Shopping at Knoxville's Intriguing Salvage Yards

For some time I've been meaning to write about three especially thrilling salvage yards in town, their rickety outbuildings and crowded aisles full of history, whimsy, and intrigue. These salvage yards are all are second- and third-generation locally-owned businesses, and all their stock is recycled.

• Knox Rail Salvage is the most popular of the three. It's bright yellow signs are iconic, especially the yellow-painted tower visible from the Interstate.

Knox Rail has two locations downtown: the main store at 200 East Magnolia Ave., and a second store that focuses mainly on building materials at 400 E. Jackson Ave., east of Barley's Taproom & Pizzeria.

Knox Rail was started by Walter Carter and Mike Frazier over 30 years ago, and is still owned by Frazier. Often, shoppers may find Nancy Frazier Harbison, Mike's daughter, behind the counter at the Fifth Avenue store. The large brick warehouse is busy—a steady stream of customers, and the phone ringing off the hook. The Fifth Avenue store has a hodgepodge of household items and fixtures. It is possible to use it like a Target, and I often do, knocking out a varied shopping list on one trip: door mat, socks, school supplies, birthday party decorations. An especially pleasing find were 1986 paper ALF plates, still in plastic wrap.

Where do they get their stock?

"Everywhere," Harbison says. "Train wrecks, truck wrecks, fires. It used to be 80-85 percent salvage."

Now Harbison says it is mostly brand-new "first quality" overstock or overruns.

All the plywood in our renovated house came from Knox Rail's lumberyard, every piece stamped "REJECT," but still perfectly usable.

• Salvage Lumber at 2711 Western Ave. is the oldest of my favorite salvage yards, started in 1946 by Henry Risner. At first, Salvage Lumber was really three businesses: demolition, landfill, and salvage.

Sam Armstrong, current owner and grandson of Risner, says for a while they did almost all of the city's demolition work.

"Anytime you see a building downtown that isn't there no more, it was probably us," says Armstrong.

They still have a black metal clock, not for sale, stripped from the historic Farragut Hotel.

However one might feel about the demolition of historic buildings downtown, the locals that run Salvage Lumber have deep roots in Knoxville as players in the city's complicated history with demolition and preservation.

Armstrong complains that when the city started doing their own demolition, small demolition/salvage companies went out of business. Now Salvage Lumber has shrunk to just the salvage yard—a little over five acres of countless toilets, tubs, sinks, and, of course, lumber, including some locally harvested and milled pine boards. Red brick they sell by the piece, 75 cents each.

• Burnett's Salvage Yard at 1220 Prosser Road is the most inaccessible, the weirdest, and the most rewarding. It's seven acres of a surreal, post-civilization dreamscape at the end of a pitted winding road through brownfields and bare-limbed forests. Visitors drive through metal wrought-iron gates and emerge into a parking lot surrounded by muddy fields of tubs and appliances—detritus from ordinary life, bizarre and lonesome-looking taken out of context.

Right away, you notice the enormous silver eagles and the Statues of Liberty. The largest lady liberty stands approximately 7 feet tall, costs $745, and is already wired for an electric torch.

Burnett's is a third-generation business, started by L.E. Burnett in the 1960s, then passed to his son, Earl. It is now owned by Carol Warren, Earl's daughter. Like Salvage Lumber, Burnett's used to do demolition and salvage. Three years ago they quit doing demolition.

The architectural salvage from demolished buildings hold the richest stories. The first time I visited, I discovered a wooden Victorian door, tall and stately, still covered in Hannah Montana stickers—a kid's bedroom door, as late as the early 2000s.

Behind Burnett's office trailer, a row of semi trailers sit parked, doors agape. Shoppers may scramble into them and poke around. In one of these trailers I found a real treasure: two 1-foot by 7-foot, red-and-gold stained-glass sidelights from a demolished restaurant, now transoms in my house.

I love these salvage yards for the melancholy pieces of long-gone buildings, the curious and useful things one can find, and the thrill of spelunking through the stacks.