Bearden holds history of roadside attractions

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The short-lived Kiddy Land amusement park in Bearden, circa 1959. Mayo’s Garden Center is visible in background. Photo courtesy of David Eppen.

Some parts of Knoxville wear their history proudly, even the scars.

Others parts of town, you have to look a little harder to find it.

Bearden, for instance, looks like the rest of West Knoxville on its surface. To someone who doesn’t know the area’s background, it’s just another slice of the sprawling commercial and residential corridor that is Kingston Pike with its miles of retail stores, art galleries and restaurants. Not only does any one section look much the same as the others, but every major city in the country has a thoroughfare that looks just like it, down to the last Costco and multiplex. 

If you look a little closer, though, you may notice that some of the buildings …. feel different. The differences between them and their neighbors are often subtle, such as the use of brick rather than concrete or the fact that older buildings often stand far closer to the road. These structures were built to different standards in different ages, places like the old movie theater in Homberg Place or the nearby Mayo Garden Center that don’t quite fit in with the ultra hip, ultramodern storefronts that surround them on all sides.

Go only a block or two to the north or south and you immediately enter into entirely different worlds. On Lyons View Pike, for instance, you can find some of Knoxville’s most expensive homes, estates with monthly mortgage payments of $40,000 and plenty of space to park your helicopter. On the other hand, Sutherland Avenue feeds into neighborhoods where $40,000 will outright buy you an entire house or, if you’re an apartment dweller, you can pocket most of your hypothetical cash and pick from hundreds of units including your choice of pre-World War II chic, 1970s high rise or contemporary steel box (with a swimming pool on the roof, of course).

What you don’t see are the motor courts, the amusement parks, or the midnight jazz venues that once made the small community of Bearden a famous stop for tourists and an occasional walk on the wild side for locals.

Historian Jack Neely has been delving into Knox County’s past for decades now, and he’s come to the conclusion that studying local history always turns into a study of America in microcosm. 

“If you look at any subject, it’s like everything in Knoxville just becomes the history of Western Civilization in a way — it touches everything,” Neely said during a recent conversation in his downtown office. 

“But I think Bearden is unusual in that it combines a mental institution, an airfield, several industries, and Black and white communities, and a once-famous golf course, and the whole history of roadside attractions.”

If it sounds to you like there are enough stories in Bearden to fill a book, you’re right — and Neely has already written it. Historic Bearden was published last year by the Knoxville History Project, and its pages contain the stories of hundreds of people who have called the Bearden area home.

Jack Neely
Historic Bearden by Jack Neely is currently available through the Knoxville History Project.

Neely is especially interested in how Bearden’s evolution in the 20th century was driven by the simultaneous evolution of American transportation and tourism.

Until the first decade of the 20th century, the area that would eventually be known as Bearden was basically a crossroads for farmers distinguished only by a railroad and the East Tennessee Hospital for the Insane, built in 1886 to help cope with Civil War veterans suffering  from what we would now call PTSD and from traumatic brain injuries (and known to later generations as Lakeshore).

Knoxville’s boundary lay at Third Creek (today’s Tyson Park) but over time development began to spill westward. The Alex A. Scott Brick Company, for instance, began operations around 1903 and ended up changing the area’s demographics by hiring Blacks workers, who made up no fewer than 23 of the 94 households in Bearden in 1910.

What ultimately transformed Bearden into a thriving commercial district, however, was an invention that would radically redefine how every American lived, worked and played — the automobile.

The late 1910s saw thousands of miles of National Auto Trail roads established across the United States, opening up much of the country to a whole new type of exploration by any family with the cash to buy a car.

Two of the country’s most important new roads were the Dixie Highway and the Lee Highway.  The Dixie Highway ran from Chicago to Miami, while the Lee Highway connected New York City and San Francisco. 

The two roads met in West Knox County, and it didn’t take long for a slew of entrepreneurs to capitalize on Bearden’s newfound status as a crossroads that millions of people would pass through, many of them seeking a then-novel type of experience. 

“They came together in what’s now Knoxville for about 20 miles,” Neely said. “That’s the area we know as commercial Kingston Pike today. Those 20 miles got a powerful boost from those two national highways, so we had strangers driving through all the time.”

A great many of those strangers pulled into Knox County exhausted, hungry and craving things that most Northerners had only heard of, Neely explained.

A postcard depicting the Dixieland Drive-In. Source: Knoxville History Project

“For people coming from Chicago to Miami, this was the halfway point,” he said. “They’d just crossed into what they considered Dixie. They wanted to get out and do something Southern, and that’s why all these Southern restaurants popped up — to appeal to people who’d heard of this thing called grits and wanted to try some.”

He continued: “That’s one of the surprising things — grits were never popular in Knoxville. I don’t know that most Knoxvillians 120 years ago even knew what grits were.”

Along with places to eat came places to sleep as well as places to be entertained. From the humble beginnings of tourist campgrounds through today’s chain motels, you can trace the  evolution of modern American tourism just by looking at how Bearden changed over the years. 

