I had to hear this story twice. I didn't believe it the first time.
It happened, or I'm happier to say, almost happened, in the Seven Islands area of Southeast Knox County. There's no part of Knox County prettier than the Seven Islands area, on either side of the French Broad River. It's a region of well-kept country homes and honest-looking working farms. Out here, farms look like they're supposed to look, in geography textbooks, with old barns and old guys running tractors and well-fed, contented-looking livestock. Out here, the city seems very far away, and perhaps unnecessary.
One of the area's biggest landowners is a Dr. William Hovis, an orthopedic surgeon who runs a modest cattle farm in the Huffaker's Ferry stretch of the banks of the French Broad. On his property are several structures, most of which he has a practical use for, some of which he doesn't. By all accounts he thought he was doing his community a favor when he offered to burn one of them down, for the spectacle of it and to give the Seymour Volunteer Fire Department a little practice. It was to be a jolly weekend event, a rare little festival, advertised as family-friendly, no smoking or drinking allowed. The department expressed their gratitude in an article in a community newspaper. If not for that and a concerned neighbor, the Metropolitan Planning Commission might not have caught wind of it.
Ann Bennett is the MPC's authority on historic houses. Ann knew the two-story white frame house, had catalogued it herself back in the 1983, when it was owned by a couple who were proud of it and kept it up. But they later died, and Dr. Hovis, who has assembled a country estate on the banks of the French Broad, acquired it. Hovis has recently dismantled two outbuildings on the property, reputedly a blacksmith's shop and a slave cabin. He figured there would be no big problem if he burned down the main house itself. What Bennett knew and the house's owner perhaps did not was that the house—the one they were preparing to burn down for fire-putting-out practice—has been there since the administration of Andrew Jackson. The house, once the Huffaker home, dates to around 1832.
Bennett and Knox Heritage director Kim Trent went out there, four days before the event, and found they'd already bulldozed part of the foundation of the house, apparently to load dry straw into it, to make for a more dependable and spectacular fire. Bennett and Trent are used to trying to convince people that 50 or 60-year-old houses may be historic and worth saving. It's been a good while since they've had to convince a property owner to reconsider destroying an antebellum house. In fact, as they informed the doctor's representative, it's illegal. Destroying a house built before 1865 without the approval of the local government, in this case, Knox County Commission, is a violation of state law.
To be fair, the house had long ago been subject to an ungraceful addition in the back, and had been covered with siding. Dr. Hovis' view was that there was little left of the original structure, and he maybe did not know what Bennett and Trent found, that the original structure, the sturdy house that witnessed the first steamboats to navigate the French Broad, was intact.
Knox County, founded in 1792, is one of the oldest communities in the Southern interior, but has very little to show from its vigorous first half-century. If a landowner doesn't like historic buildings, he or she has lots and lots of options in Knox County. The overwhelming majority of houses in Knox County are of no historical or architectural interest whatsoever. In all of Knox County, from here to Farragut, there are close to 100,000 houses. Of them, fewer than 20 are as old as the Huffaker house.
And of that tiny number, frame houses are a particular rarity. Bennett confirms that hardly half a dozen frame houses from that long ago still remain intact in Knox County.
That in itself makes the Huffaker house worth a long second thought. But this particular house may have a unique distinction. I'm not certain about this connection to a historic American, but it's a question that needs to be answered before the big blaze. Several years ago in these pages, I wrote a feature story called "Appalachian Aviators," about three Knoxville-area inventors who each worked on the subject of powered human flight, building prototype airplanes, before the Wright Brothers' achievement at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Of those three, the most influential was Edward Huffaker (1856-1937). A genuine scientist of aviation, Huffaker worked closely with Samuel Langley and Octave Chanute on various aspects of the theory of flying. According to some accounts by aviation historians who know the story better than I do, Huffaker made important contributions to the study of powered flight, in part through exploring the Bernouli principle, especially as it concerns wing design. He and Chanute built a successful glider in 1896. Huffaker's essay, "On Soaring Flight," became a standard text for aviation pioneers. The Wright Brothers studied it.
His summer working with the Wrights at Kitty Hawk in 1901 was probably not the high point of his career; everything went wrong, and they got on each others' nerves and parted on bad terms. (Huffaker's biography is called The Unwelcome Assistant.)
We know that Huffaker was a member of the family that left its name on this part of the French Broad. We know that Huffaker spent his earliest years right here, near Huffaker Ferry. We know that this house was here at the time, and associated with the Huffaker family.
Was Edward Huffaker born in this house that almost got burned down, for show, a couple of weekends ago? Did he grow up here? At this point, I can just say that I'm not sure he didn't.