No Knox Countians are more intimately connected to their roads than the people in the north. There are the big east/west arteries: Oak Ridge Highway in the northwest supplies the backdrop for a major landmark-- the Karns Red Light, the North Star by which Karnsites direct outsiders to points of interest in their community ("Turn left at the Red Light and go about a mile...").
To the east, there's the crazy aunt of all Knox County roads, Clinton Highway, sprouting trailers, juke joints, churches, dirty bookstores, used car lots (one of them lavender-themed), and a building shaped like an airplane.
Then there's Maynardville Highway, which changes its name from Broadway when it shoots the gap going north at Black Oak Ridge and gets the killer Halls traffic shoved down its throat. The two-lane stretch between Halls and Maynardville is the deadliest of county roads.
But the grandmother of all the roads in the north, the one that ties these communities together like pearls on a string, is Emory Road, which showcases the charms and the problems of living in an area that is being rapidly urbanized.
It is a road along whose vast lengths the country boys used to fly, looking for Saturday night. By day, it belonged to slow-moving farm vehicles that crawled along, heedless of what was in back of them. But that was decades and a hundred subdivisions ago, and now traffic on Emory is so heavy that only the besotted or the foolhardy try to fly, and only the most oblivious take to the road to trail strings of tooting, ticked-off motorists behind their ponderous John Deeres.
One of the oldest and longest thoroughfares in the region, the former Emory Pike slips down into Knox County from Grainger County, through Corryton in the gap between two mountains, and slides in a westerly direction through the heart of North Knox County. The ancient road, once a 10-foot wide wagon trail stretching from Virginia to Texas, bumps its narrow-shouldered way almost 40 miles across the county, adjusting its personality to suit the neighborhood. At the extreme eastern end, where Emory sports a historical marker commemorating the site where Col. John Sawyers, veteran of the Battle of Kings Mountain, established a fort on Big Flat Creek, it could be the country road setting for a John Denver video. Shortly it crosses Washington Pike, veers sharply west and comes to a stop at Harbison's Crossroads in Gibbs. It picks up speed and sophistication as it hurdles down to traffic-choked Maynardville Highway in Halls, where it slides on past Halls High School and the site of the original Halls Cross Roads at Andersonville Pike. It breezes by the new St. Mary's Hospital, crosses Norris Freeway and meanders along past Dry Gap Pike, just north of Sterchi Farms, the soon-to-be largest subdivision in the state. A short distance west there's Hoff Drive, the entrance to a subdivision built by former Schools Superintendent Earl Hoffmeister, who also lives there. Emory Road grows momentarily fat and mighty as it shoots by the I-75 exit ramps and fast-food purveyors that service the interstate. Here there are large industrial sites: Plasti-Line, a Prestige Cleaners plant, and vast piles of earth being moved to make room for more.
The old road scoots past the airfield locals call the Powell Municipal Airport. Soon it is bisected and stymied by the railroad track that once ran to Powell Station; then it squeezes through the heart of the business district and past Powell High School. It passes by the homes of the Powell Brahmins, respectfully skirting the rolling front lawns of the Gills and the Weigels on the left and the teeming 'burbs of Broadacres (formerly the state's largest subdivision) on the right, before it proceeds to garish Clinton Highway, where it doglegs north and continues down the Beaver Creek gap toward Karns.
Ambitiously-named subdivisions--Barrington, Imperial Estates, Norte Villar--slip by. A left turn at Beaver Creek funnels traffic toward the Karns Red Light, while Emory meanders northwest and dissolves temporarily into Oak Ridge Highway, reappearing a few miles north in Anderson County near the Bull Run Steam Plant after residing in Knox County for almost 40 miles.
On the BRINK
In recent years, Powell and Halls have boomed, with Karns growing at a slower rate. Leaders from all three communities have grown more vocal about demanding their fair share from county and state governments. Public officials like County Commissioner Mary Lou Horner have complained so long and so loud that it has become an accepted fact that if north by northwest has not yet quite supplanted the west as the new boomtown, it is at least the Next Big Thing.
Industrialist Pete DeBusk, whose famous mega-house is still a work in progress on Cunningham Road in Halls, who has purchased the property for a Girls and Boys Club near Brickey School, and whose DeRoyal Industries is in the Powell business district, says he wants to see action in advance of expected growth.
"It's a known fact that infrastructure will dictate the development of your city... And what we have is a situation where North Knox County is beginning to grow extremely fast... Typically, metropolitan planning and county planning leave a lot to be desired... It took me longer to get from Halls to the interstate other day than from there to the airport... We need major improvements, not another band aid deal..."
