Monday, March 14, 2011

Southern College of Watchmaking

While writing a small business story for The Commercial Appeal on a new watch repair shop a couple of months ago, a source casually mentioned having gone to the Southern College of Watchmaking back in the late 1940s. I'm a lifelong Memphian and have heard of many institutions, both still with us and those long gone, but I'd never even heard of this school.

Wanting to learn more about it, I decided it was a worthy subject for the Hidden Memphis series I've been writing for The CA. Up until now, I've written the series about people and this would be the first place written about. What I found was that, even when researching a brick-and-mortar building, it's the people involved who make the story.

The school was a lot more difficult to research than I'd expected, there just isn't much information out there about it. The signs pointed me to Raleigh, the Memphis & Shelby County Room at the library, the Shelby County Archives at Shelby Farms and phone calls around town and up to Paducah, KY.

The story ran in yesterday's paper and I think it turned out nicely. Mike Maple did a great job with the photos, as usual.

There were a couple of interesting details that were left, or cut, out. The school closed in 1953 once the GIs had pretty much all graduated and their GI Bill money went away with them. The funding just dried up. However, the funding to the school was cut before that when it was found that the founder of the school, Forrest Osborne, had begun a second business, Southern Tool & Supply Co., to buy and sell tools and parts to the students. Money was given by the government to Osborne to do so, but he was selling the goods at 10% over retail, which was in violation of his contract. Once the government pulled funding, making a hefty profit was more difficult to do.

I heard of this reason from two separate sources and I put it in my story. Then I took it out. Then I put it back in. My editor and I finally decided that, with no conviction or even an official accusation, it was best left out.

The other little bit that I never did put in the story, but that I heard, again, from those two sources, was that when Osborne was in his fatal car crash on N. Parkway in February of 1950, he was with someone he shouldn't have been, an employee of the school. There was no reason for that to be in the story, so I left it out.

When I begin these Hidden Memphis pieces, I never know where they'll lead me or who I'll wind up talking with. It's a big part of what I love about doing them. Thanks to everyone who helped on this story and to all of you who read it.