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Living the life of a local teenager, a half-century ago


photo / Progress archives

     The building which now houses the Southern Appalachian Folk School was once a "happening" place a little more than a half century ago. Local civic organizations sponsored the teen canteen every Saturday night where young people could dance to the latest hits. News clippings from around the time of the Teen Canteen opening said it was an instant success. Well over 100 teens came to the opening, and this clipping from early 1964 says the venue attracted 200 teens the night the photo was taken. 

    "There's nothing to do in this town!" is a refrain often heard from teenagers who often look with envy upon the more fortunate youth in larger, more exciting towns, who, invariably, also complain of "nothing to do."

Perhaps, it's in the DNA of young people to complain of "nothing to do." Has this always been true? It seems every generation of adolescents bemoans the lack of entertainment in their hometowns.

Fifty years ago, when young female fashion was transitioning from poodle skirts to mini-skirts and

rock ‘n roll music was seguing from doo-wop to the psychedelic, perhaps the youth of Pickens County were more justified in their complaints.

After all, that was an age when teenagers, who wanted to savor the taste of the latest fast-food delicacy, the Big Mac, or even to share a pepperoni pizza, had to drive 50 miles to Marietta to the nearest McDonald's on Highway 41 or to Russo's Pizza on Roswell Road.

Of course, Jasper had its own fast-food hangouts in those times, and a couple of them survive to this day, albeit in much-changed and different venues - the Speedburger in Jasper and the Quick Burger in Tate. There are some that have long-since disappeared, like the Tastee Freez which was located on North Main Street. They all offered burgers, hot dogs, milk shakes, and cherry Cokes for the youthful appetite, and they were served up in the classic curbside tradition as portrayed by Arnold's of the popular 1970’s sitcom, Happy Days, or Mel's Diner from the motion picture, American Graffiti. Still, the nearest McDonalds, Burger Kings, Pizza Huts, and the like, were well over an hour’s drive away on a two-lane highway.

However, teenagers of the '50s and '60s didn't mind the drive, especially since the average price of gasoline was 20 cents a gallon, but that was offset by the gas-guzzling muscle cars of the age which often got only six to eight miles to the gallon. But, to use a more contemporary adjective, those cars were "awesome."

Detroit's American auto industry offered a delicious smorgasbord of muscle cars. General Motors had the Chevrolet SS Chevelle, Camaro, Corvette, the Pontiac GTO and Firebird. Ford Motor Company had the Mustang, the fastback Torino, the early Thunderbird, the Mercury Cyclone and Cougar. Chrysler had the Dodge Charger, RT, Challenger, the Plymouth Barracuda, GTX, and Roadrunner. Even lowly American Motors of the infamous Rambler had the Javelin and AMX. Of course, there were also the "souped-up hot rods" like the classic '55 and '57 Chevy, or even, an occasional 1932 Ford "Deuce Coupe."

Young drivers wore their "rides" like badges of honor and proudly displayed them in impromptu cruise-ins on Jasper's Main Street. After business hours, from the '50s into the early 70s, drivers would back their cars into the curb every Friday and Saturday evening, and even Sunday afternoons. Sometimes drivers might make a foray to the overlook on Burnt Mountain or to pick up a dozen Speedburgers, and then return to Main Street. There, the muscle car inhabitants would relish their burgers while waving and honking horns at the carloads of pretty girls who passed by in their own "rides."

The "cruisers" also entertained themselves by listening to the latest rock ‘n roll hits, and like the muscle cars of that age, the music was also "awesome." This was long before the modern contrivances of CDs and Sirius satellite, and even before the advent of the eight-track tape player or FM radio which were still in its infancy. The only option was AM radio. During daylight hours, Jasper's teens would listen to Atlanta's popular rock and roll deejays, Simon "Choo Choo" Train, and his successor, Gary McKee, on WPLO and later WQXI. After dusk, those stations' signals were beamed southward, so teenagers would then turn to the Top 40 show of Chris Eric Stevens on WLS in Chicago after their signal was also beamed to the south.

What if you wanted to dance to those "awesome" tunes? Where the Southern Appalachian Folk School is now located, a Teen Canteen was open every Saturday night and was limited to teens only from the age of thirteen through nineteen. (The author, admittedly a rebel, once "sneaked in" a couple of months before he turned thirteen.) The canteen offered refreshments, a dance floor, and a jukebox with all the latest hit records like the Beatles double-sided hit, "I Want to Hold Your Hand/I Saw Her Standing There." The canteen was well-chaperoned, but that didn't stop young lovers from stepping outside to take intimate strolls down the side streets of Jasper.

Then, there was the Jasper Theater on South Main Street where the 61 Main restaurant is now located. Theater management did an excellent job of offering new viewing fare every week on their single screen and showed only the latest and most popular movies. Teen couples could share popcorn and hold hands in the darkened auditorium while enjoying the latest beach flick, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, or the latest Elvis Presley movie like Viva Las Vegas.

In an age when summer break was a full three months, where was the "coolest" place to be on those hot summer days? Long before the Roper Park swimming pool, when Roper Park was still an airstrip, it was the Jasper City Swimming Pool. That pool has long-since disappeared, but in the '50s and '60s, it was where Roper Funeral Home is now located. Scores of young adolescents would gather there daily to sunbathe and swim. Young girls would show off their newest bikinis while the boys would show off their athletic prowess by diving from the high-dive.

Perhaps, over the years, there has been more "to do" than adolescents realized. Long ago, Bob Dylan prophetically proclaimed, "The times, they are a' changin’!" and he was definitely right. However, it appears the restlessness and boredom of youth never changes and always remains constant.