By Dorothea S. Michelman
From its beginnings as a frontier settlement nestled in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains to the vibrant city of today, Knoxville has journeyed far. Much has changed here since James White’s Fort, Knoxville’s first pioneer structure, was built in 1786. Yet not all. The Smokies still stand, proudly silhouetted against the horizon. And James White’s Fort still stands proudly as well – although it now finds itself downtown.
Knoxville’s attractions include a host of historic buildings, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, and the Knoxville Zoo. Yet it is perhaps most celebrated for its nurture of East Tennessee’s leading export: country music.
Step into the past with a copy of the “Cradle of Country Music” as your guide. This downtown walking tour retraces country music’s modest beginnings and Knoxville’s helping hand in launching the careers of artists from Roy Acuff to Elvis Presley. It’s a rich tapestry of unexpected tales and characters – some famed, others forgotten. There’s “Fiddlin’ Bob” Taylor, the fiddling governor. Sam Morrison, who helped launch young Elvis Presley’s career by playing That’s All Right, Mama over loudspeakers to passersby on Market Square. And seven-year-old Dolly Parton’s broadcast début at radio station WIVK.
Along the walk, 19 illustrated markers invite visitors to meet the panoply of artists and events that have shaped Knoxville’s place in country music history.
Musicians playing on street corners and at farmers’ markets. The birthplace of Tennessee’s first radio station in 1921, which heralded new horizons for the performing artist. And its noontime feature “Midday Merry-Go-Round,” which would prove a stepping stone to Nashville and Grand Ole Opry stardom for many a musician.
The brochures, which include detailed maps of the markers, photos and additional information on each site can be picked up at either the Gateway Regional Visitors Center or at the East Tennessee History Center.
Around 60 miles north of Knoxville is Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, 20,000 acres shared by Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia and the largest such park in the United States.
Since prehistoric times, Cumberland Gap has been trod by untold numbers of feet crossing the Appalachians – first by bison and deer in search of food, later by American Indians following the bison to hunting grounds in present-day Kentucky, and still later in 1750 by white explorers hired to stake out an 800,000-acre grant beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. The exact location of the grant managed to elude Thomas Walker and his companions, even after two months of searching. But they did find the gap. And Daniel Boone, the pioneer most associated with Cumberland Gap and the opening of the West, would be one of the first to follow the ancient routes, marking out the Wilderness Trail from Virginia to Kentucky through Cumberland Gap.
Between 1780 and 1810, expanding traffic in both directions transformed the Wilderness Road into a bustling thoroughfare.
During this period, thousands of settlers followed their fortunes west, while each year large herds of livestock were driven eastward. By 1940, the year the park was created, the original Wilderness Trail had become a major paved highway, U.S. 25E. With the highway rerouted in 1996, the trail has now been restored to its 1790s appearance, and a picturesque winding drive up to Pinnacle Overlook rewards visitors with a stunning view of what 18th-century travellers themselves might have enjoyed.
In addition to Native American and pioneer history in a spectacular setting, the park with its hiking trails, campsites and interpretive programs presents an abundance of temptations for the outdoors enthusiast. But there are temptations indoors as well. Many of them can be found at the Kentucky entrance to the park. This is both the site of the visitor center as well as an enticing shop operated by the Southern Highlands Handicraft Guild, which offers traditional crafts from Kentucky and eight other states.
For a closer look at the traditional culture and heritage behind the quilts and weaving on display, the Museum of Appalachia in Norris is well worth a visit. Sixteen miles north of Knoxville, this living mountain village was built on what might appear a rather unsubstantial foundation: a grandchild’s memories and a grandfather’s wish. A descendant of 18th-century pioneer settlers in East Tennessee’s Big Valley, John Rice Irwin has never forgotten his childhood days visiting with the older people of the community. Irwin’s Grandfather Rice, who cherished the everyday articles of generations past, once suggested to his grandson that he “ought to start a little museum of these old-timey things some time.”
And that is precisely what Irwin did.
From a modest start in the late 1960s – a single log building on a two-acre plot – this remarkable replica of pioneer Appalachian life has grown to a 65-acre working rural farm village, encompassing dozens of log structures and housing over 250,000 artifacts. And as Irwin continues to explore the hollows and villages – visiting, learning, and collecting – who knows what the future may hold?
Of particular interest are the museum’s three special annual events with craft demonstrations, music and dancing, and country cooking: July 4th, Tennessee Fall Homecoming (October 7 – 10, 2004) and Christmas in Old Appalachia (December 5 – 31, 2004).. but whatever season you may stop by, it’s certain to be the right one.
For further information, please contact:
* Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation, 601 West Summit Hill Drive, Knoxville, TN 37902; Tel. toll-free-1-800-727-8045
* James White’s Fort, 205 E. Hill Avenue, Knoxville, TN 37915; Tel. 865-525-6514;
* Blount Mansion, 200 W. Hill Avenue, P.O. Box 1703, Knoxville, TN 37901-1703; Tel. toll-free: 1-888-654-0016
* Ramsey House Plantation, 2614 Thorngrove Pike, Knoxville, TN 37914; Tel. 865-546-0745
* The East Tennessee Historical Society, P.O. Box 1628, 600 Market Street, Knoxville, TN 37902; Tel. 865-215-8826
* Frank H. McClung Museum, The University of Tennessee, 1327 Circle Park Drive, Knoxville, TN 37996-3200; Tel. 865-974-2144
* Knoxville Museum of Art, 1050 World’s Fair Park Drive, Knoxville, TN 37915; Tel. 865-5254-6101; www.knoxart.org
* Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, 700 Hall of Fame Drive, Knoxville, TN 37915; Tel. 865-633-9000
* Knoxville Zoo, 3500 Knoxville Zoo Drive, Knoxville, TN 37914; Tel. 865-637-5331
* Tennessee Riverboat Company, (Star of Knoxville) 300 Neyland Drive, Knoxville, TN 37902; Tel. toll-free: 1-800-509-2628
* Museum of Appalachia, P.O. Box 0318, Norris, TN 37828; Tel. 423-494-7680
* Superintendent, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, P.O. Box 1848, Middleboro, KY 40965-1848; Tel. 606-248-2817; www.nps.gov/cuga
* Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, Lincoln Memorial University, Cumberland Gap Parkway, Harrogate, TN 37752; Tel. 423-869-6439
* Holiday Inn Select Cedar Bluff, 304 Cedar Bluff Road (Exit #378), Knoxville, TN 37923; Tel. 865-1698-1011
* Hilton Knoxville, 501 W. Church Avenue, Knoxville, TN 37802, Tel. 865-523-2300
* Radisson Summit Hill Knoxville, 401 Summit Hill Drive, Knoxville, TN 37902; Tel. 865-522-2600.
* Naples Italian Restaurant, 5200 Kingston Pike, Knoxville, TN 37919; Tel. 865-584-5033
* Regas, 318 North Gay Street, Knoxville, TN 37917; Tel. 865-637-3427
* Calhoun’s on the River Restaurant, 400 Neyland Drive, Knoxville, TN 37902; Tel. 865-673-3355
* Crescent Moon Cafe, 718 Gay Street, Knoxville, TN 37902, Tel. 865-637-9700