Down the Dixie Lee Highway

Before the interstate, before the sprawl, there was Kingston Pike. Pieces of its open-road past still remain.

Kingston Pike has become a symbol of a lot of the things we hate: bumper-to-bumper traffic, arrogant billboards, mass-processed concrete architecture. It's home to an enclosed shopping mall, a big-box mall, over 100 strip malls, over 100 chain restaurants. It's the address of more acreage of asphalt surface parking than any other street in the Knoxville MSA. If suburban sprawl had a local name, it would be Kingston Pike.

But sometimes, when you're stuck in traffic—and you pretty much have to be stuck in traffic to pay much attention to anything alongside the five-lane highway—you notice something that doesn't quite fit. Like a building that looks old.

Along the Pike are remnants of other eras, as you'd expect on a highway that's more than 200 years old. There are more antebellum houses still standing on Kingston Pike than there are in any historic neighborhood hereabouts—even if they're often obscured by flashier streetfront enterprises. The 1850s Baker-Peters House, which still has an interior door pocked with holes from Civil War minie balls, has a Phillips 66 station in its front yard. The 1848 Reynolds house on Bearden Hill, briefly Gen. Longstreet's headquarters, has corporate offices all over its once-sweeping front lawn. The 1820 Russell house, renovated as offices by its current owner, M&M Developers, has bloodstains on the floor dating from the days it was used as a Civil War hospital; today, locals describe the old house as "the one right behind the Taco Bell."

But also lurking behind the signs of modern chain commerce are traces of another, more exotic era. Stucco and clay-tile roofs; glass-brick walls; strange layouts, a roadside building backed by tiny identical houses; curvaceous buildings that look as if they were wind-tunnel tested to travel at supersonic speeds.

One of these is the Court Cafe in Dixie Lee Junction, just west of Farragut. With rounded, glass-brick walls, big picture windows, and a conspicuous ovalesque sign, the Court Cafe may be Kingston Pike's best-preserved example of streamline-moderne. In the early afternoon, it's surrounded with panel trucks and pickups.

Its menu seems to evoke another era, too. It's a place where people for whom the phrase "chuck wagon" on a menu still has meaning. The chicken and dumplings is likely to remind you of somebody you haven't seen in a long time. But here, they don't waste time on citified notions of politeness. "Whatcha drinkin'?" the waitress hollers at you as you walk in for the first time ever, as if she's your big sister and you just came in from the field. Everybody seems comfortable here.

There are still lodges out back, but don't expect to stay the night. The people who live there look pretty well settled in. How old is it? The older waitress looks about 60 and she shrugs her shoulders as if no one has ever asked. "I don't know," she says. "It was here when I was little."

Ask the owner, Jen Byrd, who has run the place for maybe 30 years, and she doesn't know how old the place is, either. She recalls that it was once called something else, "the Ham House," back in the '50s, but she's not sure how to square that with the Court Cafe sign, which looks older than that.

Places like the Court Cafe are proof that, underneath all the plastic signage, and standing beside the chaotic traffic, there are still real places on Kingston Pike. Contrary to many first impressions, there is a there there. It has a history. Some of its distinctions are reminders that Kingston Pike used to serve a very different purpose.

About a dozen engraved state historical markers adorn Kingston Pike. These markers tell stories, about General Longstreet and David Campbell and Robertus Love, mostly of early pioneers and Civil War skirmishes. They are, at 45 mph, unreadable. These markers have become historic in themselves, because they evoke another time, when motorists had the freedom to pull the family DeSoto over on a dusty shoulder and read to the kids about early settlers and Civil War strategies. Now they're dwarfed by the commercial signs; even if you do notice one in time to slow down and read, the guy tailgating you in the SUV or the lady trying to merge into your turn lane will give you a honk. It might seem a fairly safe bet that, on any given day, most of the historical markers on Kingston Pike are not read by anybody. Perhaps surprisingly, none of them refer to Kingston Pike's most famous era: the period, from about 1925 to 1965, that Kingston Pike was a major national tourist route.

