At 45 mph, the suggested speed on Kingston Pike, Bearden can look almost ordinary, a modern commercial corridor of strip centers with lots of billboards. It’s not designed to be looked at. But slow down a little, and you might notice evidence of a community of some depth and distinction.
The architectural scale’s different from that of most commercial strips, with smaller buildings on smaller lots, with a few notable exceptions. There are sidewalks and occasional pedestrians, and if you look close, there are several older buildings here, even a few pre-war ones. Several before World War II, and one that’s even pre-Civil War. Within the noise of traffic is an old churchyard with gravestones from a century ago, one referencing the cause of death, the New Market Train Wreck of 1904.
In the 1790s, Kingston Pike was new, and the main road between Knoxville and Nashville. Bearden was spooky in those days. The road didn’t go over the big hill, but around it to the south, through a woods, and visibility was so limited it was a handy place for highwaymen to pounce. It was, at one time, known as Murderer’s Hollow.
To Bearden’s early development, the pike was important, but perhaps not quite as important as Fourth Creek, source of fresh water and power for the small mills along it. The place where the pike crossed the creek became epicenter for a community that became known as Bearden.
By some accounts, the community’s first permanent resident was a spectral character named Jimmy Miller, a wealthy bachelor whose origins are unknown. At one time he lived in a small defensive fort set up near the intersection of the pike and the creek. He never had trouble from Indians, but around 1824, he was reportedly poisoned to death by his covetous nephews. He was buried along what’s now Lyons View, without a marker.
In 1817, Irish immigrant John Reynolds bought 300 acres in the area. Born in County Louth, the often-embattled border region of eastern Ireland, Reynolds named the new western community Erin, the ancient name of his native country.
Erin’s first settlers were from all over. Jacob Lones came from a Dutch family in Pennsylvania and settled on the northern stretch of Fourth Creek; his family, some of whom later preferred the spelling Lonas, remained. Capt. William Lyon was from a Scottish family in Baltimore. “Prominent in business affairs and a gentleman of large hospitality,” Lyon’s home was a showplace. His wife, Mary Clark Lyon, “adorned the home in which they lived, with beautiful life.”
Another neighbor, known as Grandfather Hudiburg, perhaps of German origin, was a remarkable fellow. According to a transcription of a memory of someone who knew him, “He is said to have been an interpreter and expounder of the Sacred Oracles of Truth,” that is, a preacher. “He was not a distiller of the fruits of the land, but a dispenser of the fermented fruits therefrom.” By one story, he sometimes slipped out of his own worship services to tend to liquor customers.
Bearden wasn’t named for a bear den. A mile or so northeast of Hudiburg’s place, on Third Creek, was a paper mill built in the 1830s by Marcus DeLafayette Bearden. After his mill closed down in the 1880s, the ruin was long a landmark known as the Old Papermill. The road that ran by it to the west was called, naturally, the Old Papermill Road. After World War II, the ruin was gone and forgotten, and the Old was dropped. He wasn’t the Bearden that Bearden was named for.
In July 1855, the first train in East Tennessee arrived at Erin a few minutes before it made it all the way to Knoxville. Eventually there was a little train station, just east of what’s now Northshore Drive. As the community grew, the name Erin became problematic. There was already an Erin, Tenn., so it couldn’t be an official name respected by the post office. Proposals to call it Cooper or Crippen caught on for only short periods of time.
There came another Marcus DeLafayette Bearden, a younger cousin of the paper mill owner. A former Union officer, wounded in the foot at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, he was elected sheriff of Knox County and, at about the same time, mayor of Knoxville. (The street known as Bearden Place is located in Old North Knoxville, just to confuse things.) Bearden lived downtown during his early career, but by the 1870s, he seems to have moved his family to the west side, where he did some farming.
In 1877, he was elected to the Tennessee legislature. There, his primary accomplishment was funding the establishment of a major state institution for the mentally ill along the river near Erin. It was a great progressive achievement to care for a vulnerable population—as well as a major employer for the old Erin area.
Capt. Bearden died in August 1885, just before the Lyons View Asylum for the Insane opened. In appreciation, the community renamed itself for him.
Bearden never incorporated as its own town, but it had some of the trappings of one, with a post office, a public school, a blacksmith’s shop, a couple of stores, and a train station. It was, for decades, the Southern Railway’s last stop before you got to Knoxville. It even attracted a little industry, a brickyard on its eastern edge. The Brickyard drew working people, including a community of blacks, who supported their own businesses and churches there. The Wallace AME Chapel on Homberg Drive is a living relic of that era. Through the mid 20th century, black residents preferred to call Bearden “the Brickyard.”
In 1917, Knoxville’s city limits expanded to take in Looney’s Bend, not yet called Sequoyah Hills, but stopped short of Bearden, which remained a mostly rural place. A sort of streetcar, a bus that ran on an electric cable, served Lyons View, but not most of Bearden.
Generally defined in opposition to Knoxville, Bearden was the part of Kingston Pike that was not in Knoxville’s city limits. Where Knoxville ended—around Carr Street—the community of Bearden began.
Bearden was considered apart from Knoxville, a quiet country place more remote than the trolleyburbs. Somehow, it became central to the nation.
Kingston Pike, paved with modern asphalt, almost suddenly became part of two major national highways, 11 and 70. The Lee and Dixie highways, as they were known, were major routes from the East Coast and Upper Midwest to Florida and the Gulf Coast, and they combined as one highway for a few miles of Kingston Pike. By the 1930s, hundreds of thousands of Americans saw Bearden through the windows of Studebakers and Pontiacs.
