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Historic Bearden

A practical place we take for granted keeps some surprising secrets

You think you know a place, perhaps after a few decades of acquaintance. But maybe you never do, especially when that place is Bearden. Many of us drive through it more than once a week, buy our groceries or liquor or prescriptions there. It's a place with a lot of parking lots, inviting us to leave our cars there for half an hour or more, to visit any of several chain stores and local shops, on first glance like a lot of the rest of Kingston Pike except maybe on a smaller, denser scale.

When hearing we were working on a whole book about Bearden, some of our supporters made fun of us. “Bearden? Seriously?”

As I hope we prove with the Knoxville History Project's latest book, Historic Bearden: The 200-Year Story of Knoxville's Fourth Creek Valley, this place has a fascinating story, perhaps unlike that of any other community in the world. And you can still see remnants of its old personae if you know where to look.

Within this area of less than 10 square miles was once the city's first airport; the second major mental institution established in Tennessee; a big brick factory; the most prolific rose plantation in the Southeast; Knoxville's biggest-ever hat factory; the area's first 18-hole golf course; and one of the first train stations in East Tennessee.

It was a rare sort of community that had both farms and an electric streetcar. Perhaps it's the only place in America where police could catch a chicken thief making his getaway on the trolley.

But for about 40 years, Bearden was also part of the combined Dixie and Lee Highways, national routes that carried motorists from Washington to New Orleans, and from Chicago to Miami. For many drivers, Bearden was a handy halfway point, a place to stop for the evening. The Knoxville area's largest concentration of tourist camps, motor courts, and ultimately motels was right here, along this flat part of Kingston Pike.

Other amenities, legal and illegal, from barbecue joints and service stations to slot machines and bootleggers, became part of Bearden's diverse economy. Some sandwich places, like the old Wayside Inn and the White Dot Cafe, became nightclubs after dark, with live jazz and dancing, sometimes until dawn. Just outside of city limits (from 1917 to 1962, that line was at Carr Street), it was easy to get away with all sorts of things. For the Flapper generation, Bearden was a fun place.

Often overlooked is the fact that Bearden, part of suburban West Knoxville, had a substantial and vigorous African American community. Most of Homberg Place was known as the Brickyard community, home of scores of workers at Scott's Brickyard; Wallace Chapel AME Zion Church is today its only remnant. Its children walked across the golf course to the all-Black Lyons View School.

Rivaling it in size was the Lyons View community, another African American neighborhood to the west of the golf course. It still exists today, as a remnant of the days in the 19th century when most of the people who lived along Lyons View were African Americans working small farms. Mount Pleasant Church remains, along with its interesting churchyard, with the graves of some who were born in slavery.

Several of those children went on to remarkable success: one as a New York editor, one as a prominent TV anchor woman in California's Bay Area, one as a soul singer—the charismatic Clifford Curry grew up right on Kingston Pike. For a few years, Curry fronted a Bearden rock 'n' roll band, the Fabulous Five—thereby creating, ca. 1957, Knoxville's first biracial band.

In more recent years, Bearden welcomed the dawn of Knoxville's dynamic cable-TV industry—and witnessed an unexpected bluegrass revival that seems more important in retrospect than it did then. Buddy's weekly shows are recalled as an important early venue for performers from Doyle Lawson to Ricky Skaggs, who became more famous later.

We learned that the old legend that Cormac McCarthy quietly wrote one of his most famous novels in a Bearden motel room is true.

At the Knoxville History Project, we research all parts of town for multiple projects. Our bestseller is our recent flagship book, Historic Knoxville: The Curious Visitor's Guide, which turns up essential stories about neighborhoods from Fountain City to Holston Hills to Vestal, as well as UT, Ijams, Happy Holler, downtown. But I confess a special connection to Bearden, where I've spent a lot of my life. All four of my grandparents lived there. During the Nixon administration, my bicycle paper route covered a remarkably various quarter of it.

I later worked as a night-shift fry cook at the Bearden Shoney's, producing several hundred cheeseburgers for Beardenites. By the time I was in college, convinced I was too cool for the mall, I did most of my Christmas shopping in Bearden, especially in Homberg Place: at homey but hip Draper Books; the old Gourmet's Market, when it was an exotic emporium of important delicacies; at the offbeat antique stores that are more interesting than most museums.

I came to believe I knew the place as well as I knew my grandmother. But during our three years of research, Bearden repeatedly surprised me. More than half the narrative concerns stories I'd never heard before. Maybe they'll surprise you, too. History can give you a fresh perspective on anything, especially where you live.  

For more about the Knoxville History Project, and to order a copy of Historic Bearden, see KnoxvilleHistoryProject.org. Historic Bearden can also be found at Union Ave. Books downtown and at these Bearden stores: Bennett Galleries, Bobby Todd Antiques, Calloway's Lamp & Shade, Long’s Drugstore, Mayo Garden Centers, and Southern Market.

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