Monthly Archives: December 2014

The First Municipal Christmas Tree: A Knoxville Christmas, 1914

Weathermen had predicted a white Christmas. It was almost cold enough. For days, the temperature never climbed out of the 30s, and then it got colder. But in Knoxville, all it did was rain, more than three inches on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The river was up 15 feet. If it wasn’t a flood yet, Knoxville could thank the fact that some of the rivers upstream of Knoxville were frozen. But the poor people who lived in the bottomland shanties along the creeks were starting to worry.

And to the south, near Chattanooga, came word of smallpox on its way.

Still, in downtown Knoxville it was the year of the “First Municipal Christmas Tree.” For decades, lots of churches, schools, and fraternal groups, like the Tribe of Ben Hur, had sponsored a tree on their own premises, often as part of a charitable event. But this was the first time there was a great big one out in public, for everybody all at once.

The cash-strapped city wouldn’t have paid for that sort of thing. A group called the Jovian Society, “an organization of electrical men,” was behind the ambitious project. They were good at what they did, and declared that an electrically lit tree could work even in a driving rain. The 40-foot tree, harvested in East Knox County, went up on the 500 block of Market Street. It was hardly a candy cane’s throw from the Krutch Park site where we put it now. But what was most different about 1914 was not the where, but the when.

If Christmas was ever a holiday that was not commercialized, few in 1914 remembered that day. The Journal described the usual Christmas-shopping ordeal, “that pushing, squirming, elbowing, dodging, grasping, struggling, etc.” of shoppers “as they try to get into the stores, try to get up to the counters, try to get waited on, then try to get out again and then try to move on to the next store.”

That hasn’t changed much. What was different in 1914 was most didn’t decorate, or relax enough celebrate the holiday, until Christmas Day, or perhaps the evening before. That’s when the Christmas party started, and it didn’t end until early January.

And following Old World customs, Christmas Eve was, of course, the day to put up a Christmas tree.

There was a steady, cold rain that Thursday afternoon as the sky darkened. Frantic last-minute shoppers in rubber boots and overcoats sloshed from one storefront to another while an estimated 500 clustered under umbrellas along Market Street to witness a new spectacle. To get out of the rain, performers assembled on stoops and in covered second-floor balconies of businesses and boarding houses.

The Jovians had a flair for the dramatic that probably seemed almost magical. At 4:30, music on chimes emanated from the nearby Second Presbyterian steeple, as some soft carols from the assembled choirs competed with the downpour. At 5:00 sharp, as it was getting darker, a large five-pointed electrical star at the top of the tree suddenly glowed. Trumpets sounded, not loud enough that everyone noticed at first, but then they grew in volume into a fanfare. And as the sound increased, 1,300 electric lights glowed on the tree, first dimly, then brighter and brighter, until they washed the streets in color.

The event was in full swing by then, with music from a brass sextet and several choirs, a chorus composed of the Tuesday Morning Musical Club. The Jovian society ostensibly honored the Roman god Jupiter, but the Jovians of Knoxville tolerated Christianity enough to allow a brief ecumenical address by Methodist minister and sometime author George R. Stuart, who had recently co-founded the spiritual retreat known as Lake Junaluska. He implored the damp audience “to brighten and beautify every circle, to carry light into the darkened places.”

Maybe it was the dreary weather that left an editor in a funk that produced one single unexplained line on the editorial page. “Let it be hoped that the world will never see such another Christmas as this one in some respects.”

War had broken out in eastern Europe during the summer. Somehow by Christmas Eve, Germany was attempting, with limited success, to bomb England, and nobody completely understood why.

It didn’t seem likely that America would ever be involved that Old World clash of royal cousins, and some European leaders were predicting it would be over within weeks. Still, it was unsettling. Many Knoxvillians were of recent English and German heritage.

That Christmas we witnessed one final loss in an old domestic battle. Saloons had been banned by 1914, with a major assist from a tragedy at another Christmastime 13 years earlier. In a poolhall saloon on the Central Street Bowery in 1901, two good policemen, William Dinwiddie and Robert Saylor, had confronted the Wild West outlaw and known killer Harvey Logan, a.k.a. “Kid Curry,” who shot them both.

Western movies were already popular on Gay Street in 1914, but what they rarely portrayed was that many victims of dramatic gunfights neither died nor recovered. Both Dinwiddie and Saylor lived for years with painful wounds. Dinwiddie had died the previous summer. Saylor, forced to leave the force because he could no longer walk his beat, had made a living for his family as a bail-bonds collector. He eventually had a foot amputated. He died at his home on Jefferson Avenue, at age 50, with pneumonia the proximate cause. His funeral was scheduled for 2:00 on Methodist Hill, just east of downtown, in the afternoon of Christmas Day.