DeBusk is a strong supporter of a group called BRINK (Better Roads in Knox County), which is pushing for the state to adopt a sweeping road plan including a northern bypass to hook the Sevier County resort areas to outlying areas.
BRINK President Clark Hamilton agrees and says northenders from Halls, Powell, Karns, Fountain City, Norwood, Alice Bell, and points in between banded together in December 1993 when they finally came to the realization that there hadn't been any major road projects in the north since 1982. It became clear to them in 1994 when former Gov. Ned McWherter came to town for the dedication of the riverside park named in his honor.
"There was an article in the paper where the MASH (Make Alcoa a Safe Highway) people were asking for all state road funds to go to making Alcoa Highway safe... We blew up," Hamilton says.
One of the first orders of business was to infiltrate the Metropolitan Planning Commission (the body that plans roads in Knox and Blount Counties), which was skewed in favor of South Knox County and Blount County and had no advisory board members from North Knox County. BRINKers Hamilton and Earl Hall got themselves appointed, and Mayor Victor Ashe obliged by appointing Norwoodian Helen Heatherly.
In 1994, the group pestered candidate Don Sundquist, who asked them to name the top priority on their wish list. They requested Emory Road be widened at the interstate, and the wish was granted. Construction is ready to commence on widening Emory to the west, as well.
"Sundquist spent two hours looking at roads and made a strong commitment," Hamilton says. "They do now know we exist."
Other BRINK priorities are improving Western Avenue to Oak Ridge Highway, Broadway at I-640 to Tazewell Pike, Dry Gap Pike from Sterchi Hills to Emory, and Emory Road through Powell.
Northenders say BRINK has been a highly effective public relations tool for the area, structuring the long-held desire for road improvements into a political force.
"Before BRINK, everybody wanted them (roads), but nobody had an organized way to push for them..."
BRINK has also captured the attention of Knox County Executive Tommy Schumpert. The county's strategic transportation plan identified serious deficiencies in the roads running east and west. To relieve these problems, plans have been approved to widen Dry Gap Pike in the near future and, longer range, to widen the Callahan Road corridor to the west, eventually bringing it into Halls.
Another important BRINK sympathizer is Allen Gill, who is as responsible as anyone for the growth of the north. His trademark flat-top haircut brands him as a man who doesn't easily surrender to the vagaries of fashion, and he figures his 'do is bound to come back in style if he keeps it long enough.
His pedigree is pure Powell. Born in the old brick house on Emory Road that belonged to Columbus Powell before the Civil War, his grandfather, George N. Gill, started Gill Water Supply at the spring on Beaver Creek in Powell in 1916. Gill has headed its modern successor, Hallsdale-Powell Utility District, since he founded it in 1954.
Hallsdale-Powell stretches from Gibbs in the east to Powell in the west and serves 20,000 water customers, including 13,500 sewer customers in a 200-square-mile area. He says growth is "nip and tuck" between Halls, which has more than 150 businesses, and Powell, which has 100-plus businesses, including big operations like DeRoyal, Levi's, Plasti-Line, Mutual Forms, and Travis Meats.
One key to the growth of Halls and Powell is infrastructure: Halls has had sewers since 1963, and Powell since 1966.
"Back then, we didn't have any conception of what would develop," Gill says, "although we knew sooner or later it (growth) would swing North.
Gill says he's got 2,000 lots already developed and another 900 in the making.
"If the economy stays put, there'll be growth," he says.
North Sector Boom
Powell and Halls make up the statistical area the Metropolitan Planning Commission has dubbed the North County Sector, the combined population of which has nearly doubled from 19,501 in 1970 to 37,122 in 1995; by the year 2000, the North County Sector population is expected to hit 41,020.
Karns is the easternmost section of the Northwest County Sector (the Pellissippi Corridor westward is not included here because that area is more closely identified with West Knox County than with the north). Karns, called census tract 60 on the MPC books, had a population of 4,520 in 1970, 6,460 in 1980, and 7,753 in 1995.
Impressive as these numbers are, however, northside growth rates still haven't caught up to those in the west. In 1970, for example, 13,129 Knox Countians (less than in the North County Sector at the same time) called the Southwest County Sector home. This is the chunk of pricey real estate stretching from Gallaher View in the east to Loudon County in the west, from I-40 south to the river.
By 1995, the Southwest population had more than tripled to 47,863, and by the year 2000, the number is expected to hit 56,895.
Subdivision lots approved in 1995 show a parallel trend. There were 181 Karns lots approved last year; 694 in Powell and Halls compared to 1,065 in the Southwest County Sector.
