100 Things You Don’t Know* About Knoxville

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Over two years ago, we decided to take a stab at publishing a true community paper—one that not only covers Knoxville, but is also supported by Knoxville. Governed by the 501(c)(3) Knoxville History Project, the Mercury has become an ongoing learning experience in what it takes to create reliable news media in the digital age. It must be a community-wide effort, from start to finish. To celebrate our 100th issue, we asked people from around town in different occupations to share little-known facts and bizarre trivia about our fair city.

Liz Albertson

senior planner at the Metropolitan Planning Commission:

1. The highest population density in Knoxville is the Fort Sanders neighborhood.

2. The first Food Policy Council in the country started here in 1982: the Knoxville-Knox County Food Policy Council.

3. The average elevation of Knoxville varies by 1,000 feet from west to east.

4. In 1930, Knoxville was the largest cotton underwear manufacturer in the U.S. and claimed to be the “Underwear Capital of the World.” Several textile mills, including Standard Knitting Mills, were well known for producing T-shirts, socks, and athletic wear.

5. The first zoning ordinance for the city of Knoxville was passed by City Council on October 15, 1928, making Knoxville the third City in the state of Tennessee to have zoning. Memphis and Chattanooga had also adopted zoning ordinances prior to us.

6. Interstate 640 was originally supposed to go all the way around Knoxville, like a ring road that most cities have, but the south side of the ring was never completed due to controversy.

Jack Neely

director of the Knoxville History Project:

7. Knoxville was home to a national chewing-gum factory called Walla Walla. In its early days, when its gum was a favorite in several states, it was located in Emory Place, on the north end of downtown, when that urban pocket was known as the Central Market. It remained in business, after a couple of moves and name changes, until the 1960s.

8. Knoxville once hosted the Tallest Structure in the World. The 1,752-foot WBIR Tower, located in east Knox County near House Mountain, has appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records because it was (for a few months in 1963) taller than anything else ever built. Today, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, an actual building tapering to an antenna, is abouty 50 percent taller.

9. Knoxville is closer to London, Ontario than to Fayetteville, Ark.

10. The Tennessee Valley Authority, based in Knoxville since President Franklin Roosevelt started it in 1933, is America’s largest power supplier, with customers ranging from northern Mississippi to Southwestern Virginia.

11. Knoxville is 17 percent African-American—a higher percentage than that of America as a whole, which is just 13 percent black.

12. Knoxville’s last regular passenger train came through town in the middle of the night in 1970, on the way from Birmingham to Washington, D.C. Today, Knoxville is one of the largest cities in America with no regular passenger-rail service.

13. However, the city was one the headquarters of one of the largest passenger-rail lines in the South: The East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railroad was once the major link between the gulf states and the East Coast, and brought 30 passenger trains a day through downtown.

14. The Fountain City Lake, aka “the Duck Pond,” was originally installed in 1891 as part of the landscaping of a popular rural “springs” resort called the Fountain Head Hotel. The hotel burned down more than 90 years ago.

15. The original name of Walnut Street was Crooked Street. The original name of Western Avenue was Asylum Avenue. The original name of Summit Hill was Gallows Hill.

16. The Rossini Festival is the only festival honoring Gioacchino Rossini in the Western Hemisphere. However, each August there’s a two-week Rossini Festival in the composer’s birthplace of Pesaro, Italy, a city otherwise known for its network of bike paths. It includes conferences about Rossini and multiple productions of his operas.

17. Knoxville is also home to the only statue of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff in America. Without realizing it at the time, as he was dying of cancer, Rachmaninoff performed the final piano concert of his career at the University of Tennessee’s Alumni Memorial Hall in 1943. The statue, a gift of Russian sculptor Ivan Bokareff but bronzed and erected by local philanthropists, is located in World’s Fair Park at the southern edge of the South Lawn, near the intersection of Cumberland Avenue and 11th Street.

18. Most of downtown Knoxville, located as it is on a bluff 70 feet above the river level, has never flooded.

19. Knoxville was primarily a baseball town decades before football became popular. Downtown businesses sometimes closed on baseball game days.

