Gene to hire additional crews to operate the ambulances that were on the road night and day. Three of Gene’s sons joined their father in the business. Billy and Daryle became certified paramedics while their brother Gary worked as a driver and mechanic for the service.

Gene Cochran 800
Gene Cochran Founder of Rhea EMS

It would be impossible to list all the fine men and women that worked for the service over the years, however all of them would tell you that Gene was a kind, soft spoken man who had a love for people. His caring attitude toward the people of Rhea County is why he never left the hospital without speaking to the family of the patient he just brought into the emergency room.

Over the years, he always maintained and equipped his fleet of ambulances with the latest medical equipment available at the time. In 1985, Gene became the county coroner.

In his later years Gene slowed down and while he was occasionally seen on ambulance runs, he was mostly around the office conducting the day-to-day business that kept the service going. However, you could be assured that if a bad call went down, Gene would be there on the scene with his people.

Gene was involved in the community as a member of the Shriners, a member of the Dayton Lodge 512 F&AM, and a charter member of the Rhea County 911 board.

He was known for shopping yard sales and spending hours talking with friends at local restaurants.

Gene passed away on January 30, 2003, after a battle with cancer. According to his family, in the months leading up to his death, he kept a police scanner near his bed to know what was going on around the county.

Gene was born on October 8, 1933, one of several children born to Charlie & Agnes Roddy Cochran. Gene was the father to six children, David, Tommy, Billy, Debbie along with Gary and Daryle, the 2 sons he had with Lucille, his wife who assisted him part time in operating the ambulance service.

Many of Gene’s former employees, siblings, his wife, and two children have now passed, leaving Gene’s youngest son Daryle as sole owner and operator of the Ambulance Service that was founded by his father 51 years ago as of this writing.

Gene Cochran, or 800 as he was known on the radio, will always be in our memory. He is laid to rest next to his wife Lucille and their son Gary at Rhea Memory Gardens in Dayton, Tennessee.

Daryl Cochran Current Rhea EMS owner/operator.
Daryle Cochran current owner/operator of Rhea EMS

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Tony’s Drive-In Era Ends July 1986

Favorite Market Convenience Store To Build On Site

They called themselves the culprits that destroyed a teenage hangout. Back on July 10, 1986, three Arlan Roberts Construction workers of Dayton reminisced about their teenage days spent at the defunct Tony’s Drive-In Restaurant. Tim Revis, Ray Roberts and Bobby Perry, all who were in their early 30’s at the time, began razing the former drive-in. All three joked that they probably destroyed a lot of teenagers’ memories with their demolition.

Revis said when he was a teenager, Tony’s was the place to gather. The cops never bothered us unless we got a little too rowdy. Roberts added that Tony’s was the place to try and pick up girls.

Perry recalled times that you couldn’t even get on the lot to order food, for all the traffic. According to Ann Bates, “It was the only place to go”. It was the meeting place in the evening and on the weekends. Some of the popular foods to order were the little hamburgers (similar to Krystal’s) and the Brown Derby, which was an ice cream cone dipped in chocolate.

Tony Lusk, the drive-in owner was always seen with a cigar in his mouth and a white apron on. He also wore one of those little white paper hats cocked to one side.

Ann Bates recollected that one fun evening there were a group of teenagers listening to the music that was piped to the outside speakers and George Arnold was sitting there by a support post when the “Purple People Eater” song began to blast across the speakers. He hung onto the support post and went round and round singing it.

It was the summer of 1986, and Tony’s Drive-In had been closed for about a year. The demolition of Tony’s Drive-In removed the building where the hang out had once been, but a flood of memories was left behind in the minds of anyone who was lucky enough to had spent many of an evening nights just chilling out with friends.



Gardenhire’s Historic Downtown Dayton Building

Historic Downtown Dayton Building Then and Now

It’s 1912- the nation just elected a new president, World War I was looming on the horizon, and a sleepy little town in Tennessee named Dayton would soon gain national recognition during the famous Monkey Trial. This little town was growing fast, and buildings were being constructed contributing to Dayton’s growth thanks to a man named W. C. Gardenhire.

