J. C. Harbin

... and his historic Motel, Pool, Dairy and ...



Many people are familiar with the name "J. C. Harbin", but know little about the man himself.  His legacy has come down to us because he believed in promotional advertising and so many of his strange (and free) postcards from the 1930s have survived.  On these cards, there he is pointing to a small cottage in the background with the title above him " J. C. Haribin's Tourist Cottages, Memphis Tenn", all built at a time when there were few of these around.



Click on small photos to see an enlargement

The Harbin family originally came to the U.S. from Ireland and settled in North Carolina, eventually moving west to Alabama, and then to Mississippi.  John Clyde Harbin was born in 1894 on a farm in DeSoto County Mississippi, near Memphis, where his father operated a little store.  After J. C. married, he and his wife, Emma, relocated to nearby Memphis and opened their CASH GROCERY STORE, located at 121 East Iowa Street  (Now Crump, at the end of S. Main St.). They had a son, named Clyde.  Within two years they returned to Mississippi and in 1917 began selling milk to Memphis housewives and stores.

J. C. Harbin  

In the beginning the Harbins didn't actually bottle the milk ... and they had no actual dairy.  Their milk came directly out of milk cans which they bought.  It was poured into any type of container available at the time.  


Cash Grocery c. 1916 Vintage Harbin Milk Bottles Milk Tops

Buttermilk Top

Milk Pitcher

Milk Pitcher



Cream Bottle

Dairy Drawing



In 1919, they moved to Whitehaven, Tennessee on highway 51 (now Elvis Presley Blvd, just south of Graceland), where they began bottling their own milk on 3 acres.  It proved to be an excellent location and they soon began expanding.  The next year they opened a roadside stand and served barbecue pork and hamburgers.  (This stand was still there up until 1972).  In 1925 they added an addition - a 40 ft x 108 ft outdoor swimming pool. It was the first public swimming pool in the county.  The next year they added a six room Tourist Court which had inside showers, toilets, electric fans, steam heat, and Beautyrest mattresses.  Their little tourist court was the only accommodation on U. S. 51 between New Orleans and Chicago. 

1920 Milk Dealers  

Barbecue restaurant

The Pool

1933 Post card

Vintage Business Card

Milk Pasteurizing Plant 1921

Pasteurizing Plant 1921

... Plant Interior 1920




It was a growing complex.  The Tourist Court had a row of handsome white clapboard cottages with an Olympic-size pool next to them.  There was a Barbeque Restaurant, well-known for ages.  Of course, there was also a gas station.  In 1928, the Harbins added 48 acres to the original 3 acres, which allowed for a dairy expansion.  The complex also contained Picnic Grounds, a dirt car racetrack, and a soft ice cream company (still in business).   Years later he provided rental lots which had two and three bedroom mobile homes.  In 1982 the mobile homes were sold but today, the RV park is still in operation. 


Aerial view of Harbin Complex ...

 Harbin's  little spot in the road became famous because he was a great believer in promotional advertising. 

Harbin's Barbecue

Harbin's Picnic Grounds


Advertising 1932



John's wife, Emma, worked right alongside him on all these endeavors.  But she was well known for a very unusual activity during this time - especially for a woman.  She was an "aviatrix", one of the earliest women pilots in the U. S - earning her "wings" in 1929 - all while she raised three kids and helped run the Harbin complex on Highway 51.  She continued to do exhibition flying with dare-devil acrobatics.

  Stunts 1932

Emma "/Wings" 1932 "Flyer" 1932 Emma and "Dixie Bell" "The Frog" ...Hearing


By the time Kemmons Wilson opened his nationwide chain of Holiday Inns, most of the mom-and-pop tourist courts began to shut down.  But J. C. Harbin was the savvy one.  He closed his roadside complex as he opened the modern HARBIN'S shopping Center, which housed 15 stores.  According to the Press Scimitar " It was the second major commercial development to be started in Whitehaven in the last 90 days".   Harbin's Center was unique with lots of off-street parking in front of the stores.  And the lot was lit by large flood lights.  And this shopping center is still standing.

Harbin's Center  



J. C. Harbin and a business partner donated a large sum of money to Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas.  The University named the men's dorm HARBIN HALL in his honor.  In 1972, the president of the college, Clifton Angus did a two-part oral interviews with J. C..  These recordings are still available at the college, and on their website.  J. C. Harbin died in 1985 at the age of 91. 


Pres Angus - J. C. Harbin


For a couple with well publicized names during their lifetime, almost all trace of John and Emma Harbin has disappeared since the late 1930's.   Although public records are inconclusive, it appears that the couple may have divorced.  John's tombstone was found in the Hinds Chapel Cemetery, DeSoto County, Mississippi.  Emma's  marker has not been located.


J. C.s Tombstone   


J. C. Harbin's oldest son Clyde achieved a different kind of fame.   He's a sportsman and amassed a world class 10,000 Lure collection.  Known as "The Bassman", he's written a couple of books and in 1995 sold his Lure Collection to the Bass Pro Shops.

Clyde Harbin  




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