Things had been looking up in the Marble City until just lately. But just after the major exposition years, culminating in last fall’s extravagantly popular National Conservation Exposition, public money was tight, and some couldn’t help noticing that Knoxville was looking a little tired here and there. The Austin School, the high school for blacks, had seemed a progressive amenity when it was established 40 years earlier on Central, near Marble Alley–but since then a neighborhood known as the Bowery had grown up around it, and it was cheek to jowl with poolhalls and whorehouses. The “colored” branch of the Knoxville Board of Trade noted Austin was “in a bad state of repair and not fit for a high school in the city of Knoxville.” It needed to be, it was suggested, “in a different part of the city, with different surroundings.”

Even City Hall, on Market Square, was shabby and embarrassing, something to avoid showing visitors. Some were urging it be rebuilt somewhere else, somewhere not as crowded and smelly. There was talk of moving City Hall into the Boyd School on Union Avenue.

And after years of complaints, Knoxville was planning to install public restrooms on Market Square. “Its establishment would be an act of humanity,” wrote one advocate, “and would secure for the city the goodwill of a class whose good will is worth having.”

A public restroom was considered an amenity “for wives and daughters,” as if males didn’t particularly need one. Maybe they didn’t.

Compared to years past, advertising in 1914 was low key. Featured were some of the usual things, hobby horses, roller skates, dolls. Kodak cameras, still a bit of a novelty, ran from the cheapest model, $1, to the most expensive, at $25. Pianos were available at several stores, even furniture stores like Sterchi’s, as were Victrolas and Edison phonograph machines.

Bicycles, like the Excelsior and the Iver Johnson Roadster, available at Woodruff’s, were still popular, if not quite the rage they had been in the ’90s.

By 1914, daring young sportsmen, the sort who had been bicyclists in the previous generation, were tempted by the new automobiles and motorcycles. At the Motor-Cycle Shop at 702 S. Gay, where the florist shop is now, you could by the Excelsior or Harley-Davidson brand.

Knoxville’s finest hostelry was a leftover from the Victorian era, the Imperial Hotel at Gay and Clinch. Since the previous century, the Imperial had advertised its traditional Christmas-Day dinner by publishing their menu published in the paper.

That year, the Imperial feast included “Cream Raphael” and stuffed mangoes. Lobster a la Newburg. Filet of Sole, tartare. Sweetbread patties, “aux truffles.” To cleanse the palate, they offered, in big bold letters, ROMAN PUNCH. What the Imperial’s chef meant by that is unclear. Roman punch is usually an alcoholic concoction of rum and brandy and citrus juices, sometimes semi-frozen like sherbet, sometimes with champagne in it. It would have been fairly illegal to serve in Knoxville in 1914. But it was a holiday, and Roman Punch was an old Southern tradition.

Then came a choice of venison steak with currant jelly, larded tenderloin a la Jardinierre, roast turkey, roast lamb with Yorkshire pudding—or, if you prefer, “Braised Georgia Possum, with candied sweet potatoes.” Knoxville in 1914 was a fascinating place to live.

And that multi-course meal was available for one silver dollar.

Several hotels and restaurants offered haute cuisine on Christmas Day. Despite its name, which today would surely suggest country ham and country biscuits, the Appalachian Dining Room offered mostly continental fare, canapés au fromage, potage a la Reine, Filet of whitefish Bordelaise, pommes a la Deutsches.

That restaurant was connected to the Appalachian Hotel on the 700 block of Gay Street. The word “Appalachian” was new to most Knoxville lips when the city hosted its first Appalachian Exposition four years earlier. Previously, East Tennesseans had referred to the neighboring mountains as part of the Alleghenies or the Unakas. But in the early 20th century, “Appalachian” was suddenly trendy as a regional identification, with more emphasis on industry and progressivism than homespun authenticity.

The more modest Good’s Café, across the street within sight of the Imperial, offered a more modest feast, of oyster soup, roast turkey, and plum pudding with brandy sauce, for 50 cents.

The Stratford Hotel, on Asylum Street near Market Square, offered a 50-cent “Christmas Plate Dinner” featuring “clear green turtle” soup and broiled Spanish mackerel maitre d’hotel, with the extra inducement of Wooten’s Orchestra.

Traditionally, for 30 years anyway, vaudeville houses had offered Christmas-Day shows, and they were so popular they had stacked more shows into the day. By 1914, Gay Street’s traditional Christmas-Day vaudeville orgy was fading.

The Gay Theatre was on the 400 block, not far from where Suttree’s is now, and it offered a Christmas Eve entertainment, “The Dancer and the King,” starring actress Cecil Spooner, “a Blaney Feature in Five Acts.” It was played up as if it were a live show, and appeared only one night, but in 1914 a five-reel movie was a rarer event than mere vaudeville. An extra treat was “Bronco Billy’s Christmas Greetings,” likely the comedy short also known as “Broncho Billy’s Christmas Spirit.” Broncho Billy, spelled that way, was a Western character created by New Yorker Gilbert Anderson, a son of Jewish Russian immigrants, and one of cinema’s first cowboy heroes. Tickets were a nickel and a dime.

