Ijams Nature Center, located on the banks of the Tennessee River, evolved during the early twentieth century into a natural showplace known as the Bird Sanctuary. The Ijams family purchased the original 20-acre property in 1910 and quickly embodied the outdoor life.
Harry Ijams, widely known as H.P., was a young commercial artist and illustrator for the Knoxville News-Sentinel when he married Alice Yoe in 1905. With an avid appetite for the outdoors, the couple throughout the Smoky Mountains on their honeymoon, winding up at a memorable spot which later became Elkmont. H.P. had prepared for the trip by hiking from Knoxville to Asheville at a time when road and trail markers barely existed. A future wedding anniversary proved just as adventurous, with a canoe trip down the Tennessee River from Knoxville to Chattanooga. The expedition took seven days, with H.P. losing his shoes, and heavy rain on the fourth day left them both bailing out water for the remainder of the journey. Fortunately, the intrepid explorers had the foresight to mail fresh clothes on ahead!
Although not formally involved with the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, Harry and Alice were certainly well acquainted or friendly with many of the well known hikers of the day, including Harvey Broome, Carlos Campbell and Brockway Crouch. In fact, H.P. Ijams joined fellow ornithologists, Paul J. Adams and Albert Ganier (co-founder of Tennessee Ornithological Society) on a fateful birding trip in May 1925. After watching golden eagles soar off the peak of Mt. LeConte, the trio conceived of the idea for a permanent camp settlement on the mountain. The notion became a reality shortly after when H.P. recommended Adams for the job to Col. David S. Chapman, leader of the Great Smoky Mountain Conservation Association, who was actively engaged in securing the Smoky Mountains as a national park.
Col. Chapman agreed to employ Adams only if a supposed natural spring existed on the mountain peak. Adams remembered finding such a spring a few years previously and endeavored to relocate it again. Luckily, the intrepid explorer re-discovered the water source and set to work on building the first official camp, which welcome its first official visitors, including the Ijams family, in July 1925. Also in attendance that weekend were renowned photographers, Jim and Robin Thompson and Dutch Roth, Brockway Crouch, and Paul Adams accompanied by his legendary dog, Cumberland Jack.
During the 1920s, H.P. Ijams’ passions focused on birding and nature study, and along with Brockway Crouch, championed the East Tennessee Audubon Society, as well as founded the East Tennessee Ornithological Society (now the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society) in 1924 when H.P. Ijams served as the club’s founding President. H.P.’s ability to combine a conservation ethic with practicality would mirror the endeavors of the future nature center when in 1922 he offered the local Audubon Society a location for a club house on the condition that its land-owning members would post their grounds as protected bird habitats. The member’s response resulted in more than 1,000-protected acres, known locally as the East Tennessee Bird Preservation. Although not contiguously connected, the preserve was at the time the largest of its kind in the state of Tennessee. The resultant club house was named in honor of Magnolia Woodward, who was credited with the first bird count in the state of Tennessee in 1902 and who helped establish Audubon activities in Knoxville.
In 1928, H.P. Ijams purchased a large mounted bird collection for his study which contained a mounted passenger pigeon, originally collected by General Cheatham in Middle Tennessee in 1856. H.P. was fascinated by this once common species that had migrated in enormous flocks through the eastern United States. Although the species became extinct in 1914, Ijams wrote and published a touching monograph entitled, The Passing of the Passenger Pigeon, which revealed an insight into endangered species education and conservation that still resonates today.
Elizabeth, the eldest of the four Ijams’ daughters was born in 1909. Soon to follow were daughters Josephine (Jo), Mary and Martha who would all follow in the footsteps of their parents by developing strong birding and naturalist skills, which served them well as Girl Scouts.
Life for the Ijams girls was a constant one outdoors. When she was only 10 years old, Jo Ijams created a family newsletter surrounding the Ijams family pursuits, including H.P.’s exploits in damming up a local stream to create a pond for the girls to canoe upon. Lake Avis, as the pond was originally named, provided a safe outdoor playground for the girls who, except for Elizabeth, all became accomplished swimmers and talented members of the Knoxville Swim Team. Jo also achieved local acclaim for her journalist talents and, as a thirteen year-old, her letter to the editor of the New York Times about the 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, received a printed response.
Tragically, the idyllic life for the Ijams family was shattered in 1932 with the untimely death of their 16-year old daughter Mary in an automobile accident. In their grief, H.P. and Alice worked tirelessly outdoors creating rock gardens and natural features that still exist at the nature center today. In 1939, they donated 2.5-acres, including the former bird club lodge, to the Knoxville Girl Scout Council who named it Camp Mary Ijams in memory of the talented Girl Scout, who had already earned 20 merit badges and lacked only a few in becoming a Golden Eaglet.
With H.P. Ijams sharply focused on his artistic career and bird life, Alice developed a thriving horticulture business named Southside Greenhouses. Like her husband, she balanced strong naturalist interests and talents with a keen eye for business. An authority on flowers and ornamental plants, the business supplied flowers for Crouch Florists, as well as selling directly to the public at the downtown Market Square House. Alice was also a pioneer in the emerging garden club movement, becoming a charter member of the Knoxville Garden Club, and serving as its President in 1944 for two years. Alice not only inspired would-be gardeners to develop their talents but also helped create numerous local garden clubs with her personal philosophy and platform of conservation and preservation. The Ijams’ telephone was one of the busiest on the City exchange, with many would-be gardeners calling Alice with questions and advice. Gardeners everywhere called The Bird Sanctuary to “ask Alice, she’ll know.” No wonder that Alice was referred to as the “First Lady of Garden Clubs.”
After the death of H.P. and Alice, in the 1950s and 60s respectively, daughter Jo Ijams became an active member of the Knoxville Garden Club, which conceived of the idea of preserving the Ijams property as a public park in 1963. The Knoxville Garden Club forged a city-wide campaign enabling the city of Knoxville to purchase the property in 1965. The new Ijams Nature Park, boasting 500 varieties of plants, several ponds and abundant bird life, opened on the eve of the annual Dogwood Arts Festival in April, 1968.
Over the years, Ijams, incorporated as Ijams Nature Center in 1976, has grown in both size and stature. A new Visitor Center with unique and engaging exhibits; expanded acreage including the award-winning Mead’s Quarry and the Ross Marble Natural Area; and signature environmental education programs have all extended the Ijams Legacy into the another century.
The above article originally appeared in the Tennessee Conservationist magazine in 2010 during the 100th anniversary of the Ijams Family Legacy.
The same year, author and KHP staffer, Paul James, published Ijams Nature Center, a history of the Ijams family and the development of the enduring nature center as part of Arcadia Publishing’s expansive Images of America series. Now available in KHP’s online gift shop.
An Emmy-nominated documentary, A Place by the River: The Ijams Family Legacy, was produced by the Heartland Series and is available on DVD at Ijams Nature Center.
Ijams Nature Center is located at 2915 Island Home Avenue, Knoxville TN 37920. Visit www.ijams.org.