20. Built to honor the source of all energy on Earth, the Sunsphere was described, upon its completion in early 1982, as the world’s first spherical building. However, between 1996 and 2002, the new nation of Kazakhstan erected a structure called Bayterek Tower, a somewhat taller landmark whose central structure bears an astonishing resemblance to the Sunsphere. In the Kazakh version, which is the most impressive thing about the skyline in Astana, the large golden globe represents not the sun but the egg of a mythical bird.

21. Looney’s Bend, the river peninsula that became known as Sequoyah Hills, was set to be developed as a steel mill. It ended abruptly with that Panic of 1893.

22. Cherokee, the peninsula later known as Cherokee Farms and now being developed by UT, was set to be developed as a stylish residential community with riverfront boulevards and streets inspired by Cherokee lore. It also ended abruptly with the Panic of 1893.

23. In 1893, legendary landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted was in Knoxville, working on a significant project. To this day, no one knows what that project was. Two leading candidates are a prospective city park on top of Cherokee Bluffs, which was never finished, and Circle Park, which was.

24. The Cherokee Bluffs park plan suffered a setback in 1894 when a cable car, a contraption so remarkable it was featured on the cover of Scientific American, malfunctioned, perhaps due to sabotage, resulting in the death of a passenger, a young attorney, and the injury of several others.

25. Suttree Landing Park is not the first city park on the south side of the river. In the 1880s, Luttrell Park appeared on the south side of the river to the west of the Gay Street Bridge. In the 1890s, inspired by the national City Beautiful movement, a group of progressives worked to improve the park, originally conceived to be a large space of many acres. It was used for scouting events, gospel tent meetings, and May Day celebrations. However, it was never really completed, and development reduced it in size to a small riverfront strip between the Gay Street and Henley Street Brides. It was known for a landmark called Chair Rock.

26. Chapman Highway is named for Col. David Chapman, the World War I veteran and pharmaceutical executive for whom Mount Chapman, one of the highest peaks in the Smokies, is also named. Called the Father of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he led the effort to make a park out of the Smokies, which by the 1920s had suffered severely from industrial clear-cutting. By the 1930s, Chapman Highway was America’s main route to its most popular national park, and most of the businesses that bloomed along it catered to that tourist industry, with hotels, motels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Chapman is memorialized with a large bronze bust in the foyer of the East Tennessee History Center, on Gay Street within view of the building where he used to work.

27. Bearden Place and Farragut Avenue are both in North Knoxville. Concord Street is near UT. Melrose Place, the shopping center, is more than
4 miles from Melrose Place, the street.

28. The Union Avenue Barber Shop is on Walnut Street. Church Street United Methodist Church is on the corner of Henley and Main. Earth to Old City is on Market Square.

29. Magnolia Avenue is not named for the tree, but for a woman, Magnolia Branner. A planter’s widow from the Deep South, she was the mother of one of Knoxville’s youngest mayors, H. Bryan Branner, who was only 29 when he occupied the city’s highest office in 1880.

30. Knoxville’s congressional district, Tennessee’s Second, has not elected a Democrat as U.S. Representative since before the Civil War. The first Republican to hold the seat was Horace Maynard, the Knoxville lawyer for whom Maynardville is named. Originally from Massachusetts, Maynard was regarded as an ally of the Radical Republicans who pushed for Civil Rights and impeached President Andrew Johnson. He was later ambassador to Turkey. He’s buried at Old Gray.

31. Knoxville touted itself as the Gateway to the Smokies for much of the 20th century. However, the city’s association with the Smokies is relatively recent. Relatively few Knoxvillians had seen the Smokies up close until the 1930s, when the park was opened, and roads into the mountains were completed.

32. Island Home isn’t really on an island! It’s near an island called Dickinson Island. That island, home to the Downtown Island Airport, is named for the Dickinsons of Amherst, Mass., to whom poet Emily Dickinson belonged. Her first cousin, Perez Dickinson, moved to Knoxville as a young man around 1830 to become a successful merchant. Married only once, his wife and infant child died in childbirth in 1846. Dickinson was a single widower for more than half a century. He reportedly never spent a night in his “Island Home,” but sometimes hosted receptions there. In the 1920s, the house became part of the campus of the Tennessee School of the Deaf.

