Knoxville Treasures in the McClung Historical Collection

This month, the Knoxville History Project is collaborating on the first of a semi-regular column with Eric Dawson, Manager of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, part of the Knox County Public Library. Eric is the former head archivist with the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, itself part of the McClung Collection, which Eric assumed directorship of in early 2022. 

Housed in the East Tennessee History Center on Gay Street, the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection is truly regarded among the city’s most valuable sources of local history, and maintains a voluminous digital collection online at https://cmdc.knoxlib.org.

Portrait of Calvin Morgan McClung by Knaffl & Brakebill (circa 1910s)

Calvin M. McClung (1855-1919) was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but became a lifelong Knoxvillian after studying at East Tennessee College, the forerunner of the University of Tennessee, in the 1870s. Highly successful in business, his hardware firm, C.M. McClung and Company, proved to be a Knoxville staple for almost a century. (The McClung warehouses on W. Jackson Avenue were due for renovation, but a fire led to its demolition in 2007.) McClung’s widow, Barbra Adair (his second wife), bequeathed his personal library, containing early history and valuable genealogical records of the area, to Lawson McGhee Library, where he had been a longtime trustee, upon his death.

In its educational programs and publications, KHP regularly uses photographs and illustrations from the McClung Historical Collection, as well as from its own digital collection, Knoxville Shoebox, frequently shared with the readers of this magazine.

Custom House, Knoxville, TN, ca. 1872

The East Tennessee History Center resides in the renovated Custom House and Post Office, the first federal building to be built in Knoxville. Designed by architect Alfred B. Mullett, known for his Greco-Roman style municipal buildings throughout the United States, construction of this showcase for East Tennessee marble began in 1871, and was completed in 1874. This photograph, taken from a rooftop on Gay Street southeast of the building by T.M. Schleier, shows the building about one year into its construction in downtown Knoxville, at the corner of Clinch Avenue and Prince Street (now Market Street). In the background at left is the Second Presbyterian Church, which stood opposite the First Methodist Episcopal Church (whose spire can be seen on the right), from 1869 to 1894.

“Knoxville, from South of Holston” by Samuel Bell Palmer

This colorful sketch comes from the handwritten and illustrated books "Memories of the War" by Samuel Bell Palmer (1843-1872), chronicling his time with Mabry Light Artillery (Kain’s Company) from March 1, 1862 in Knoxville, to the company’s arrival at Cumberland Gap in December 1862. The book offers an intimate account of daily life in the Confederate Army and sketches of scenes of combat and more idyllic moments between work and battle, such as this watercolor sketch of the city of Knoxville from across the Holston River, which appears at the front of the book before Palmer’s journal entries begin. Palmer also kept a sketchbook while confined at the Union Army’s Camp Douglas in Chicago from September 1863 to March 1865.

Market House exterior, October 1928 by Jim Thompson

James E. (Jim) Thompson (1881-1976) was one of Knoxville’s pioneer commercial and professional photographers, who captured a rich visual legacy of East Tennessee people and places from 1907 to 1960. The Thompson Photograph Collection at McClung includes an estimated 75,000 negatives, with preservation printing of these negatives having been the major focus of the McClung Historical Collection for two decades. Almost 10,000 of these have been made available online in the McClung Digital Collection. Though Thompson is perhaps more widely known for his photographs of the Smoky Mountains, he captured just as many images of urban Knoxville and its citizens, such as this 1928 photo of the Market House.

Andrews Bald 3-21-1937 by Roger Howell

Roger Hoffman Howell (1897-1962) was a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who moved to Knoxville in 1936 to work as an engineering draftsman for the new Tennessee Valley Authority. A member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, he spent a good deal of time in the mountains, and even met his wife, Alice Lynn, while hiking. Howell was also an avid photographer, and his images of Hiking Club members offer a candid look at their excursions that are a vernacular contrast to similar photos taken by professional photographer Jim Thompson. Alice Lynn Howell donated her deceased husband’s collection of 1733 black-and-white negatives and 400 Kodachrome slides to the McClung Historical Collection in 1984.

About KHP

The mission of the Knoxville History Project (KHP) is to research, preserve, and promote the history and culture of Knoxville, Tennessee. Donations to support the work of the Knoxville History Project, an educational nonprofit, are always welcome and appreciated. KHP’s publications also include Historic Bearden: The 200-year story of Knoxville’s Fourth Creek Valley, and numerous story collections including the “Knoxville Lives” series. Copies are available at KnoxvilleHistoryProject.org and local bookstores, including Union Ave Books.

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