At Staub’s, the largest and oldest of Knoxville’s theaters, Al H. Wilson, “the singing German dialect comedian in his song-adorned comedy, ‘When Old New York was Dutch’” was advertising a show for the day after Christmas.

Although the comedian made fun of Germans, part of his appeal was to German immigrants, of which Knoxville had many. But 1914 was an awkward time to be German. For the time being, German-style comedians struggled to seem light-hearted.

Tickets went on sale on Christmas Day.

The Bijou opened at 7:30 on Christmas Day with a special event for the poor, a collaboration between the Knoxville Sentinel, the Salvation Army, and Bijou developer C.B. Atkin. Adorned with a decorated tree, it was a free musical event. Seats in the five-year-old theater’s main auditorium were “reserved for the poor,” who would be treated with gifts, including clothing, fruit, and toys, among them 144 dolls that had been slightly damaged in a railroad accident.

The holiday was evolving, and downtown was not as lively on December 25 as it had been a decade earlier, when the saloons were open and theaters added extra shows. Still, several institutions stayed open on Christmas. “Christmas was anything but a holiday at the post office,” according to the Journal. “They worked harder than any day of the year, and their hours were also longer.” On Christmas Day, postmen worked 12-14 hours. They did the regular routes—how else would people get their Christmas gifts?—and greeted approximately 500 customers individually that day at the main office in the Custom House on Market at Clinch. They didn’t get to close until 9 p.m.

In 1914, Knoxville’s most eligible bachelor was McGhee Tyson. At 25, the handsome son of one of Knoxville’s wealthiest families was a championship golfer, and in no hurry to get married. He was known for the parties he hosted at Cherokee Country Club. Recently he’d been hosting a Christmas Day “matinee dance” there, inviting young married and single society folks, to dance to the fashionable music of a 10-piece orchestra. That year, about 250 attended.

Not quite four years later, McGhee Tyson would be a missing airman, lost in the North Sea.

While national prohibition was gaining traction nationally, Knoxville was ahead of that curve, dry since 1907. Police raided the Stonewall Restaurant, on Depot across the street from the Southern Railway station, and seized 40 gallons of liquor, but allowed the restaurant to remain open. Losing that much value was surely punishment enough.

But this Christmas, there were only nine arrests on Christmas Eve, eight on Christmas Day, all of them for drunkenness, disorderliness, or both. There was only a little theft reported on the holiday, that of a “possum dog” and one coop full of chickens.

The newspaper reported that it was the quietest Christmas Knoxville had ever known, but they had said something similar for the last five or six years. The holidays had once been a violent time in Knoxville. When young single men were suddenly off work and spending their free time and money in saloons, the holidays often produced multiple murders, and newspaper readers often had a murder mystery to contemplate.

It wasn’t like that this time, but there was a curious case over near the university. In 1914, one part of town was radically different from what anyone alive knows today. The area just south and west of the Hill was dense mixed-race neighborhood, with a hatch of haphazardly connected streets, Detroit Street, Robinson Street, Wordon Street, along the west bank of Second Creek, in the vicinity of what’s now Neyland Stadium.

Probably no one alive today remembers Wordon Street. It had disappeared by the time of Knoxville’s first radio broadcast. But in 1914, at 1026 Wordon Street lived a reclusive old woman named Martha Sherwood. Believed to be 87 years old, she was old enough to have been a slave, old enough even to remember Andrew Jackson and the Mexican War. Her neighborhood knew her as Aunt Martha, but that warm-sounding nickname doesn’t suggest any affection for her. She had no family, and only one friend in the world, one person she ever spoke to, and that was another black woman named Miranda Boyd. Just before Christmas, Ms. Boyd became concerned when she was unable to enter Aunt Martha’s house. She informed police, who discovered Aunt Martha had barricaded herself inside her house. Unable to force the door, officers entered through a window, and found the old woman’s body lying partly underneath her bed. “Her clothing and bed clothing were disarranged, indicating a struggle,” but a “half-filled pitcher of sweet milk” was unspilled. The police found no reason to report foul play.

It kept raining. And on Market Square, thanks to the Jovians, the city’s First Municipal Christmas Tree blazed brightly throughout the 12 days.

Gideon Fryer, 1921-2014

This column has taken me a good deal longer to write than I expected. I told Gideon Fryer about a year ago that I could write a profile of him every year without repeating anything. One about people he’d known, one about things he’d seen, another about institutions he’d founded, and several more about opinions he had. He proved that on rare occasions a very old brain can generate opinions that are new and fresh and unlike anyone else’s.

I’ve written about him several times already, most recently for my Secret History column in Metro Pulse last February. Still, I was going to augment that with a Gid Fryer series, as a sort of exercise, the continuing adventures of a thoughtful contrarian.

But he died this past weekend, after a short illness, at the age of 93.

If you met this lean old man with a black beret and a cross-eyed grin–and there’s a very good chance you did, because he was not shy–you might not take him as a founder of things.

