secret_history (2006-35)

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Real walls, St. James recordings, trout tenderloin, and maternal persuasion

by Jack Neely

Actual concrete-block walls are rising on the downtown movie-theater project. Financing questions remain, but it’s a relief just to see the blocks and mortar. Whatever it becomes, or doesn’t become, it’s now past any graceful return.

If it had followed the pattern of other major projects of the last dozen years or so, especially those planned with government participation, it would have been converted, at the last minute, to a parking lot.  

You may remember the original federal building project at Gay and Church, and later the county justice center between State and Central. Both involved demolishing useful historic buildings for grand new government-assisted buildings; both ended up as surface parking lots.

It’s a local tradition, going back at least to the ‘50s. There comes a point in the construction process—and it always seems to be right after all the historic buildings have been demolished for the grand new building in the architects’ renderings—when planners say, “Gosh, building is hard!” and just pave a parking lot instead. In downtown Knoxville, the big-project default setting is “Parking Lot.”

Actual walls make that eventuality look less likely. We’ll have at least a building of some sort. Maybe even the first cinema downtown in 30 years.

You may have heard stories about the recordings made in 1929 and 1930 at the old St. James Hotel on Wall Avenue in downtown Knoxville. Over the years, I’ve run across bits of them on CD collections of country, blues, and even jazz. It was a surprisingly motley group of musicians who walked into the St. James, ranging from Uncle Dave Macon, already famous at the time as Nashville’s first big country star; the romping string jazz of Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong, long before they were famous; Leola Manning, whose haunting blues were so spiritual she didn’t like to call them blues.

Jeff Bills, former drummer for the legendary V-Roys, now the man in charge of Lynn Point Records, deserves knighthood for a great service to music heritage in Knoxville. With the help of music and film archivist Brad Reeves, he has established a website from which we can hear and download many of the St. James recordings. They form not only a missing link in the development of popular music during its fascinating formative era. They’re also a rare snapshot of the history of Knoxville, which is a good deal more complicated than people try to make it.

Included on the website are articles by country-music historian Charles K. Wolfe and others about the significance of some of these early folks.

I’d like to see a commercial release of these on a CD sometime, but for now, this is the next-best thing. Have a look, and listen, at .

A few weeks ago, the same Brad Reeves was rummaging around in a Dumpster near Market Square, not a block from where the old St. James used to stand. He’s a young healthy guy with a family and a good job, and doesn’t have to climb into Dumpsters to survive. But archivists are scavengers by nature and can’t always help it.

On the northwest corner of the square, they’ve been clearing out the upper floor of the Gus’s building. People who’ve been around downtown for a decade or so may remember it as Peroulas; those who’ve been around much longer than that will remember it as the Gold Sun. It was a Greek-owned place, at one time open around the clock.

One of the things Brad saw when he peered into the Dumpster was some old menus. Small black leatherette things, not much bigger than a passport. The lettering on them looks 1930s. The menu offers no prices, which were apparently applied in some sort of insert as they changed. Just that’s interesting. It’s a time capsule of what we used to eat.

The Gold Sun did a lot of business in steaks: T-Bone, Porterhouse, Hamburger Steak. Fried onions, mushrooms, tomato sauce and “Spanish Sauce” extra. They offered a few things you don’t see as often as you used to, veal cutlets, lamb chops, even veal chops. For breakfast, “Milk Toast,” rarely employed today except as a metaphor. Among the drinks was Postum, which I know only from old magazine ads. And when was the last time you saw “Buttermilk” on a downtown menu?

Under beverages, the menu also lists “Pop,” belying claims of some linguists that the term pop is strictly Yankee for what Southerners call “Coke.” It’s apparently an old Knoxville term. We just stopped using it.

Reeves found another, larger, laminated menu that appears to represent a much-later era, probably 1950s or ’60s, guessing by the design. It does include prices. “Home-made chili, served year-round,” 55 cents. “Real Italian Spaghetti, delicious meat sauce and Romano cheese,” $1.20. “T-Bone Steak, Man’s Favor, one pound,” $4.75, with salad and fries. They served fried shrimp, fried oysters, “fresh oyster stew” and “Fried Boneless Tenderloin Trout.”

I love trout, but have never tasted its tenderloin; it sounds intriguing. But then there’s “Fried Baby Beef Liver with Onions.” One of the great advantages of the 21st century is never having to confront the option of liver, baby or otherwise.

On that later menu is the claim, “Knoxville’s Oldest Restaurant…Established 1907.” That title was habitually claimed by Regas, founded as the Ocean Café in 1917. But 1907, the year the city banned liquor, was the year 37 Market Square suddenly switched from a liquor store to a Greek-owned restaurant, a heritage maintained at the same address for over 90 years, in its latter years as Peroulas. Gus’s, which is still there, serves gyros in homage.

Reeves also found what appears to be a journal of some sort, partly written in Greek. Fortunately for Greek heritage, and for Knoxville’s underrecorded restaurant heritage, he donated it all to the McClung Collection.

And speaking of McClung, one of that historical collection’s prizes is a letter from Febb Esminger Burn, of Niota, to her son, Harry T. Burn. It was just before the big vote in the Legislature over the 19th amendment, the one that gives women the right to vote. The younger Burn was the state legislator whose unexpected pro-suffrage vote brought Tennessee into the 19th-amendment fold in August, 1920. That, in turn, assured the amendment’s passage on a national level.

That letter from a mother exhorting her son to do the right thing arguably gave all American women the right to vote. It might have happened sooner or later—but thanks to Burn, and his mother, it happened in 1920. The historic relic is rarely shown in public, and originally planners of the current suffrage exhibit at the Museum of East Tennessee History did not intend to include it. But as of this past weekend, it’s there. It will only be on display at the East Tennessee History Center downtown for about a month. Have a look. It’s a case study in effective persuasion.