Birth of a Burger Joint

In Restless Native by Chris Wohlwendleave a COMMENT

I was introduced to Clarence Bunch shortly after I became an employee of the Knoxville Journal in 1965. The Journal had its own clippings library, files of newspaper stories from the past. The library, as was common in the newspaper business, was known as the “morgue.” In Bunch’s case, the nickname was appropriate.

Shortly after I was hired, Vic Weals, one of the Journal’s longtime reporters, told me that I needed to see how the morgue was set up. He took me back to a long, narrow room, consisting of a central aisle flanked by rows of file cabinets. There were a couple of desks at the far end for the librarians. There was also a cabinet with slim, deep drawers designed to hold full-page broadsheet newspapers.

In one of those drawers was a copy of the Journal’s front page from August 22, 1934. The lead story was of Bunch’s death during a police shootout at a house in Park City, a couple of miles east of downtown. As he stepped out onto the front porch of the house, he was accompanied by the Grainger County sheriff and a deputy. When confronted by the Knoxville police gathered in front of him, Bunch grabbed the Grainger sheriff’s pistol and opened fire. The outlaw was hit by about two dozen bullets (some accounts say 23, some 26). The sheriff and deputy were charged with harboring a fugitive.

So that there could be no doubt that Bunch was dead, the story included a six-column picture of the corpse lying on a slab in the county morgue, dried blood caked around the entry wounds. It was that image that Weals wanted to show me.

The resumé of Bunch, a contemporary of other widely known Depression-era outlaws, included armed robbery and jail escape. He had fled the Cocke County jail in Newport in July, and had been on the lam for about a month. Given his law-enforcement companions on the porch, he obviously possessed charm and leadership ability.

Bunch’s body, embalmed and on display at a downtown funeral home, drew crowds of the curious—hundreds, the newspapers reported.

When I told my dad about viewing the front page, while we were eating lunch at a popular Burlington café, he laconically informed me that he was familiar with Bunch. Pressed, he said that our host at the eatery, who was an acquaintance, had gotten into the restaurant business because of Bunch.

After his escape from the Cocke County jail, Bunch and his gang (there were two others who had escaped with him) had terrorized motorists in East Tennessee. A favorite ploy was to pull up behind a traveler and shoot out the tires, forcing the driver to stop. Then the driver and occupants would be robbed. Reportedly, sometimes the ensuing roadblock would lead to other victims, causing “robbery jams” on Asheville Highway and Rutledge Pike and other country thoroughfares.

Sometime in late July, my dad said, Knoxville police got word that Bunch was heading into Knoxville on Asheville Highway, which became Magnolia Avenue at Burlington. A roadblock was set up.

Sure enough, Bunch and his boys were spotted. But they blasted their way through the roadblock and were pursued down Magnolia, guns blazing. In the melee, two of the policemen, both friends of my dad’s, were close behind Bunch, close enough that a bullet hit their windshield, scattering glass. The passenger was cut by flying glass.

“Bleeding, he thought he had been hit by a bullet and made his partner stop the car,” Dad said. “He got out and then and there quit the force. It turned out to be a cut from the glass, easily taken care of with a few stitches. But he didn’t go back to being a policeman.

“He decided to open a restaurant instead.”

So the sandwiches that we just ate came about because of a notorious outlaw?

“You can thank Clarence Bunch for your hamburger and fries,” dad said.

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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