Maryville Marvel

However you pronounce it, the little city has taken some big steps

The popularity of Alcoa Highway is a mystery known only to those who use it every day, and maybe not even to them. The most interesting way to get to Maryville—and from downtown Knoxville, the shortest way—is by old Maryville Pike. It's not a pretty road, at least in Knoxville, leading by overgrown yards, dumps, and decaying industrial sites, but then you run by some nice old houses, and for several miles you're in a mostly rural stretch, cornfields and hay bales. At the Blount County line you cross the rural community of Rockford, along Little River, then you're in Alcoa for just a little bit. When you start noticing that Maryville Pike is now called Old Knoxville Pike, you're in a commercial strip from the 1950s, ballfields, motels, Amburn's Hum-Dinger Drive-In. Then it's called East Broadway, and you're in downtown Maryville.

Knoxville has always regarded Maryville as a surly adolescent regards his goody-goody little sister. He studiously ignores her until she outperforms him on a math test. Maryville has been outperforming Knoxville on several scores recently, especially in public education. Maryville spends much more per student on education than Knox County does, and judging by Maryville's consistent high rankings in several assessments, gets its money's worth. It was a factor in A&E TV's recent listing of Maryville as one of the top 10 Places in America to Have It All.

In recent years, Maryville has also embarrassed Knoxville in attracting major businesses: besides growing its own Proffitt's into one of the nation's largest retailers, Maryville has also landed a major Denso auto-parts factory as well as the world headquarters of the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain—which started in Knoxville. (Meanwhile, Maryville's joined-at-the-hip twin, Alcoa, landed the national headquarters of another famous Knoxville native, Clayton Homes.)

Despite recent strides in Knoxville, Maryville also seems more progressive in other ways, with extensive, accessible and well-used greenways, based around Pistol Creek, which almost encircles downtown Maryville in a big horseshoe. The origin of its name is obscure, but Pistol Creek is clear and clean and attracts dragonflies and water birds, including a colony of maybe 100 geese.

Maryville is not as far away as you think. It does have a different government, of course: a city-manager-style government very different from Knoxville's. It's the county seat of a different county. The police cars look different. But Maryville is closer to downtown Knoxville than Farragut is.

There are half a dozen ways to pronounce Maryville, and they're all correct. Newcomers from up north still call it "Mary-Ville," pronouncing the girl's name distinctly, then adding the Ville without elision as if it's a different word. Folks who grew up in the shadows of the mountains call it "Murvle." In between are several gradients. It's named for Mary Grainger Blount, the elegant wife of the territorial governor who decided to place his capital in Knoxville, where they lived and where they're buried today.

Broadway is downtown Maryville's main street, running along the top of a ridge. Two streets run alongside it—Harper on the north, and Church on the south—as parallel companions. Church has little traffic, but several businesses, including a produce store, the local Red Cross, and the Ruby Tuesday headquarters.

Though it's quiet on the outside on a summer day, Ruby's inside is lively as a university's student union or maybe a retail area in a modern airport; there's even a little enclosed bar in the lobby that's decorated as if to attract strangers. Open-air stairs lead to the upper floors. Emblazoned on the wall in one work area is a sort of cooperative manifesto: "IT'S AMAZING WHAT YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH IF YOU DON'T CARE WHO GETS THE CREDIT."

Sandy Beall, who started the Ruby's chain on Knoxville's Cumberland Avenue about 30 years ago, had relocated their headquarters to Mobile, but recently chose to move back to his home. Knoxville boosters were disappointed he didn't move quite all the way back, falling about 20 miles short, in Maryville.

Jack Vaughn, Ruby's PR man, seems surprised that anyone would make a distinction between Maryville and Knoxville. "We consider Maryville part of the Knoxville metropolitan area," he says, adding that many of their employees live in Knoxville. It's a widespread truism that Maryville's high-rated public schools had a lot to do with Ruby Tuesday's locating in Maryville, but Vaughn denies that was a significant factor. He makes their decision sound as simple as Maryville's proximity to the Knoxville airport. McGhee Tyson is Knoxville's official airport, but is much closer to downtown Maryville than to any part of Knoxville—and less than four miles from Ruby's HQ.