Gardenhire was born in 1838 in Roane County. In 1884, he relocated to the town of Dayton. He became very instrumental in the construction of many of the buildings that are still standing in downtown today.

One of those buildings is the historic old Dayton Bank building located on the northeast corner of Main and Market Street. The two-story brick structure has a rich history and has been the site of many prominent businesses and offices.

Around 1912, the north side of the building housed the Crawford and Robinson Drug Store. This is where F.E. Robinson got his start in the pharmacy business. This coincided at about the same time that R.N. Gillespie sold the south side of the building to the new Dayton Bank and Trust Company, and the upstairs was rented to local doctors and dentists. After the Crawford and Robinson drug store closed, F.E. Robinson opened Robinson’s Drug Store at a location on west Main Street, and Dayton Bank took possession of the entire building.

Sometime in 1924, the complete building was remodeled with a new facial facade to make the building look as it still does today. After the remodel, a portion of the upstairs was rented to the South-Central Bell Telephone Exchange. Soon after this N.D. Reed occupied the north half of the building and established Reed and Son’s Clothing Store.

In 1938, Mr. Brown Swafford and his partner Glen Woodlee set up a new law practice upstairs, while the bank and clothing store remained downstairs. It was soon after this that C.P. Swafford joined the law firm’s partnership.

Mr. Sam Reed purchased the entire building in 1965. Over the last several decades, the building has housed many businesses that came and went. The building still remains in the Reed Family’s possession today. It was passed down to Elosie Reed and later to her daughter Donna Reed Taylor and her husband Tom. Donna and Tom still own the building today.

Main and Market Street Old Dayton Bank Building on July 4th, 1906.
4th of July at Dayton’s Market & Main intersection (1906) Dayton Bank & Trust on the corner with Crawford & Robinson’s Drugs to the left. (Photo courtesy of the TN State Library & Archives via Tad Rees-Scene in Rhea County)

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Helicopter accident claims life of former Rhea Medical Center Physican

Dr. Darriel Slagle Dies February 23, 1986

A former Rhea County Medical Center physician was killed in a helicopter accident in Greenville, Tennessee around 7pm Saturday February 23, 1986. Dr. Slagle had been employed at the Rhea County Medical Center as an emergency room physician from August 1982 through May of 1985.At the time of his death Dr. Slagle was an emergency room physician at Laughlin Memorial Hospital in Greenville, Tennessee. Dr. Slagle who was alone and attempting to fly his Robinson R-22 helicopter to Knoxville, encountered heavy fog and tried to return to the Greenville airport. On his approach to the airport, Slagle apparently flying too low hit a tree upon approaching the airport for Landing. Dr. Slagle is very well remembered for being an aggressive physician when dealing with critically injured persons that were brought into the emergency room. He was also known to jump into the back of the ambulance to accompany and treat seriously injured patients that were being transported from Rhea County to Erlanger’s Trauma Center in Chattanooga. Many of our citizens got another chance at life, because of this man. May he Rest in God’s Peace.


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Rhea Class of 1981 Ends Five Year Reunion With Tragedy

Classmate Wes Crawford Killed in Auto Accident after Leaving Five Year Class Reunion on August 9, 1986

It was the first time that the Rhea County High School Class of 1981 had been together since their graduation ceremony. The class gathered for their 5th year reunion at the Loft in Chattanooga on August 9, 1986. The classmates spent the evening getting reacquainted with one another while enjoying a good meal. Little did they know that the evening would end with the loss of one of the classmates that was present at the reunion. Wesley Crawford was killed in an automobile accident while he was driving back home after the reunion. The accident occurred when Crawford's automobile crashed head-on into another automobile in front of the old Kayo Service Station on Hwy 27 between south Dayton and Graysville. When the new four lane was constructed, this portion of the Hwy became known as Old Hicks Lane. The Kayo Station has closed since then and the building sits empty today. As the classmates began arriving back home, they started receiving the word of Crawford's passing. During high school, Crawford was a member of the varsity football team and after graduation was employed with the La-Z-Boy chair company. Crawford was a member of the Wolf Creek Baptist Church and was an organ donor. He was laid to rest in the Spring City Cemetery.

