Last Monday I joined my parents on a day trip to Knoxville, Tennessee’s three-time former capital and the biggest city in the eastern half of the state. My parents travel to Knoxville (about an hour away) every eight weeks or so for Target and Publix runs, and this time their destination was a high-end international grocery store called Fresh Market.
Fresh Market is a stone’s throw from downtown, so when they asked me to tag along, I suggested adding on a visit to the East Tennessee History Center, with the caveat that we could grab lunch somewhere near Market Square, a center of pedestrian activity and a gathering place that is flanked by sidewalk cafés. (Market Square also plays host to countless Knoxville festivals, including the annual “HoLa Fest” that celebrates Latin food and culture. I attended HoLa Fest last year and blogged about it here.)
The East Tennessee History Center is an engaging museum that covers regional history from the Civil War through the present. Highlights include a 1960’s-era streetcar, memorabilia from the 1982 World’s Fair (held in Knoxville), an overview of the Manhattan Project (done in secret in nearby Oak Ridge), and items from the region’s music culture, ranging from hand-made Appalachian banjos to the red dress of singer Dolly Parton, whom I call “the Oprah of Tennessee.”
Older relics include Davy Crockett’s rifle, “Daisy,” and a small exhibit about the Trail of Tears, on which I would have liked to know more about. It was limited to just two placards, although I did learn about Cherokee silversmith Sequoyah’s contribution to the Cherokee Nation as a whole: westernized writing.
The temporary exhibit was about the Knoxville and Chattanooga “Blue and Gray Reunions,” just two of many gatherings at which Union and Confederate veterans, once enemies, reunited some years later as friends. I am reaching here, but from what I read I would equate it to the legacy of friendships fostered decades later between Japanese and American WWII vets, often meeting in person for the first time at Pearl Harbor.
Also on display in the same hall were other post-Civil War relics. A 24-pound shell found in the Little Tennessee River was in one case, while an early KKK robe and hood were displayed in another. I learned that the Ku Klux Klan’s formation is generally accredited to decorated Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest of the Confederacy. Ironically, my maternal grandfather served in Army Basic Training at Tennessee’s Camp Forrest, named after the controversial general.
As museums go, it was worth the trip. You can do a quick run-through in an hour or less, although I lingered longer to take pictures. A bigger gallery space would allow for a less-cluttered display, although it’s easy enough to follow, as the main gallery follows a chronological loop. Naturally, I went in reverse chronological order. 🙂
Admission is $5 for adults and the center, located at 601 S. Gay Street, is open seven days a week, with free entry on Sundays. The upper floors contain archives (by appointment only).
Despite the numerous lunch options in downtown Knoxville, we settled on Lenny’s, a Southeastern U.S sub sandwich chain that blows the proverbial pants off Subway any day of the week. For better or for worse, their five Knoxville locations are the closest to where we live. It was a gorgeous day, with puffy white clouds moving peacefully across a deep blue sky, and I took a quick stroll along Gay Street, which is lined with hip restaurants and is home to the historic Tennessee Theater.
As we ate lunch, my dad, a long-time fan of college basketball, mentioned that Knoxville is home to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Although he and my mom weren’t up for a visit on this particular outing, I suggested that he at least drive past the building, as it was said to be close to downtown. We parked in an adjacent lot and I hopped out to snap a pic of the building. As luck has it, the parking lot fronted James White Fort, the all-wood, partially-reconstructed, 1786 home of Knoxville founder (and Revolutionary War survivor) James White.
We took a spur-of-the-moment, self-guided walk around the grounds, which are smaller than most “McMansions” today. The docent was a font of knowledge on Knoxville history, and he put on one helluva poker face as he tried not to smile at my dad’s outdated jokes. I learned that the bluff on which the tiny fort was built was later chosen as the capital of the Southwest Territory.
Admission is a bit steep at $7 for adults, although it is just $3 for children and students. James White Fort, at 205 E. Hill Avenue, is open Monday-Saturday spring-fall and Monday-Friday in the winter.
Knoxville seems like a nice city. I wish it was closer, as I still haven’t explored much of it. A large art museum beckons me, as does the Cumberland Riverfront and the enormous UT (University of Tennessee) campus. Go Vols!