Today, Magnolia Avenue has hundreds of magnolia trees, but it was named for a woman. Magnolia Bryan Branner (1829-1907) was originally from Georgia, but moved to Knoxville with her husband, George Branner, a prosperous plantation owner, just before the Civil War. They settled along First Creek. Their son, H. Bryan Branner, became mayor of Knoxville in 1880.
When it was completed in 1888, Magnolia Avenue was a broad, modern boulevard, a clean, quiet option to living in dirty, crowded downtown Knoxville.
Magnolia Branner was then a widow, the primary resident of a house near what’s now the campus of Pellissippi State. She outlived her husband by 23 years, and watched the growth of the street named for her.
Originally, Magnolia was an extension of Park Street, an older downtown street. It became Magnolia only after it crossed First Creek. After World War I, Park Street became Magnolia, too.
In 1890, Magnolia became East Tennessee’s first street to be served by an electric streetcar built by William Gibbs McAdoo (who later became U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.)
A century ago, thousands of Knoxvillians of all races and economic circumstances viewed this stretch of Magnolia regularly, as they rode the streetcars to wonderful Chilhowee Park, which offered swimming, dancing, drama, bowling, and baseball, with horse racing nearby. Magnolia was our place to behold exotic spectacles. Many Knoxvillians were on Magnolia when they saw their first hot-air balloon, their first aeroplane, their first football game.
Most Knoxvillians visited Chilhowee Park, and became familiar with Magnolia. Much of America saw Magnolia early in the century, when Chilhowee Park was the site of several major expositions: the Appalachian Expositions of 1910 and 1911, and the National Conservation Exposition of 1913, which drew a million people from across the country. Most of those visitors arrived on the Magnolia streetcar.
The 1913 Exposition included a pavilion called the Negro Building, established by Knoxville blacks, and black people were part of the daily crowds. However, blacks were later banned from visiting the park except during fairs, and on one day a year—Aug. 8, which was celebrated as Emancipation Day.
(For more related to these topics, read Emancipation Day: the Backstory of the Eighth of August and Knoxville’s early involvement in the Conservation Movement by Jack Neely.)
Chilhowee Park remained as an amusement park, with permanent rides and arcades, and as a setting for annual fairs. The Magnolia corrid
or developed a reputation for fun, and spawned other attractions, like Cal Johnson’s Racetrack, built and owned by a man raised to be a slave.
It hosted horse races, Knoxville’s first automobile races—and, in 1911 the first landing of an airplane in Knoxville. Caswell Park was for about 80 years the home of professional baseball in Knoxville. The Knoxville Zoo, first launched near Magnolia in the 1940s, remains one of Knoxville’s best-known attractions today.
For a century, Magnolia was more familiar to Knoxvillians than Kingston Pike was. It was the home of the region’s first Catholic high school. It was the address of the Park Theater, which remained one of Knoxville’s most popular movie theaters from the 1940s to the 1970s, showing many first-run movies even before the bigger theaters did.
1801 Magnolia was the long two-story building, the location of one of the region’s biggest bread bakeries, Swan’s. When they built this state-of-the-art factory in 1927, they were trying to out-bake Kern’s, the venerable local favorite, and was quite a place to visit during their frequent open houses. For a few decades Swan’s was kind of famous. Not just for its bread, but for a five-part black gospel harmony group they sponsored. The , featuring high tenor Claude Jeter, made records and hit their national peak in the 1940s. You have to hear them to believe them, and belief was their business. Paul Simon later acknowledged them as an inspiration.
(As shown, the Silvertones are featured on the Knoxville History Mural in the Old City adjacent to Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria. Find out who’s represented on the mural here.)
At 1925 Magnolia, near Cruze Street, is the birthplace of Mountain Dew—not the moonshine but the soft drink, ca. 1946. Basically a lemon-lime soda when it was concocted here, it underwent some changes after it left Knoxville, incorporating an otherworldly new hue, and caffeine. The original Hartman Beverage building still exists, now Economy Transmissions.
The following clip on the history of Mountain Dew features KHP historian Jack Neely and was produced by WBIR TV.
WBIR: Mountain Dew's Knoxville moonshine roots
Yahooo! Mountain Dew! Many Mountain Dews have Knoxville moonshine roots. There's good ol' mountain dew, the first Dew soda in 1928, and the 1940s brand that evolved into one of the world's best-selling soft drinks. Savor the video and guzzle the article at the link. http://bit.ly/mtndewshine
Posted by Jim Matheny WBIR on Tuesday, July 25, 2017
Magnolia also attracted numerous popular restaurants, especially those specializing in “fun” food, like pizza, barbecue, hot dogs, and ice cream.
In the 1950s, Knoxville leaders took advantage of a federal initiative called Urban Renewal to clear slums. At the time, thousands of people, most but not all of them black, lived in desperate conditions, many without electricity or plumbing, in a large area of several hundred acres on the east side of downtown. Urban Renewal removed thousands of residences, many of them dangerous slums, but many of them well-kept homes. Some of those evicted moved into new housing projects. Many others moved into formerly white neighborhoods of East Knoxville. When public housing was planned for East Knoxville, many white families left the area for the new developments in West Knoxville. Blacks, many of whom had been evicted from traditional urban neighborhoods, moved in.
Although Magnolia as a business and residential street remained mostly white through the 1970s, it spawned several black-owned businesses and became increasingly important to the displaced black community.