The Little House on the River

A survivor of the riverfront shacktowns of the Depression recalls her life

Write something about a community that vanished more than 65 years ago, you don't necessarily expect to hear from anyone who has much intimate experience with it. After we ran the photo story about the ramshackle Depression-era community along the downtown riverfront, though, I heard from one woman who once called it home.

Dorothy Walters, formerly Dorothy Vann, lives in West Knoxville, off Oak Ridge Highway. A retired insurance agent, among other things, she has children and grandchildren and spends much of her time with family. But she practically grew up on the river, during the Depression. She lived near the L&N trestle and what was then 17th Street, in a house cobbled together of found lumber. "Daddy caught wood out of the river" to build houses, eventually three of them. "We had no right to the land, really," she admits, but says nobody bothered them until TVA came in.

The area has changed so much that the site is hard to point to, but her neighborhood was on what's now UT's campus, near the basketball arena. In those days it had nothing to do with any university. It was a residential area that got more working class the closer you got to the river. At the edge people learned to live by their wits.

And they had seen worse. Her dad was kind of a nomad in his early days—they called him Moving Vann. Some of Dorothy's earliest memories are of living in a big tent at Burnett's Creek near the French Broad. A huge thunderstorm blew it away. A woman "in a big old fine car" found them in the driving rain and insisted on bringing them to Knoxville. They settled on the river, where some cousins already lived.

For river people, it paid to diversify. Her dad was a sometime streetcar conductor who also worked for the Oliver King Sand & Gravel Co., on the other side of the river. He also made big fishing nets, and sold them. With his nets and trotlines, he caught catfish and bluegill, and sold the ones that didn't feed the family. He was also a farmer, of sorts, and sold some produce up on Market Square. "We raised hogs," she says, "on halfs": they took care of another man's four hogs, and kept two as payment. One they'd eat; the other, they'd sell to get new shoes for the family of eight.

The kids found work, too. "We washed rich people's windows with kerosene and paper bags," she says. Mainly they learned to scavenge. "We ran the alleys with wheelbarrows" says Mrs. Walters, who has earned the right to be peppery now and then. Ask her what she means, and she may respond, "You don't know what a wheelbarrow is?" She and her brothers and sisters would patrol the back alleys, rummaging through trash. "Rich people would just throw their food away," she says, and they'd salvage it. Once the diminutive Dorothy tipped over a big can, and found herself trapped inside. "I was covered in coffee grounds and slop," she recalls. "This black lady came running and hollering." It turned out to be the kitchen maid, who took pity on Dorothy's predicament, and helped her brother pull her out of the can. She fed the kids, and gave Dorothy a bath.

"Sometimes we'd find toys and stuff that you could use in the house." When something seemed particularly valuable, her mother grilled them about its provenance; she wanted to be sure each discovery had been thrown away. "We tried to leave it nasty until we got it home."

At the L&N switchyards, nearby, they'd pick up coal that had jounced out of the cars. "There was a man named Hunnicutt that switched the trains," she says. "Bless his old heart, he'd throw coal off the car for us." It helped them survive the winters.

The family had one wooden rowboat, and ferried Mr. Vann back and forth to work at Oliver King. "We took a couple of guys back and forth who worked on the other side; they'd give us a nickel. They would have had to walk for miles, otherwise. It was just like a ferryboat, you know?"

They made do. "Daddy sometimes came home with sacks of flour and lard. Sometimes just flour, sometimes just lard, but we'd swap out" with neighbors. "Sometimes we'd have biscuits and gravy, and that's all we'd have. But sometimes we'd catch fish, and fry fish, sometimes beans. There was a spring under the L&N bridge. Everybody carried water from there."

Life on the riverbank was dramatic. She remembers a time, she thinks it was in 1934 or '35, when it was frozen solid enough for her father to walk clear across it. More often, it flooded.

"The river sometimes rose plumb up into our floor," she says. When it rose up to the floor level, they'd get out. The front was the rising river, and they didn't have a back door. She remembers having to pull planks off the back of the house to get to their boat, and escape to higher ground. "It sounds weird now," she says, "but we did that back then, and it wasn't no big deal."

One time, while running his trotlines, her father found a body, a redheaded woman who'd been in the river for a long time. Her father reported it, but they never found out where she came from.

"Then my mother was sick, and a black lady lived across the railroad, last name was Reyes, she came and helped take care of the youngest ones.

"Them were good old days," she says, even of those hard times. She remembers all her neighbors: "The Wilsons, the Jinks, the Palmers, the Robertses, the Bakers.... That's how we lived, just helping people."

Detroit was a short street that ran parallel to the river, near the football stadium. It was a heavily populated mixed-race residential street. She remembers the grocery store at Detroit and 17th. "Everybody traded at it," she says. "You'd get a little old bag of candy, suckers, chewing gum. That was the biggest treat, like getting $100."

They remained until around 1942, when Dorothy was 13. "They took everything when they made the lake, and just tore our home up." They were allowed to keep the lumber. Mr. Vann was able to scrape together enough to buy some inexpensive land off Rifle Range Road, near Fountain City. The house, built partly of the house that had sheltered them on the river, outlasted the century, but was torn down recently.

"You can look back on it and say what horrible lives did you have back then," she says. "But no, it was fun."