Because their headquarters is also a training facility for hundreds of managers in their restaurants around the country, Ruby's relies heavily on that airport. "Certainly being as close as you can get to the airport is a real plus," says Vaughn.

Knoxville's not used to thinking of its air service as a big plus, but Vaughn says it's much better than what they'd been used to in recent years. "Mobile doesn't have as good air service as Knoxville does," he says. "Knoxville has much more service from a number of airlines."

Vaughn also mentions Maryville College as a draw, especially its Mountain Challenge, which Ruby Tuesday thought might be a good camaraderie-builder for its employees. Today, Ruby Tuesday's has a symbiotic relationship with MC; Ruby's trainees stay in a house in a wooded area of the MC campus, and ride bicycles to the headquarters, only a few blocks away.

What do all these people think of Maryville? Vaughn smiles, and answers in a word: "Mayberry," he says. He's the first of several people who mentions that word, which was, after all, just the setting of a TV sitcom that was canceled over 30 years ago. It remains an ideal for many Americans.

Broadway

When people talk of downtown Maryville, they first think of Broadway. Most of the buildings on Broadway downtown are occupied: lawyers' offices, dentists' offices, musical instrument stores.

The newest thing on Broadway is an old thing, the circa 1934 Palace Theater, now renovated, its small lobby now a sunny coffee shop.

Near the Palace, fittingly, is a royal window display that has been the buzz of Maryville for the last couple of years. The display compares facial features of the Windsors with those of an American family. It's the home of a courteous lady in her 60s named Elizabeth Kelman, who believes herself to be the lost daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. (Polite in person, she offers an interview, but later doesn't return our calls.)

Across the street, the tallest building in Blount County dwarfs all the buildings around it; the 16-story brick building would be one of the taller ones in Knoxville. You have to ask inside to learn it's called Broadway Towers, and it's an apartment building, 150 units occupied by elderly and disabled residents. The median Maryvillian is a couple years older than the median Knoxvillian; some think of Maryville as a retirement community.

Bars are still scarce in Maryville. Prohibition came to Maryville in 1879, 28 years before it hit Knoxville, 40 years before prohibition was national. Remnants of prohibition remained in Maryville until 1996, when the city voted to allow liquor by the drink; it's still banned in Alcoa.

Some who work downtown claim they've never been inside the place they call "the old Sandwich Shop" on Broadway, right next door to the Christian-themed gift shop. People say it has been here for a very long time, even though the floor tile outside identifies it as a jewelry store. There's no welcoming sign at all, no name, no hours, just some neon in the window that promises Busch beer. Shove your way inside, and it smells like a smoky barber shop. To the side, just past the tables, beneath posters celebrating stock car racing and the Tennessee Vols, men are throwing things that fall with a clank. "Fall in there, sucker!" one shouts. For a minute you think they're playing horseshoes, but then you see what they're throwing are shiny silver disks about the size of a half dollar, with holes in the middle. They're throwing them at a tilted, carpeted box, not much bigger than a shoebox, which has three golfball-sized holes in a line.

The game is called Washers, and these guys look like they've been here playing it all their lives. It's three o'clock on a hot Thursday afternoon, and about eight men, aged about 40 to 70, are consumed with it. Some washers bounce off the box and roll under the chairs. Some fall in one of the holes. Scoring is enigmatic. "Thirteen-eleven," one shouts, triumphantly. "We've got 'em by the balls." A skinny woman with a Minnesota accent is keeping them supplied with Lite beer.

You confess to one, sheepishly, that you've never seen this game before. He replies that he's never seen it anywhere else, either.

Over the hill is a more modern strip of Broadway, but not too modern. The 1962-style West Side Motel is still open for business, advertising a vacancy in neon. Connected to it is Maryville-Alcoa Christian Supply, which seems to be doing a good deal of business. Nearby is the gas station, a BP marked "Full Service Only / Same Price." By same price, they mean their prices are the same as self-service stations, and they are. They'll even wash your car for you, by hand, but you've got to pay a little extra for that.

