The Knoxville History Project is proud to partner with author and historian, Laura Still, and Knoxville Walking Tours to expand the offerings of quality, educational, and fun historical tours around Knoxville.
To help you understand what Laura brings to your historical experience and what inspired her to move into this field, we sat down with Laura to find out what inspired these talks and what you might expect by joining her on a tour.
A portion of the proceeds from all downtown tours supports the Knoxville History Project.
Tell us a little about yourself, Laura…and how did you get involved in telling Knoxville’s stories?
I am a native East Tennessean, and come from a family of storytellers, with poets, writers, and musicians on both sides. I was born and educated in upper East Tennessee, and when I moved to Knoxville in 1980, my plan was to go back home in a couple of years, but that was 39 years ago. I fell in love with Knoxville, but really didn’t know much about its history till I started working downtown and reading Jack Neely’s “Secret History” column in the Metropulse. In 2006, I worked briefly as a receptionist at Visit Knoxville, and people kept coming in and asking for a tour guide. We didn’t have any, and I kept trying to get Jack and a couple of other more qualified people to start guided walking tours, but they insisted they didn’t have time. Jack said it was my idea, so I should do it.
You often cite reading Jack Neely’s “Secret History” column as one of your key inspirations in discovering and learning about Knoxville’s history. Do you recall any particular stories of Jack’s that got you started?
I think the first one that really caught my imagination was about Adolf Ochs, and how his fear of a local ghost story, surrounding the First Presbyterian graveyard, caused him to stay working at Captain Rule’s newspaper till daylight. But I also love the one about the mysterious death of George Washington Harris, and the history Jack discovered behind the lyrics Leola Manning wrote for “Arcade Building Moan” and “The Devil is Busy in Knoxville.”
Who or what else has been an inspiration over the years?
Almost all of our historic sites and organizations in Knoxville are run by nonprofits and depend on dedicated volunteers and donations to keep their doors open. I can’t even begin to name all of the people who have helped me along the way or describe how generous Knoxville historians and docents are with their time and knowledge. Contributions and hard work of ordinary people preserve and keep our history alive, and this inspired me to do my part. I believe sharing the stories of our past connects us and gives us a sense of belonging, of being part of that same story in the present. All of us are indebted to the people who came before us, and this inspires me, and I hope others, to work for a better future.
If someone is looking to try a walking tour for the first time, which one would you recommend?
One of the first pieces of advice Jack gave me was don’t try to tell the story of Knoxville on just one tour, because you can’t do it justice. That’s why I have so many tours, some of them built around a particular time period, like the Civil War Tour, and some around a subject, like the Musical History tour. So it depends on what you are interested in, but I tend to recommend the Early Years tour if you are a newcomer to the area, or a local who wants to hear the stories they didn’t teach you in school. If you love historical ghost stories, then our original Shadow Side Ghost Tour is a good place to start.
Are there any perceived barriers or misconceptions that prevent people from taking a walking tour?
I think the main misconception about walking tours is that you walk the entire time, or that it’s strenuous. We spend more time telling stories than walking, and all of our tours are less than a mile, taken at a gentle pace. There are even places to sit down on most of them, so it’s really not hard. I really work to make the routes handicap-accessible, but sometimes we can’t avoid steps. But if I know in advance, I can adjust routes to accommodate.
You’ve been leading guided walks since 2012. Which tours have proved to be the most popular over the years?
The Civil War Tour has been the most popular history tour, and the most popular entertainment tour—which all include Knoxville history—is a tie between the original Shadow Side Ghost Tour and the Gunslinger, about our most famous gunfights and family feuds.
What do Knoxville residents often find most surprising about Knoxville history from your tours?
People from all over the world are amazed by the extraordinary things that ordinary people have accomplished—or gotten away with—in Knoxville. Our stories are both unique and relatable, and I think people from Knoxville are always surprised that our history is so universal and eccentric at the same time. Knoxville has been a microcosm of U.S. history, but there’s always that East Tennessee twist hidden in it somewhere.
Thanks to organizations like Knox Heritage, Knoxville has made great strides in historical preservation. But sadly, many old buildings have still been lost over the years. If you had three wishes from a magic lamp, which three would you bring back?
It’s very hard to choose just three—we’ve lost so many, homes of writers, musicians, and artists, but if I could put three back in downtown:
Staub’s Opera House—Knoxville’s first real theater, site of our first worldwide music festival. (The Satub, and later the Lyric Theatre, was torn down in the 1950s and its location is now the First Tennessee Plaza at 800 S. Gay St. across from the Bijou Theatre.)
The Vendome Hotel—the most beautiful building ever built in downtown and the site of The Dugout, an antique store owned by Miss Sophie Harrill, one of our first female business owners. (The Vendome was formerly located about on the corner of Clinch Ave. and Locust St. across from where the YMCA currently is. It was torn down in the early 1940s.)
The Sprankle Building—Knoxville’s only example of a New York-style apartment building, where in 1937 Ernie Pyle went to interview Uncle Bill—Bill Johnson, the last living slave of a U.S. President—at Herbert Weaver’s Grill, where Uncle Bill worked making pies. Like the Vendome, now there’s only a hole where it was, a gap in our smile. (Demolished in 2005 and now a surface lot, the Sprankle Building was formerly at the southeast corner of Union Ave. and Walnut St.)
On your website you talk about some of the characters from Knoxville history who feature in your tours–some locally famous but many were just ordinary folks. Name one or two Knoxvillians who personally speak to you from the past and why.
One of my heroes is Lizzie Crozier French, because though she came from an educated, somewhat privileged family, she worked hard for the rights of all women. One of her first causes was the protection of female prisoners, and she served as a temporary matron for the jail till a permanent person could be hired. I also love Catherine Wiley, and wish I could go back in time and smuggle painting materials to her in the asylum—who knows what she might have produced if given the chance? Bertha Walburn Clark and Leola Manning are both ground breaking musicians that I’d love to interview.
From all of your downtown tours, you make a contribution to the Knoxville History Project. Beyond your obvious respect for Jack Neely’s work, why else do you generously support this organization?
The Greek and Latin root of the word history means investigation, inquiry, and finding out—research into the past almost always gives us some perspective on current events. So we ignore history at our peril, if we want to make a better future. But my focus has always been the people—those ordinary people who did extraordinary things—because that’s where the stories are. Stories are what tie us to the people of long ago times, because we can feel their emotions as they faced hardship, fear, tragedy, and triumph. Stories are the thread that ties humanity together in times of challenge; we use our past to build our present, and knowing how far we have come enables us to keep moving toward the future. I support the Knoxville History Project because I believe we are all part of history, all telling part of a very important story.
Thank you, Laura, for haring your time and insights into your inspirations that lead to your creation of Knoxville Walking Tours and the many stories that feature in your tours.