Fountain City’s historical headwaters

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We’ve been really excited to be working with Jack Neely and the Knoxville History Project. Not only is it great to be working with our region’s most prominent historian, but it gives us a chance to experiment with different formats. 

Until now, our Hard Knox Histories installments have been in the form of straightforward articles. J.J. and Jack would decide on a topic, J.J. would interview Jack,  and then J.J. would write it up as a traditional article. There was nothing wrong with this process, and many of you seem to have liked it. 

This time around, however, instead of doing a face-to-face interview, they did their question-session answer session via email. The end result was that we ended up with approximately 1,550 words of Jack’s prose and, candidly, J.J. didn’t feel that he could improve it at all by rewriting it or turning it into a conventional piece. Jack is, after all, the author of numerous books and countless articles, and his distinctive style has been greatly missed by many readers since the demise of Metro Pulse and The Knoxville Mercury.

The topic this week is the history of one of Knoxville’s most idiosyncratic neighborhoods, Fountain City. Although he’s a third-generation Fountain City resident who’s in the process of raising a fourth, J.J. is (like many of us) woefully deficient when it comes to knowledge of his community’s background. One of the reasons, in fact, that J.J. wanted to explore this subject was to learn something about the community that he’d heard so many stories about while growing up….

Fountain City Park, undated. Source: Knoxville History Project

 JJ: When did European settlers first start moving into the area of North Knoxville now known as Fountain City? I assume (please correct me if I am wrong) that this was Cherokee territory before the 18th century and that there are few, if any, written records to derive a history from before the Europeans arrived?

JACK: To my knowledge, Native Americans are not known to have lived in the Fountain City area. The nearest Cherokee villages were about 40 miles to the southwest, along the Little T. But 250 years ago, one might encounter an occasional Cherokee hunting party in this area.

There are believed to have been villages of unknown tribes of the Woodland or Mississippian era in Knox County long before the arrival of Europeans, but most of the evidence of them is near the rivers. Their relation to the Cherokee, if any, is unclear. Theories about the pre-Columbian natives are always evolving.

The first European settler in the area that I know of was John Adair, an Irishman from County Antrim who came to America when he was almost 40. He joined the patriots in the Revolutionary War, helping mainly financially, I think. He moved to the Fountain City area in 1788, and built a cabin and a small fort, known as Adair’s Fort. He probably made the Fountain City area seem easier to live in, but it remained pretty sparsely populated in his lifetime. Most of his business was five miles south in the new capital of Knoxville, and he was a leader of the First Presbyterian Church there, and was a founding member of the Board of Trustees of Blount College, which evolved into the University of Tennessee. I assume he did a whole lot of riding back and forth, along the route we now know as Broadway.

He was one of the older settlers of Knox County, and was about 60 when Knox County was founded. He can also be considered one of the founders of Tennessee. He was one of only two Irish immigrants among the 55 settlers who signed the Tennessee Constitution of 1796. He outlived many younger settlers, then died when he was about 95.

JJ: What was the area like through the 19th century? I imagine it was mostly farmland with maybe a road or two, such as Broadway?

JACK: The earliest road through Fountain City area was probably Emory Road, which I believe slightly predates Knoxville as a settlers’ road west. I believe Broadway is a very early road, though. It was known just as Broad Street in the 19th century.

Fountain City had farmland, but it was pretty different from most farming areas in that it was also famous as a place to visit. A spring flowing out of a hillside—that was what they called the “fountain head”–was believed to be especially healthy. That brook (it flows through Fountain City Park, a tributary of First Creek) probably had no medicinal properties, yet the area was considered an especially pleasant and healthy spot. So much so that by the 1830s, it was attracting “camp meetings,” sort of like an evangelical Bonnaroo, where people would camp out several days to hear religious music and emotional sermons in big tents. You could almost claim that Fountain City Park dates back to that era.

The famous Fountainhead, now in Fountain City Park. Source: Library of Congress

JJ: Did the area play any role in the Civil War?

JACK: No major role. You could probably hear the siege of Knoxville from there. I believe some of Longstreet’s Confederates, when they retreated to the northeast after the failure of the siege, may have rode or marched through the future Fountain City area in December of 1863.

J.J.: My limited understanding of the area tells me that some sort of resort or hotel was central to the areas development in the late 1800s/early 1990s? Was this the origin of the locally famous Fountain City Lake? And where did the name Fountain City come from?

JACK: By the 1880s, cities like Knoxville, with coal-fired industry, were getting crowded, noisy, and dirty, and there was a new demand for a clean, quiet refuge away from all that. The Fountain Head Hotel opened about 1886, right near the old springs. It was a pretty fancy place, with hot and cold running water and multiple balconies and live music for dancing. Fountain City Lake was built around 1890 as part of the hotel. They made it a heart-shaped lake, I assume because they considered it a romantic spot. I don’t know how many people think about that today. For a few years, it was a significant destination attraction, and drew traffic from other states.

It was known as Fountain Head Park by 1885. It was privately owned. On some occasions, it was fenced off with barbed wire; the owner charged admission. At the time, notably, Knoxville had no public parks. Chilhowee Park started about the same time, and it was also privately owned.

Promoters for Fountain City stressed that its air was clean—Knoxville’s soot didn’t drift north of Sharps Ridge–and so were its morals. It was said to be harder to find liquor there than anywhere else.  

