How Did Knox County's Bluegrass Community Get its Name?

Dear Doc Knox:

I was researching the areas from the censuses and came across the article "Tracking Down the Mythical Paper Mill of Papermill Drive" by Dr. Z. Heraclitus Knox. I was wondering if he could come up with an answer for the Bluegrass community in West Knoxville, est. about 1895. It appears it was once part of the Ebenezer Post Office area but that's about all I can gather. Other than it being the name for a school, I was wondering if there was some other underlying reason for its name.

T.F. Lawhorn

My Dear Mr. Lawhorn:

Place names in rural areas are a challenge to research. On a fascinating 1895 map of Knox County, downtown's streets and neighborhood names look familiar, but the countryside is full of odd names of exotic-sounding places. Bermuda, Hercules, Virtue, Mabel, Kangaroo: those were all rural communities in Knox County, 125 years ago. How were they named? Search me. There's no way to look them up. A century ago, archivists were rare and lived mostly lived in the city. The history of much of the countryside is mysterious, and may remain so.

Even the late Ron Allen, whose almost-comprehensive book Knox-Stalgia is the definitive source for most local name origins, may have been stumped by your question. His book cites the Blue Grass (two words) Post Office, which operated from 1895 to 1904, as an early use of the name, followed by the Blue Grass School, which opened in 1923. He hazarded no guess about that place name's specific origin.

Perhaps not quite as hard to guess about as Kangaroo, though, Bluegrass might well have been known for its bluegrass. Not the music, of course—Knox County's Bluegrass community is at least half a century older than bluegrass music, which first emerged with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, formed in the late 1930s. The word had not been associated with music before Mr. Monroe, who used it to honor his home, the Bluegrass State of Kentucky.

However, the grass itself, known to scientists as poa pratensis, does not respect state lines. It was known as an ideal grazing grass for livestock, which was the main business in West Knox for more than a century, when the Bluegrass area was home to many more cattle than people. Bluegrass, as you may know, is actually quite green, but gets its name for the bluish husk of its seed.

The proposal that Bluegrass, the community, is named for bluegrass, the grass, is a guess, but be assured it's an excellent one.

It may be interesting that one of Knox County's Bluegrass area's most prominent figures, Col. George Washington Mabry (1823-1912), who ran a 900-acre farm from his Kingston Pike home—he was founding president of the Knox County Farmers' Club—was a staunch opponent of bluegrass. In 1871, as smaller minds were still fussing about the late Civil War, Mabry argued publicly against the use of bluegrass, which he considered a vile weed impossible to control or eradicate.

His brother-in-law (actually his sister-in-law's brother-in-law) Rev. Charles Wellington Charlton (1829-1889), Methodist minister and grange organizer who ran several Knox County farms—but was never closely associated with the Bluegrass area—argued fiercely in favor of the noble herbage. "For pasturage, bluegrass has no superior," Charlton declared.

Dr. Z. Heraclitus Knox

Dear Dr. Knox,

I have a question related to something you posted a couple of years ago in response to a question about John Williams' home on Riverside Drive.

We were in Knoxville recently, visiting my 107-year-old grandmother, Katie Bell House, and went sightseeing. At one point we ended up on Riverside Drive, and went past this house. I really wanted to stop, but was forbidden from doing so by my mother. I took some photos from the car, as it is indeed an amazing house. Do you have any idea what has happened to it since you posted about it (April 2010)? I hate the idea of it becoming a Dollar General or something. :-(

Also, what can you tell me about the amazing homes that used to line Melrose Place? My grandparents lived there, and I fondly remember visiting as a child.

Thank you,

Julia House

My Dear Ms. House,

The Williams house on Riverside Drive is owned by its occupants, a couple who reportedly love the place and won't sell it, but can't fix it up right now. We hope it survives until they have a change in fortunes.

Melrose Place is a melancholy story. The University of Tennessee acquired the neighborhood through eminent domain about 50 years ago, and razed most of it for new construction. Among the casualties was Melrose itself, the antebellum Italianate hilltop home that gave the street its name. Once home of Thomas O'Conner, the banker who was shot to death in the gunfight with the two Josephs Mabry in 1882, it accommodated his widow in style for some 40 years afterward. At one time, the house had an extravagant lawn feature, a concrete lake. Long gone, it's the lake for which Lake Avenue is named.

Fortunately, the Tyson House is still there, an 1890s mansion renovated to early 20th-century tastes in 1915—and a few others a couple of blocks to the west, including the unusual Hopecote Cottage, built in 1924.

Dr. Z. Heraclitus Knox

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