We have what I think should be a big anniversary coming up this weekend. The Great Seal of the State of Tennessee has always included 1796, the year of the state’s birth. Until the 1840s, it had a precise date on it: Feb. 6, 1796. That day’s momentous event happened on Gay Street, in what’s now a blank surface parking lot.
Most cities don’t get to witness the founding of a state. The Constitutional Convention was the biggest thing that happened in Knoxville in the 18th century. Fifty-five early frontier leaders, most of them Revolutionary War veterans, several of them legends in Tennessee history, met on Gay Street for a month to decide how they would govern themselves. They finished Tennessee’s first constitution on Feb. 6, 1796.
The fact a state was born here is unknown even to most Knoxvillians.
I’m not the first to bring that up. Back in the 1940s, as the state’s sesquicentennial approached, librarians, historians, and heritage groups prioritized anchoring Knoxville’s place in Tennessee history. In 1940, young librarian Lucile Deaderick wrote a feature article about it in the Knoxville Journal. She thought the site of the constitutional convention should be permanently commemorated. “A marker would perpetuate Knoxville’s leading position in the state’s early history,” she wrote.
Then her older colleague, Mary Utopia Rothrock, a legend in the library arts, wrote a book called The French Broad Holston Country. Published in 1946, the year of the state sesquicentennial, her book remains the only comprehensive history of Knox County. In it, she identified the site of that dramatic convention as the headquarters of federal agent David Henley, “at the southwest corner of what is today the intersection of Gay Street and Church Avenue.”
By then, Henley’s office was already long gone, probably torn down before the Civil War. What was there in 1946 was the Knaffl Building, the ca. 1900 brick commercial building that housed the well-known Knaffl & Bro. photographic studio.
The state Legislature and heritage groups led by the Daughters of the American Revolution spearheaded a vigorous effort to install four plaques denoting Knoxville’s role in the founding of Tennessee. The first and most important was unveiled in 1947, declaring that corner spot “The Birthplace of the State of Tennessee.” The unveiling, which included a church service, drew dignitaries from Chattanooga and Nashville, including William Eagle, the clerk of the Tennessee Supreme Court. The dark, significant-looking bronze plaque remained there on the Knaffl Building for almost half a century.
Other plaques, denoting other spots where the early state legislatures met, were placed on buildings on Main Street and State. A small marble obelisk appeared on the courthouse lawn. For a few years, Knoxville was all about being the Birthplace of Tennessee.
But things happened. The plaques were applied to buildings, and in those days, buildings tended to get torn down. One plaque, citing the first courthouse, was on the old Bell House School. One was on the old streetcar barn. Three of the four disappeared.
The first one, the Birthplace one, lasted the longest, though it was partly obscured by one of those applied riverstone facades that were all the rage in the 1960s. They left a rectangle that would allow you to see the plaque. Thereafter it was recessed and shadowed, but still legible for those who knew to look, a curiosity I used to like to point out to folks. It was like a secret distinction.
Around 1994, a fire in the Knaffl Building caused extensive damage. It was finally torn down in late 1995, just weeks before the bicentennial of the Feb. 6, 1796 convention. The multi-million-dollar Nashville-based bicentennial celebration didn’t pay much attention to either the date or the place.
On a day when snow was still clinging to the demolition rubble, I was there on that date with a small group of about four guys, including the late Tom Henley, local attorney and a direct descendant of David Henley, who used to do business on that corner. Tom was anxious to commemorate the bicentennial of the Constitution, and we did so, standing amongst the broken bricks frosted with snow, with some commemorative words and a flask of Jack Daniel’s to anoint the spot.
By then, of course, the plaque was gone. I’ve often wondered what happened to it.
Several years ago, County Commissioner Mike Brown contacted the city, said that he’d had custody of a plaque that was on that building, and rightly thought it should be returned to its proper site. Back in the ’90s Brown was working with his dad, who was property manager for the Dulin/Folger estate, who owned the building. When it was clear the Knaffl Building was going to be torn down, Brown, unscrewed the plaque and stored it in his dad’s shed.
He didn’t think about it again until after his dad’s death, when he found the old plaque and duly turned it over to city government in the City County Building. That was eight or nine years ago, sometime during Mayor Haslam’s administration. In recent years, Brown says he’s been bugging Rick Emmett, downtown coordinator for the Rogero administration, to put it back up, even though there’s no longer a building there, and a parking-lot landscaping project seemed the opportunity to do that.
They did some rummaging around in the City County Building, and did find an old sesquicentennial-era plaque. But here’s the thing. The one they found, and the one Brown says is the one he remembers removing in 1995, is not the Birthplace of Tennessee plaque. It’s one of the missing sesquicentennial plaques, but it’s the one that marked where the state legislature met in the early 1800s. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, it was originally mounted in 1951 on the old streetcar barn on Main Street. That building was torn down not long afterward.
I’ve checked with the Knox County historian and the East Tennessee Historical Society. Several folks remember the Birthplace plaque on the Knaffl building. Nobody knows what became of it.
Emmett wants to put the plaques back in their proper places. Clues are welcome.
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