Wesley Crawford Dayton Tennessee August 9, 1986


L-R Front Row- David Pelfrey, John Riley, Bart Hill, Dwayne Hagler, and Tim Davenport,

L-R Second Row- Rhonda Taylor, Charla Bell, Sandy Mitchell, Kathy (Trail) Murphy, Rhonda (Suttles) Davis, Marsha Poe, and Brandi (Shelton) Matlock.

L-R Third Row- Marti (Housley) Roddy, Neva (Tyler) Webb, Diane (Hill) Reed, Debbie Smith, Andy Sneed, Joe Whittley, Todd Garrison, Wes Crawford, Dewayne Roddy, Ted Shaver, Kirk Vincent, Glenda Ritchey, Paul Maynor, and Cheri (Vericker) Rucker,

L-R Fourth Row- Will McPherson, Ron Gilbert, Kevin Garrison, Barry Cochran, John Morgan, Steve Special, and Don Carr.

Not Pictured- Liisa (Ehmig) Lowry, Donnie Wasson, Mark Wilson, Scott Heath, William Barnes, Tammy Wiggs, Melanie Hilliam, Tracy Womac, Daryl Garrison, Kim (Farmer) Ward, Robert Martin, Scott Pendergrass, Bill Sims and David Mincy.

(Photos Courtesy of Cunnyngham Studio Archives)

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Graysville Council Votes To Demolish Depot Station May 6, 1957

On the evening of May 6, 1957, during a City of Graysville Council meeting Mayor Truman Cox read a letter from the Railroad Company to the city in reference to the depot station. The letter gave authorization to the City of Graysville to proceed with the necessary actions to remove the depot building from its premises. The council authorized Gary Blackburn to remove the building. It was instructed that any reusable materials were to be saved and used to build a concession stand at the City Park. Within a few short months, the lot was completely cleared of the old depot. It is believed that the depot sat near the railroad back behind the present-day location of the Dollar General Store in Graysville.Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedinmail

Vaughn Funeral Home Serving Families for More Than 90 Years

Donna Vaughn Continues to operate the family business that started in 1933.

Located in Spring City in north Rhea County, there is a business that has been in operation for over 90 years. Vaughn Funeral Home is one of the oldest family owned and operated funeral homes in the area today. It was founded in 1933 by Eldon and Wincil Vaughn in a house across the street from the current day location. In addition to operating the funeral home, the Vaughn family also provided ambulance service to the area to transport citizens to area hospitals in emergency situations.

Eldon partnered with Paul Lyons, a local businessman, and the funeral home was known as Vaughn and Lyons Funeral Home.Approximately a year after Alfred “Tink” Vaughn began working at the funeral home in 1935, the business was moved to a new location across the street where it has remained all these years. A few years later Paul Lyons was bought out by John Vaughn, cousin to Eldon and Tink. The funeral home was then known as Vaughn and Vaughn Funeral Home until the late 1940’s and then later became Vaughn Funeral Home.

Eldon, along with his brother Tink, operated the funeral home until Eldon’s death in 1968. Tink and Mildred Vaughn operated the funeral home until 1986 when they retired and sold it to their daughter, Donna Vaughn. Donna was brought home from the hospital as a newborn in a vintage 1955 Meteor Cadillac hearse driven by her father Tink. Donna graduated from John Gupton College, Nashville, TN in 1975, where she became a licensed funeral director and embalmer. Donna is a beloved fixture in the community, she still owns and operates the family business today.  

Looking back, probably one of the darkest days for the funeral home was on the afternoon of August 22, 1955, when a southbound freight train struck a school bus as it was crossing the tracks in town taking children home from school. This same hearse that brought Donna home from the hospital was used to help transport the injured children from the accident to area hospitals.  In the bus/train accident, 11 children lost their lives, and 36 more children were injured.

Safely tucked away in the funeral home’s vehicle inventory is a horse drawn carriage hearse, the original 1955 hearse along with a 1956 Cadillac Limousine that Donna purchased and restored. 

Mildred Roberts Vaughn passed away on July 5, 1991, and Alfred “Tink” Vaughn passed away on May 15, 1993. They are buried together in the Spring City Cemetery.

Donna and her staff are caring and experienced professionals providing families with compassionate services in their time of grief.



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