Past there is the modern administration building. Judging by the citizen surveys, Maryville's administrators don't have much to worry about; though there's a little grumbling about Maryville's once-a-month brush pickups, most Maryvillians consider their city's services good or excellent. Best of all, perhaps, are schools. "Education is the number-one priority in Maryville," says Pam Arnett, assistant to the city manager. "We're already considered a safe place to live, a nice place to live," she says. The main thing Maryville spends its money on is education; they spend fully a third of the city budget on it. And nearly a third of the students in the Maryville School system are students from outside city limits; they come to Maryville even though they have to pay tuition to do so.

Maryville spends over $5,500 per student, about $850 more than the statewide figure. Teacher salaries are fourth in the state, averaging over $41,600. It pays off. By Tennessee's Value-Added Assessment System, Maryville Schools rank #1 in the state in language skills, #2 in mathematics. Maryville students score very high in several categories of the standardized TCAP tests, especially in writing.

Maryville College

Up at the top of Broadway, on the highest peak in Maryville, is an antebellum graveyard. The historical plaque on Broadway suggests the New Providence Presbyterian Church is still there, offering no clue that it has been gone, moved a few blocks west years ago. It's Maryville's oldest church.

Historically, Maryville was always more pious than Knoxville, which accounts for the scarcity of bars. The two communities were settled about the same time, but Maryville built their first church building in 1786, fully 30 years before Knoxville did. Maryville still seems more religious today; there's an all-Christian gift shop near the old graveyard; down the street, the Gift Garden and Cafe has Bible verses stenciled on the walls.

That old graveyard makes for an interesting stroll. You're drawn to a chained-off section under the trees. A monument indicates that it was once the family plot of Isaac Anderson; the tablet informs us that Rev. Anderson and his family were exhumed and reinterred at Maryville College in 1933, but doesn't say why. The rusty chain around the plot suggests that, even though Rev. Anderson hasn't been here in 67 years, the ground is still too sacred to walk on.

Isaac Anderson didn't found Maryville, but he put it on the map in 1819 when he founded a school he called the Southern and Western Seminary. By 1842, still under Anderson's leadership, it had expanded its curriculum and changed its name to Maryville College.

Also the founder of Knoxville's Second Presbyterian Church, Anderson was a Virginia-born abolitionist minister who was idealistic about how well people should get along together. Though they never made a big deal of the fact, Maryville College was open to all races. Even before the Civil War, some blacks are known to have attended MC.

Tennessee's Jim Crow segregationist laws, passed in 1901, forced MC to stop admitting blacks. But when the Supreme Court overturned the South's separate-but-equal policies, Maryville College wasted no time catching up, admitting six black students in 1954, six years before UT allowed black undergraduates to enroll.

Maryville College is just south of downtown, easy to spot by the tall smokestacks with MC in white in the brickwork. Today, Maryville College is often listed as one of the better liberal-arts colleges in the South.

The scenic route to the college would take you partly along the greenway. Maryville College seems a good deal more like an old-fashioned college than UT does. Old brick buildings, most of them in traditional styles, are arranged around a large, grassy common area. Among them, until recently, was Fayerweather Hall, which burned to the ground last year. McCarty and Holsapple has designed an almost identical building to replace it. In some ways, though, the Maryville campus is unique: semi-urban in the front, paths through dense woods—several acres of near wilderness—in the back.

Maryville College is out of session for the summer, but ordinarily enrolls 1,000 students. It's no longer a seminary, of course, but is still dominated by Presbyterians; chapel and religious instruction remain integral to the liberal-arts college's curriculum. MC engages with Maryville in surprising ways, including its relationship with Ruby Tuesday. MC also hosts Steve Kaufman's well-known music camps, reputedly the largest of their kind in the world. Without the college, Maryville's salient features—greenways, education, dynamic national businesses, overt Christianity, and country music—wouldn't seem to have much to do with each other.

