The Case of the Misplaced Markers at Volunteer Landing

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

few weeks ago, I wrote a column about trying to nail down what is to me one of the most intriguing sites in Knoxville history. “Vagabondia Castle” was the old house where Frances Hodgson Burnett and her brothers and sisters—most of them teenagers—lived after their mother’s death, without adult supervision, creating for themselves a kind of bohemian enclave of artists and musicians and at least one aspiring writer. The idea that Knoxville, an otherwise rough-edged, war-scarred, politically pragmatic, sometimes violent place might have been home to a community of artists who thought of themselves as bohemians, much less a British Victorian writer, the author of The Secret Garden—well, it has the makings of a fairy tale, in itself.

Vagabondia was also the name of an offbeat fashion shop that was part of Market Square’s revival, a dozen years ago. Its late owner, Burnett fan Andie Ray, is the subject of a new memorial “Secret Garden,” with clever allusions to Burnett’s work, in the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum.

As we noted, all indications are that Vagabondia was somewhere in the general vicinity of what’s now the northern end of the Henley Bridge. Some recent finds by Agee scholar Paul Brown add a couple more clues in support of the two sites along Henley previously suspected.

One especially astute reader noted that the likely sites of the original Vagabondia are pretty far—about a third of a mile—from the Volunteer Landing marker that indicates Vagabondia Castle as “near this spot.”

Therein lies a melancholy tale. It’s time to come clean with a little regret that’s been bugging me since the last century.

Just over 20 years ago, city contractors enlisted me to research the text to put on those markers. I worked on it for months, finding stories that seemed relevant to Knoxville’s history and its relationship to the river. It was a great idea, and I was happy to be part of it.

Vagabondia was not very well known at the time, and its story was so far out of step with the typical thumbnail histories of Knoxville (Pioneers! Civil War! TVA! Vols!) that it seemed to hold the power to crack a paradigm and open our culture up to different realms of complexity and potential.

Most of the texts for the historical markers along Volunteer Landing were general history and culture, and could have been placed anywhere along the path. Only a couple were site-specific. The Coach Neyland marker went in at a spot dominated by a full view of the stadium named for the strategically eccentric football genius from Texas. (At least it was then; now, from Volunteer Landing, Neyland Stadium’s mostly eclipsed by the new Tickle Engineering Building.)

They also put in some “interactive” panels with sound narrative by Bill Landry of the Heartland Series. I was skeptical at the time of how long anything electronic can work out in the weather, but they made a believer out of me. Twenty years later, almost half of them still work.

Few of the markers were site-specific, but two in particular were. Those were the ones for poet Nikki Giovanni and Frances Hodgson Burnett. The Burnett one needed to be near the Henley Street Bridge, I indicated, preferably slightly to the west of it. Near Maplehurst, and near Vagabondia. The Giovanni one needed to be as far east as possible, because the neighborhood she described in her poetry and prose was just east of First Creek.

They were the only two for which I made a point to use the phrase “near this spot.” Giovanni’s most famous work doesn’t deal with the river much, but she spent much of her childhood with her grandmother on Mulvaney Street, about a quarter-mile from the river, and that seemed close enough to bring her into the fold.

The carvers embossed some marble boulders and slabs of various sizes, and did a good job.

Then, when they were unveiled, I had a surprise. The Burnett one was where the Giovanni one was supposed to be, and vice versa.

Well, it was a simple matter, they explained. The Giovanni one was a vertical marker, and they had to put it with the other vertical markers, along the city side of the trail. The Burnett one was a horizontal marker, and they needed to lay that one flatter on the river side of the trail over east of Calhoun’s. The only easy way to fix it was to swap them. Simple as that, and no helping it.

Only two markers had to be moved from their previously indicated locations. And they were the only two that included the phrase, “near this spot.” And Vagabondia seemed especially hard to picture right in the business part of downtown, in fact right in the area of the steamboat wharves.

I protested, but at the time I was just a reporter, taking a needed freelance gig to pay some family bills. I was the guy who had done the research, but I wasn’t one of the ones who needed to be satisfied. So I sent them a letter for their files, to clarify things just in case there were ever a chance to rectify it. As I’ve learned over the years, working on other commemorative projects, nobody ever reads letters in files, and at a certain level of investment, mere facts don’t count for much. The markers have remained in the wrong spots ever since.

So that’s why Nikki Giovanni’s marker is half a mile west of where she used to live, and the “Vagabondia was near this site” marker is a third of a mile upriver of the most plausible site of Vagabondia.

To my knowledge, no one else complained. At the time they went in, there weren’t that many Knoxvillians in the river-walking mainstream who knew that either Burnett or Giovanni had even lived here. But from readers and attendees at public events, I get the impression that people know more, and are more interested, now.

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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