Memories of the Yardarm Tavern—and the Introduction of Tacos

In Restless Native by Chris Wohlwendleave a COMMENT

On a Friday night early in 1967 I was introduced to the Yardarm Tavern, a bar on Forest Avenue at the intersection of 11th Street, in the far northeast corner of Fort Sanders.

Though it had not been open long, the bar had quickly become a popular hangout. University students living on that edge of the campus’ residential spillover found it convenient, as did residents of what remained of McAnally Flats, the area of blue-collar neighborhoods and warehouses that had been isolated by the interstate-highway expansion just to the north. The building was within walking distance of both groups.

The clientele combination, incongruous as it may have seemed, bred success, and over the course of the next couple of years the place would go through two expansions, the first adding space for pool and ping-pong tables, the second adding a room with tables and chairs.

The growth had little effect on the regulars occupying the barstools, especially the holdovers from the original space’s predecessor, a short-lived joint called Haynes Bar.

The night I took a seat at the bar, I was served by Bob Selwyn, who with his girlfriend Annie Porter, drew the beers, tried to maintain order, and sometimes provided solace. Eventually, they expanded the place’s menu, adding a cosmopolitan flair with tacos and slices of lasagna that they made at home, wrapped in foil, and brought in to sell.

Before, the menu had been limited to peanuts in the shell or cheese and crackers. “Five rectangular pieces of American cheese and five crackers, 25 cents,” Selwyn recalls. “No more and no exceptions.”

“There weren’t any Mexican restaurants in Knoxville then,” Selwyn says. “I like to think I introduced Knoxville to Mexican food with my tacos.”

Tasty as the two-for-50-cents tacos were, I usually opted for the lasagna, a generous portion for the same price—but more filling. At happy hour, draft beer was 15 cents a mug.

Selwyn was hired by the Yardarm’s owner, Herschel Peek, in December of 1966. “A friend, Mike Baughard, was working there and I had helped him out a few times after another friend, Joe Anderson, got married and quit,” he says. “One night Herschel walks in and asks, “‘Who are you?’ I told him and he hired me to take Joe’s place as a bartender.

“The pay was 87 cents an hour—I don’t know how he came up with that figure. Four p.m. to midnight, Monday through Friday, sometimes Saturday. That schedule allowed us to continue as full-time students at UT.

“Annie was just about always there, too, but she was never an employee. We kept what we made on the tacos and the lasagna.”

Selwyn remembers one of the McAnally Flats regulars as being particular about where he sat and what he drank.

“Tex would come in about 5 and sit at the end of the bar. I had to have a bottle of Schlitz and a warm mug at his place by the time he got to his seat. So I’d keep my eye on the door for him every afternoon. Sometimes I’d have to chase someone off his barstool when he’d come in. And occasionally he’d get so drunk I’d help him walk home—only about a block away at one of the rooming houses on Grand Avenue.”

Selwyn was so important to the bar that his absence led to Herschel locking the door on a Saturday in the spring of 1967. The explanatory sign said “Closed: Bartender is getting married.” It probably didn’t matter to most of the regulars—they were helping Bob and Annie celebrate their nuptials.

As the ’60s activism began to ratchet up, given its proximity to the UT campus and its generally rowdy reputation, the Yardarm was soon attracting the attention of Cas Walker and other right-wing Knoxville politicians. For a period, an unmarked police car and its occupants would be stationed in the parking lot across the street. Many of the regulars would wave to the cops as they entered or exited. And, for a period, the cops would regularly come in to ID check for underage drinkers.

If Cas had braved the Yardarm’s notoriously filthy bathroom, he might not have been so suspicious. The most prominent graffiti, speaking to politics as well as the frustrations of the grad-student author, read: “Fuck Communism and remote sensing.”

A couple of years after Selwyn’s tenure had ended, a couple of the tavern regulars figured into another Yardarm police story.

Rusty Brashear remembers it being a football-game afternoon. “Quite a crowd had gathered in front,” he says, “and, though it was basically peaceful, Forest Avenue was blocked.

“The police were trying to clear the street, and they arrested one of the regulars for public intoxication. They didn’t cuff him, just put him in the back of one of the cruisers and closed the door. Then something else drew their attention and his buddy opened the car door so his friend could escape. He scrambled down the hill to Grand Avenue and got away.”

One of my last Yardarm experiences happened due to would-be burglars who had been causing more serious problems, attempting to break in. Herschel asked Grady Amann and me to spend Christmas Eve in the bar—door locked—making sure no one tried to get in.

We were to be paid in all the beer and peanuts we could consume.

Though the front door was tried a couple of times by passers-by who noticed the lights inside, we had no trouble. Our biggest problem was trying to stay upright when we wobbled out about 8 a.m. on Christmas morning after a long night of beer and peanuts.

Contributing Writer

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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