When I lived in Fort Sanders a long time ago, the Laurel Theatre was often the most interesting place in town, the surest evidence that there were good and thoughtful people here. He had had very much to do with exalting that venue for music and dancing and discussion, and the community it spawned.

Somehow he also co-founded the vigorous and influential East Tennessee Community Design Center, even though it had nothing very obvious to do with his fields of study, and the university’s College of Social Work.

Gideon Fryer’s name sounded like it belonged in a period novel, perhaps that of a suspicious character, a renegade cleric of the Restoration era. I’d heard the name, in multiple unlikely places, but I don’t think I ever met him in person until I began writing my column for Metro Pulse, 20-odd years ago. He let me know, in several different ways, that he was a reader.

I remember coming back from lunch one day and found an unexpected packet of fascinating old articles on my desk—I think it had something to do with urban design—and a note signed “Gideon Fryer.”

I gave him a call, and knew I was in for a story. Over the next several years, Professor Fryer’s adventures and opinions unfolded by degrees.

He spent most of his good long life in Knoxville, but he was originally from small-town Middle Tennessee, Union Hill and Goodlettsville, rural communities on the north side of Nashville, and nurtured a particular drawl that always distinguished him from other East Tennesseans. As a child he suffered lazy eye, rendering him practically blind on the left. “It has never been a great inconvenience,” he once told me. It gave him a cross-eyed, slightly touched look that suited him.

In spite of that disability, he learned to drive at age 11. He was proud that he had maintained one of the longest no-accident driving records known to humankind, 82 years. Truth be told, though he kept up his drivers’ license, Gid disliked driving. Driving a car is never more fun than when you’re an 11-year-old boy, after all. He put aside childish things and rarely bothered with driving in his later years. That was part of the secret of his safe driving record.

He first arrived in Knoxville as an undergraduate in the late 1930s, during which time he encountered the young Frank Sinatra, in town with the Dorsey band, attending frat parties and playing baseball on campus with a local team. I once interviewed him just about that, but Gid was not that much a big-band fan even at the time, and was not much impressed with Frank Sinatra, or with himself for having met him.

Later, drafted in an aggressive recruitment program that overlooked his half-blindness, he spent some time in Europe as part of the occupation forces, eventually promoted to master sergeant. One of his bunk mates was a fellow Tennessean, future Pulitzer-winning author Peter Taylor, who impressed Gid a good deal more than Sinatra did. They became good friends. World War II left Gid with a strong sense that war was a wasteful thing, and to be avoided.

He studied education at Columbia, taught at UT’s Nashville branch, and later returned to Knoxville to teach sociology, eventually to co-found the university’s School of Social Work, later elevated to College level, and ranked among America’s best.

Meanwhile he was married for many years to a woman he loved named Bet, and they lived in house he designed himself in a subdivision on the south side of town, Martha Washington Heights. They raised a couple of daughters.

In 1996 his wife died after a crippling illness, and he made an unusual choice for a widower of 75. He moved into an apartment in Fort Sanders. Some people are careful to lock their car doors when they drive through Fort Sanders, but Gideon lived there for many years as an old man by himself, and never bothered with locking anything.

In his apartment was a parlor sort of like a pilot house, overlooking 12th Street.
For the next 18 years, he took long walks around the neighborhood, threw frequent parties for his friends, and watched over the place as a benign spirit. He became known as the Bishop of Fort Sanders.

We’d been beer-drinking chums and co-conspirators for a decade or so before we realized that Gid and my great-uncle—my grandfather’s younger brother Billy, from Jellico—were close college chums. Uncle Bill went to war and lived in Myrtle Beach for years, raised beagles, smoked a lot, and died when I was a teenager. His widow and a couple of his sisters outlived him by 30 years, and I knew them much better. But when everybody from that entire large generation of my family was gone, Uncle Bill, his widow, and his sisters, I still had Gid to talk to. The fact that we had that coincidental connection remained a source of wonder to us both.

Along the way Gideon developed a reputation for controversy, speaking out in support of a friend, a young law student who was a named plaintiff in a civil-rights lawsuit against UT. It was, he told me, the most disloyal thing he ever did as a UT faculty member. Rita Sanders Geier, who in that landmark lawsuit helped desegregate the upper reaches of Tennessee academia, eventually became a Baker Center Fellow and a member of UT’s administration.

Gid was also one of the few middleaged faculty members openly, and sometimes not so openly, involved in UT’s antiwar movement. Some charged that Gid was the Svengali behind UT’s student unrest. In recent years, Gid has owned up to quietly helping charismatic antiwar activist Peter Kami flee the country, and federal charges. Gid might have gotten in big trouble, at the time, if that had gotten around, but it did not trouble him in his old age.