Big Changes

Maryville remained a county seat and college town until the 20th century, when three major developments, which all occurred just outside of Maryville's city limits, changed things forever.

The first came in 1914 when the Aluminum Company of America built aluminum plants in what had been called "North Maryville," so close that the eponymous city founded to support the mammoth plant, Alcoa, adjoined Maryville as a sort of Siamese twin. Maryville, previously a stranger to any real industry, made its acquaintance in the biggest way, with the largest aluminum factory in the world. To hundreds, then thousands, Maryville became a pleasant commuter suburb for their industrial jobs in Alcoa. Even before World War II, people had begun talking of Maryville-Alcoa as one place, though the two remain municipally separate, carrying on a friendly rivalry for business recruitment to this day. But while describing familiar landmarks, Maryvillians sometimes have to scratch their heads to remember whether that restaurant or store or neighborhood is in question is in Maryville or Alcoa; they're just not sure. Maryville remains about three times the size of Alcoa in residents, but Alcoa counters that its size shouldn't be measured in population; it's mainly a business town, not a residential town.

The second big development in Maryville's modern history was the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just to the south of Maryville. The Smokies had always been there, of course, and attracted a few tourists, mainly to foothills resorts like Montvale, but by the '30s the Park was bringing traffic undreamt of in the days of Montvale and built the mid-century motels of Broadway.

The third came in 1937. Knoxville city fathers, unable to find a suitably large expanse of flat land in town, chose to place the city's McGhee Tyson Airport in Blount County, much closer to Maryville than to Knoxville. That decision remains a major factor in Maryville's economy in 2000. Denso, the Japanese auto-parts manufacturer, built its plant not far from the airport just west of Maryville in the late '80s; since then it has rivaled Alcoa as Blount County's biggest industrial employer.

For a town of only 20,000, Maryville has had a significant impact on the modern world. Sam Keen, the sensitive guy and confessional pop philosopher who's one of the most popular authors (Fire in the Belly, and about a dozen others) of the so-called Men's Movement, writes about his Maryville childhood in some of his books. The couple who battled over custody of their frozen embryos and put a landmark case in the law books were Maryvillians. Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor and U.S. Secretary of Education who may finally have stopped running for president, is a Maryvillian. In fact, a chunk of 321 is called Lamar Alexander Parkway, but most Maryvillians still call it 321.

321

That's a mysterious road for some Knoxvillians, perplexed by the fact that the busiest road in Maryville doesn't lead to Knoxville. Though from some angles, Maryville is an idyllic small town of spreading maple trees and church steeples, much of it is crisscrossed by highways dominated by through-traffic. Even downtown, Harper and Church go for blocks without stoplights or stopsigns. Except on the greenways, it's hard to walk very far in Maryville. The public library is nearly downtown, but difficult to reach by foot. Its big surface-parking lot sometimes seems to have more cars than patrons inside.

Foothills Mall is on 321. With J.C. Penney, Sears, Proffitt's, and a Piercing Pagoda, Foothills Mall is not much different from Knoxville's malls except that it's smaller. It does have a Corn Dog 7 and a Bible Haven, a religious store with a trendy neon sign, with contemporary Christian music throbbing inside. It also has a couple of handcraft shops, Country Design and Brown's Busy-ness, a sort you don't expect see in malls.

Foothills can seem right homey compared to much of strip-mall suburban Maryville today, with its divided highways and big boxes, its Targets and Walmarts, which are identical to the sprawling anti-neighborhoods of any city in America.

There are a few suburban exceptions here and there. Minami, on 321, just a mile or so from downtown, is a restaurant that looks Japanese even from the outside; some regard it as the best Japanese restaurant in the area.

It has been there for three years. It's a tiny place, bright and minimalist; bouncy Japanese pop plays on the stereo. There's a buffet and a bar. On the buffet is herbed tofu, sushi with green wasabi, fried squid, miso soup, ginger pork, salmon—and watermelon.

