Tag Archives: East Tennessee History Center

Watch a new Civil War documentary at the East Tennessee History Center

On March 2 at 2:00 P.M., the East Tennessee Historical Society will host a screening of the documentary Civil War: The Untold Story, followed by a discussion with the film’s director and NPS historian James Ogden.  Admission is free.

If you can’t make the screening, the film will be airing on public television this year, so keep an eye on your local listings.

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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

Fort Sanders sesquicentennial for Black Friday

In 1863 Nov. 29 fell on a Sunday instead of a Friday, but it was a pretty black day nonetheless, at least for the hapless Rebel soldiers who launched a disastrous assault against Fort Sanders at Knoxville.  Those twenty bloody minutes ended Longstreet’s effort to re-take the city for the Confederacy, following its occupation by Burnside that September.

The attack on Ft. Sanders was neither a particularly big battle as far as Civil War engagements went nor as consequential as what was going on down in Chattanooga.  But it’s a pretty big deal for history buffs here in my neck of the woods, so here’s another anniversary link-fest for you.

  • Knoxville’s own historical columnist Jack Neely on the assault
  • The Knoxville News-Sentinel‘s sesquicentennial coverage of the war in East Tennessee
  • If you haven’t seen the McClung Museum’s exhibit on Ft. Sanders, you should definitely check it out.  They have fossils, too!  (By the way, that new Edmontosaurus is now called “Monty.”)
  • The East Tennessee Historical Society has some nifty Civil War displays of their own, and they’re commemorating the Ft. Sanders anniversary with a free admission day.
  •  Need to read up on the contest for control of Knoxville?  I recommend The Knoxville Campaign by Earl Hess, Lincolnites and Rebels by Robert Tracy McKenzie, and Divided Loyalties by Digby Gordon Seymour.  For additional background, try Noel Fisher’s War at Every Door and W. Todd Groce’s Mountain Rebels.
  • Last year we paid a virtual visit to the site of the battle.  The fort is long gone, but there are still a few landmarks from the Knoxville Campaign around.  Click here to book a guided tour, or stop by Longstreet’s headquarters and the Mabry-Hazen House.
  • Watch the battle reenacted at a replicated Ft. Sanders, constructed for a documentary produced in conjunction with the McClung Museum’s exhibit.
  • And finally, here’s a depiction of the attack by Lloyd Branson, the same Tennessee artist who did the painting of the Sycamore Shoals muster at the top of this blog:

Wikimedia Commons

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“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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Lunchtime lecture tomorrow on Cavett’s Station massacre

If you’re free at noon tomorrow, pack your lunch and head over to the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville for a brown bag lecture on the 1793 massacre at Cavett’s Station.  The speaker is Dr. Charles Faulkner, who’s spent years studying Tennessee archaeology.  Admission is free.

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Pivotal moments in the Civil War at the East Tennessee History Center

The Museum of East Tennessee History will debut a new Civil War exhibit tomorrow.  “Of Sword and Pen: Pivotal Moments in Civil War East Tennessee” features Andrew Johnson’s desk, original documents, and contemporary sketches.    They’re hosting a preview tonight with a lecture by Ed Ayers at 7:30, so if you’re in the Knoxville area you might want to check it out.

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Lincoln exhibit in Knoxville

The National Constitution Center’s traveling exhibit “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War” is currently at the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville, along with some supplementary material from various historical collections in the region.  Go check it out if you have a chance.

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Spend a day celebrating East Tennessee history

…this Saturday at the 2010 East Tennessee History Festival in Knoxville, sponsored by the East Tennessee Historical Society.  From the looks of the schedule, there’ll be something for everybody—reenactors, live music and craft demonstrations, special tours of area historic sites and buildings, films, weapons demonstrations, and a birthday party for Davy Crockett.

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

Voices of the Land at the East Tennessee Historical Society

Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite public history institutions, the East Tennessee Historical Society always comes in near the top of my list.  Its headquarters is on the first floor of the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville, which it shares with the Knox County Archives and the McClung Historical Collection.    The permanent exhibit at ETHS closed several years ago in preparation for the opening of a much larger new exhibition,Voices of the Land: The People of East Tennessee.  I’ve waited for it eagerly, and it’s been well worth it.

To me, the most remarkable thing about Voices of the Land is the richness of its narrative content.  It asks and answers the key questions that anybody has to confront in order to make sense of East Tennessee.  Beginning with the Native Americans who made the region their home for centuries, the exhibit carries us through the period of European contact and trade, and then explains the forces that shaped migration and settlement in the 1700’s.  If you’re a frontier and Revolutionary War fanatic like me, you’ll appeciate the ample space devoted to the Watauga Association, King’s Mountain, the abortive State of Franklin, and the territorial period.  (I’ve never understood why Tennessee’s frontier era isn’t a popular subject.  Kentucky, for example, has gotten a lot of mileage out of its frontier period; I suppose the Daniel Boone name recognition factor goes a long way.)

Following early statehood and Indian removal, the exhibit explains the factors that shaped a predominantly Unionist East Tennessee within a Confederate state.  There’s a particularly large section on the Civil War, with a wealth of artifacts on the partisan fighting that broke out after secession, recruitment and mobilization, the homefront, and the campaigns in 1863 that ultimately ended Confederate power in the region.  After the Civil War, Appalachia found itself subject to external forces, and the tension between these forces and the region’s internal realities is the focus of much of the exhibit’s final sections.

If you’ve spent any time reading history blogs or magazines lately, then you’re aware of the uproar over the new Gettysurg Museum of the American Civil War, part of which revolved around the role of artifacts in the exhibit galleries.  Critics of the Gettysburg facility will be glad to know that Voices of the Land puts a premium on original objects.  There are so many items to see here, in fact, that it will take serious history enthusiasts more than one trip to really appreciate them all.  Some of them were on display in the old exhibit, but there is quite a bit of new material, and the inventory includes everything from Davy Crockett’s first rifle to memorabilia from the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  There’s a good balance between the great characters and the anonymous; you’ll find John Sevier’s candlesticks as well as items carried by slaves.

Antiquarians of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s used to lament that East Tennessee’s history remained largely forgotten.  In some ways, the same holds true today.  We’ve listened to regional stereotypes for so long that we might be forgiven for forgetting who we really are.  The ancients used myths to remind themselves of their identity; today we use historical truth.  East Tennessee’s truth is a fanatstic story, and Voices of the Land tells it very well.

(For more information on the exhibit, check out the Knoxville News-Sentinel‘s coverage of the opening, available here.)

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History