33. Henry Hull played a minor character, an old man, in the Tony Perkins movie The Fool Killer, a sort of art-house historical horror film shot in Knoxville in 1963 and released with a gala ceremony at the Tennessee Theatre in 1965. Hull, an actor originally from Louisville, Ky., attended that ceremony. At the time, no one remarked on one aspect of his fame that made him a cult legend after his death: He was the first person to play a werewolf in a major motion picture. He played the title role in the 1935 classic, Werewolf of London.

34. Water spat, flushed, spilled, or poured into the river at Knoxville will flow through Chattanooga and northern Alabama before flowing north again past the Shiloh Battlefield and past Paducah, Ky., to join the Ohio, where it begins to turn around and flow south again toward Cairo, Ill., and then due south past southeastern Missouri and eastern Arkansas and Memphis and Mississippi and Louisiana, past Vicksburg, Natchez, and Baton Rouge, before reaching New Orleans and then the Gulf of Mexico. In all, it will go through nine dams and touch eight states.

35. Knoxville is the largest Knoxville in the world. The second-largest is Knoxville, Iowa, which peaked at 8,232 in 1990, but which has lost about a thousand citizens since then. It’s home of the Knoxville Racetrack, an internationally famous sprint-car racing attraction. Knoxville, Ill., peaked at 3,432 in 1980, and has also been declining in size.

36. Knoxville had baseball about 25 years before it had football. It had bowling at least 10 years before it had baseball.

37. Knoxville’s longest tradition of a publicly celebrated holiday is the Fourth of July, which dates here back to 1793. Christmas is only occasionally mentioned before the 1840s.

38. William Blount, who was a land speculator when he was not working as governor or senator, was planning a much-larger city adjacent to Knoxville, to be called Palmyra. Little is known about the specifics of the plan, which involved a prominent physician in New York, but it had died by the time Blount died in 1800.

39. Kings who have visited Knoxville include King Hussein of Jordan and King Paul of Greece. Most kings don’t stay in town for very long.

40. Most presidents since McKinley have at least visited Knoxville shortly before or during their presidencies. The biggest exceptions are Coolidge and Truman. Herbert Hoover made a tour of smaller towns in the region during his presidency, and many years later visited Knoxville. Truman apparently never came closer than Cosby, where he attended a ramp festival two years after leaving office.

41. The point from which most addresses throughout Knox County are numbered is the intersection of Jackson Avenue and Central Street, in the Old City.

42. Missouri runner Ivory Crockett broke the world record for the 100-yard dash at Tom Black Track in 1974.

43. There’s a paint color marketed nationally by Benjamin Moore called Knoxville Gray. It’s a complex gray, with some blue and green tones.

Tricia Bateman

44. When it was installed in 1998, the bronze Tina Allen statue of Alex Haley in Haley Heritage Square was reported to be the largest statue of an African-American in the world. Since then, the larger stone statue of Martin Luther King in Washington has taken that distinction.

45. Knoxville’s Cherokee Porcelain, which specializes in applying porcelain enamel to steel products, manufactures the subway signs for several major transit systems, including those of Washington, Chicago, and New York.

46. The word “pigburger,” which describes a sandwich offered by several older barbecue stands, may have originated in Knoxville.

47. The soft drink known as Mountain Dew was first manufactured by the Hartman Beverage Company of East Knoxville in 1946. It was originally a lemon-lime soda, named after the old nickname for moonshine—suggesting its purpose as a mixer to make corn liquor more palatable. The trademark, along with its hillbilly marketing campaign, was purchased by a West Virginia company, which added the peculiar color, fruitier flavor, and caffeine to the product.

48. One million people attended the two-month long National Conservation Exposition at Chilhowee Park in 1913. It was the first conservation-themed exposition in world history.

49. Before a major annexation, one century ago in 1917, Knoxville was four times as densely populated than it is today.

50. George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen in 2013 identified Knoxville, in terms of demographics and economy, as the “most average” city in America. Some Knoxvillians were offended, but so were citizens of several other cities who thought Knoxville too small to be “average,” touting their home cities as more worthy claimants to the title.

51. The first known use of the term “hot dog,” to describe what was previously known as wienerwurst, was in a Knoxville newspaper in 1891.

