Sitting In With Ye Olde Burlington Gang

Once a year, an exclusive club known as Ye Olde Burlington Gang convenes at the Macedonia United Methodist Church.

Meetings are attended by some mystery. No one knows why a community known as Burlington since at least 1909 goes by the name of a town in North Carolina. Or a city in Vermont, perhaps; or a British earl.

A still-older community name, Macedonia, might seem even more mysterious: That part of East Knoxville might be named for a Balkan state, one then part of the Ottoman Empire. By most accounts it came from the Macedonia Methodist Church, which was named for a line in Acts. After a vision, Paul endeavors to build a church in a remote place called Macedonia.

The organization gathers at Macedonia to eat some fried chicken and homemade pound cake and talk about old times. Greeting each arrival is a lady named Eleanor Pickle. She is the secretary of Ye Olde Burlington Gang, YOBG for short. Everybody in the room is impressed with the age of their organization, though they're foggy about its origins, suggesting that it started back in the '40s or '50s. Miss Pickle knows exactly. "It began in 1927," she says, in a tone that leaves no room for graceful doubt. She apologizes that she does not recall that first meeting well. "I was just 6 years old," she says. She's now 90.

She knows the story, though. Burlington was proud of its 1927 baseball team. "It was a championship game, the city championship, and they got together to celebrate it. They'd get together every year. As people started dying out, they'd start inviting friends and neighbors."

She smiles. "We just kept celebrating," she says. Today no one recalls the name of the Burlington team, if it had one, but they still celebrate that 1927 championship season with a summer supper.

It's not as big a deal as it used to be, in the days when it drew hundreds, but tonight 50 attendees at the 2011 meeting of the YOBG seems like plenty.

Miss Pickle is the secretary, an elective position. She wrote out the photocopied agenda for the meeting with a firm hand. "We usually reminisce about Burlington events for a short time."

Once the eastern terminus of Knoxville's electric-streetcar system, Burlington began as a working-class neighborhood just beyond Chilhowee Park. It had some distinctive features. Burlingtonians will tell you their Five Points is the original and authentic Five Points. Speedway Circle was the suburban residential makeover of a defunct racetrack for horses and, briefly, cars. Almost a century after its last race, Speedway Circle, laid out by sporting entrepreneur Cal Johnson in the 19th century, is still a perfect half-mile oval.

Seated at a dozen tables, people do reminisce about things Burlingtonian. Pass's Five and Dime, the cherry Cokes at Greenlee Drugs, the community Christmas tree at Cox & Wright's hardware, Ruby's Café, Bunny Brichetto and the old Gay Theatre. All these attractions were once in downtown Burlington. Maybe half a mile back toward town, it's still there, at the far end of Martin Luther King Boulevard. Neglected and partly erased, it still supports a few businesses.

After a few abortive attempts, the meeting comes to order. President Jerry Hillard says a few words, opening with some grim news. YOBG is $200 in debt. He points out the "red sweetheart basket" placed beside Miss Pickle.

"If you didn't put something in when you came in, put something in when you leave. If you put something in when you came in, put some more in when you leave."

The date of the annual meeting is a matter of contention. It's traditionally on the third, but sometimes the fourth Thursday in June. The date of the 2012 meeting is the most pressing business. After some confusing discussion, an effort to move it from its traditional third Thursday to the fourth Thursday fails by six votes. Unmentioned in the discussion is the fact that this particular meeting is on the fifth Thursday.

Then Miss Pickle is reelected secretary for another year by acclamation. The presidential race is more contentious. The incumbent's reluctant to run; he says he has instituted term limits. The democracy overrules him.

"Anyone want to play piano and sing any songs?" he suggests.

Mary Eleanor Pickle, a cheerful woman in a bold-striped blouse, rises to the occasion. Eleanor Pickle's sister-in-law, she has been organist for First Baptist downtown for 43 years now, and knows her way around a keyboard. She plays "God Bless America," "My Country 'tis of Thee," the National Anthem, and "Blest Be the Ties that Bind." The crowd sings along, one verse each.

And then there's a call for recognition of "those who couldn't make it this year." From the floor come the names of six Burlingtonians who have died since the last meeting.

President Hillard adjourns the 2011 meeting. "We won't be able to outdo this next year," he says.

Former YOBG president Richard Hillard, older brother of the current president, steps outside to show a reporter his latest project. A dying church leader he calls Brother Tom asked him a favor: identify all the unidentified graves in the 14-acre graveyard out back. "That'll take me the rest of my life," he protested. "Yes, I know," responded Brother Tom. And so Hillard is at work on the matter, with help from University of Tennessee scientists. "There are 1,200 unmarked graves here," he says. "Scary, isn't it."

The cemetery dates back to a vague character named Michael Ault, or Alt, an immigrant probably from Germany, who settled here, and was buried here around 1823. The cemetery is still open to new customers. "I can lay out a grave in 30 minutes," Hillard says.

Another meeting successfully concluded, Richard Ray points across the street to a tree-shaded vacant lot with a creek flowing through it. "We called that the Muddy Creek football field," he says, when he was growing up here 50 or 60 years ago. "This part of Knoxville's changed," he says, and adds, with a smile, "But maybe not a whole lot."