Although a longtime parishioner of Church Street United Methodist, Gid played a major role in converting an old church in Fort Sanders to secular purposes. A lot of fans believe Laurel Theater, at Laurel and 16th Street, run by Jubilee Community Arts, might not be there if not for Gid’s help in getting it going as a community meeting place and performance venue. The big basement gallery is named for him. His tastes in music were not as liberal as his politics, but Gid loved old hymns, and became a regular with the shape-note singing groups that assemble at the Laurel.

And there was the East Tennessee Community Design Center, which he founded with the late architect Bruce McCarty. Gid remained devoted to the organization, both in fact and in principle. Gid hated dumb development. There was lots of it back then, and if you talked to him recently, he’d tell you there’s still much more of it than there should be.

He followed things closely, and, almost every day, he walked, observing each change in his adopted city. He could often be found at lunchtime on Market Square, in his black beret, pausing for a rest under a shade tree. I saw him often enough that I didn’t have to telephone him much.

I was a latecomer to an ongoing party called Gid Friday. It began sometime in the last century as an afterparty for those who weren’t quite ready to leave the nearby Knoxville Museum of Art’s Alive After Five events. Usually held at Gid’s apartment, it was an almost-weekly conspiracy of old-school hippies, shape-note singers, world travelers, liberal Christians, activist lawyers, nonprofit volunteers, retired politicians, beer makers, people who live in tents, occasional journalists, and random people who just liked Gid. I suspect we all liked this weekly proof that some people over 50 could still throw good parties and have pretty lively conversations. His parties reminded me of those undergraduate parties so crowded you’re not even sure which way is out, but you don’t care because you’re not headed that way.

In recent years, he did much of his rambling with his well-connected girlfriend, Georgiana Vines, who writes a political column in the daily. She lived, still does, in a different flat opposite his, across the Second Creek valley, and he could walk over there to visit. In recent years she was his chauffeur, handler, and roadie, on their many travels in town and to points far beyond.

A couple of years ago I ran into Gid at a Rossini Festival on Gay Street. He was standing still in the middle of the street, near Union, grinning and taking it all in, beholding the tens of thousands of people filling the street on a Saturday afternoon, with no cars, enjoying themselves on this street that once seemed like an overwrought mistake. “Just look at this!” He shouted. “Isn’t this just great!”

I decided I was too old for Fort Sanders when I was 26, but I think Gideon could have stayed in that crowded, noisy neighborhood, never minding that he was four or five times older than most of his neighbors. But after a health scare a year ago, he felt obliged to leave his apartment, opting for a conventional retirement home. He figured he’d be disabled someday, and that it would be the more sensible thing to do. He accepted his fate in good humor. He had interesting friends out there, he said, and he enjoyed roaming the corridors.

Although Gid could startle new acquaintances, and some mistook him for a cynic or a crank, sometimes he was carried away with how wonderful life was, and he grinned his loony grin and the sheer joy could bring tears to his eyes.

I wish everyone could have his or her own Gideon Fryer. It’s impossible to feel old and decrepit when you’ve got Gid ahead of you, carrying the standard. He wore the indignities of old age lightly. He worried about other people, but not much about himself. He once admitted to me that he had a bit of a heart problem, but he thought his personal problems were all pretty funny.

In fact his age seemed to offer him a freedom of speech and action unknown to fearful, inhibited youth. He spoke his mind, without much regard for consequences. Maybe we should all do the same, regardless of our age. Whenever you catch me speaking my mind with reckless abandon, you know whom to blame.

What We’ve Been Up To

You’ve likely learned by now that two former Metro Pulse editors and I have committed to an unusual plan to start a new independent newspaper in Knoxville. Longtime Metro Pulse editor Coury Turczyn and arts-and-entertainment editor Matthew Everett and I, along with several other stalwarts including old friends and new ones, have been working almost daily since October to see if there’s some way to do this, and we came up with a plan that was kind of surprising, especially to me.

It’ll be an actual paper paper, not something much cheaper like a website, as many had assumed, though of course we’ll have a website and apps and all that too. We hope you’ll see the first copies by the end of February. We made a point to try to get it out before the Big Ears Festival, which is one of the coolest things coming up in the new year.

You knew we had to do this. We had to do it for one thing because we’re unemployed, and having reviewed the options, speaking mainly for myself, I’m not certain we could do anything else. I once failed as a short-order fry cook, and I doubt the last 37 years has improved my skills in that regard. I’m too old for pro football, and am not confident I could ever get the hang of surgery or auto repair.

Also, I wasn’t sure I could keep living in a place where the big corporations call all the shots in media coverage of important news stories. My hometown would seem a lazy, slow, and stupid place if it didn’t show some obvious competition.

Knoxville has been a two- or three-independent-newspaper town since about 1816, when just a few hundred people lived here. Even up to 1991, when Metro Pulse first started, the old daily Knoxville Journal was still very much in business. Not since the Civil War, when martial law shut down contrary paper on one side, and then the other, has Knoxville’s news coverage been so dominated by only one newspaper. The Civil War had a lot of horrors, but for Knoxville, reading the same old biased crap every week was one of them.