Charlotte Tolley

executive director ofNourish Knoxville:

52. Knox County hosts six farmers’ markets, with a market every day of the week except Sunday and Monday

53. Two Knoxville farmers’ markets (Market Square and New Harvest Park) offer a SNAP doubling program, which is going to be expanded to Three Rivers Market. SNAP recipients get double the amount they spend in the form of vouchers/tokens to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables.

54. The Market Square Farmers’ Market was the first farmers’ market in the state to accept SNAP benefits through a market-wide script system.

55. Joy of Cooking connection: John Becker, great-grandson of Irma Rombauer, and his wife Megan Scott, lived in Vonore while reworking the Joy website and creating the Joy of Cooking app. Meanwhile, Megan started Little Blue Baking Company and sold at the Market Square Farmers’ Market. The couple relocated to Portland, Ore., where they now maintain digital media for Joy of Cooking.

56. The East Tennessee Farmers Association for Retail Marketing (FARM) has been running producer-only markets since 1976.

57. Three Rivers Market was home to the first recycling center in Knoxville to accept multiple materials.

Eric Dawson

director of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound:

Five Little-Known Knoxville Bands From the ’60s:

Little-Known Knoxville Bands From the ’60s – The Blue Shades.

58. The Blue Shades

Little-Known Knoxville Bands From the ’60s – The Hitch Hikers.

59. The Hitchhikers

Little-Known Knoxville Bands From the ’60s – Tennessee Hot Pants

60. Tennessee Hot Pants

Little-Known Knoxville Bands From the ’60s – Soul Sanction.

61. Soul Sanction

Little-Known Knoxville Bands From the ’60s – Ronnie Speaks & His Elrods.

62. Ronnie Speeks Band

Matt Shafer Powell

former WUOT news director, now at Central Michigan University’s WFYI:

63. Pole Vaulters from all around the world come to Knoxville to train for the Olympics. Pole Vaulter Tim Mack won a gold medal for the United States in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Now, he hosts clinics and training sessions in Knoxville for promising, young pole vaulters.   

64. Ozzy Ozbourne’s guitarist, Randy Rhoads, played his last show in Knoxville before dying in a plane crash. (A monument to Rhoads would be worth it if for no other reason than to have Ozzy hang out here for a bit.)

Kurt Vonnegut

65. Kurt Vonnegut once attended the UT. I learned this while watching a documentary about Vonnegut a couple months ago. Vonnegut’s one of my favorite authors and I worked for UT for more than 14 years. How in the world did this escape me? There’s gotta be a plaque somewhere on campus.

66. WUOT’s All Things Considered host, Brandon Hollingsworth, is an expert on the history of NBC’s Today Show. Go ahead. Ask him anything. He’ll know the answer.

Bonus Oak Ridge Factoids:

• Lee Harvey Oswald once visited the American Museum of Atomic Energy in Oak Ridge. Four months before he (allegedly?) assassinated John F. Kennedy, Oswald apparently visited the museum, claiming Soviet citizenship on the guest register and listing Dallas as his home.

• Oak Ridge has the lowest average wind speed of any city in the country. Oak Ridge’s annual average wind speed is 4.1 mph, which makes it America’s least windy city. Great for rowing, not so great for flying kites.

Nelda Hill

manager at the Lawson McGhee Library:

67. The Lawson McGhee Library officially desegregated its loaning policy at a board meeting on Oct. 17, 1950, the first library in the state to do so.

68. Lawson McGhee retains a remnant of the pre-Internet age: the Useful Information file. Before Google answered all of our questions, people would often call the reference desk at the local library; the questions with the most difficult-to-find answers were filed, just in case they were needed again. One factoid in the file stands out: In 1973, the First Church of Voodoo at 2827 E. 5th Avenue was established. The founder was Robert Pelton, a UT creative writing instructor and author of The Complete Book of Voodoo. A News Sentinel clipping quotes high priestess Francis A. Torrance: “If we’d named it something else, nobody would pay any attention to it.”

Chris Wohlwend

longtime local journalist and journalism instructor:

Knoxville’s Top 5 Pranks, Tantrums & Flops

69. One: In the early 1960s there was a UT student who was apparently majoring in pranks—complex capers that involved careful planning and accomplices.