Despite its deep and extravagant history, Kingston Pike from Bearden west is much harder to research than places closer in town. Thanks to the city-centrism of Knoxville record keepers, we can speak with more confidence about any business on Gay Street in the 1890s than some businesses on Kingston Pike as recently as the 1930s, '40s, or even '50s. Detailed maps are scarce, and since the city limits ended at the western side of Sequoyah Hills until 1961, some Kingston Pike businesses lived and died without a numbered address.

To make things worse, memories conflict. Some old-timers remember Kingston Pike as a busy highway as early as the 1930s; others say it was sleepy and slow. Some remember vividly that it was paved in concrete, with a corrugated strip in the middle that would rattle a Model A if it got too close. Others say it was pure asphalt.

Though some remember Kingston Pike distinctly as a two-lane road as late as the '40s and '50s, a few—like George Prater, of Morristown, whose father was instrumental in an early widening project—insist it was four-lane as early as 1934.

And people remember its changing course, especially on the east side of the Bearden area, differently. From Sequoyah Hills to Papermill, the pike twisted into a perpendicular to cross the railroad tracks squarely near what's now Andy Morton's, then turned to avoid Bearden Hill before straightening out. Over Knoxville's history, there have been several neglected segments of non-congruent roads known as "Old Kingston Pike," including the current Old Kingston Pike and part of what's now Homberg Place. Though some assume it went straight through at one time, no one seems to remember that day.

Many old-timers—and to be an old-timer, by Kingston Pike standards, you can be as young as 35—like to remember when the road was "nothing but farmland and forests." That's pretty much what Highway 70 still is, past Dixie Lee Junction, out toward Eaton's Crossroads. But decades before it saw its first mall shopper, Kingston Pike was entertaining tourists. Beginning in the late 1920s, when the Smokies were just opening up to the new automobile-driving American, Gatlinburg was tiny, Pigeon Forge hardly existed, and Knoxville could claim without exaggeration to be the Gateway to the Smokies. Soon after, TVA's Norris Dam was internationally famous and drew gawkers from all over.

Many of the folks who drove down Kingston Pike between 1925 and 1965 were just passing through. For thousands, Knoxville made a convenient overnight stop in a two-day car trip between the population centers of the North and the sunny beaches of the South. Kingston Pike was an important link in two nationwide highways, both of which would inspire songs about them: the Dixie Highway and the Lee Highway.

U.S. 11 blew into Knoxville from the northeast, via Magnolia. Founded in the early 1920s and first known as the Lee Highway, it came from Washington via Arlington, Va., home of Robert E. Lee, and hence its name; through East Tennessee via Knoxville and Chattanooga; and on down to New Orleans and eventually even to San Diego. The often-recorded standard, "Lee Highway Blues," evokes this route. Though it became more commonly known as Highway 11, City Directories as late as the 1940s identify Kingston Pike beyond Bearden as "Lee Highway"; in Chattanooga and elsewhere, Highway 11 still goes by that name.

Dixie Highway, which also inspired popular songs, was even more famous. Conceived in 1915 and largely financed and organized by Florida land speculators to encourage prosperous northerners to drive to Miami Beach, it was a network of roads and highways that skirted a rambling loop from Ontario, Chicago, Cincinnati, and other northern cities, around the South into Florida. Promoters touted it as "your favorite route to and from Florida or the Great Smokies." One of its two paths came into Knoxville via Central and Broadway, then took a hard right, out Kingston Pike. During her youth in the shadow of Bearden Hill on Kingston Pike in the '30s and '40s, Anne Morgan Bignall remembers she sometimes got mail addressed to her on "Dixie Highway, Route 7." (Dixie Highway may also be the source of persistent rumors about Al Capone spending time in Knoxville; this might have been his route from Chicago to his house in Florida.)

