Our Auld Acquaintance be Farragut

The wandering legacy of our most celebrated seaman

A few weeks ago, I was tagging along with participants in a photography project. One photographer, a newcomer to downtown, was amused that Gay Street has something called the Farragut Building—being, as it is, 20 miles away from Farragut, Tenn. The nine-story brick building is now home to Obama headquarters and an interesting-looking new crepes-and-coffee establishment called the French Market. To this neophyte, the fact that an imposing downtown building might be named for a low-tax suburban refuge some regard as the Anti-Downtown was worth a wry chuckle. As if, a little further down Gay Street, there might also be a Turkey Creek Building.

It's more complicated than that, but I didn't want to seem like a know-it-all. "Haw, haw," I said.

Now, given the recent interest in establishing Farragut's precise birthplace—which is, inevitably, in the path of a proposed West Knox development—I thought somebody should add some background.

Admiral David Glasgow Farragut's legacy was kind of a sleeper in his native county. His Spanish-immigrant father, Jorge Farragut, had been one of Knoxville's first settlers, lived near Second Creek for several years, but moved out west, to operate a river ferry east of Concord, just before the future admiral was born in 1801. When the elder Farragut got offered administrative work in New Orleans—President Jefferson was keen to get Spaniards to represent the federal government in Louisiana, where Anglos were despised—the family left Knox County forever. Young David was little known until more than half a century later, when he became the U.S. Navy's first admiral, and a major Union hero of the Civil War.

By the end of the war, the fact that Farragut was born here was mainly a curiosity, a footnote in thick gray state-history tomes. Near the end of Farragut's life, he corresponded with some Knoxville admirers who'd invited him to revisit his birthplace. "He expressed his gratitude for the invitation," remarked the Knoxville Chronicle, "and in befitting terms alluded to the home of his childhood." He never made it back.

His death in August, 1870, brought a flurry of interest among Knoxville's cadre of former Union men to commemorate him somehow. Three days after his death, a committee of citizens including Republican Congressman Horace Maynard and journalist-cleric-academic Thomas Humes convened at the courthouse.

None of them remembered him. All the memorializers had been born after the Farraguts left town. They were confused about the precise spot of his birth, and of the spelling of his middle name. (They preferred "Glascoe.") But their admiration was sincere, and they came up with the following wording:

"Be it resolved...the American people have cause of unalloyed satisfaction and pride, as well as deep gratitude to the Almighty Ruler of the nation for his gift of a great, patriotic, and good man...whose name becomes henceforth one of the brightest ornaments of their history."

But they were just words on a page in a ledger book. For the next 30 years or so, we more or less forgot Farragut again.

During that time, Knoxville was proud to be the home of various people named McGhee or McClung, but Farragut's name rarely came up. By 1881, Washington, D.C., had a prominent square named for Farragut, with his statue in the middle, and an inscription of his famous quote, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"

Knox County wasn't in the game. A giant 1895 map of Knox County lists hundreds of names you've never heard of, long-forgotten rural schools, churches, and communities, in West Knox County—Kincaid Station, Eddington Station, Pleasant Hill, Hart School—all near Concord or Campbell's Station. The word "Farragut" appears nowhere. By the end of the century, even the vague memorializers of 1870 were dead.

There might be nothing in Knox County named for Farragut today if not for a naval officer from Vermont named George Dewey. The hero of the recent Spanish-American War, and author of the second best-known naval quote of the latter 19th century, "You may fire when ready, Gridley," Admiral Dewey remarked that his greatest personal hero was Farragut. Dewey wanted, personally, to memorialize Farragut, 30 years after his death, at his birthplace. Wherever that was.

Dewey was lucky anybody had a general idea. That area outside of Concord was sparsely populated a century after the Farraguts lived here; their likely homeplace was best known as Lowe's Ferry, one of the main ferries across the river.

In May, 1900, Dewey came and presided over a Naval-scale flotilla of riverboats from downtown Knoxville to Concord to plant the monument. Press came from all over the world; Knoxville swelled with pride, and began naming things for Farragut.

One of the first things named in the wake of Dewey's visit was a new school in West Knox County at the corner of Kingston Pike and Concord Road: Farragut School, originally an elementary and high school with an agricultural emphasis, opened in early 1904. The community there remained known as Campbell's Station, as least for a while.

Meanwhile, Knoxville went Farragut-mad. By 1910, an old cabin from Lowe's Ferry had materialized in East Knoxville's Chilhowee Park, touted as the "Farragut Cabin." The grand new hotel at the corner of Gay and Clinch in 1919, Knoxville's first big hotel project since Dewey's visit, was a 300 room palace named the Farragut. Several businesses associated with the hotel—the Farragut Millinery, the Farragut Barber Shop, the Farragut Billiard Hall, the Farragut Cigar Stand, the Farragut Coffee Room, the Farragut Taxi Co.—were in or near the hotel.

Farragut Tire and Battery was a few blocks down Gay Street. The Farragut Lumber Co. was headquartered on Market Street; its lumberyard was on 6th Avenue, just northeast of downtown. Later, the Farragut Drug. Co.'s two locations were a few miles northwest of downtown, on Central Avenue Pike. Many remember the Farragut Cafe, on Church Avenue.

Only later in the century, thanks mainly to the school and its location on Kingston Pike, did the word come to be associated mainly with a suburban community to the west. But make fun of the Farragut Building if you want to. It's kind of a long story.