His crowning achievement, still talked about when I was a student in the late 1960s, involved an innocent female, a popular movie showing at the Tennessee Theater on Gay Street, a getaway car, and three accomplices.

On a warm summer evening the prankster—we’ll call him Chuck—and his date stood in a lengthy line to purchase tickets to the movie. Suddenly, a car screeched to a halt in front of the theater and three males jumped out, one brandishing a pistol.

“Okay, Chuck,” the armed man yelled, “this is it!” He fired three or four times and Chuck crumpled to the sidewalk, apparently bleeding, the girl screaming, the witnesses scattering.

The gunsel and his companions then threw Chuck’s body into the back seat of the car before jumping in. The driver then executed a U-turn and sped south on Gay Street to the bridge, where they stopped long enough to throw the “body” into the river.

Of course, the whole thing was a fake. Story on campus was that because of the prankster’s connections—he was the scion of a prominent Memphis family—he got off with a fine. The girl, of course, found someone else to take her to the movies.

70. Two: Ben Byrd, the much-missed sports columnist for the Knoxville Journal, was known for impatience when deadlines loomed. Piqued by a ringing telephone once, he ripped it from the wall and tossed it out the open second-floor window of the Church Street quarters of the newspaper. But his more infamous toss happened several years earlier when the newspaper was housed on Gay Street (in the building now occupied by the Mercury). There, as the story went, he threw his typewriter out the window into the alley that runs between Gay and State streets. The incident led to the installation of bars on the windows—not to keep people out but to keep dangerous objects in. Shortly before Ben’s death last year at age 91, Grady Amann and I asked him about the incident. He said the story had been exaggerated. “It was only the typewriter’s carriage,” he explained.

71. Three: Many of notorious politician Cas Walker’s most infamous on-air shenanigans are viewable on YouTube, but one trick he employed to fool his constituents is not. During the months leading up to election day, he would check with the relevant city department and find out what the schedule was for street pothole repair. The day before a crew was scheduled for a particular street, he and one of his assistants would show up, Cas carrying a walking stick, his accomplice a clipboard. They would then walk the street, Cas using his cane to point out sections in need of work and his aide dutifully noting them. If there were no residents watching, they would knock on a door or two until they found someone and explain that the crew would be there the next day to make repairs. And neighborhood residents would give all the credit to Cas Walker.

72. Four: One Sunday night in the late 1960s a ne’er do well jumped off the south side of Gay Street Bridge in a suicide attempt. But he didn’t pay attention to where he was leaping and wasn’t far enough out on the bridge to hit the water. He landed feet-first in the mud flats below Baptist Hospital, going in up to his armpits. Then he started yelling for help. At the time, the hospital had a dorm for nursing students just to the east of the bridge (in the patch of land between the split sections of Sevier Avenue). One of the nursing students heard his calls and the police were summoned. He was rescued, and somewhere a photo exists of him looking sadly up at the photographer on the bridge.

73. Five: Around 1966 word began to spread on the UT campus that a trio of football players had been caught after slipping into the Geography and Geology Building on the Hill in an effort to steal the exam for an upcoming test. An alarm was triggered and the UT police were soon on the scene. The players panicked and the tight end leading the mission leaped through one of the building’s leaded-glass windows. The other two, a linebacker and an offensive lineman, followed. The police then followed the trail of blood from the cuts caused by the glass down the hill to their rooms in Stadium Hall. I don’t recall how they were punished, if at all. But one of the trio, the late Rod Harkleroad, confirmed the story when he and I were talking a couple of decades later. “But I don’t want you to get the wrong impression,” he emphasized. “I wasn’t the one doing all the bleeding.”   

Shane Rhyne

comedian and comedy show booker at RainShine:

74. Knoxville has had several nicknames over time, the best-known being Marble City and the Scruffy City. But, to me, nothing better illustrates Knoxville’s personality extremes than the fact we were known as, at separate times, “The Underwear Capital of the World,” and “The Streaking Capital of America.” Near the end of the 19th century a lot of our knitting mills manufactured underwear. But the streaking came from the 1970s. Walter Cronkite referred to us as the nation’s streaking capital after an evening in 1974 when several thousand UT students shut down The Strip as a streaking mob.