Bignall remembers the traffic was seasonal. "By the time I was big enough to toddle across it, I'd walk across Kingston Pike and watch Mrs. Walker milk her cows," Bignall recalls. "It was a well-used road, but I remember standing out there for 15 minutes at a time, in the early '40s, and not seeing a car." She says it picked up in the tourist season—"in the summer, there was a lot of traffic"—and also on Saturday nights, when accidents weren't unusual, especially at the intersection of Papermill and Kingston Pike. (She speculates they were speeding teenagers; she doesn't happen to remember the possibly mythical Kingston Pike bootlegging accident described in Robert Mitchum's 1958 song, "Thunder Road.")

There are lots of easy ways to start arguments between Kingston Pike old-timers, but one of the easiest is to ask exactly where Dixie Highway went when it left Knox County. Its precise route had apparently already been forgotten in 1968, when Chamber of Commerce staffers spent "much research" sifting "rumor from fact" and concluded with a puzzling report that didn't settle much.

The puzzlement is that, while the Dixie Highway was conceived as a north-south route from the industrial Midwest to Florida, most locals who are old enough to remember when it was still called Dixie Highway say it went west, out 70 toward Nashville, skipping the Highway 11 turnoff toward Chattanooga.

Some histories shed a little light on the matter, suggesting that Dixie Highway also went south to Chattanooga, but by a route that first included Kingston, Harriman, and Rockwood. It followed modern highway 27 on a southward path several miles west of the Lee Highway.

In any case, it's clear that by the mid-1920s, the Dixie and Lee Highways joined as one on Kingston Pike, the old 1790s trail improved as a toll-road "turnpike" beginning in 1866. Though most just called it Kingston Pike, some old-timers remember hearing it called Dixie Highway or Lee Highway. Some remember it being called Dixie-Lee Highway.

For decades, Knoxvillians have connected the phrase "Dixie Lee" to just one spot, Dixie Lee Junction, which is where Highway 11 splits off Kingston Pike just west of the county line. However, the "junction" itself was the 20 miles of Kingston Pike stretching all the way to downtown Knoxville. There's evidence that people once thought of the whole of Kingston Pike as "Dixie Lee Junction." The 1937 City Directory lists an establishment called the "Dixie Lee Inn," and it wasn't west of Farragut; it was in Bearden, on Kingston Pike near what's now Naples restaurant.

Perhaps it's just coincidence that the 20-mile stretch where the two famous national highways combined in the 1920s happens to be the busiest commercial road in Knox County today.

Boyd Sharp has spent most of his 76 years living on Kingston Pike, and to confuse matters further, he says the Dixie and Lee Highways were also part of what was once marked on maps as "the Broadway of America," a highway route that ran from Washington to Los Angeles. Kingston Pike residents got used to the seasonal flux of vacation traffic along their old country road. Some recall that in the '30s and '40s it wasn't unusual for out-of-state strangers to knock on their doors to ask to use the bathroom or borrow water for a Thermos.

It wasn't always busy, though. Sharp, who in the '30s lived on the future site of West Town Mall, recalls taking night walks to Bearden in the middle of the concrete road. They didn't worry about being hit, he says, because "we could hear cars coming for miles behind us."

There's also a more obvious fact, that Kingston Pike was also the main route from Knoxville to Kingston and beyond, to Nashville. Due to geographical and political problems, Knoxville-to-Nashville passenger train service was never ideal; so even at the height of passenger rail, Highway 70 by bus or by car was often the most convenient route between the state capital and the state university.

By 1927, Kingston Pike was already becoming something less than pristine farmland, when it began sprouting auto-tourist-related businesses. Most, but not all, were on the east side of Bearden Hill. One of the very first, appropriately, was called the Dixie Highway Garage, an auto-repair place and Gulf station run by Cecil and Earl Gore; it was on the south side of the Pike in Bearden. Gore Street, named for the family, is not far away.

In this part of the county, before the 1920s, restaurants were novelties. People out this way either cooked at home or went into town to eat. But restaurants began appearing in Bearden by 1927 and increased in number almost every year.

