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.

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