A Saturday Afternoon in Downtown Burlington

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

Maybe you haven’t spent much time in Burlington since Ruby’s Coffee Shop closed, 16 years ago. But when you get to the eastern end of MLK, it’s still tempting to pull over and get out of the car. A cluster of about 20 pre-war buildings line streets that converge at interesting angles.

You’ll likely be hearing more about Burlington. It made an appearance this week on Knox Heritage’s annual Fragile 15 list of endangered historic resources. The preservationist organization has already been working toward making it an accredited new historic district, with potential tax credits to encourage development.

No one recalls why folks started calling it Burlington, a century or more ago. It has seen better days. Several buildings are boarded up. Several others are missing altogether. Still, it’s an interesting place to walk around on a Saturday afternoon. Unchained Bail Bonds has a couple of long old-fashioned bus-stop benches out front. “Benches are under surveillance,” a sign says. “We don’t mind you sitting here, but please take your garbage with you.” It seems fair enough.

Burlington’s flea market, unhailed by any explanatory signage, is a tradition of long standing. It happens several days a week, especially Saturdays. It’s more or less a garage sale in a big gravel parking lot. No antiques today. You’re more likely to find used shoes, lawnmowers, football helmets, Disney videotapes, automotive magazines. Like most of Burlington, it’s biracial. People who don’t look like they’d get along get along. People like to trade, and they trade what they have.

A few sell new things. A van makes a portable key shop; within, a locksmith is busy at his grinder. A modest farmer sells bright-green tomato seedlings.

There’s hardly anything trendy about it, but a food truck, or rather a food camper, is called Chicken and Waffles. Chicken is “$1, any piece.” Waffles are more pricey, at $3.

On the corner is Lema’s World Famous Chitlins. It’s been there for 30 years, longer than most Kingston Pike restaurants last. Next door is Lema’s Gold Room, advertising “Late Night Dining.”

Four old men sit in folding chairs on an eminence, surveying the flea market. They are declaring their personal philosophies. One is wearing a white yachting cap, and appears to be the captain of the group. “You can change your clock,” he says. “But time goes on! You can’t change time!” He speaks as if he knows the subject well.

Time is Burlington’s theme. A lot of these buildings were built when Burlington was on the loop at the eastern end of the Magnolia streetcar. Some took the 2-mile ride to Chilhowee Park, but others got off at Burlington to shop or have some lunch or see a movie. Burlington was where we went when we needed a vacation from Knoxville.

The last streetcar ran in the summer of 1947. Burlington’s 278-seat movie theater, built the same year as downtown’s Tennessee Theatre, closed in 1958, and was torn down a few years ago. Greenlee’s Drugstore closed long ago. A recent effort to renovate it for a restaurant got just halfway there. The fruit or a mulberry tree makes the sidewalk beneath it too slippery for a careless stroll.

Old buildings that once tried hard to look modern are now empty. Old styles peek out here and there. A long-closed barber shop has a curved masonry corner, a memory of art deco. An elegant old Gulf station, the subject of some recent care, is a relic from the era when people preferred to fill up stylishly.

There’s still a fire station in Burlington, #6 in fact, next door to Elk’s Lodge #1152, in an old house. Nearby is the headquarters of a motorcycle club. Around the corner is the back door of the Lunch House, which serves breakfast all day on Saturdays. Inside, above the lunch counter, are autographed pictures of soul singer Clifford Curry, boxer Alonzo “Big Zo” Butler, and Johnny Knoxville.

The Burlington Fish Market still does business in a cinderblock building on Fern Street. Like a speakeasy, it doesn’t need a big sign. It’s open three days a week, offering whiting, trout, perch, mullet, buffalo fish, or Virginia drum, by the pound or on a plate. It is, as far as I know, unique.

Burlington became well known in the 1920s, when it first got numbered street addresses. The empty brick building with the arched second-floor windows looks older. The Electric Service Co., before that, the A&P, before that, who knows. When it was built, the main reason to get off the streetcar here was Cal Johnson’s Racetrack, the most popular horse-racing destination in the county. In 1910 it hosted the region’s first aeroplane landing. In 1921, the half-mile oval became a unique residential development called Speedway Circle.

Amongst vacant and underused buildings, Barnes’ Barber Shop does a brisk business, several customers today alone.

Like most Burlington business, it’s cash only. People often ask Ernie Barnes if he takes credit cards. When he says no, they argue. “We do all we want to do,” he says, smiling like the good guy in an old cowboy movie. “In God we trust. All others pay cash.”

Barnes is a clear-headed fellow who could pass for 70. But when he’s framing a story about this barber shop, he lets slip that he’s a World War II veteran. He served in the Navy, in the Pacific, on a destroyer called the U.S.S. Blue. “I got in on the tail end,” he says. He saw Guam and Singapore.

At home, he took up his dad’s trade. R.C. Barnes was cutting hair near here by 1924. Ernie opened his first shop in 1947, a few months before the trolley stopped. But that was across the street. “I’ve been right here since ‘51,” he says. “I had five barbers then.” He still has five chairs. Today his only assistant is his daughter, Debby.

He just turned 89, and has no imminent plans to quit. He finishes up a customer, a fellow perhaps a little younger than he is. He still likes Burlington, but would like to see someone come fix up some of these old buildings he knows well.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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