Other statistical measures of growth are consistent with the above numbers, says Gretchen Beal, MPC director of information services.
"They (Halls, Powell, and Karns) have been third in development permits forever. It is picking up out there, and that indicates a trend. Eventually the Southwest will fill up, but whether that growth goes north or into Loudon County is unknown.
"But I think the North is getting more attractive, and I can see why they want to get their traffic in order. There's no doubt there have been a lot of subdivisions started out there over a 10-year span--but in terms of growth, it's still the Southwest, the Northwest and then the North in the county. Then comes the Northwest part of the city."
Myron Stooksbury does TV repair in Karns, and a few years back, the late Arthur B. Seabolt called to get his television set fixed. He left the following message with Stooksbury's mother:
"This is Seabolt up here by the traffic light. Tell Myron to come over and fix my TV set first chance he gets."
When the message got delivered, it came out "That old loudmouth up at the traffic light wants his TV fixed."
So Stooksbury showed up at the home of Charlie Verboon (also now deceased) and paid no attention when Verboon told him "Myron, I didn't call you."
"You don't have to call me," Stooksbury said. "I know when your TV's broken."
He replaced some tubes and gave Verboon a bill.
A month later, Seabolt, mightily ticked off, called Stooksbury back.
"Moron; what does a man have to do to get his damn TV fixed?"
County Commissioner Mark Cawood has heard the story maybe a thousand times, but it still makes him laugh. It captures, he believes, the old-time essence of his community.
"I always thought Karns was the Mayberry of Tennessee," Cawood says. "Everyone knew everyone, and nobody had to give a signal because everybody knew where everybody was turning."
There's good reason to remember it that way. In spite of the subdivisions springing up in the area, Karns is proud of its volunteer fire department, and it is still the place that has won the Tennessee Valley Fair's "Top Community" award for so many years running that the community club budgets for it annually. Aunt Bea's Kerosene Cucumbers wouldn't be out of place at the Karns Fair, an annual event that is a must-attend for candidates from school board to U.S. Senate.
In its earliest days, it was "Karnes" until the superfluous vowel got dropped somewhere along the way. It narrowly escaped being called "Oggville," after a service station owner who pushed to name the community after himself.
Like most communities in East Tennessee, Karns is heavily Southern Baptist; Grace Baptist boasts the largest congregation. Beaver Ridge Methodist has a woman minister now, and the Karns Church of Christ has largely recovered from the scandal occasioned a few years back when its semi-famous preacher was forced to publicly confess seducing various female parishioners who went to him for counseling.
Everyone follows the football fortunes of the Karns High Beavers, and by the way, Cawood says he saw a beaver in Beaver Creek behind his house just last year.
There's a one-lane railroad underpass on Byington Road, and most every kid who ever grew up in Karns has added something to the graffiti-laden concrete. Currently, the doggerel "Party Hardy, Rock And Roll. Drink A Fifth And Smoke A Bowl" rules, but space is limited, so it probably won't be long until it's painted over in favor of some other adolescent profundity.
There are limits to youthful rebellion, though.
"One Christmas, somebody wrote 'Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus,' and everybody was afraid to paint over it," says a Karns source who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of being thought blasphemous.
The underpass is just about a mile west of that one-and-only Karns Red Light on Oak Ridge Highway, the reference point for anyone giving directions to other points of interest. Of the three major communities along the Emory Road corridor, it is Karns that has changed the least, partly because of the traffic congestion on Western Avenue, which becomes Oak Ridge Highway after it passes the city limits.
It's not that Cawood wouldn't like to see infrastructure improvements, but he figures that Karns residents have most everything they need: a barber shop, a couple of restaurants, an art gallery, video stores, a grocery store, and Myron Stooksbury's TV repair.
On one recent morning, School Superintendent Allen Morgan had worked the 7:30 breakfast crowd at Humphammer's. Nobody bragged on him until he left, but once he did, proprietor Gerry Neely allowed as how Morgan had probably been Powell High's best principal ever.
"He really turned things around," says Neely, who is a real estate developer on the side. "The first thing people looking for a house ask is 'What school district is it?' I sold a lot yesterday because it's in the Powell school district."
Humphammer is an old football nickname, and Neely is still a Panther through and through. With all due respect to his cuisine, it's probably safe to say that the breakfast crowd doesn't show up there primarily for the food. It's the conversation that fills the parking lot at the Clinton Highway convenience store; it's Hump himself who presides over the early morning confabs, where the issues of the day--fishing, football, unified government, and neighborhood problems--are thoroughly dissected. (Think of it as the Pinkston's Motors of Powell.)