Before we coughed up a business plan for public review, Coury, Matthew, and I spent a few hundred hours hashing things out with some very learned people, from a hardcore business coach who’d never even read Metro Pulse, to a former publisher of the Rolling Stone who had followed us for years. In all, we listened to advice from about 40 smart and resourceful people. And you never know how many smart and resourceful people there are in any town until they’re motivated to correct something that’s gone awfully wrong.

We also did a good deal of arguing about the name, so much that I began wondering how we got along all those years. I suspect we were each occasionally convinced that the others hated our names just because we nominated them. I won’t tell you who favored what, but that might be a subject for a newspaper column someday. I’d reckon we contemplated more than 100 names, maybe even 200, and for a while I was getting discouraged with the prospect, beginning to suspect we’d give up out of pure namelessness. The one we chose was the first one we all liked.

So for now, at least, we’re calling it the Knoxville Mercury. It’s not the first paper that ever bore that banner, but no one is alive who remembers when there was a Knoxville Mercury, and I’m pretty sure there’s nobody watching that trademark.

The god is swift, the planet’s hot, the car is classic, the element is dangerous but useful. There was the theater on Market Square that we’re old enough to remember fondly.

We’re going with paper, that 18th-century technology, because our advertisers demand it. It’s the 21st century, sure enough, we all know that, but as of late 2014 nobody’s figured out how to get tech consumers to pay attention to Internet ads. Plus, some of our other supporters and advisors want a paper newspaper, too, partly for the mental decor. It would be discouraging, I agree, to be a stranger in town and walk down the Gay Street sidewalk and find that all the papers you encounter are owned by the same big corporation, and that there’s not one that’s raising a little bit of a ruckus, to give newcomers the notion that there are some cross currents in this town.

Also, it’s easier to do the crossword on paper.

We have the talent, including most of our last Metro Pulse freelancers, which is I think the best stable of freelancers we ever had. And we have generous supporters, some of them newsmakers we were very surprised to learn were supporters, considering we hadn’t always been kind to them in print. And we already have lots of advertisers supporting us. They are unhappy with their current options.

What we didn’t have, right away, was the business plan. And what we came up with turned out to be an exceptionally unusual business plan, designed to keep this paper local and durable. It was first presented to us by a business guru named Eric Dunn, and even we were skeptical of it until some hard-eyed financiers and a solid tax lawyer gave it a good look and said, “of course.”

In this still-unsettled new century, print may seem both dead and necessary.

There’s no question we’re losing some chunks of the old profit models that have sustained newspaper journalism for 300 years.

But nobody’s saying we don’t need journalism anymore, and nobody smart is saying that journalism can be replaced by unassigned, unedited blogs, like this one. People like me, sitting in his daughter’s old bedroom, writing down whatever comes to mind at 4 in the morning because I ate something I shouldn’t have and can’t sleep. That’s the new American pastime, for better or worse, but it’s not journalism. Important journalism is unlikely unless it demands that reporters occasionally do something they don’t really want to do. Make a phone call to someone you know to be a jerk, sit through a boring meeting, demand records the holder doesn’t want to show you. Since I’ve been unemployed, I haven’t done any of that. That’s why we need to find a way to pay people to do it.

So we need to figure out some new sources of revenue, and nationally, for the last several years, supporters of journalism have been looking at the nonprofit option from several sides.

We’ve had nonprofit, contribution-based radio in Knoxville for 65 years now, public television for close to half a century. They’re great assets to the community. We’ve never had a nonprofit weekly newspaper. I’m not sure why it can’t be the same sort of thing. There are a few examples of newspapers run wholly by nonprofits in America, but not enough of them to make us confident that model would work here. We’re not going with that model, and one very big reason we’re not is that a lot of our old advertisers demand that we sell them ad space, because they say ad space in an editorially independent weekly is the only way they have to reach their customers. Some are particularly unhappy with their current options.

That 300-year-old print model is trimmer than it used to be, but, as it turns out, it’s not dying.

And we need some certainty that this is going to be local, and stay local, and last.

So, considering all those factors, this is what we came up with. We’ll create a new nonprofit organization, of which I will become the first director, for the purpose of education and the promotion of Knoxville’s own history and culture. Not regional history, like the East Tennessee Historical Society, whose membership and leadership and funding and perspective reflects its 35-county area. The ETHS runs a fascinating museum and hosts a vigorous series of relevant events, and are essential to what I do. We’re lucky Knoxville is its headquarters.

But what we’re starting is something different, an organization strictly concerned with the city of Knoxville and its continuing narrative. It’s the first comprehensive Knoxville-history association I’ve ever heard of.

A lot of other cities have something comparable. Chattanooga, for example, is well covered under the ETHS umbrella, and in the ETHS museum, but has at least two city-focused nonprofit historical associations of its own. Is Knoxville America’s largest city more than 200 years old not to have its own historical association?

