WV Travel Team: Knoxville keeps ‘old-timey’ spirit alive

The Museum of Appalachia displays such eccentric homemade instruments as a commode-seat guitar and a “Ukuweewee,” or bedpan banjo.
Near the site of the 1982 World’s Fair, chocolate is still made and sold in a former candy factory, now converted to condominiums.
Granny Irwin’s Christmas Quilt, at the Museum of Appalachia, is a crazy quilt from the 1890s with the Lord’s Prayer in the center.
Just off Market Square, a 1876 commercial building houses the Oliver Hotel and Tupelo Honey Cafe (and — shh! — the Peter Kern Library speakeasy).
The Tennessee Theatre was where country music star Roy Acuff made his public debut, at a 1932 talent show. Built as a motion-picture palace, the theater will host Jersey Boys, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Kansas, B.B. King and Elvis Costello this spring.

By Terry Robe

For the Sunday Gazette-Mail

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — “You ought to keep these old-timey things that belonged to our people and start you a little museum sometime.”

So said former coal miner, logger and farmhand Marcellus Moss Rice to his grandson, John Rice Irwin.

Sleepy eastern Tennessee was on the move in the 1930s and ’40s.

Irwin’s family had been uprooted by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which flooded 34,000 acres to create Norris Lake, then by the construction of Oak Ridge, a “secret city” of scientists working on the atomic bomb.

Taking his grandfather’s advice, Irwin began traveling the back roads, meeting farm families in eastern Tennessee and in the nearby parts of Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. And he started buying their “old-timey things.”

“At some point we overgrew the garage,” says Irwin’s daughter, Elaine Meyer, now president of a nonprofit museum complex in Norris, Tenn., with more than 30 structures, mostly relocated log homes and farm buildings.

About 16 miles north of Knoxville — roughly five hours’ drive southwest of Charleston by way of Beckley and Wytheville, Va. — the Museum of Appalachia has welcomed governors, celebrities from Minnie Pearl to Alex Haley, and thousands of others fascinated by a homespun, rural culture preserved by isolation — and, frankly, poverty — but rich in tradition and ingenuity.

On a recent visit, baby lambs were tearing across the pasture like puppies. Peacocks shrieked and roosters crowed.

There was a pleasant smell of woodsmoke.

Appalachian artifacts — baskets, jugs, traps, yokes, canes, banjos, quilts, tools of every description — were everywhere, displayed both as labeled collections and as living history in the museum’s scattered buildings.

One of the most famous products of Appalachian culture is Dolly Parton, who was raised on a tobacco farm in Sevier County, one of 12 children. She got on Knoxville radio at age 7 and had her Grand Ole Opry debut at 13. (Parton’s theme park, Dollywood — formerly Rebel Railroad, Goldrush Junction and Silver Dollar City Tennessee — is in Pigeon Forge, about 45 minutes southeast of Knoxville, near her birthplace.)

If “hillbilly” music, rooted in the balladry of Elizabethan England, hadn’t been cultivated and commercialized in Knoxville (and if the Delta blues hadn’t gone through the same in Memphis), Nashville would never have become the cradle and capital of country music. Grand Ole Opry stars such as Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins and Archie Campbell started out on live radio in Knoxville, as did Phil and Don Everly, invited to Nashville by Atkins.

For a retro taste of Knoxville-style bluegrass and country music, stop by the Knoxville Visitors Center at noon, Monday to Saturday, for “Blue Plate Special,” WDVX’s live radio broadcast featuring local performers.

Knoxville isn’t Nashville, and doesn’t really want to be (at least when the University of Tennessee Volunteers and Lady Vols are playing).

Proud to be both livable and affordable, the city that hosted the 1982 World’s Fair now promotes its Market Square Historic District and its Urban Wilderness, a 40-mile system of recreational trails.

Market Square, which began as a farmers market in the 1850s, became a pedestrian mall in 1961. There are free Thursday-night concerts on the square in May and June and live music (and craft beer) in bars such as Preservation Pub and Scruffy City Hall.

The Peter Kern Library, a contemporary speakeasy, is in Knoxville’s first boutique hotel, The Oliver.

Just down from Market Square is the city’s historic main street, Gay Street. The Tennessee Theatre opened in 1928 as a Wurlitzer-equipped movie palace.

It reopened in 2005 after renovations that expanded the stage house to better accommodate not only orchestra concerts and opera but Broadway road shows too.

A few blocks down is the Bijou Theatre, built in 1909 as an addition to the Lamar House hotel.

Gen. William P. Sanders, a Southerner and West Point graduate who remained loyal to the Union, was brought to the hotel after he was shot. He died in the hotel, the only general killed in the 1863 Knoxville Campaign. Sanders was hit by a sharpshooter firing from the tower of Bleak House, a mansion that became the Confederate headquarters during the 13-day siege of Knoxville.

Later, an artillery shot hit the tower from half a mile away, killing three sharpshooters.

“The prettiest single shot of the war,” a Union general was reported to have said.

Bleak House is now a museum owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

During the Nov. 29 siege, 4,000 soldiers under Gen. James Longstreet attacked Union-held Fort Sanders. Trapped by a ditch and an icy wall of rock, more than 800 men died in 20 minutes.

Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside lost only 13. Nothing remains of Fort Sanders, but there are surviving earthworks and interpretive panels at Fort Dickerson.

Tennessee was the last state to leave the Union and the first to be readmitted. It shared the anguish of states like Maryland and Virginia/West Virginia, which had populations bitterly divided by their allegiances and sympathies.

In 1890, Knoxville hosted the first national Blue-Gray reunion of Civil War veterans at the Old Custom House on Gay Street, later the headquarters of the TVA and now the Museum of East Tennessee History.

The complexity of Knoxville’s Civil War history, with sites connected with one side, the other or both, makes it a rewarding destination for Civil War buffs. For those with other interests, April is the month of the city’s Dogwood Arts Festival and the International Biscuit Festival returns May 15-17.

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