How One Photo Can Inspire a Blockbuster Exhibit

Written by Meghan Gattignolo, Visitor Services Coordinator

If you live near Peachers Mill, Tiny Town, Trenton or Needmore Roads in Clarksville, it’s not a revelation that auto racing is a favored sport in the county. You are already familiar with the reverberation and roar of the track on warm summer nights, even if you have never bought a ticket yourself. For years, the Museum has featured the racing accomplishments of Clarksville native Jeff Purvis in our Challenge & Champions exhibit.  

Clarksville native Cave Johnson Jr. and his winning race car

After coming across a picture of Clarksville native Cave Johnson Jr. and his winning race car, Exhibit Preparator Randy Spurgeon became inspired to learn more about auto racing here in town. That initial spark led him and Curator of Exhibits Terri Jordan to start planning an exhibition around local racing stories. Montgomery County has a long and colorful racing heritage, boasting plenty of accomplished racers. The Clarksville Speedway on Needmore Road has been in operation since the 1960s, but the Cave Johnson Jr. picture from the 1950s is a clear testament to the popularity of the sport in Clarksville decades prior. 

Cave Jr. was the eldest son of Cave Johnson Sr. – a formidable figure in mid-century Clarksville, particularly among the black-owned business community. He was owner and operator of the frequented Sixth Street Automotive Repair on the corner of 6th and Franklin Streets. Along with repairing cars, Cave Sr. also built them and owned four cars himself. Cave Jr. was the driver. The picture was taken the same day the young man placed in the popular New Providence Race. He was the first black driver to place in the race, earning himself a $50 cash prize. 

Randy’s Palmyra diorama located in Becoming Clarksville

Randy’s interests and skills contribute much to the exhibits department and the Museum, but one attribute, in particular, is his ability to build immersive dioramas. The Civil War Destruction of Palmyra diorama found next to the Traveling Gavel in our Becoming Clarksville exhibit, as well as the Western storefronts and the Grange Tobacco Warehouse dioramas found in Memory Lane, are great examples of Randy’s skills. He also replicated the moon landing for a temporary exhibit in the summer of 2019 for the 50th anniversary of the historical event. To commemorate both Cave Johnson Jr.’s achievement and his place as inspiration for the Start Your Engines exhibit, Randy has made a new diorama – a tender recreation of the above photo.  

The Cave Johnson Jr. diorama located in Kimbrough Gallery

Randy’s latest diorama can be found on the Lower Level of the Museum in the Kimbrough Gallery as part of the new exhibit. Learn all about the beginnings of Clarksville racing, why it became so popular and what role service stations played in growing racing interest. Also, become familiar with some of the other legendary names in local racing, such as Doug Greenfield, Eddie Pace, Mike Schrecker and Tony Albright. Enjoy Start Your Engines! A Celebration of Racing in Montgomery County until December 31. 

Meghan Gattignolo

Meghan Gattignolo is the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center’s Visitor Services Coordinator and regularly contributes articles to the Museum’s blog. From a military family, Meghan has spent most of her life in Clarksville. She loves learning about Clarksville’s history and writing. Meghan holds a B.A. in History from Austin Peay State University, with minors in German and Political Science. She lives in Clarksville with her husband and two daughters. 

Becky Wood, Technical Writer, edits each blog post. Maegan Collins, Media & Communications Coordinator, prepares photographs and visual images as well as prepares the blog posts for the web.

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