Kingston Pike’s ‘Road of Remembrance’ Was Planned to be an Extraordinary Monument to the Great War’s Dead

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

The centennial of the First World War I on my mind, I was going through some library files when I ran across a picture I’d never seen. A photocopied image from an unknown book showed two stout marble pillars on either side of a long road in the countryside, with meadow on either side of a road and low hills in the distance. This “Memorial Road,” as the inscribed tablets heralded it, was on the outskirts of Knoxville, about 1925. Another image, from another file, shows a beautiful avenue lined with symmetrical rows of trees. It looks holy.

The text I could read, just a fragment of a longer passage, explained that it was a special memorial to the soldiers killed in World War I. And it was, as near as I can tell, on what we know as Kingston Pike.

I looked around. The idea may have started with Lucy Varnell, the wife of James Varnell, executive of Miller’s Department Store. The Varnells lived on Kingston Pike, as it was becoming better known by its new name, Lee Highway, because it had recently become part of that national route from the Washington, D.C., area to New Orleans. It also intersected with part of the north-south route known as Dixie Highway. Combined, the two promised to bring steady automobile traffic.

President of the Lee Highway Association’s Women’s Auxiliary, Mrs. Varnell had proposed banning billboards on the new highways. In this beautiful countryside, she said, billboards were eyesores.

Looking at this picture of this pastoral road, you can see what she was trying to protect. You wouldn’t want to see that happen here.

The women of the Federated Women’s Clubs of Knoxville took the cause to the federal government. In February of ’24, Lucy Varnell went to Washington, and on to New York soliciting partners. After dining at the Waldorf Astoria, she was “stricken,” as the papers said. She was only 47. Her sudden death was a shock to the city’s progressive community.

An ally picked up the Memorial Road banner. Susie Johnston, niece of Knoxville’s only English-born mayor, had been an organizer of the huge National Conservation Exposition of 1913. During the Great War she was in charge of the Park House “war workshop,” preparing bandages for the American troops in Europe.

The month after Varnell’s sudden death, Johnston and her allies took the effort to the public.

Their memorial would include large stone monuments on either side of the highway, and between them, some 350 Lombardy poplars to memorialize each of the Knoxville-area soldiers killed in the war. That number, more than twice Knox County’s war toll, was apparently regional in scope. In between the poplars would be flowers, irises, poppies, a mix carefully chosen so some would be blooming most of the time.

On March 17, Lucille McMillin, wife of former Gov. Benton McMillin and also “one of the South’s most noted elocutionists,” came to the Bijou to present “A Night in Spain,” including a rare reading of a modern Spanish play, Malvaloca, as a fundraiser for the ambitious memorial.

By then, the project leaders said, they had already planted 175 poplars, each with a metal tag identifying a soldier killed in the Great War.

Accounts say it started right at the western city limits of Knoxville, at the “new railroad overpass”—near what’s now Mayo’s. Some descriptions claim the memorial went all the way to the county line, 17 miles away. (If the trees were planted evenly, that would suggest just about 20 trees per mile; in the picture of an unknown stretch of the road, they look much closer together than that.)

The unveiling of the stone pillars, in November 1925, was attended by philanthropists, clergy, and members of the American Legion, which backed the effort. Lalla Arnstein, wife of the department-store owner and philanthropist Max Arnstein, read the famous poem “Trees,” by Joyce Kilmer, the American soldier-poet who had been killed in the war. Also on hand to speak was Mayor Ben Morton, wealthy businessman, accepting the city’s responsibility for the road. Gen. Cary Spence, a combat veteran of war who had led part of the assault on the Hindenburg Line, gave a talk about the importance of this Road of Remembrance.

You wouldn’t need a more prominent main speaker than that, but they got one. Congressional Medal of Honor winner Sgt. Alvin York himself came to Bearden to dedicate the Memorial Road. The Gary Cooper movie about his life was still 15 years in the future, but York was already America’s single most celebrated hero.

Sgt. York formally “accepted” the memorial “on behalf of the men who served.” Unveiling the new pillars were two “gold-star mothers” who’d lost sons in the war.

After that, something went wrong. A few things, maybe.

Mrs. Johnston was visiting relatives in California when she was badly hurt in a train wreck. She died a few months later, in 1927. Then the Arnsteins retired and moved to New York. By then, Ben Morton was no longer mayor. A low-tax movement swept through city government, scuttling some ambitious plans for redeveloping downtown.

It’s hard to find mentions of the “Road of Remembrance” after that.

In the 1930s, Lee Highway through Bearden became less a solemn memorial drive, and more a strip of motels and restaurants catering to tourists.

What happened to the Road of Remembrance? The trees aren’t there, the pillars aren’t there. I grew up among people who knew that area well, and this week I interviewed a few Bearden octogenarians. None remember hearing of it. Was it all just knocked down before they were born, perhaps with the first widening of Kingston Pike in the ’30s?

The only person I found who’d ever heard of the memorial was historian Steve Cotham, director of the McClung Historical Collection. He notes that Lombardy poplars aren’t very hardy trees, and maybe they just died. But what happened to those big columns?

Beauty and remembrance of war dead is all well and good, Knoxvillians may agree. But we more consistently prove ourselves to be a practical people.

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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