Mostly old-timers gather there, Neely says: "New people don't tend to hang around. Seems like they all got jobs."
Being a devout Republican, he has discouraged those who urge him to run against sitting County Commissioner Ralph Teague. He also disapproves of Mayor Victor Ashe's "finger" annexations, which have moved the city limits out the interstate to the Emory Road exit:
"He didn't say what finger--we've got a finger right back for him..."
He relishes the friendly rivalry between Powell and its sister community, Halls, whose trademarked slogan is "Halls Has It."
"Penicillin'll cure it," he says, throwing out the gauntlet.
Hubert Larue is the official unofficial Halls historian, and he sounds almost envious when he asks if Karns still has the Red Light.
"I remember when we used to have a red light," Larue says.
He worries about the rapid pace at which farmland is being devoured by growth, and he has collected thousands of old pictures to preserve the memory of lost landmarks.
Particularly distressing has been the desecration of the Thomas Hall Cemetery on Rifle Range Road and the demolition of the Ernest Mynatt House, which used to stand at the original crossroads before it was knocked down to make room for the Beaver Dam Baptist Church expansion.
Sheriff's Deputy Roberta "Bert" Roberts has a ringside seat from which to observe some of the new Halls traditions, like the influx of country boys who come there to cruise on weekend nights:
She proceeds to Black Oak Plaza to roust out some boys in muscle trucks gathered there. The chromed-up vehicles bear license tags from Knox, Union, and Anderson Counties, and those in them appear so stupefied by the thrumming bass of their overheated rap music that they don't notice the cop car. Finally, Roberts puts on her blue lights, and almost as one, the trucks rev up and begin to circle the parking lot, Roberts falling in right behind, heading them up and moving them out like a cowpoke.
"That's what they do," she says. "They make a big circle."
She herds them for awhile, then proceeds east on Emory Road to answer a burglar alarm call.
Asked if she ever has any trouble working a community where burning crosses have shown up on the front lawns of black families twice in the last few years, Roberts says no. Despite the fact that Halls High has no African-American students or faculty members, the cross burnings remain unsolved, and sources in the sheriff's department say the community was less than cooperative in the investigation, Roberts seems to feel no discomfort about being a black female officer working Halls.
The biggest thing in Halls' late-night nightlife is weekend drag racing down Maynardville Highway. Kids and, strangely, parents, gather at Hardee's on the north end of the business district. The starting line is marked off, and the old folks sit on the shoulder in lawn chairs to watch the action.
The Halls business district has boomed in recent years; residents now have a Wal-Mart and a K-mart, and a vast assortment of fast food restaurants. Zoning problems have been surprisingly few and far between: there was a dustup when a developer was accused of trying to build on a flood plain and a problem with a tree-trimming operation working out of a residence on East Emory in an agricultural zone.
But mostly, folks mind their own business in Halls.
"Halls isn't like Fountain City where this whole stream of people go out to protest," says a Hallsite who wants to remain anonymous. "We just welcome new neighbors."
"It's the uniqueness of these communities," says Mary Lou Horner. Everybody comes together in a spirit of oneness... All three of these communities do things for themselves instead of waiting for government. Halls built our own park. Powell built its own playground. Karns built its own library. They don't sit back and wait for somebody else..."
Another thing that gets them involved is school issues. Halls Middle School Principal Bobby Gratz says his school, which is brimming over, enjoys more community participation than any school to which he has been assigned.
"We have strong parental support, an active PTA, volunteers who come in and help the teacher," he says. "Often a simple phone call to a parent will solve the problem. The more stable a community, the better the test scores in the schools; and Halls Middle School is a community school with low mobility and a strong faculty."
There was a crisis this summer at overcrowded Halls High, when 150 HHS students were rezoned to Gibbs High School. The community revolted, and County Commissioners Horner and Leo Cooper led the attempt to reverse the rezonings. The effort failed, despite a desperate offer by Halls parents to build temporary classrooms on the campus at their own expense.
And more problems are looming in the future.
New subdivisions keep on coming, and the school board has braced itself for the first onslaught of Sterchi Farms kids by rezoning them south to the Sterchi Elementary School, then northeast to Powell Middle and High Schools. There is a new Brickey school in the county's master plan for schools, but many fear the money will run out before the north end can be addressed.
Allen Gill is sanguine about the future, however.
"Yes," he concedes, "we've grown faster than services can keep up with us... But too much growth?"
"We don't have any problem with that right now."