The restaurants on Kingston Pike were a little different from the sober cafes downtown; they were built to appeal to the out-of-state customers. Their proprietors knew they might have only one chance to nab them, with signage, flashy names, unusual architecture, and beer.

One of the first was built around 1929 in a curvilinear airstream style that would come to dominate Kingston Pike architecture over the next 25 years. Lozenge-shaped, with gracefully rounded corners, it was built of stone, but looked as if it were built for speed, to keep up with a nation suddenly on the move. Its wind-tunnel design, suggesting swift, unimpeded flight, appealed to people motoring along at 50 mph on the Dixie Highway. Though it always had a local following, its name—the Wayside Inn—seemed to suggest its main appeal was to folks just passing through. It's still there and has been a restaurant for over 70 years now; it's called Naples.

Others popped up: the White Dot Barbecue Stand; the Smoky Mountain Sandwich Shop; the Oki-Doke Cafe; the Early Bird; the Circus Inn; the Midget Coffee Shop; the Canary Cottage; the Spanish Gardens. Most of them were in Bearden, which catered to a diverse clientele. Though most restaurants were whites-only, Bearden had some establishments, like the Wonder Lunch Room, that catered to blacks.

Bearden kept its lights on late. But before 1930 or so, the highway beyond Bearden Hill was so utterly dark at night that motorists sometimes found themselves missing corners and running into the back of unlit wagons. Few tourists cared to drive late at night, so around dusk, they'd stop at the nearest convenient spot to eat supper and sleep. Most travelers passing through either pulled into a quiet field and pitched a tent or drove into town and stayed in a proper hotel like the Farragut or the Andrew Johnson. But in the 1920s, a new sort of accomodation called the Tourist Camp was springing up on both sides of Kingston Pike. One of the first was Camp Delight, then Lyles', then Atkins'.

Historians say motels didn't develop as a more-convenient adaptation of hotels. Rather, they were a more luxurious way to camp alongside a road. Auto camps converted into motor courts, sometimes keeping the name "camp."

Allegedly, the first motel in Knoxville was on Kingston Pike. Edd's Tourist Camp was a collection of small houses that opened in the late '20s. Boyd Sharp remembers it well: "It was across the road from what's now Downtown West Boulevard," he says. "Each building was named for a state: Vermont, Ohio, Michigan. And it had a sort of nightclub out front, a beer joint with a juke box. But that was before my dancing days. My drinking days, too."

With accessories like that, motor courts entertained bored tourists with several dark-highway hours to kill, in the days before motel swimming pools and in-room television.

One of the best known was the Alhambra, a 37-cabin oasis that appeared in Bearden in 1935 like a mirage of exotic white stucco. By then, it had to be different to stand out from all the competition: the Dan-Dee Tourist Home, the Hi-Way Inn, Camp Lee, Kozy Kamp Tourist Court, Camp Delight, the Restwell Tourist Court, the Ideal Rest Tourist Home, White City Court, the Model Tourist Home, Elk Camp, DeArmond Cottages, the House In the Woods Tourist Home. All were on Kingston Pike between 1930 and 1950, and most were within sight of each other in the Bearden area. Farther out, past Edd's, was Aud's. That tourist camp advertised itself with a three-story wooden tower reminiscent of a lighthouse, sometimes equipped with a large windmill. (Sharp remembers another filling station on the Pike that also had an eye-catching lighthouse.)

Though their signs looked clean and innocent, many of them didn't have reputations to match. The 1934 movie It Happened One Night memorialized both motor courts and, slyly, their reputation as trysting nests. In a 1958 article about Knoxville motor courts, a News-Sentinel reporter stated "Immorality of occupants was a problem that has virtually disappeared today." Leon Fooshee, of the Terrace View Courts on Bearden, once remembered a time in the '30s and '40s when he'd watch young couples approach his office in their cars. If they sat apart, he said, he knew they were married. If they were cuddled together in the seat, he'd check.

