Greek immigrant John Ballis became pillar of Kingsport business community

Holly Viers • Sep 18, 2017 at 1:00 PM

KINGSPORT — Sam Mays Jr. can tell many stories about the life of his great-grandfather, John Ballis.

Though some of the stories are unproven, Mays has solidified many of the details of Ballis’ backstory, including that he was a prominent businessman in Kingsport’s early days, and he was quite possibly one of the first Greek immigrants to settle in the city.

“He had to be one of the first Greek, if not the first,” Mays said. “He was good to people, from what I know, and he was a successful businessperson and very devout religiously.”

Mays said his great-grandfather was born in a Greek refugee camp in Ganohora, Turkey, with the birth name Giannocos Dmitri Balabanis. Around the time of his birth in 1892, the Greeks were in a territorial war with the Turks, and Mays said the borders of the two countries were often in flux.

According to Mays’ family lore, Balabanis feared that he would be conscripted into the Turkish army when he turned 19 in 1911. So Balabanis and his brother, Antonio, made their way to the port of Piraeus in Greece, where they decided to take a boat to the United States.

After a 20-day voyage, the brothers made it to Ellis Island on April 24, 1911. From there, the brothers parted ways, with Antonio going to Norfolk, Virginia, and Giannocos going to Richmond.

When he became a U.S. citizen, Balabanis decided to change his name to John Ballis, which he thought sounded more American.

“Around that time, the Klan was really anti-immigrant,” Mays said. “So a lot of people that came tried to Americanize their names so they wouldn’t stand out as being foreign.”

Ballis married Mays’ great-grandmother, Lottie Mae Gunn, while he was living in Richmond. Their first child, Mays’ grandmother, Sophia Jane Ballis, was born in 1915.

Though Mays is unsure why, Ballis and his family moved to Kingsport in 1919 or 1920. Soon after, Ballis built and opened the Ballis Tourist Home on Sullivan Street, which is located almost directly behind First Baptist Church.

“During that time, I think there were several places like that in Kingsport where you could rent a room out of a house,” Mays said. “It was a nice place in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.”

After that, Ballis decided to open a grocery store and gas station, which were located right beside the tourist home. He then opened John Ballis’ Old Stand, a barber shop on Cherokee Street.

Ballis wasn’t the only person in his family to be well-known in the community. His daughter, Sophia, was named the first Miss Kingsport in 1932, before the contest was affiliated with the Miss America pageant system.

Sophia went on to marry Charles Mays a few years later. Their son, Sam Mays Sr., is Mays’ father.

Mays said his great-grandfather died in 1955 and was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery. Though he never knew him personally, Mays will always remember Ballis as a hardworking man who succeeded in making a better life for himself.

“I could write a book about him,” Mays said. “With all the immigration (talk) that’s been in the news, this is a positive immigration story.”

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