A Night in Happy Holler

Last week I was at Time Warp Tea Room for a full house, a satisfying and inexpensive meal on a cold February night. Proprietor Dan Moriarty presides over the Time Warp like a benevolent spirit. It’s usually not a crowded place, except on motorcycle nights, but last Thursday about a dozen older people had convened at a big table to share memories of Happy Holler.

Of course, it’s hard to keep memories in one place. And unfortunately for the concept of focus, Cas Walker had a store in Happy Holler, and everybody remembers it. I have learned, when trying to extract interesting and perhaps truthful information from anyone slightly older than I am, never to mention the word “Cas.” As soon as you do, it’s too late, and your conversation’s going off the rails. As far as many people are concerned, Cas Walker was the main thing that happened in Knoxville between 1920 and 1980, with the possible exception of some memorable Vols games, but then again, not all that many. Therefore all other subjects inexorably lead to the subject of Cas.

I never knew Cas Walker, the millionaire grocer-impresario-demagogue who died 16 years ago. I was in the same room with him a few times. I could never think of anything I needed to say to him. To be honest, I was beginning to grow weary of Cas Walker stories by the time I learned to read. Although any scholar has to admit that in fact and fiction he served a need.

He’s an East Tennessee icon, the rascal hero, like Br’er Rabbit or Sut Lovingood, the salt-of-the-earth genius who saw the potential in Flatt & Scruggs and Dolly Parton before anybody else did, the working-class hero who was an idol of the working class even when he was tricking them out of their paychecks. I don’t fully believe any Cas stories, wholly, but I’ve made it a practice not to wholly doubt them, either.

In between those obligatory Cas stories, the old timers who gathered at the Time Warp last week told a few I’d never heard before. Happy Holler may have been the only neighborhood in America where parents warned their daughters to walk only down the back alleys, never on the sidewalk of the main street. North Central, where it went through Happy Holler, was just too dangerous. Almost everybody at the table had a story, some of them firsthand, of a shooting or knifing affray there, more than a half-century ago.

One thing that makes Happy Holler different from other working-class neighborhoods in East Tennessee is the Catholic influence. The Holy Ghost church is right there, and several of the Happy Holler old-timers were raised Catholic.

“You know how Cas was about Catholics,” one woman said, smiling, almost affectionately. She recalled how Cas referred to nuns as ghost women. Cas was not Catholic, and encouraged others to regard nuns as ghosts, strange beings wandering among us, spooky, unpredictable, and not quite real.

Happy Holler does have its own history, separate from Cas. Established by the 1930s as the downtown commercial center for an industrial neighborhood clustered around Brookside Mills, which was until it closed in the 1950s was one of Knoxville’s biggest employers, Happy Holler was also central to employees of several other north-side factories, like the railroad Coster Shops, and Dempster Brothers, manufacturers of the iconic Dumpster. Happy Holler is believed to have gotten its name for its abundance of entertainment, not only its famous beer joints and dance halls and pool rooms, but also its own picture show, the Joy Theatre, a name that folded in well with Happy Holler, even if, in the memory of those best able to remember it, it was a run down and scary old place.

Happy Holler was happier for some than for others.

They talked about how they used to refer to the Broadway Shopping Center area as Mucktown, about how about 60 years ago, they hanged a director of the Boys’ Club in effigy, because he fired a staffer everybody liked. They talked about old Sheriff Stumpy Sims, and his sons Fats and Skinny.

They talked about how at Drew’s Alley, back between the railroad and Second Creek, you could get anything you wanted, bootleg liquor or casual women. One of the younger attendees talked about the night in 1975 when Gregg Allman, for reasons of his own, showed up at the Casual Lounge, a few blocks farther out Central, and played a few tunes on his famous guitar. It was right around that same time when local boxer Big John Tate, who was destined to be an Olympic medalist and a world heavyweight champ, was swaggering around in the neighborhood, throwing punches in the Golden Gloves ring, which was right here on this block.

They talked about Porky’s Poolroom—it was there before the Golden Gloves joint, and Stroud’s Barber Shop, and how they used to have some Quakers in the neighborhood, and the street gang known as the Fourth Avenue Gang. There were a dozen or so of them, back in the juvenile-delinquent era, with ducktails, hanging out at the corner of Fourth and Randolph, looking cool and bad at the soda shop known as Aunt Auby’s.

More than one of the older men could attest to the truth that being a paperboy was no way to make a living. “Everybody took the paper, but nobody paid,” said one old man. The paper was 30 cents a week. Or maybe 35 cents “But it didn’t make a difference, because nobody paid.”

One asked if they ever got robbed. Getting robbed was a hazard in Happy Hollow, but maybe not for paperboys. “No, we didn’t get robbed,” said one old man, to set the record straight about his old neighborhood. “We didn’t have any way to get robbed, because nobody paid us.”

It became a theme. Here and elsewhere in town, subscribers came to realize that they didn’t really have to pay the paperboy to keep getting the paper. The paperboy’s job was to deliver the daily paper and its advertisements to everybody, and it was his job to persuade them to pay.

It was a very interesting evening in Happy Holler, and I left the Time Warp thinking differently about this place. It’s not scary anymore, even late at night, and I walked these storied old sidewalks boldly, never once thinking I should be slipping back toward the alleys for safety. Flats and Taps was full of people who looked young and cheerful and prosperous. And at Relix Variety Theatre, about 300 people were rapt, watching rapid Pecha Kucha slide shows about architecture and design and a trip down the Tennessee River. There were actual professors in there.

I didn’t see any nuns or gangsters or heavyweight champs, but naturally, it made me wonder what old Cas would have thought about all this.

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