by Jack Neely
The louvered shutters on the two-story brick house sag to a degree that seems almost artful, as if designed for a haunted-house movie. The old boxwoods that screen the front veranda are grown wild and tall. A photograph of it wouldnâ’t suggest this patch of clearing is just a few yards away from the noise of Kingston Pike, near Cedar Bluff.
Old houses on preservationistsâ’ agendas tend to get mouthfuls for names: This one is the â“Kennedy-Baker-Walker-Sherrill House.â” Max Sherrill, well-known dairy farmer, died in 1962. For the last 45 years, the house was occupied mainly by his widow and her children from a previous marriage. The last of the Sherrills, who had occupied the house since the 1940s, left it early this year.
The house, and its enormous private forest behindâ"105 acres of dense woodsâ"are soon to be part of a mixed-use development of retail, offices, and residences. An Atlanta developer has convinced Knox Heritage that theyâ’ll preserve the integrity of the house, among the oldest on Kingston Pike.
It was once the home of Dr. William Baker, celebrated extractor of intestinal stones. In 1856 he was one of a team of local surgeons who performed what has been described as medical historyâ’s third successful hysterectomy. Dr. Baker moved out here soon afterward, and for a short time he maintained his practice in the small western additionâ"and kept a horse farm adjacent to his brother and fellow physician Harvey Bakerâ’s property. The Bakers were secessionists; in 1864, a rogue Union soldier shot Dr. Harvey Baker to death in his own home, now known as the Baker-Peters House. His son Abner returned from the war and shot a man downtown, allegedly because he believed the man was his fatherâ’s murderer. A mob promptly lynched Abner Baker for the crime. Dr. William Baker died at 64, just weeks after his nephewâ’s lynching.
That particular Dr. Baker had no children, but his house eventually became home to some descendants of his murdered brother Harvey. One day last week, three of Harvey Bakerâ’s great-great grandchildren returned to the house. Lois Brink and Marti Blincoe, Atlanta women in their mid-â’50s, and Jeff Walker of Loudon, whoâ’s a few years older, knew the house wellâ"their three mothers had grown up there, and they had been raised on the houseâ’s stories. Until last week, though, none of the three first cousins had ever set foot in the house. The last residents did not welcome visitors.
The old house has put up with some degree of neglect. The walls of the original front are five bricks thick. Inside, the place has unusual, broad hardwood floors, muffled by an ugly yellow carpet that was probably once Harvest Gold. The floor is littered with newspapers and magazines. One pile of papers has news of a new Worldâ’s Fair downtown. An unusual octagonal bannister leads upstairs.
The two women walk from one room to another as if theyâ’re familiar with the place. â“This was our Aunt Annie Bakerâ’s room,â” Lois says. â“She never married.â” They find their mothersâ’ bedrooms handily. One of the sisters, Jeff Walkerâ’s mother Clara, is still alive at age 89 and living in Winston-Salem, but she didnâ’t make this trip.
â“This was a great big red-brick fireplace,â” Marti says of one now-ordinary fireplace in one of the front rooms. â“My aunt could walk into it until she was 7.â” They locate the cellar and the water pump theyâ’d heard about. A porch where the girls had learned to roller skate is now closed in. For a time in the 1930s, when Kingston Pike was a national tourist route, the Walkers ran a roadside tea room.
Most of the conveyed memories are funny. â“My mother learned to drive in the front yard,â” Marti says. â“My mother tried to drive a Model-T Ford around the circular driveway, but her tree swing linked into the back axle, and lifted the car up.â”
Lois says that her grandmother would send her mother out to kill a chicken. â“She didnâ’t like it,â” she says. â“She couldnâ’t bring herself to wring its neck,â” and usually ended up annoying the bird.
Marti adds, â“My mother had to go out and finish it off.â”
The cousins are here today thanks to Mike Price, a former UT Vols football star now in real-estate development. Also along is Kim Trent, director of Knox Heritage; sheâ’s been negotiating the salvation of the antebellum house for months.
Trent originally wanted to save the unusual clapboard-sided, metal-roofed barn, but never found a way to get it to fit into the developersâ’ plans. â“You take what you can get,â” she says. Sheâ’s confident the house will be saved, with less compromise than William Bakerâ’s brotherâ’s house nearby, which was saved but with a filling station in the front yard.
For the three cousins, the afternoon is an emotional reunion with a place theyâ’d visited only in stories. Thereâ’s only one disappointment. Jeff Walker has long heard about one particular brick, said to be high in the wall, near a front corner, and inscribed with the date of construction, 1849. He looks and looks, but canâ’t make it out. Heâ’ll look some more.
Behind, the clearing gives way to vines and thick woods. Dull lumps in the topography turn out, on close inspection, to be automobiles. At least seven of them are the skeletal remains of rusty but still voluptuous old Mercedes of the â‘50s and â‘60s, most of them hard to identify within the undergrowth that has almost claimed them. Thereâ’s whatâ’s left of a Triumph GT6, several others. One of the latter-day residents was a car collector. There may be many more in the woods.
Beyond that still, the deep undergrowth is almost impenetrably dense. You get disoriented, find it hard even to locate the narrow path that lured you in. But itâ’s littered with unlikely relics, perhaps of forgotten mall thefts: a dirt-caked cell phone here, a designer satchel there. At least one squatter has built a secluded house back there, of paneling and pressboard and tarp, with a flag out front. Itâ’s an idyllic spot. Known to neighbors as Willie, he has outdoor furniture on his front porch, and keeps his door locked when heâ’s out. Until itâ’s gone, itâ’s the most relaxing-looking home in West Knoxville.
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