Take a Walk on the Historical Side at the East Tennessee History Fair

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The East Tennessee Historical Society’s annual East Tennessee History Fair offers something for everybody, whether you think you’re interested in local history or not.

Starting at 10 a.m. on Saturday the 20th, in the vicinity of the East Tennessee History Center at Gay and Clinch, is a family-style history party, with lots of re-enactors from 250 years’ worth of wars, live music on WDVX, as well as vendors, book signings, kids’ activities, a checkers competition, and a small antique fair. The Historic Gaming Club of Knoxville will feature scenarios from the French and Indian War. And there’s the ever-popular “History Hound” dog costume contest, hosted and judged by local celebrities. For more, see easttnhistory.org/historyfair.

One of the reasons the History Fair is always held this week of August is that Aug. 17 is the birthday of humorist, congressman, soldier, and folk hero Davy Crockett. He would be 230 years old on Wednesday. As always, he gets a birthday cake.

A few things are different this year. The Tennessee Theatre will be hosting tours of the 1928 “motion-picture palace,” as usual. But this year, at 11:30 a.m., the old theater is offering a rare public showing of the early Clarence Brown film, Smouldering Fires. One of Hollywood’s busiest directors for about 30 years, Brown grew up in the North Knoxville area known as Happy Holler, and graduated in engineering from the University of Tennessee. He is more famous for his later sound films like National Velvet and Intruder in the Dust, and for his several films starring Greta Garbo. But his fellow Knoxvillian James Agee, a movie critic who was not always kind to Brown’s work in the 1940s, considered these early silents to be his best work, and singled out Smouldering Fires (1925) as one of Brown’s best. Considered a well-shot soap opera, the plot turns on a female business executive (played by Pauline Frederick) who has an affair with a younger man who works for her.

By the way, the film is too old to have shown at the Tennessee when it was new; its Knoxville opening was in May, 1925, for a typical three-night run at the Strand, a smaller theater on Gay Street near Wall Avenue. At the time, Clarence Brown’s parents still lived in Knoxville, in the Maplehurst area walking distance of the theater, watching their genius son’s career with interest.

Also featured will be bus tours featuring Knoxville’s historic homes, and a civil-rights walking tour of downtown.

At 4 p.m., Jack Neely, who has been at work on a book about the Old City and associated neighborhoods Irish Town and Cripple Creek, will offer a walking tour of those areas, though little remains of the latter two. Irish Town was home to Knoxville’s Irish-immigrant community in the period from about 1865 to 1910; Cripple Creek was a predominantly black ghetto, with some industry and from 1900 to 1915, a little-known red-light district called “Friendly Town.” Although most of the original architecture is gone, Neely will show what’s there now.

A warning: this is a long urban hike, more strenuous than most downtown walking tours. Portable water is recommended.

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And this Sunday, the Knoxville Holstons the Emmett Machinists, our two vintage 1860s-rules “base ball” teams, are hosting two teams from that rival city downriver, Chattanooga, for a double header. Held behind 1797 Ramsey House, in the Forks of the River area, the first game is at noon, pitting the Holstons against the Lightfoot Club of Chattanooga. At 2:30, Chattanooga’s Mountain City battles Knoxville’s Emmett Machinists. For more, see tennessesvintagebaseball.com.

You can drive there, but for a unique historical experience, try the Three Rivers Rambler’s steam train, which leaves University Commons at 10:30 a.m. The trip offers a view of countryside, including the head of the Tennessee River (See threeriversrambler.com.)

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For those who aren’t up for outdoor sports on a summer day, that same Sunday the 21st, at 2:30, is the third of Jack Neely’s four lectures on different aspects of Knoxville’s cultural history, hosted by Church Street Methodist Church. Featured this week is a narrative of surprising stories concerning Knoxville’s often-overlooked immigrant heritage, especially concerning German, Swiss, Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Greek newcomers. The final lecture, on Aug. 28, is about the history of music in Knoxville.

Featured Photo: “Doggy Parton,” a previous year’s winner in the East Tennessee History Fair’s History Hound Dog Costume Contest. The ostensible honoree was singer, songwriter, and entrepreneur Dolly Parton, who was just a girl when she began her broadcasting career on Gay Street in the 1950s. Image courtesy of East Tennessee Historical Society.

Knoxville History Project
Knoxville History Project |

The Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to the promotion of and education about the history of Knoxville, presents this column each week to raise awareness of the themes, personalities, and stories of our unique city. You can reach director Jack Neely at jack@knoxhistoryproject.org

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