“In the 1920s, you’re a modest family and you might not want to stay at a fancy place like the Farragut Hotel in downtown Knoxville. You have to battle traffic just to get there, it’s expensive, and then you have to find a place for your car while you’re there. Even if you’re not an outdoorsy family, why not just pitch a tent and camp in some farmer’s field overnight. You’ll just get back in the car the next day and go on to Miami,” Neely said.

“The whole idea of the tourist camp started there, and then it kind of evolved in the 1930s into the motor court,” he continued. “You didn’t have to bring your own tent, you had these freestanding cabins. It wasn’t a hard decision to make … Then this evolved into the motel. A lot of people think motels came from hotels, but they actually came more from the tourist camp and motor court.”

The Highlands Grill, one of several iconic eateries known to those who once traveled the Dixie Highway. Photo submitted by the Knoxville History Project.

Neely paused, then added, “And you see it all happening in Bearden between 1920 and 1960 or so.”

As the local tourist industry began to peak in the years leading to and then following World War II, Bearden became a popular nightspot for people from all across Knox County in addition to the out-of-state tourists.

“Bearden had an extra advantage,” Neely said. “Most of it was outside the city limits, which means it wasn’t policed like it would have been inside the city limits. There were slot machines and there were beer joints, even during Prohibition. You could find all these things there.

“There were a lot of hustlers who went out there to make a living.”

In fact, Neely said, Bearden’s most prominent businessman in the mid-20th century might well have been an infamous bootlegger named Dick Vance. Arrested multiple times for crimes ranging from robbery to storing 126 gallons of illegal moonshine at his Sutherland Avenue home, old timers in Bearden still swap tales of his drive-through liquor joint and his home delivery service.

Vance was charged with murder in 1946 for allegedly shooting a neighbor who was complaining about a loud party. Several witnesses, however, maintained that the dead man had been wielding a knife. The state’s case depended on the word of a single Knox County deputy, and the charge was eventually dropped when the deputy was allegedly murdered by his wife.

More legitimate venues such as the Dixieland Drive-In, the Highlands Grill and the Wayside Inn would eventually become icons to generations of both locals and tourists who were drawn to the brand-new “drive in” model, Neely said. 

“A drive- in had indoor seating, it was a place that you drove right up to,” he explained. “They called them drive-ins even if they didn’t have what we’d call drive-in service.”

Late night (even all night) hours gave tourists and college students a way to wile away the hours. 

“It was easy to check in at the motor court and then walk over to the Wayside and dance the night away,” Neely said. “The Wayside had a regular diet of jazz bands. Their shows wouldn’t start until midnight and then they’d go all night and serve breakfast.”

The tourist trade flourished for decades, eventually growing to the point where it could support a dozen or so motels within a few blocks of each other on Kingston Pike. There was also an ever-changing assortment of family-oriented attractions like putt-putt golf courses and, for a few years, an amusement park at the corner of Forest Park Drive and Kingston Pike that featured a large swimming pool, a train and carnival rides.

The short-lived Kiddy Land amusement park in Bearden. Photo by David Eppen.

But the days when out-of-state tourists would plan their vacations with a night spent in West Knox County were numbered. Ironically, the death blow would come from the same source that gave birth to the era in the first place — road construction.

“By the early 1960s, Interstate 40 was being built in a big way through West Knox County,” Neely said. “This was really a gut punch to all the tourist businesses on Kingston Pike. Even though they weren’t all that far away, it was far enough away that you couldn’t see them driving by on the interstate. 

“You also had chain motels. Holiday Inn, especially, opened a big motel right at the Bearden exit. Why take your chances with a little mom-and-pop motel a half-mile away when you have this Holiday Inn right here?”

No single event or date clearly marked the end of Bearden’s tourist era, but Neely recalled one event from his childhood that showed how the cultural and economic trends sweeping across the country eventually forced the area to recreate itself. 

“It’s funny, I remember the Howard Johnson’s in Bearden and how big a deal it was, but I hadn’t thought about how weird it is to make a big deal out of a chain restaurant,” he mused. “But Knoxville in the late 1950s was very excited. It was very proud to get a Howard Johnson’s. They’d been hearing about it for years, it was kind of a star in the crown of Knoxville. It was like going to see the latest Burt Lancaster movie to go see the new Howard Johnson’s….

“But everybody who ate there was not eating somewhere else they used to eat. Then all of a sudden you started to see places like Dixieland and the Highlands Grill start going belly-up all over Bearden.”

A new version of Bearden would emerge in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, one that relied on high-end retail establishments instead of kiddie roller coasters. Traces of the old Bearden can still be found, though, if you know how to look.

“Interstates standardized travel and chains standardized travel retail,” Neely said. “Both of those things were bad for Bearden. Suddenly, Bearden didn’t have three-quarters of its original business model working anymore. Bearden had to kind of reinvent itself, and it did so as kind of a center for an affluent, suburban residential area.

“But you can still see that Bearden looks different from the rest of Kingston Pike, like how the older buildings are built a lot closer to the street….It’s interesting that you can still see all that.”

Hard Knox Wire editor J.J. Stambaugh (left) and local historian Jack Neely discuss their biweekly feature series in the offices of the Knoxville History Project. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on June 25, 2021