BY KEN LITTLE
It's been a few years since "Buffalo Bill" Cody came calling in Greeneville.
That didn't dim the memory of the famous frontiersman, who had fond recollections Saturday afternoon as he rode his horse down West Depot Street with well-known sharpshooter Annie Oakley.
"Mr. Mayor, how are you? Your town is looking as beautiful as ever," the legendary figure, portrayed by Frank Cremins, told Mayor W.T. Daniels as he rode past.
Cody, whose Wild West Show was seen by multitudes across the globe over a 30-year span in the late 1800s and early 1900s, performed at the site of what was known as the Opera House, now a vacant brick building at the corner of West Depot and Irish streets.
The horseback appearances by "Buffalo Bill" and "Oakley" (in real life Betty Cremins) were the crowning moments of the Windows To The Past Unveiling Festival on West Depot Street.
FOCUS ON MURALS, HISTORY
The festival was conceived to officially unveil three "Windows To The Past" murals recently completed in the downtown area, and also to help give those who attended a better sense of the area's rich historical tradition.
Andrea "Andy" Daniels, one of the organizers, said it's hoped the festival will become an annual tradition in Greeneville.
A lot of brainstorming and preparation went into the festival, which also serves to promote downtown businesses.
"We started working on this about two-and-a-half years ago, and we came up with 'Windows To The Past,'" Daniels said.
The festival featured live music, antique and craft vendors, food and other entertainment. But its focal point was the formal unveiling of the three murals.
One, on the Irish Street side of the former Opera House, is a billboard by Greeneville artist Sam Lane advertising an appearance by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.
The sign is reminiscent of what Greene County residents must have seen when the Wild West Show came through town in the 1890s.
Lane also hand-lettered a landmark sign next to the billboard explaining the building's history.
"This is exciting! It's great to be a part of the history and everything in the town. I'm really impressed with the history," Lane said in front of the former Opera House, which opened in 1903.
The building also served the area for many years as an auditorium, movie theater and the site of many public gatherings.
Lane, of Greeneville, said he used a new medium for him -- oil -- in creating the mural. He explained that he usually works in acrylics.
"I will be back in 30 years to restore this one," he added with a smile.
The second mural, featuring Greeneville's most famous citizen, can be seen on West Summer Street, at the corner with South Main Street.
President Andrew Johnson, dressed in full Masonic regalia, peers down at onlookers from a second-floor window of the building.
Johnson was a member of the Masonic Lodge that met at the site before the current Main Street Place building was built later in the 1800s.
The mural, which fits into a window frame, is the work of Greeneville artist Joe Kilday.
A second, larger mural on the back of Main Street Place, near the corner of South Main and West Summer streets, pays homage to the area's extensive tobacco history, and a time when Greeneville was "the Burley tobacco capital of the world."
That mural, by far the largest of the three, is a collaborative effort of Kilday and local artist Mike Durham.
The Austin Company, an international tobacco company, was a major economic force in Greeneville and Greene County from 1919 until 1990.
The mural, which features a tobacco field and a tobacco leaf with the company name, was paid for primarily through donations from members of the Austin family, who owned the company during those years.
Kilday was at the Windows To The Past festival.
"It was an honor for us to be asked to do it, and it was a very exciting opportunity," he said.
Kilday likes the idea of reviving long-dormant downtown properties and heightening interest in local history.
"We put our heads together with the (mural committee), and we came up with concept drawings," Kilday said.
"Hopefully this will inspire other downtown property-owners to turn their eyes back to the downtown area."
'BROUGHT BACK TO LIFE'
Those were exactly the thoughts of local businessman and philanthropist Scott M. Niswonger, who is one of the Windows to the Past project benefactors. Others include the Austin family and the Dorothy Greene Trust.
Niswonger owns the former Opera House building, and many others downtown.
"I think it's really important that we preserve our buildings so our kids can see the heritage of the community," he said.
The Opera House and other historic downtown properties "deserve to be brought back to life," Niswonger said.
West Depot Street was once the commercial heart of a far-reaching area. As recently as about 40 years ago it remained a bustling place on a Saturday afternoon, Niswonger said.
'THE PLACE TO BE'
"This was the place to be. You couldn't find a parking spot," he said. "Everyone was downtown, and now these buildings should be converted to residential living."
Plans are in the works to do just that, Niswonger said.
"We are pleased to put the mural on the old downtown Opera House. Hopefully, later this year we will start (work) on some downtown housing and get people living down here."
The project is associated with the Greene County Heritage Trust. Members of the Mural Committee include Daniels, Carla Bewley, Sherry Hensley, Christine Huss, Becky Yonz and Linnie Greene.
Tom N. Austin, now in his mid-90s and a former co-owner and top official of The Austin Company, also attended the festival.
"We are thrilled to have Tom Austin with us. The Austin Company was Greeneville and Greene County," Bewley said.
"It's a phenomenal history, and we're all proud to be part of that past, present and for the future."
'SO MUCH HISTORY'
Yonz said several committee members "grew up in downtown Greeneville" and have fond memories of the way it once was.
Vendors at the festival did a steady business.
Mike Allee, a Greeneville resident for about 10 years, was wearing a wide-brim hat with a feather and was otherwise dressed as a visitor to Greeneville might have looked about 1870.
Allee carves knife-stands out of deer antlers and cow bones, and also makes the knives they hold.
"I'd like to see more of this in Greeneville. There is so much history in this town," Allee said.
Steve Hux was enjoying a lively business at RC's Smokehouse BBQ & Grill at 138 W. Depot St., which was open for Saturday's festival.
Hux said he and partners Christopher and Jim Sexton hope to open the restaurant on a full-time basis later this year.
The planned business is at the site of another restaurant destroyed by fire in 2010.
Hux said work remains to be done, but he is enthusiastic about the potential of a revitalized downtown area.
"We think there's a lunch market downtown," Hux said.
'BUFFALO BILL' LOOK-ALIKE
Ann Rice of Greeneville, who was looking at the wares in one vendor's booth, spoke approvingly of the event.
"I think it's a good idea. There's lots and lots of history here," she said.
One of those watching as Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley rode off into the sunset Saturday afternoon was Dan Murphy, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the historic figure.
Murphy served as the real-life model for Lane for the old Opera House billboard. He and his wife, Frances, like the results.
"He said when they asked him to do it, 'I thought of you immediately and did a sketch, and they saw it and approved it the first time,'" Murphy said.