The owner, Lilly Wallen, looks like the lead singer in a girl group, her red jacket complementing the matching kimono-styled blouses of her assistants. She's not actually Japanese; Chinese by origin, she lived in Osaka for seven years, during which time she learned Japanese cuisine. Marriage brought her to Maryville 14 years ago. All her Chinese acquaintances were working in Chinese restaurants. "I decided to be different," she says.

Until early this year, the sign out front said "Parkway Diner / Japanese Food. "Nobody paid any attention," she says. In February, about the time she remodeled with the translucent paper windows, she started calling it Minami. She says it's much more popular by that name. Minami, she says, is Japanese for "South." "I'm from Taiwan, which is in the south of China. When I was in Japan, I was in Osaka, that's south. And here, that's south, too."

Wallen does much of the cooking here. She likes Maryville, and seems pleased with the all the new business on 321. "The people are nice," she says. "It's very quiet, very safe."

Nowtown

Partly due to the excitement along 321, downtown Maryville's recent history is just a little heartbreaking. Damaged by the opening of the suburban shopping centers in the '60s, downtown Maryville was in crisis until an ambitious effort led by city manager Rodney Lawler flourishing a $6 million federal grant to improve its downtown, did so by re-landscaping the ugly slums of the floodplains around polluted old Pistol Creek to build a "greenbelt"—that's what they were calling it, back in 1966. They followed the back-to-nature theme, by planting trees and flowers all over downtown, re-landscaping Broadway to look almost like meandering Pistol Creek itself, with curving curbs and trees and no cars. Awnings protected pedestrians from the weather. Some thought it made downtown look like a suburban mall.

Gov. Dunn himself came in 1971 and rechristened Maryville "Nowtown." The word still survives on a handful of businesses, but some Maryvillians cringe when they hear that word. Beauty couldn't compete with convenient parking; downtown kept right on dying. Today, construction crews have Broadway closed again, straightening out the innovations of the '70s. One casualty of the new construction will be a sidewalk mosaic of river rocks, inscribed "Kidwell 1971 McCarthy." The first name is that of artist Bill Kidwell, who still lives in Blount County. The other is that of novelist Cormac McCarthy, who lived in rural Blount County in the '70s and helped his friend install this mosaic. Would-be salvagers are doubtful that the artwork will survive the construction.

Pistol Creek Strings

Music seems to be Maryville's defining principle. Most of the retail downtown seems music-oriented in one way or another. There's Tommy Covington's Music Store, Murlin's Music World and, most famous of all, Roy's Records.

Along with his wife Alma, Roy Garrett himself has run his place in downtown Maryville for the last 35 years. It hasn't changed much. He still sells mostly vinyl.

Roy wears jeans and white socks and penny loafers and walks around his shop in a slow prowl. He may be on the shady side of 60, but he seems like a guy who never had to stop being a cool teenager.

"Jim England told me, 'if you go into business, don't use a big long name. Make it short.'" The Roy's bumper sticker adorns car bumpers of music lovers all over the region.

He sells nearly anything music related: old music posters, instruments, electronic equipment, strings, a few CDs, and lots and lots of records. He's got more old 45's than you've seen since Zayre's went out of business. "We sell a lot of singles," Roy says, especially for the jukebox market. "They get a better deal when they find one with back-to-back hits." He apologizes that he no longer displays many 78s—which have been out of style for nearly 50 years—though he says he has plenty in the back. "People don't know how to handle them," Roy says. "They break more than they buy."

Working on restringing an old mandolin, he seems a little concerned about a friend of his in California, Phil Everly, who's been trying to market his own Everly String Co., a brand called "Acoustic Rockers." Roy says he thinks they're good strings, but most of his customers prefer the old tried-and-true brands. "I hope he does well," he says. Some of the Everly Brothers' 45s are in the bins, for $2.50 each, like all the 45s are.

Roy's place doubles as the county's best country-music museum. Hanging in a case is a white jacket that Homer Haynes wore in the photograph of an album cover; Roy got it from Homer's brother, Jack, who still works at Murlin's down the street. There's Tommy Covington's first dobro—a real dobro—bought in downtown Knoxville, circa 1930.