Tourist bureaus were reluctant to recommend motor courts; in 1945, there were more than a dozen motor courts on Kingston Pike, but the only one recommended by the Knoxville Tourist Bureau was the Alhambra.

One restaurant that developed more than a local reputation was the Highlands Grill, which was famous for its country ham. To talk about its being on Kingston Pike requires a little explanation. What's now known as Old Kingston Pike—it runs by Ashe's package store and the old firehall—was Kingston Pike until the 1950s. Only it didn't go straight through. It made a hard right at the Highlands Grill, then crossed a narrow trestle, then made a left into Bearden. This bent piece of highway, apparently called for by the fact that it's a simpler thing to build a bridge across a railroad perpendicularly, is one of those matters of debate, but some recall that at one time it made a big S, crossing its current route twice before loping back to join Homberg Place.

Anyway, what was Highlands Grill from the '30s through the '50s is now Andrew Morton's Gifts. It was a great place for a tourist-oriented restaurant, because westbound tourists saw the plantation-style building straight ahead. Andrew Morton himself, who runs the gift store, remembers coming here in the early '50s, when it was one of the few places a college kid could go for a good time.

"It was the place," he says. "We didn't have the Strip in those days. There was a jukebox, and here you could dance, drink beer. All the fraternities came down here."

Kingston Pike was a popular destination for frat boys, in part because in those tentative years after prohibition, many downtown restaurants didn't serve beer. Most places along Kingston Pike did. It was out of the city limits, which may have counted for something in those days, but moreover it catered to Yankee tourists who weren't used to restrictions on beer.

"The tourists would demand it," Morton says. He says he drank his first beer at a place called Robbie's Roost, which was just off Kingston Pike on Forest Hills Boulevard, in what's now the Blair House.

Some neighbor kids who lived hereabouts remember they weren't allowed to go to the Wayside Inn because they sold beer. So did the Spanish Gardens, a joint with a little rougher reputation next door. As local Knoxvillians found their way toward Kingston Pike, more establishments began catering to the adolescent crowd; one well-remembered institution was the Dixieland Drive-In, a safe place to take a date in the '50s. Oriented toward town, it was in what's now McKay's. Another was Long's drugstore and soda fountain, which after nearly half a century is still in business.

In the '40s and '50s, Kingston Pike began catering to both teenagers and tourists with other roadside attractions like drive-in movie theaters from Bearden to Dixie Lee Junction, miniature golf, a roller-skating rink and, in the early '60s, the city's first permanent ice-skating rink.

Along with restaurants and motor courts, gas stations and garages proliferated; by 1937, there were nearly a dozen on Kingston Pike. They tended to specialize in the near-urban Bearden area; there, a filling station was a filling station and a grocery was a grocery. But farther out, last-chance-style businesses tried to concentrate several services in one. Founded around 1925, Farragut's Lone Star was a filling station and general store, with groceries, bait, pretty much anything a tourist would need.

Unlike today, filling stations varied widely in style, perhaps to catch the attention of passing motorists. The Lone Star had a big Lone Star, lit with neon; it's now on exhibit at the Farragut Folklife Museum. At the foot of Lyons View was a two-level gas station that served Lyons View on top and Kingston Pike, on its original course, on the bottom. Built of white enamel before 1945, it looks nautical, like a sleek, moderne yacht. (It remained a filling station into the 1980s.

Some of the older guys at Mr. Richardson's filling station remember 35 or 40 years ago when most of the cars they filled up at the old Esso had out-of-state tags.

Like the restaurants, some of the names of the early places reflect their pride in being on a big and famous thoroughfare: The name of the circa-1940 "Four-Lane Service Station," which was much farther out, seems to settle the question of how wide Kingston Pike was in those days.

About 20 miles out Kingston Pike is a very different relic of the same era. It's also a gas station built in an acute shape to fit a Y intersection. But it could pass for a medieval ruin, built of large stones, some of them quartz, in an oblong triangle. Shaped like a fighter jet, only its mass keeps it from taking off. It looks like a collaboration between the space age and the stone age.

