Tag Archives: Appalachia

Sgt. York’s voice

I really should be grading finals right now, but for some reason I developed a sudden urge to find a recording of Alvin York’s voice.  Most of the historical figures that interest me came along well before the advent of sound recording, so I don’t get to indulge this sort of curiosity too often.  This newsreel includes a brief clip of York speaking.

As a bonus, here’s a video tour of his home, with some reflections from his son and daughter-in-law.

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Belle Boyd visited Knoxville

It turns out the famous Confederate spy had relatives living at Blount Mansion during the war. Pretty neat!

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Two new books on the Cumberland Gap region

Arcadia Publishing has just published two photographic histories of the Cumberland Gap region for their popular Images of America series, and it just so happens that friends of mine wrote both of them.

Natalie Sweet’s book covers the towns of Harrogate and Cumberland Gap, TN.  Harrogate has an unusual story for a small community; in the late 1800s a British industrialist founded a swanky resort there, which hosted some of the richest people in the country for just a short while before financial reverses brought down the whole enterprise.  Natalie will be signing copies at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum on the campus of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate on February 18 from 2:00 to 5:00 P.M.

Martha Wiley’s book is about Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, where she serves as historian, but it includes material on the history of the area before the park was founded.

I worked with Natalie and Martha at LMU’s Lincoln museum, and they’re darn good at doing history.  If you’re interested in Appalachia or the history of the National Park Service, these books should be well worth a look.

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Two items of note from here in Tennessee

Eight Tennessee sites have joined the National Register of Historic Places, including Crockett Tavern in Morristown, just down the road from my hometown.  Davy Crockett’s family moved to the site when the famous frontiersman was still a boy.  The present structure is a replica built in the 1950s, during the Crockett craze whipped up by the Disney series.

I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t been there yet, but I’m going this year, as soon as they re-open for the spring.  It’s not that uncommon for history buffs to spend years driving all over the country to visit sites and let the ones in their own backyards fall through the cracks, but the fact that I’ve gone this long without crossing Crockett Tavern off my bucket list is downright scandalous.

Also, the East Tennessee Historical Society is hosting a Brown Bag Lecture on Jan. 16 at noon about an interesting archaeological site in downtown Knoxville: the home of Peter Kern, a remarkable guy who turned a run of bad luck into a fortune in the food business.  Kern was a German immigrant who settled in Georgia and signed up to fight for the Confederacy.  Wounded in Virginia, he went back home to recover.  While returning to the front by train, he ended up in Knoxville just as the city fell into Union hands.  Stuck in town for the duration of the war, he made the most of his situation and established a bakery and ice cream parlor.  Kern’s bread business was quite a success (you can still buy baked goods with the Kern’s label here in East Tennessee) and he stayed in Knoxville, running successfully for mayor in 1890.

So on behalf of my fellow East Tennesseans to whichever Yankee soldier managed to knock Kern out of the action—thanks for all the awesome sandwiches.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Archaeology, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Confetti

A few items worthy of note as we ring in 2014.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, American Revolution, Appalachian History, Civil War, History on the Web, Tennessee History

“Equal parts P.T. Barnum and Huey P. Long”

The East Tennessee History Center has launched a new exhibit on early Knoxville television in conjunction with the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound.  One of the artifacts on display is the original backdrop from Cas Walker’s TV show.  Doing the history of Knoxville TV without Cas Walker—self-made grocery magnate, broadcaster, populist, politician, and one-man Knoxville institution, referred to by one writer as “equal parts P.T. Barnum and Huey P. Long”—would be like doing the Jacksonian era without Old Hickory.

Born in Sevier County in 1902, Orton Caswell Walker spent his early years working jobs at mills and coal mines in North Carolina and Kentucky before opening his first Knoxville grocery store in 1924 with $850 he had managed to save.  In a few decades, he turned this initial investment into a multi-million-dollar chain of establishments in three states.

Walker owed his success to a knack for self-promotion.  No advertising gimmick was too outrageous, whether it involved dropping coupons from airplanes, tossing chickens off the roof of his store, or burying a volunteer stuntman alive.  His image as an unpolished, uncultivated hick who enjoyed a good raccoon hunt served him well with working-class customers.

Walker leveraged his popularity into a role in local politics, winning a seat on the Knoxville City Council in 1941 and a short term (ending in a recall election) as the city’s mayor in 1946.  In office and in his self-published newspaper he railed against higher taxes, the consolidation of Knoxville’s city and county governments, flouridation of the municipal water supply, and the local elites who considered him a backwards embarrassment.  Reveling in his persona as a rough-and-tumble champion of the little guy, he denounced his opponents in what he called the “silk-stocking crowd.”  A demagogue he may have been, but he endeared himself to the same working-class voters who had patronized his grocery stores.

The highlight of Walker’s political career came in 1956, when a dispute with J.S. Cooper during a city council meeting erupted into a full-fledged fistfight.  I consider this the most delightful moment in Knoxville’s political history since the Sevier-Jackson showdown of 1803, and thankfully a newspaper photographer was on hand to preserve it for the ages.  The image appeared in Life magazine, putting Knoxville’s contentious local politics in the national consciousness.

Walker, at left, winds up for the punch. (Photo by Tom Greene, from the McClung Historical Collection via Wikimedia Commons)

The centerpiece of Walker’s promotional efforts was his self-hosted TV program, the Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour, which ran for three decades and offered him a platform to plug his stores, showcase regional musicians, and pontificate.  From a purely historical standpoint, the show is most notable for giving a young Dolly Parton one of her first breaks in the entertainment business.  But for sheer entertainment value, none of the musical acts could top Cas himself, holding forth in his own rambling and occasionally profane style.

Here’s Cas discussing the subject of store security (mildly NSFW language):

And in this clip, he shares some advice on professionalism with his musical guests:

You can enjoy more of his televised antics here; his political career is discussed in detail in Dr. William Bruce Wheeler’s history of Knoxville.

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More to it than a family feud

Here’s a story about a woman whose investigations into her family’s history uncovered the true story behind a 1926 shootout in southwestern Virginia.  Newspapers dismissed the incident as just another violent hillbilly squabble; turns out they were wrong.

This bit of genealogical research is sort of a microcosm of Appalachian history in general.  The more you study it, the more the stereotypes and assumptions start to give way to fascinating and complex realities.

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Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory