The Last of Their Kinds

An iron lightpole ornament, an airplane filling station, and commemorations at the last master of string jazz

Secret History

by Jack Neely

Mark Heinz, the young architect-developer originally from Philadelphia, has been working with David Dewhirst on some big projects downtown, especially the Cherokee Building and the mammoth Holston. Mark knows some things about Knoxville history that I don't.

When I described the mysterious ancient iron light pole on Union Avenue, near Locust Street, with the iron ball and spike ornament on top reminiscent of World War I, a question that had baffled authorities at KUB and the city, Mark was the only one who responded with specific information.

He compared some old postcards of Gay Street and noticed that sometime between 1910 and 1920, all the city's utility poles changed. In the earliest era of electricity and telephones, utility poles were these big, multi-crossbar wooden things that look like the masts of Chinese junks, each burdened with enough wires to blot out the sun.

In the late teens, around the time of World War I, Mark says, the ball-and-spike capped metal utility poles materialized all over downtown. When the city laid power lines underground, he says, the city replaced the old, overburdened wooden poles with these simpler, sportier iron ones that each had a decorative streetlight and only a couple of power or telephone lines and, now and then, assistance to a streetcar wire.

So the light pole on Union is probably about 90 years old. Mark adds that until recently, there was another one near the Dewhirst Properties office, on Gay Street near Jackson Avenue, that disappeared during the viaduct redo a couple of years ago.

The remaining one on the west end of Union is in a neighborhood that, 90 years ago, was still mostly residential. The pole's on the edge of a parking lot next to the Daylight Building now, but when it went up, by my calculations, it was in the front yard of Gen. Cary Spence, trunk magnate, conservationist, and World War I hero. Or maybe along the line between his property and that of Raymond Lovell, proprietor of Lovell's Electro-Turkish Baths, in two locations downtown.

It's funny, though. During the same era that we decided Prince Street was too reminiscent of the German Kaiser, who was a prince of some sort, and changed the name of the street to Market, we were simultaneously installing telephone poles that looked a lot like the Kaiser's helmet.

Everybody's favorite airplane filling station got some national exposure last week, in a short article in the National Trust's e-magazine, Preservation Online . The article outlines erstwhile barber Rock Bernard's efforts to save the Powell Airplane on Clinton Highway, which is depicted handsomely, off the port bow, in the article. The most famous building on that otherwise practical and heavily parking-lot-besotted pike is now owned by a community group that means to raise the $100,000 to fix it up for use as an office space or possibly a visitors' center. It was built as a Texaco gas station in 1930, allegedly on a very loose version of Lindbergh's monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Except that, when first built, the filling-station airplane improved on Lindbergh's by installing an extra helicopter propeller on top. The idea wasn't historical accuracy so much as grabbing the attention of drivers of Pierce Arrows and Model As, on their way from the Midwest to Florida vacations.

In later years, the unique relic has appeared as an example in national books of roadside architecture. There's a lot of work to do. Today it serves mainly as a boardroom for the monthly meetings of the Airplane Filling Station Preservation Association. The seven-member group convened last week in the cockpit. One member remarks that, with folding chairs and no lights, it's something like a â“clubhouse.â”

Besides the Sunsphere, it may be the only architecturally unique building in Knox County. It's the sort of thing we ought to celebrate. You can support it, in a small way, by buying an Airplane Filling Station T-shirt at the tourist-center gift shop downtown, and elsewhere.

The Carpetbag Theatre's resourceful thespian Linda Parris Bailey recently told me about her challenging new project. For the next year or so, she'll be working up a show called â“Between a Ballad and a Blues,â” based on the unusual life, times, and music of Howard Armstrong, a.k.a. Louie Bluie. The black mandolinist and violinist, originally from LaFollette, spent much of his youth in Knoxville. He and his string-jazz band Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong, by various names, including the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, made their first radio broadcasts, and their first records, in Knoxville's legendary St. James Hotel sessions, ca. 1929-30.

There was no one like them, largely thanks to their versatile and hyperactive frontman, whose genre swung from Hawaiian, sung in Hawaiian, to the blues, sung in what he called â“my Tennessee Italianâ” as he'd learned it from immigrant ironworkers in LaFollette. Some now call it â“mountain jazz,â” but the title of Bailey's project is Armstrong's own description of his music, vague enough to allow himself some room to roam.

During his life, the complicated Armstrong was the subject of two differentâ"one might almost say contraryâ"documentaries, both of which were broadcast nationally on PBS. He lived the American 20th century, beginning his career on the streets before the birth of commercial radio, and surviving into the 21st century; in his last years, he made some Internet broadcasts. He was one of very few performers at Knoxville's 1982 World's Fair who had also performed at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago.

He played with infectious enthusiasm, and was still performing just before he died in 2003 at the age of 94.

Bailey and Carpetbag hope to do justice to Armstrong's legacy with a popular musical drama; she has enlisted the help of Appalshop in Kentucky, as well as some of the few musicians who can do Armstrong's work justice. She sees the project as a potential â“signature pieceâ” for her venerable troupe. She has some sponsors, like the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, which has endowed the project with a $26,000 grant, but she needs a good deal more, and is hoping to raise some of it from local sources.

Coincidentally, in just a couple of weeks, a festival about 40 miles to the north will honor Armstrong's legacy. The Louie Bluie Music and Arts Festival on Saturday, June 9, at Cove Lake State Park, just off I-75 near Armstrong's childhood home of LaFollette, promises live music on three stages, one of which will feature performers old and young who either played with Armstrong or were influenced by his music. Another stage will feature traditional music, including old Roy Acuff sideman Charlie Collins, who, like his fellow Campbell Countian Armstrong, is a master of fiddle, mandolin, and guitar. Folk musician/storyteller Sparky Rucker, an old friend of Armstrong's, will also make an appearance, along with storytellers from the area's coal-mining heyday. Some of us are expecting Howard himself to show up somehow.

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