It’s been an odd fall, and not just because I still have a yellow flower on my surviving tomato plant. This past weekend its leaves still smelled like July.
In the Old City, at the corner of Central and Willow, the old Big Don’s the Costumier building is gone. The business itself, still thriving, moved into a slightly less conspicuous space around the corner on Jackson.
When I first encountered the Old City, maybe 40 years ago, when the only restaurants down here sold baloney sandwiches, Big Don’s was the liveliest and most interesting place in the neighborhood. Ramona, daughter of the original “Elegant Junk” man Big Don Buttry, is the only one from that pre “Old City” era who’s still in business there.
It’s a rare downtown demolition that draws only polite expressions of regret from the preservationist community. Unlike most of the buildings in the neighborhood, it was just a one-story, without much ornament. Nobody claimed it was handsome or that it was representative of any past era. An architectural inspection turned up only signs of multiple repairs and modifications. One wall collapsed and was rebuilt just a couple of years ago.
Still, the big brick box at Willow and Central did have some character.
Long before it was Big Don’s, it was Corkland’s, named after a man originally known as Gerson Korklan. There are several other spellings of his name, if you don’t like those. A Lithuanian immigrant who arrived in Knoxville around 1890 with nothing, he built a family clothing business that lasted for decades. He first sold potatoes in the street, around 1890, near the train tracks that brought him here, until a mysterious woman took pity on him. Her name was Amelia Burr. She claimed to be kin to Aaron Burr, and maybe she was. She was the widow of an industrialist from Connecticut who also claimed to be Burr’s descendant. The lane behind the building is called Burr’s Alley.
Anyway, the Corklands built their own building here, sold in the front, lived in the back. Corkland’s was here even before Willow Street, which punched through a long dense block around 1904.
It’s a great story, like an Old World fairy tale. But I gather the building built with Amelia Burr’s money was demolished long ago.
As everybody who lives, works, and plays downtown knows, there’s major infrastructure improvement afoot. One street after another gets closed as men working in trenches fix underground pipes. Backhoes bite down into the ground. Sometimes they strike streetcar tracks. They’re still down there, 68 years after we abandoned our model public transportation system. But of course there’s less trace of them each time they dig.
For many years, downtown’s most visible streetcar track was on Clinch Avenue near the History Center. With wear it somehow peeked through the pavement, which is soft by comparison to steel. It emerged just like the ribs of a shipwreck sometimes emerge from a sand dune. This year’s work put an end to that. It’s not there anymore.
I’m not complaining. Putting it back as it was would have been an odd thing to do.
One reader remarked that a lost bit of streetcar track turned up on lower Cumberland Avenue, and was visible there for a few weeks, though it’s gone now.
Usually we just see steel. But as another reader noted, on the 800 block of Gay Street, near the courthouse, the work tore up actual wooden crossties, clearly visible in the trench. Buried wood can last for a century.
There’s less rail underfoot than there was last year, but I’m willing to bet there are still miles and miles of it.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the local evolution of some modern terms for streets. After scanning some city directories, I guessed that Knoxville’s first “Boulevard,” as a capitalized proper name, was Emoriland Boulevard in North Knoxville, which was going by that title as early as 1924.
I should know better than to overlook neighborhoods that cherish their history. A couple of different readers in the Island Home neighborhood are convinced, and have convinced me, that Island Home Boulevard is older. Although it’s not listed consistently in city directories as “Island Home Boulevard” until 1923—which would make it Knoxville’s oldest “Boulevard” anyway—they’re citing deed research that may take it back to 1911.
By the way, the aforementioned crossties would have carried the streetcar to Island Home Boulevard.
And last week I was privileged to witness the biggest surprise in the East Tennessee Historical Society’s long history of Brown Bag lectures. It was the culmination of a week of celebrating Frances Hodgson Burnett’s youth in East Tennessee. The English novelist of The Secret Garden moved here with her family at age 15, living first in New Market. Much of last week’s celebration was based in Jefferson County, and was basically a 150th anniversary celebration of her arrival in America, and there. Later, she lived for several years in Knoxville, and it was here she began writing short stories and novels.
Several members of her family, including her great-granddaughter Penny Deupree, based in Texas and an authority on the author’s life and career, and Burnett’s 96-year-old great niece, Kate Hodgson, who lives in Northern Virginia, were here for a series of events and a wreath laying on Burnett’s mother’s grave at Old Gray. It may have been the most attention Eliza Boond Hodgson has gotten since she was buried there in 1870.
Ms. Hodgson, who doesn’t think she ever met the novelist in person, grew up referring to the author as “Aunt Fluffy.” Over a plate of ribs at Calhoun’s, she outlined how Burnett’s nephew, Peter Hodgson, was responsible for the Silly Putty craze of the 1950s and ’60s.
After Deupree spoke at the Brown Bag, the resourceful and often astonishing Bradley Reeves, of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, surprised Deupree and the other 100-odd folks in the room, including me, by playing an old 78 of her cousin, Bert Hodgson—nephew of Frances Hodgson Burnett—who was a Knoxville singer and songwriter in the 1920s. It was a 1930s crooner-style piece, called “Down in Tennessee.”
He died in 1965, a century after his family first arrived here. As far as I know, he was her last local relative.
And Bert Hodgson lived on Island Home Boulevard. See, everything’s connected.