I don’t know, but for me it’s a natural fit. I’ve authored nine books on various aspects of Knoxville history, and for over 20 years, I’ve been giving talks to high-school classes, college classes, veterans’ groups, church groups, philanthropic fraternities, garden clubs, bus tours, dozens of them every year. And more often than not, there’s someone in the room who’s not one of my regular readers, and they come up to me afterwards and say, “So, do you work for the Chamber? The tourist bureau? The city? The university?”

Well, no, I’ve always said. I’m a reporter.

For more than 20 years folks have assumed I’m associated with some nonprofit organization. Now I am. It’s never been my job to talk to groups before. Now it will be. I’ll be doing other things too, researching projects for other historical nonprofits, connecting scholars with resources, consulting with architects on projects with a historical angle, filling in when the subject is Knoxville and somebody needs some help figuring it out.

We’re going to call it the Knoxville History Project. History is a broader subject than people like to think. It includes not just the past but the present, and promotes some learned speculation about the future. History is, more or less, journalism. I’ve never been able to pry them apart, and have now officially given up trying.

The new newspaper will serve some of the educational purposes of the nonprofit. Hence this new nonprofit will be a minority owner of the new for-profit newspaper. It will invest in that paper, a substantial amount, about one-third of its annual operating budget, with expectation of a return on that investment.

Most of the newspaper’s owners will be private investors, and it sounds as if there will be quite a number of them, enough to call for a board of directors. The plan, when it’s up and running, is to offer shares.

The nonprofit will also be run by a board with rotating membership, and I and my successors will serve the organization at the pleasure of that board. It’ll be an anchor for the paper to insulate it from the vagaries of private or corporate ownership, and it will keep that ownership permanently local. We’ll also be obliged to be transparent. You’ll be able to check on us.

Meanwhile, the Knoxville Mercury will be our new weekly newspaper, and I will write for it, a weekly column, probably more.

I’m looking forward to that day. But we have a lot of work to do before then. We’re committed to making this work. The three former Metro Pulse staffers involved in this project left severance offers on the table, forfeited enough collectively to buy a luxury automobile, or just be more confident about paying mortgage next month, but we wanted this a good deal more.

We hope you want it, too, and that you’ll give us a hand, if you can. Have a look at our launch-effort website,, or check the Knoxville History Project on Facebook.

If anything obliges me to learn to use Facebook, you know it must be extraordinary.

For now, I’m still writing stories, of which Knoxville has no end. I will keep posting them here.

Vols vs. Knoxville

The Vols haven’t ever gone five consecutive years without a winning season, not since the first team in 1891. Depending on the lads’ bowl prospects, after a 6-6 regular season, this may be the year they break that record.

If the fortunes of the boys in orange aren’t useful to us for bragging purposes, they may be useful for testing an old assumption I’ve heard since childhood from family members, from business owners, from prominent city fathers. That it’s not just a game. That when the Vols lose, Knoxville necessarily suffers, economically, culturally, spiritually.

So we’d damn well better cheer, whether we care about college football or not.

This late unpleasantness isn’t necessarily the Vols’ worst losing jag. It’s close, but there was a spell more than a century ago when UT had four losing seasons in a row—then, after a brief remission, a return of the curse, with three losing seasons in a row.

So from 1903 to 1911, the Vols suffered seven losing seasons out of nine. That includes the execrable season of 1909, when the Vols scored only 11 points in the entire season—all of them in their game against tiny Transylvania U.

You’d think the shame would have been such a burden in Knoxville that it would have clogged the gutters of Gay Street or Market Square. But have a look around 1909, and you don’t see much of it.

The city had two busy new train stations—the still-impressive L&N building was completed during that losing streak–two independent daily newspapers, a comprehensive electric streetcar system, dozens of factories producing marble, iron, furniture, knitted goods of all sorts. In 1909, the year of that worst-ever season, the Bijou Theatre opened, with world-class live entertainment almost nightly. During the theater season, Knoxvillians had a choice of multiple live shows every week.

In 1910 and 1911, both losing years for the Vols, the city launched—and during football season!–its two Appalachian Expositions, progressive fairs that celebrated industry and conservation and invention and drew U.S. presidents, major reformers, and hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the nation. Downtown, Knoxville investors built the city’s first steel-frame-construction “skyscraper,” the Arnstein Building, on Market Square–and then, in still another Vols losing season, topped it with the much-taller Burwell on Gay Street. The city built a new main library during that streak, and established Emory Park, downtown’s first public park. Several hotels went up, especially near the Southern station, which was busy all night. The city witnessed its first airplane flights and motorcycle races. The Nicholson Art League, which included a few impressionists of national reputation played a role in a new Lyceum movement with art shows and musical performances. The era also saw the beginnings of what would become the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. And back then, for every one football game, there were dozens of baseball games.