Inset in its acute point is a marble plaque: Built by Frank Kincer, 1931. Kincer, a Lenoir City contractor, was a young man then. He died at age 87 just about 15 years ago.

A more conventional 1930s filling station still stands a few more miles out the Kingston Highway. It seems to have been converted into a residence; its one-car bay now serves handily as a front porch.

Besides the Court Cafe, which is probably the best preserved of them, a few more tourist courts are still there, too, if only structurally. The Biltmore Motor Court is now home to Raphael's, a chi-chi Bearden dress shop. The actual lodges in the back are in poor repair and marked with angry-looking Keep Out signs, and are apparently used for storage.

Like many of these, its origin is pretty hard to nail down, but it first appears as the Biltmore in city directories in 1950; it was run by the Anagnosts, a noted Greek family of entrepreneurs who had run the circa-1935 Biltmore restaurant downtown, and apparently liked the name so much they carried it out here with them. Its sign probably dates to about that time.

Facing Kingston Pike near Lovell Road is a large sign, badge-shaped to evoke a U.S. Highway marker. Its letters are laced with neon tubing. Though it has kept its looks, the tree-shaded 11-70 Motor Court hasn't hosted a Florida-bound tourist for decades. It's now maintained purely as the residence of the owner, who uses the tree-shaded cabins for storage, but keeps them painted, with their original numbers. The owner, Vera Ray, has been living there for 36 years, occasionally "buying and selling things" and sometimes renting out one of the old cabins, though she has not done so in several years. She sometimes lets visiting friends stay there.

Ray knows nothing of the history of the motor court that still advertises with one of the most striking signs on Kingston Pike, and she seems a little surprised that anyone would be interested. Some neighbors think it hasn't been open as a motor court since the 1940s. (The City Directory's mum during the era when the 11-70 was thriving; the Lovell Road area was apparently off its radar screen.)

Representing a later era than the tourist court is another adaptively reused building on Kingston Pike. Almost 30 years old, Ali Baba's Time Out Deli already qualifies as historic by commercial Kingston Pike standards. With a name that in five words suggests an appealing blend of the exotic romance of the Arabian Nights and American football, the usually busy "Home of the Gyro" has proven durability. Only a few restaurants on Kingston Pike—like Long's drugstore and Ott's barbecue, the 40-year-old Paducah-style pork-sandwich diner in Dixie Lee Junction—are older.

But Ali Baba's is located in a building that's considerably older, and even then it's a building that was a latecomer to the tourism orgy. Sharp's Motel appears in city directories in the '60s, unfortunate timing for a motel on this part of Kingston Pike. A 50-unit motel with a large swimming pool, Sharp's closed about the same time many others did, when I-40/75 took the through traffic just half a mile to the north.

The current proprietor, Nabih Aqqad, originally from Jerusalem, lived in Washington, D.C., for a while after he immigrated, but then decided he liked Knoxville better. He opened up his small deli at this former motel in the early '70s—and, in head-to-head competition with nearly every fast-food chain in American, he and his brother have somehow made a success of a local restaurant on Kingston Pike. Today, Ali Baba's is one of very few truly local restaurants with a distinctive flavor on a very long chain-choked stretch of trans-Bearden Kingston Pike.

Much of the motel was demolished, but 10 of its 50 rooms are still standing just behind his store. He's presently just using them for storage. For years, he says, he rented five of them as apartments. "It was too much trouble, too much headache," he says. "Parties all the time, police all the time." He's hoping to someday rent them as office space.

Another motor court on Bearden Hill, adapted as a restaurant, was torn down only a couple of years ago. The large classically-styled house at the western foot of Bearden Hill, which some mistake for a member of Kingston Pike's antebellum league, is actually another tourist home from the '40s. Once known as the Mount Vernon Motel, it was run by the Cain family, which was involved in several tourist ventures on the Pike.