And right there on the floor, a simple naugahyde-padded chair that was actually part of Hank Williams' dining suit. You're invited to sit in it and, of course, you do. Roy says he got it from a friend of his who knew Hank's widow, Audrey, and bought it at one of her yard sales. He keeps the rest of the suit in his basement. The Hank Williams Fan Club once attempted to acquire the suit, but Roy wouldn't part with it.

"Maryville's well-blessed with musicians," Roy says, and proceeds to name everyone from nationally known dobro legend Tut Taylor to the youthful CC String Band, all of them Maryville residents. He's especially proud of Steve Kaufman, whose Mel Bay instructional videos are prominently on display in the store.

Roy used to own the old Palace Theater, and was pleased to turn it over to Kaufman. "Steve was the exact person we were looking for," says Roy. "His business complements ours. He's done more than I really expected."

Steve Kaufman, who's almost as famous as Roy is, runs the Palace. He's easy to catch there when he's not out of town. In 1976 he was a kid from Northern Virginia hitchhiking to guitar contests around the region, and was drawn to an extended teaching gig in downtown Maryville, a little music place that was attached to the Down Yonder, the long-gone nightclub across the street. He didn't stay at that job too long—few Maryville parents would take their kids to learn music in a building that had a bar in it—but just long enough to fall for the place.

"The people that live here are the ones that make you stay here," he says. He remembers the day he returned from winning the national flatpicking title. "Just coming back to Maryville was like being welcomed with open arms. There were banners in my front yard." He knew then and there that he was a Maryvillian. He bought a house soon after that. He remembers when Alma Garrett said, "I guess you'll be sticking around."

Kaufman has made good use of his time here, becoming a force behind the music camps at Maryville College, which attract music students from all over the world, as many as 400.

Kaufman bought the Palace in 1998; he researched what it looked like during its four years as a first-run movie theater in the 1930s and attempted to duplicate it in his renovation. The Palace is a handsome, but not extravagant place. Kaufman has hosted several music shows, some of which have been sellouts.

Existing in a sort of parallel universe with Roy's, the Palace, and the Sandwich Shop, but just a block away, is the St. John International School of the Arts. Walk by the place on Harper Street and you may not be certain it's still open, but it is, and is also the main reason some people around the world have heard of Maryville. Here, five full-time and three part time instructors teach piano, strings, and voice technique to some 35 students, mostly young, many of whom travel from as far as Kingsport and Crossville for their lessons here and pay thousands of dollars for the privilege.

First among the instructors is the school's founder, Levon Matossian. Raised in the Soviet Union near the Black Sea, Matossian had taken his singing and dancing troupe to Rumania, where he met a delegation from the United States, which included some Maryvillians. His first visit to the area was for a performance at World's Fair Park in Knoxville. He says his kids befriended Maryville kids, and he became intrigued with the possibility of immigrating and opening a school in Maryville. He did so in 1995. He liked the landscape, which reminds him of the Caucasus Mountains.

"My belief is that it doesn't matter where you work, if you love your job and know your business," he says. But he does respect Maryville. "Here, you can't come and say, I am Levon Matossian! and expect people to listen. You have to work like mule and prove to community that you belong here."

He says the mayor recently spoke of his school as an important part of a newly emerging Maryville arts district. "The school is acclaimed for its quality," he says. His students have already earned distinctions; one, Mariam Nazar, recently performed a notoriously difficult Bach piece in Carnegie Hall.

What does he think of country music? He answers carefully in his heavy accent. "I grew up in a different background," he says, immersed in classical music. But he's intrigued with country music, which he likens to the folk music of eastern Europe. He and Steve Kaufman worked together in a Dogwood Arts-sponsored show in Maryville last year. His long-range plan for his school is to include some instruction "to use the folk instruments of East Tennessee, like the dulcimer. I have always loved folk music; it's always attractive to me."

Music seems too modest a word to encompass everything that happens on Harper and Broadway, much less everything going on in this town only one-seventh the size of Knoxville.

© 2000 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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