Cowan Rodgers and the End of an Era

Maybe GM's decision to shut down a Cadillac dealership in West Knoxville is none of my business. Somehow I've made it deep into middle age without ever having shopped for a Cadillac. Reporters rarely find themselves driving new Cadillacs, but the phenomenon may be extreme in my case. I haven't set foot in any auto showroom in 20 years. Sometimes I get off the bus and find there's an unfamiliar car in the driveway, another old one my wife found somewhere for about the cost of a vet bill. And when I need to drive a car, I find the key for one of those, and it works all right.

Still, this summer I'm finding reason to regret the end of Rodgers Cadillac. Rodgers claimed to be, and credibly, the oldest automobile dealership in the South. That's one of those distinctions you hate to lose. Its name was a thriving connection with a remarkable guy.

If you have a picture in your mind of the sort of guy who starts a West Knoxville Cadillac dealership, just delete it. It doesn't apply to Cowan Rodgers.

Born in Knoxville in 1878, Cowan Rodgers went to the University of Tennessee, and by the time he was 20, he was best known as an athlete. He was a boxer, a bicyclist, a football player, but he excelled as a tennis player. We may not think of Knoxvillians of the 1890s playing a lot of tennis, but Rodgers was said to be the first Tennessean ever to be Southern Tennis Champion, whatever that meant.

He had keen instincts for the approaching 20th century. He loved to work on machines, especially when he could combine that with sports, and in the late 1890s he was working in the Biddle Brothers bicycle and machine shop at 110 East Vine. Rodgers was a middle-class white guy from a comfortable family on the west side of town, but his shop was in a mixed-race neighborhood that was noisy, dangerous, and fascinating. The Bowery, the saloon and cocaine district, was only a couple of rolls of a beer keg away. Central Street, ca. 1900, may have had an annual murder tally higher than the whole city's today.

But it was right there that Cowan Rodgers built the first gasoline-powered automobile ever seen in Knoxville, maybe as early as 1899. I try to think of that every time I'm driving one of my wife's cars, stuck behind a bicyclist who thinks he's going plenty fast, at 18 mph, that the guy who introduced the automobile to Knoxville built it in his bicycle shop.

He built two or three, but by 1901, he was convinced he'd never compete with the likes of Henry Ford, who founded his company that year.

Cowan Rodgers became an agent, first selling "Locomobile Steam Carriages." For its first several years, Rodgers sold gasoline engines, sometimes separately, and also carried bicycles and even sewing machines.

One thing you'll notice about Knoxville's earliest automobilists is that they tended to be young guys, often athletes. Before 1920 or so, driving was a sort of sport, and called for some physical stamina. You had to crank the thing just to start it, of course, but after that, there was a good chance you'd have to jack it up to fix a tire, or wrestle it out of the red-clay mud, and be handy with a wrench. And you might have to walk home. Driving wasn't for the faint of heart.

It was natural that it was attractive to a restless guy like Cowan Rodgers, who made headlines when he drove a car all the way to Chattanooga.

Cars improved, and over the years he was the local agent for several different makes: Willys, Packard, LaSalle. His dealership was downtown during his lifetime, settling in for many years on the western end of Main Street. In the 1930s, Rodgers started specializing in Cadillacs.

But Knoxville presented some problems for prospective automobilists. Low-tax Tennessee was behind the rest of the nation in building suitable roads, and Knoxville in particular was surrounded by rocky, muddy hills and creeks that made practical motoring a challenge. By 1920, there still wasn't a good solid blacktop road leading into the city. Rodgers pushed the prospect by founding the Good Roads Association, leading what some considered to be a "one-man fight" for good roads, which succeeded with Rodgers getting Straw Plains Pike paved on the east side. On the west side, he got Kingston Pike paved all the way to the Loudon County line.

At the same time, he was an officer with the Knoxville Automobile Club—which was heavily involved in developing their favorite automobile destination, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Cowan Rodgers was one of the leaders of the original Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, and can be included among the founders of the park movement.

He had other business interests, went into banking, but never got very far away from the horseless carriage. Even by the early 1930s, the Rodgers Co. was advertising itself as "the Oldest Automobile Dealership in the Southland."

He did so much you might wonder why there's not more named for him than the auto dealership he founded. Knoxville loves so many of the things Rodgers accomplished that you'd think there would be a statue or a foundation or something in his honor.

My theory is that local history is prejudiced against one sort of person. Something went wrong in his later life. I don't know what it was, but in 1936, at age 58, Cowan Rodgers shot himself.

It was the Depression, maybe. His family blamed it on "insomnia" and "worry and ill health." Suicide was common then, maybe more common than it is now. But we tend to stop talking about people whose lives end that way.

The spot where Cowan Rodgers built our first automobile was just across First Creek from the new Downtown Dog Park. Is that a sufficiently dignified place for a memorial to the guy who put Knoxville on wheels?