A Lost Cache of Photos Reveals New Views of Turn-of-the-Century Knoxville

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The subjects in the photos are random, yet deliberate. They are refined and raw, a fantastical mix of the mundane and memorable. It’s a literal snapshot of life in East Tennessee as it used to be. And its very existence is a small miracle.

The collection, an assortment of nearly 250 photos, but also newspaper clippings and legal documents of East Tennessee from the 1790s to the 1990s, provides a glimpse into the daily life and culture of Appalachia, and of Knoxville, as it became the city it is today.

From a whimsical farmer sitting on his porch with a jar of moonshine and shotgun, to a group of women strolling down Gay Street, to one of the first court documents created in Knox County by the first sheriff, Ashley Wilson’s collection puts a face on East Tennessee history and contributes to local history.

By all odds, it shouldn’t still exist.

“How it’s even survived this long is shocking to me,” says Ashley Wilson, who graduated last year from the University of Tennessee’s School of Information Sciences—where she was able to digitally preserve and archive the photos so that they can be shared with the public.

Courtesy Ashley Wilson

Wilson and her family discovered the photos while cleaning out the home of her grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Hayes Wilson, in August 2013. The collection was owned and maintained by Ashley Wilson’s great-grandmother, Mary Alice Daniel. The elder Wilson never mentioned the trove of photos and documents to the rest of the family, and it was only after her passing and the dissolution of her property that the family discovered the collection in an un-air-conditioned shed behind the house in Johnson City.

“We must have walked right past it for 15 years,” Wilson says.

Despite suffering from varying degrees of exposure to insects and sunlight, the overall damage was limited, partly thanks to the high quality of the prints themselves. Photographed using platinum plates and mounted on gold-sided cardboard, the photos could only have been made by an expert photographer with training in what was considered a highly technical skill in the 1890s.

Before World War I, photographers required both considerable training and financial resources to be successful. As such, part of the reason for the survival of the prints is the skill with which they were first created.

While the collection was likely created for the same reasons we take photos today, the age and subject matter provide a unique window into everyday life at a time when few could afford photography.

Courtesy Ashley Wilson

Some of the photos in the collection, such as that of the 1907 Central High School women’s basketball team, were professionally made portraits and are signed. However, the photographer for the majority of the photos is unknown, but Wilson believes they were made by someone in or close to her family.

“The other photos of Knoxville,” Wilson says, “are only assumed to be from great-grandmother’s family, the Daniels, since they were a wealthy, Knoxville family,” she said.

While some prints capture day-to-day life, others—like the photos of First Methodist and First Episcopal churches of Knoxville during their construction in the 1890s—mark Knoxville’s growth.

Courtesy Ashley Wilson

First Methodist Church construction

In early Knoxville, the Presbyterian Church was the primary parish for many residents, and most anyone who was someone was a member of that congregation. As such, church rosters and meeting minutes provide valuable insight into Knoxville’s growth, says Steve Cotham, manager of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection at the East Tennessee Historical Society.

“Initially, 1800, [the church had] 300 people. By about 1815, 1,500 people. It was growing, but not like Memphis and Nashville,” Cotham says. “And by 1855 it’s picking up some more, like 2,500. It’s taking off, and that railroad is what did it.

“You had the iron industry, the iron company, all these different things going on and areas to invest in and the city just changes a whole lot. These [photos] reflect all that.”

In the case of the Albers Memorial Fountain, the photos contribute to what is known of Knoxville’s history.

Courtesy Ashley Wilson

In 1890 in what is now Old Gray Cemetery, (it was previously just Gray Cemetery), A.J. Albers erected a dark, cast iron fountain to commemorate his wife, the outer ring of which is still visible. However, the fountain disappeared decades ago. While the exact circumstances are dim, one of the photos in Wilson’s collection is the clearest picture of the fountain yet found, Cotham says.

“We have a couple photos, but [this photo] is just sharper, and clearer, and you can really see the figures better,” he says. “This is about the time when the cemetery was filled up, this is 1893. The cemetery had expanded from about 9 acres to 13 acres and it was beginning to be full and all the lots were sold.”

When Wilson fully understood the history contained in her family’s collection, she switched careers. Leaving her job in the music industry, she enrolled in the School of Information Sciences at UT, graduating with a masters in 2016, so she could learn proper cataloging, archiving and research techniques to preserve the photographs and teach others to do the same.

“I bought a scanner and scanned a lot of them and realized that I liked doing that a lot more than I should,” Wilson says. “I did a [180] and realized this is what I totally need to be doing,” Wilson says.

Courtesy Ashley Wilson

Knoxville City Hall, 1893

Wilson now has a job working with media metadata for a large broadcasting company, thanks in part to the skills and passion she developed digitizing her family’s collection. Thanks to her passion and career path, she recently started teaching her aunt to also start scanning photograph slides and negatives.

“When the family gets together, old photos always make great conversation starters,” Wilson says.

Once historical documents are scanned, the next step is making the information available to the public, which Wilson has done by donating the digital archives to the East Tennessee Historical Society, where they are now safe from physical deterioration and accessible by the public.

“We do feel relieved that people will have access to the amazing part of Knoxville history that we had the opportunity to find, and are relieved that it will be digitally preserved,” she says.

Courtesy Ashley Wilson

McCord Pagan is a graduate of the University of Tennessee who now works as a news assistant at Law360 in New York. He can be reached at mccord.pagan@gmail.com.

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