The area was known as Fountain Head, or Fountainhead, until about 1890, when they opened a post office there. They couldn’t call it Fountain Head, Tenn., because there was already one northwest of Nashville, so they renamed it Fountain City. Unlike some suburban areas of Knoxville, though, it was never an actual city, in terms of a place with defined boundaries and its own city government.

Fountain City Park became known by that name the same year. It became popular as a refuge from Knoxville, so much so that a regular “dummy line”—a steam-driven streetcar—ran regularly every day from downtown Knoxville to Fountain City. During special events like the Fourth of July and Labor Day, when there were major events at the park (picnics, fireworks, athletic competitions, political speeches, and sometimes balloon ascensions) the dummy line would run until midnight. Sometimes thousands of people, mostly from Knoxville, would converge on Fountain City Park on those holidays.

Incidentally, some surprising speakers sometimes showed up there. America’s most famous socialist, Eugene Debs, appeared there in 1905. The only known photographs of Debs speaking outdoors are at Fountain City Park. They’re often used in documentaries about Debs without mentioning that the setting was Fountain City.

Fountain City dummy line. Source: McClung Historical Collection

J.J.: After the resort went under, what was Fountain City known for?

JACK: Well, a lot of answers to that question. Fountain City Park was always there, and the lake, aka the duck pond. The park had always been privately owned, and sometimes restricted, until 1932, when the Lions Club took it over, and made it permanently public. It was prettier and better maintained than most city parks, and I think the Lions Club was proud of that fact.

After 1917 or so, it also had Savage Gardens, which is certainly one of the most unusual gardens in Knox County. An oriental garden started by an Englishman, an industrialist named Arthur Savage.

And it sounds like I’m joking, but Fountain City was still known for general cleanliness. For much of the 20th century, Knoxville was known for air pollution and soot, but the air was always clean north of Sharps Ridge. It was also mostly free of alcohol. I did a study for a story in Metro Pulse in the ‘90s, and found that the number of bars and liquor stores per capita was much lower in Fountain City than in any other part of town.

By the way, there was a band that recorded in the St. James Hotel sessions of 1929-1930 called Ridgel’s Fountain Citians. It’s mainly funny novelty songs.

It was considered an ideal place to live, and a couple of generations of very wealthy people built big houses on Black Oak Ridge overlooking Fountain City. John Webb Green, who played a role in making Fountain City Park what it is, was an attorney, a sometime travel author, and a very interesting guy.

Another interesting Fountain Citizen was Lucy Curtis Templeton. One of the News-Sentinel’s best columnists. She had wide-ranging interests in natural and cultural matters, and sometimes was bold enough to say things others would not. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, she often wrote about Fountain City for a Knoxville audience.

And then, in our time, it was known for Litton’s—

J.J.: My grandmother and mother described it as a very slow-paced, almost bucolic collection of middle-class homes and agriculture, at least until the 1950s. Is this accurate?

JACK: That sounds pretty accurate, and that’s why a lot of people who work in Knoxville like to sleep in Fountain City. But with a few exceptions. Roy Acuff, probably the most famous person who ever grew up in Fountain City—he was a Central High athletic champ—was a local bootlegger before he began drawing crowds as a fiddler. He was arrested a few times, for gambling, bootlegging, and at least once for assault. This isn’t in any of his biographies, but in 1930 he was shot and wounded in a fight in a bootlegging joint called the Green Lantern on Hotel Ave. I never heard a word about that until about five years ago, when I ran across it in an old newspaper article from 1930. In his Country Music documentary, Ken Burns didn’t make Roy sound nearly as interesting as he was.

Harvey Broome was a Fountain City resident when he was helping to found the national Wilderness Society, which was considered pretty radical by 1930s standards.  

Broadway cutting through the Fountain City in 1940. Source: McClung Historical Collection

J.J.: In the post-War era, Fountain City seems to have little going on besides the normal, day-to-day happenings of its residents as economic growth fueled a larger population?

JACK: There was a white supremacist rally planned for Fountain City Park during the Clinton High crisis, around 1956, organized by some national players, including Ace Carter from Alabama. John Webb Green, in his 90s, was son of a Confederate officer killed in the war, but didn’t want that to happen to his favorite park. So as a lawyer he found some legal way to bar them from entering the park itself. So they held the rally in the ditch alongside Broadway. 

Litton’s has gotten some national attention, to a degree unusual for a Knoxville restaurant.

You never know. In hindsight, it’s interesting how country music, and lots of talented, innovative performers were at work in Knoxville under the radar. That was the case with Roy in Fountain City, 90 years ago, and maybe somebody’s quietly up to something equally remarkable today.

J.J.: Am I missing any major events, scandals, or larger trends?

JACK: Probably, but I am, too. There’s the big annexation of 1962, and the funeral parade. There were massive annexations all around suburban Knoxville that year, but Fountain City is the only one that protested. The lamented Creamery. Bel Caro, and the whole McClung gothic drama. Holbrook College, the teachers school that was there for several years. And there’s Dr. Jim Tumblin, KHP’s 2020 historian-of-the-year honoree, who knows a lot more than I do. 

Editors note: As you can see, this article could have covered a LOT more ground if we’d had the time. But that’s one of the best things about a regular column — we can (and will) always circle back around and take a closer look at any of the people, places and events alluded to here. We hope you enjoyed Hard Knox Histories and can’t wait to share our next installment on July 23, when we plan on taking a look at ways in which Knox County residents have tried to beat the summer’s heat over the last 230 years or so.

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

Jack Neely can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com

Published on July 9, 2021

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