Mike Donila

former WBIR reporter and now community relations manager for Knox County Parks and Recreation:

75. Melton Hill Park, considered a Hardin Valley community jewel, was initially transferred by the Tennessee Valley Authority to the county in 1964. (It was originally named Cruickshank Bend.) The park thrived but decades later—because general community neglect and federal funding cuts—it fell into disarray and became one of the most avoided spots in the entire county. Gangs openly consumed alcohol and took drugs; there were many fights; and one motorcycle gang even assumed squatters rights, allegedly slaughtering and eating cattle from a nearby farm. (There is another story that the farmers actually used the site to dress the cattle and left the remains.) The Sheriff’s Office at the time was operating on a skeleton crew and couldn’t patrol the area. In addition, the site was subject to an emergency radio blackout, so deputies couldn’t call for help if needed. In the late 1980s, however, the County Commission placed an emphasis on parks and set aside money to rehab the area. The community joined in and—as the sheriff’s office hired more officers and developed a better E-911 system—regular patrol became more routine.

76. William Blount, a signer of the U.S. Constitution, is buried on State Street

77. Knoxville is rumored to have had its own version of Dr. Frankenstein, a guy who practiced galvanization in the basement of a downtown church.

78. Babe Ruth played at the old Bill Meyer Stadium (though it wasn’t called that at the time). Big leaguers used to play exhibition games when they traveled by train from city to city between series. Ruth also played in the Appalachian League in Asheville when he was coming up in the farm system.

Tom Jester

longtime ad man:

79. The major feature October Sky was shot in and around Knoxville. But what most people don’t know is, the original name of the film was Rocket Boys.  The producers weren’t crazy about it so they rearranged the letters to spell “October Sky.”

Erin Donovan

director of communications at Visit Knoxville:

80. Ingrid Bergman’s hand prints are pressed into a sidewalk in Bearden. Bennett Galleries was once the site of the Capri Cinema (or Capri-70, when it held a 70 mm projector). In April 1970, Bergman appeared there for the premiere of A Walk in the Spring Rain, a romance co-starring Anthony Quinn.

Zack Roskop

director of Knox Brew Tours:

81. Knoxville is at the intersection of I-40 and I-75—both of those interstates are in the top five of the longest in the U.S.

The Tireless Researchers at WalletHub:

Just about every week, personal-finance website WalletHub issues carefully researched and thoroughly vetted (we assume) rankings of cities in an attempt to get some free publicity. And it works, as you might have seen their studies cited in countless news stories and Facebook posts breathlessly recounting Knoxville’s latest ranking. Here’s how Knoxville has placed in its various surveys over the past couple years, in order of rank.

82. Ninth best city to get married.

83. Tenth fattest city in America

84. Fifteenth best city for women-owned businesses.

85. Thirty-second best city for return on educational investment.

86. Thirty-fourth best metro area for STEM professionals.

87. Thirty-fifth best city for return on investment on police spending.

88. Fortieth best city as a summer travel destination.

89. Fortieth best foodie city, with a ranking of 121 for affordability and 32 for diversity, accessibility, and quality.

90. Forty-eighth best city for Hispanic entrepreneurs.

91. Sixty-ninth best city to start a career.

92. Sixty-ninth best city for summer jobs.

93. Seventieth best city for singles.

94. Seventy-fifth best city to work for a small business.

95. Eighty-sixth best large city to start a business.

96. Ninetieth best city for single moms.

97. One hundred and thirty-third city for people with disabilities.

98. Two hundred and seventh fastest-growing city.

Tom Cervone

director of Dogwood Arts:

99. To celebrate the Dogwood Arts Festival’s 25th anniversary in 1985, organizers collaborated with the Dulin Gallery of Art—the Knoxville Museum of Art’s precursor—to put on a “famous artist show.” Gathering works from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Virginia Museum of Fine arts in Richmond, and the Arnot Museum in New York, Strokes of Genius displayed paintings by Picasso, Degas, and Mary Cassatt, among others.

Coury Turczyn

editor of the Mercury:

100. Did we mention yet that this is our 100th issue? That’s approximately 100 more than some people predicted. Help us publish another 100: knoxmercury.com/donate.

* Unless you’re really into local trivia. 

We banded together to make a united effort in the name of fine journalism.

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