Businesses sprang up to greet them. Campsites, motor courts, motels, automobile service stations, restaurants, and ice-cream shops and beer joints proliferated, many of them with exotic themes meant to appeal to the traveler. By 1940, one half-mile of Bearden supported eight tourist camps or motor courts. The Bearden of 75 years ago sounds like a carnival: the Oki-Doke Cafe, Kozy Kamp, the White Dot Coffee Shop, Camp Delight, the Wayside Inn, a restaurant called the Canary Cottage. The Spanish Garden was a rough-edged restaurant and bar, was across the street from the Alhambra, an Islamic-themed motor court.
Bearden was in motion, as Knoxville’s first airport, established in the 1920s along Sutherland Avenue on the eastern fringe of Bearden, inspired some locals, especially Bruce Holloway (1912-1999), who was born and raised in the old Reynolds house on Bearden Hill. During World War II, he was an ace fighter pilot in the Pacific. He later became a four-star general in the Air Force and commander of the Strategic Air Command.
There were a few other employers besides the tourist industry. In 1933, the Bowman Hat Company pulled up stakes on Jackson Avenue and relocated to a new factory in Bearden. It rendered a name based on one of its popular models: Homberg Place.
Meanwhile, as automobiles became as common as fedoras, people who worked in Knoxville began moving into new subdivisions like Westwood, Forest Heights, Highland Hills, later West Hills.
Several of the businesses built to appeal to tourists eventually found more business from the relatively new residential areas. One of Knoxville’s first big surburban theaters was the 800-seat Pike, which opened in Bearden in 1946. All the new residential development was fortunate for Bearden, because by the 1960s, the Dixie-Lee Highway tourist industry was evaporating. The completion of Interstate 40 sucked nearly 100 percent of the through traffic away. Most of the motels closed. The restaurants and liquor stores survived.
Meanwhile, the black community, which was older than most of the new suburban white communities, declined in percentage of the whole. But one of the most famous people Bearden has ever produced was soul singer “Sweet” Clifford Curry, who grew up here singing doo-wop and attending blacks-only Lyons View School. He had an R&B hit in the ’60s called “She Shot a Hole in My Soul.”
In 1962, Bearden was annexed to become part of the city of Knoxville. The community once defined as separate from Knoxville became part of it.
After the motels closed, Bearden kept its Ray-Bans on and maintained its reputation as a vacation spot, if only for Knoxvillians. It still had the big movie theater, the Pike, renamed the Capri, which sprouted a companion theater to become Knoxville’s first cineplex. Bearden also supported a drive-in theater, a couple of drive-in restaurants, a couple of ice-cream shops, an ice-skating rink, a bowling alley, some hamburger places but generally not the big chains, except for a Howard Johnson’s. Some people worked in Bearden, but not many lawyers or financial planners. Bearden tended to employ the kind of professionals who kept a drawerful of suckers for the kids.
For customers, Bearden was a place to go after work, or after school. There was a bakery that seemed to sell only birthday cakes, and a shoe store with a resident bird that talked, and a walk-up window where they poured hot, dark chocolate over cold ice cream, and as you watched from the sidewalk, it hardened into something astonishing.
Most of Bearden’s roadside tourist attractions faded. All the theaters have closed—the drive-in, the dinner theater, and Knoxville’s first cineplex. The little ice-cream shops are gone. Though the local drive-in restaurant closed long ago, there’s now a Sonic, a quarter-mile away. All the motels have closed, and most have been demolished without a trace, most recently the faux-colonial Mount Vernon on the west side of Bearden Hill, and Biltmore Motor Court, just barely recognizable when it was torn down for a Chick-fil-A.
Recent decades have brought the cuisine of the world to Bearden: Knoxville’s first four-star restaurant, an Arabic café, Knoxville’s first Cuban café, a Hungarian café, Spanish, Guatemalan, Thai, and Indian restaurants, several varieties of barbecue, and a restaurant where you could order zebra and antelope. Some of them didn’t last, but like a Broadway play ran their course and interested and satisfied the people of Bearden, who remember them all. Then there’s Colonel’s Deli, which occasionally changes its cuisine, from American to Chinese to Greek, but never its name. Nearby, an all-Mexican bakery tempts.
Today you can find upscale rarities at Bennett Galleries, which is located in the old Capri Theatre building, and high-end clothing for men and women nearby. There are some extravagant shops, like the Paris Apartment that have to be seen to be believed. Bearden has somehow become the place to go for antiques. Even the old Cas Walker grocery is now an antique shop. There’s an independent butcher shop and a fresh-seafood shop and a unique bistro where you can sample a gallery of wines.
Broad statements about the place, those suggesting something consistent about its personality, are elusive. Under construction is the cathedral of the Catholic Diocese of East Tennessee, and nearby, video facilities, including a studio that recently produced a feature film called Something, Anything that has won national praise.
You can say Bearden has gone upscale on us, and maybe it has, but you’ll need to post an asterisk to cover the fact that, even in 2015, Bearden still supports a couple of old-school barber shops and a public knitting circle, and Long’s Drug Store may be the single cheapest non-charity restaurant in Tennessee. Meals there help you save for the expensive stuff down the street. Businesses still compete to change your tires. There’s an old-fashioned firehall with a pole.
Bearden changes every month or two but still musters a summertime feel, a little slower, more relaxed, more whimsical than most commercial strips. By Bearden standards, it’s not in the least peculiar that Long’s still has a grill and soda fountain. You can go ice-skating in East Tennessee’s oldest skating rink. A paved greenway connects it all the way to the University of Tennessee and downtown with only two street crossings.
Today, everyone in Bearden has a different conception of what Bearden is. Does it include Sequoyah Hills? West Hills? Rocky Hill? Any of Sutherland east of Forest Park? There are people who are adamant that it does indeed, and others who are equally adamant that it does not, and can never. There’s no provable answer. But Bearden seems to be an expansive concept, adept to fit anything that seems like Bearden.