The city was enjoying a healthy growth rate, about one percent of population annually. New businesses were opening all the time, especially Knoxville’s first car dealerships and movie theaters and soda fountains. New floodlighting on Market Square and later Gay Street made the city look bright well into the night. Some stores stayed open until midnight.

That was what Knoxville was like the last time the Vols lost this many games for this many seasons. I’m just offering that fortifying example of courage under such collegiate athletic humiliation to help us bear these uncertain days.

Of course, most people didn’t follow college football back then. Bleachers at old Wait Field were generally dominated by girlfriends and fraternity brothers.

If a losing team doesn’t necessarily hurt its host city, surely a winning team helps the city, right? Robert Neyland is the namesake of one of downtown’s longest and most traveled streets, our riverfront boulevard. His name is on one of the largest building in the downtown area, where its honoree is also the subject of one of the city’s biggest statues.

Neyland was never an elected official, never an important developer, not a founder of much. He was mainly just a good football coach. During a period when the whole nation was following college football much more than pro football, Neyland put the Vols right in the thick of it. He created Volmania. The football stadium got bigger and bigger to accommodate more and more fans.

The city’s growth didn’t reflect the growth of the stadium. During the 30-year Neyland era, the Vols’ golden years, the city’s growth was stagnant. According to the census, Knoxville was only about five percent bigger in 1960 than it was in 1930.

Knoxville didn’t build much during the Neyland era, either. The Andrew Johnson, a 17-story hotel, was in the works as Neyland first became the Vols’ head coach and started beating Alabama. But after that, throughout the Vols’ glory years, the city never topped that brick skyscraper. It was almost half a century before the city built a taller building.

To make it worse, during the Neyland era, Knoxville got the worst press the city has ever received. Prominent and respected national journalists called Knoxville “the ugliest city in America” and “the dirtiest city in the world.” One European writer described Knoxville as “corrosive.” Many of these impertinent critics didn’t notice, maybe didn’t care, that we had a splendid college football team.

A native son, author Joseph Wood Krutch, visiting Knoxville in 1950, a Neyland championship season. He wrote that “the whole town is shabbier than it was” in his pre-1915 youth.

Have a look at a current display at the McClung Collection, Fortune Magazine’s essay about Knoxville in 1952, during another Vols winning season, and the end of Neyland’s long and successful career as head coach. Remarking on Knoxville’s “drabness,” it makes the city sound dull and dysfunctional. The author concluded, “Almost everyone thinks something should be done, but nobody does anything much.”

But at least the Vols were doing well. In the whole decade of the 1950s, when Neyland was either football coach or athletic director, the Vols enjoyed eight winning seasons, fielded their first official NCAA national championship team, won a couple of SEC championships, and for the decade won 72 games and lost 31.

That should have been great for the host city, right? In the same decade, Knoxville lost 10 percent of its population, in that decade the steepest decline in the population of any American city.

And here we are now. The Vols haven’t had a winning season since 2009. But during that time, downtown has seen daring and expensive new development, from the successful Daylight Building renovation on Union to Scruffy City Hall and the Woods & Taylor building on Market Square to Tailor Lofts, to all the developments on West Jackson, the Standard and Southeastern Glass the Armature, each amazing for different reasons—to big new-construction projects like Marble Alley to ambitious large-scale preservation projects like White Lily.

I’m not sure there have ever been more people who wish they lived in downtown Knoxville.

As festivals like Rossini and Hola have gotten bigger and bigger, the International Biscuit Festival launched, earning national press. The city has gotten raves for its big events and for its downtown redevelopment and for AC’s smart and perhaps globally significant Big Ears music festivals. I don’t think Knoxville has ever gotten more positive press in any five-year period than it has in the last five years. Big-time music critics for the Rolling Stone and the New York Times rave about the Bijou and Tennessee Theatres. Travel writers extol the rare concentrated liveliness of Market Square. Emphasizing our successes with architectural preservation, in 2012 the American Planning Association named Gay Street, alongside New York’s Fifth Avenue, as one of America’s 10 Great Streets, remarking on Knoxville’s “lively cultural scene.”

Is this just an irony that, more often than not, when the Vols are down, Knoxville is up—and vice versa? Is it like King of the Hill? When the Vols are on top, they knock Knoxville off, and when Knoxville’s on top, it returns the favor?

You could almost get that impression, looking at the last 123 years Knoxville has shared with the Vols, but I’m not sure I see the mechanism of that effect.

Surely it’s just coincidence. A winning college football team can’t make a city worse. Even if we do surrender six or seven home-game Saturdays in the fall, Saturdays when we could be hosting more festivals or concerts or fundraiser 5Ks. That’s frustrating to some erstwhile event organizers. But just as you can’t build a whole economy on six or seven Saturdays of hungry fans, those momentary lost opportunities probably don’t make all that much difference in the big picture.

Unless it’s just that a jolly football season can distract us, make us more content than we should be, let us believe that if our favorite team is winning, maybe we don’t even need a real city.

And then, when we’re losing, we think maybe we do, after all.