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A Look at South Knoxville's Community History

The Knoxville History Projects begins the new year by commencing extensive research for a forthcoming community history book on South Knoxville. Given the recent south side development, coupled with the expansion of Ijams Nature Center and the Urban Wilderness, a history of South Knoxville is timely. 

In the nineteenth century, the area across the river was outside of city limits, so remote it was known jokingly as “South America.” The landscape changed dramatically over the decades, marked by Civil War forts, marble quarries, and lumber mills. The Island Home area was developed by wealthy Massachusetts-born businessman Perez Dickinson, which ultimately transitioned from a progressive farm estate into a modern housing development spurred on by a new streetcar line across the Gay Street bridge.  

The 1920s saw the emergence of a regional bird sanctuary along the river surrounding the Ijams family home, which also became a Girl Scout destination, and adjacent to it a new campus for the Tennessee School for the Deaf and the downtown Island Home Airport. 

By the 1930s, the movement to establish a new national park brought increasing numbers across the Henley Bridge south to a new “Highway to the Smokies,” named after Col. David Chapman. Familiar sites such as Kern’s Bakery, Young High School, Candoro Marble, and Loghaven, all renovated and re-used, are all cultural icons and have stories to tell.   

If you have South Knoxville stories, photographs or other images to share, please contact paul@knoxhistoryproject.org or call (865) 3337-7723.

Gay Street Bridge 

This view across the Gay Street Bridge from South Knoxville dates to around 1900, just a couple of years after this fourth bridge across the Tennessee River was completed. The building in the foreground appears to be the former Jones School, where in 1889 the South Knoxville Baptist Church was first established. Close to the school was the home of Jack Jones who in the 1890s operated a ferry across the river. (Alec Riedl Knoxville Postcard Collection / KHP.)

Island Home

This early 1900s postcard of “Island Home Farm” depicts the progressive estate owned by Perez Dickinson (1813-1901), and cousin to poet Emily Dickinson. A 200-acre parcel of the estate, lined with white fencing, formed an experimental “model stock farm.” Following his death, a sizable portion of the property was developed into a subdivision known as Island Home Park, marked by stone columns at its entrances. Dickinson’s mansion became the superintendent’s home at the Tennessee School for the Deaf when it moved here from downtown in 1924. (Alec Riedl Knoxville Postcard Collection / KHP.)

Kern’s Bakery

Established by German immigrant Peter Kern in the 1870s, what became Kern’s Emporium on the southwest corner of Market Square (where the Oliver Hotel and Oliver Royale are today) was known for its exotic candies and Christmas treats, and fashionable ice cream and soda fountains. Long after Kern’s death, in 1931, the bakery relocated across the river to Chapman Highway. After being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017, the site is currently under renovation to become a new food hall and multi-use space. (Sam Furrow Knoxville Postcard Collection / KHP.) 

East Tennessee Ornithological Society

Members of the East Tennessee Ornithological Society meet on the lawn of the Ijams’ bird sanctuary for its spring bird census in 1952. This spot, developed by Harry and Alice Ijams beginning in 1910, became a haven for birdwatchers and Girl Scouts for more than half a century before being reinvented as a city park and an environmental education facility. With the addition of two marble quarries and miles of new multi-use trails, Ijams Nature Center is now part of Knoxville’s expansive Urban Wilderness, including Baker Creek Preserve and High Ground Park. (Ijams family collection.)     

ABOUT KHP

The mission of the Knoxville History Project (KHP) is to research, preserve, and promote the history and culture of Knoxville, Tennessee. Through research and engaging programs, KHP tells the city’s stories, focusing on those that have not been previously told, and those that connect the city to the world. KHP’s stories, programs, and publications educate and help residents and visitors understand the city’s past and its complicated but dynamic heritage, and also inspire an appreciation for the city’s culture.

Donations to support the work of the Knoxville History Project, an educational nonprofit, are always welcome and appreciated. Learn more at KnoxvilleHistoryProject.org

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