And there was another place across the street, the Sequoyah Motel, and another, and another. Just a couple of motels remain on Kingston Pike, but the construction of I-40 wasn't good for the tourist business. With a well-lit interstate, people found they'd rather drive all night than hang out in a tourist-court beer joint or a sit-down restaurant like the Wayside or the Highlands Grill or the Oki-Doke. And when they did have to stop, they got used to staying right at interstate exits, at the chain motels that cluster around them.

Ironically, just as the tourists left in the '60s and '70s, Kingston Pike began to get busier than ever. Entrepreneurs exploited its broad, flat spaces, rare in Knox County, to build malls and movie theaters that called for expanses of asphalt parking. It was no longer a pretty way to get from one place to another; with locally-directed retail, Kingston Pike was suddenly, for the first time in its history, a destination. The traffic, which was once dominated by cars with out-of-state tags, became overwhelmingly local.

The old art deco relics of the national-highway era used to stand out more than they do now; it's partly because they're being covered up by modern signage, but it's also because their architecture, considered "tacky" a generation or so ago, is no longer unusual. In recent years, modern chain stores have been imitating their style. Cherokee Porcelain, which was until recently located on a part of Homberg Drive that was once known as "Old Kingston Pike," has profited from the national phenomenon by manufacturing art-deco signs. Some of the newer neon-moderne palaces like Regas Brothers, Grady's, and Macaroni Grill would fit right in on old Dixie Lee Highway. With wind-tunnel designs and even glass brick, several modern chain stores are imitating the architecture of the old motor court: Chik Fil-A, Steak 'n' Shake.

Maybe they want to give folks the feeling they had on old Dixie Lee Highway in 1935, when they knew they were going somewhere.

THE OTHER DIXIE LEE

"The first time I ever heard the name Dixie Lee was in 1929. It rolled off my tongue like honey."

—Bing Crosby

A persistent rumor that's been circulating for about 70 years is that Dixie Lee Junction is somehow associated with the jazz-age singing and dancing starlet Dixie Lee, who was born in Harriman, not too far from here. Her family seems to have been concentrated around the agrarian area where Knox, Loudon, and Roane met, very near what we now call Dixie-Lee Junction.

Though she was famous in her own right in the late '20s and early '30s for movies like Cheer Up And Smile, she later became better known as the first wife of singer Bing Crosby. In the '20s and '30s, many in the area would have liked an intimate connection with the talented beauty.

Ask Farragut historian Doris Woods Owens about the history of Dixie Lee Junction, and one of the first things she'll tell you is that "Dixie Lee Junction was named for the Dixie and Lee Highways. And not for Dixie Lee Crosby."

That's actually a backwards twist of another legend that holds that Dixie Lee Crosby was named for Dixie Lee Junction. That might seem unlikely at first glance; after all, she was born in 1911, years before the Dixie or Lee Highways were conceived.

However, her birth name was Wilma Wyatt; she apparently didn't begin using the stage name "Dixie Lee" until about 1929, which was the heyday of both highways.

But the more you look into it, the more it seems just an odd coincidence. Though she did spend her early girlhood in Harriman and Knoxville, and though her family was once well-known in the Dixie Lee Junction area, Wilma moved away forever around 1916, when Dixie Highway was still on the drawing boards, and Lee Highway wasn't even there yet. She spent the rest of her youth in Memphis, New Orleans, and Chicago. However, she did visit occasionally....

Perhaps because she was from the South, she was first known as "Dixie Carroll"; then, she implies in a short bio she wrote for the News-Sentinel in 1930, her studio picked a different last name. Speaking of the events of the previous year, she said, "I was given a contract with the Fox Studios and the name Dixie Lee."

She added, "Some day I am coming back to the beautiful hills and streams of Tennessee, which will always be home to me."

She didn't. She and Crosby were still married when she died of cancer in 1952, at the age of 40; if she carried a secret connection to Dixie Lee Junction, she took it to the grave.

The junction wasn't named for her, but its neighbors' desire to keep a connection to a native daughter might have helped it stick.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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