Three Ways Knoxville’s Past Lives On in the Present

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Halloween has a history in Knoxville. Local celebrations date back to 1893, the year of our first-known Halloween party.

Before that, Oct. 31 had a different meaning in Knoxville. It was the birthday of Peter Kern. His life is like a fairy tale.

He was born on Halloween, 1835, in Zwingenberg, Germany, a tiny town near Heidelberg. After the revolutions of 1848, life in the Grandy Duchy of Baden was unstable, and many young men were being forced into serving the nobility, his mother gave him money to come to America.

First he lived in New York, but found it too cold. He tried Charleston, but fled during a yellow-fever epidemic. Philadelphia was too cold, too. He came south again, and finally settled in Georgia, where he found work as a cobbler.

When the Civil War came along, he joined his neighbors and enlisted with the Confederacy. Wounded in the early months of the war, he returned home to convalesce. Dutifully returning to the Virginia front, he took a train north and arrived in Knoxville just as the city was occupied by General Burnside’s Union troops. Briefly jailed, he was forced to spend the balance of the war in an unfamiliar city. Befriending some local Germans, he learned the trade of baking, selling hoe cakes to the Union troop trains.

Kern became Knoxville’s most successful baker, and built his permanent headquarters, a large three-story building at 1 Market Square, in 1876.

Kern’s Bakery’s bread was familiar in local groceries for more than a century. (The Kern’s brand still exists, but is no longer headquartered or manufactured here.) But within that building Kern also manufactured candy, and claimed to be the biggest candy factory in the South. He was one of the first Knoxville businesses to serve a wide variety of soft drinks, including the brand new nectar from Atlanta called Coca-Cola. He sold toys and, until they were banned, fireworks. And on the second floor, his “ice-cream saloon,” a fancy place with marble-top tables, open every night until midnight, was a popular courting spot. Kern was also became a cultural force, promoting holidays previously little observed in Tennessee, especially Christmas. East Tennesseans did not celebrate any holiday often before the arrival of immigrants from some celebratory cultures like Germans and Irish. Kern’s advertisements introduced Knoxville newspaper readers to their first image of Santa Claus.

In 1890, 27 years after he arrived as a lonely stranger, Kern became Knoxville’s mayor, and probably the city’s last mayor ever to have a foreign accent. Today, he’s honored at the Oliver’s hotel bar, known as Peter Kern’s Library.


“The Man Who Lives Here is Loony,” went the graffiti scrawled on the door of a Brooklyn apartment in the 1930s, and it’s the title of an unusual play being presented this weekend and next at the Knoxville Museum of Art. The Man in question is none other than James Agee, the Knoxville-born journalist, novelist, critic, and screenwriter near the end of his short life. He died in New York at age 45. He spent most of his adult life in New York, but during his last 20 years was often preoccupied by his memories of Knoxville, as depicted in his unusual essay, “Knoxville: Summer 1915.”

Local singer-songwriter R.B. Morris, recently honored as Knoxville’s first-ever poet laureate, wrote the play several years ago, based very heavily on Agee’s own writings, especially his personal letters published long after his death. Morris has performed the role himself on a few rare occasions, and is directing this production, but this time the role of Agee is being performed by actor Joe Casterline.

For those who have read Agee’s work, the play offers fresh insight. For those who haven’t, it can serve as a good introduction. It shows four times, Oct. 27 and 30, and Nov. 3 and 6, with Thursday shows at 7, Sunday shows at 3. For more, see


Last week, Fountain City got an unusual distinction, announced at historian Jim Tumblin’s book talk at the East Tennessee History Center. The Tennessee Urban Forestry Council designated the Adair Oak as a state “Tennessee Historic Tree.” The large white oak, located in Lynnhurst Cemetery, just behind the Food City on Broadway, is believed to have been growing there since about 1777. It was there when Irish immigrant John Adair (1732-1827) arrived. Adair helped the Revolutionary patriots at the Battle of King’s Mountain, and later became one of the first permanent settlers of Knox County, and a delegate to the constitutional convention that founded the state of Tennessee. He’s buried at the base of the Adair Oak. Dr. Tumblin has been rooting for the tree for years, but received help in dating it and convincing the state authorities from longtime arborist Jim Cortese. It’s the 29th tree to get statewide historic designation, but only the third in Knox County.For more, see

Featured Photo: Kern Building, 1 Market Square. Image courtesy of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection.

Compiled by Jack Neely for the 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

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