Each October, he would approach from the south, his forked staff in hand, trailing a long robe decorated with astrological symbols. He wore a great white beard; some whispered that he was older than any man. From his cranium curled two long horns. He arrived for his annual inspection of his favorite city.
"The Prophet of the Great Smokies...is no character of foreign importation," a reporter assured us in 1897. "No kinsman is he of the veiled monster of Khorassan...nor yet a Comus of bacchanalian song and revel, nor a roistering Rex...." He was, in short, a local.
"His home is, as it has been for ages, in the heart of the Great Smokies, far up the steeps amid the eternal blue of the everlasting peaks and ranges, above the thunder and the storm. His companions are the wood-nymphs and the eagle of the crags."
The Prophet would approach from the Gay Street Bridge and spend the day riding his chariot, inspecting the city that he claimed he had helped found more than a century earlier when he had "guided White to behold a city here."
He emerged from the woods this time every year. The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains came down for the Knoxville Merchants and Manufacturers Free Street Fair and Carnival. Unlike the agricultural fairs, the Free Street Fair had more urbane amusements: a Grand Tableaux exhibited "the birth of Greater Knoxville." A Grand Historical Costume Ball. And, of course, there was Lotta, the Famous Electric Dancer.
In a grand ceremony at the courthouse, near the Sevier monument, the mayor would offer him "the freedom of the city," represented by a key, and for the next several days, the prophet, not the mayor, was in charge. The Prophet accepted the honor graciously as a welcome "to this, our favorite and peculiar city...a splendid and progressive city, enthroned upon historic hills."
Some whispered that the Prophet, beneath his beard and horns, was a prominent citizen, maybe even former Gov. Bob Taylor. But that theory was undermined in 1897 by the fact that Taylor was on the platform with him, shaking his hand.
"Once again by the mercy of God I am permitted to be in your midst and to extend hearty greetings to the children of this beautiful metropolis which lies within the shadow of my mountain home," he proclaimed. "This city is my peculiar pride and joy."
Everywhere he offered his famous predictions. During what may have been one of his final appearances, in 1916, he forecast that women would soon have the vote. "And when you place, as you will, in their hands the ballot, it will be cast for the best in government...fear not that they will be less fair and womanly."
He also offered this prediction: "Mine eyes see a magnificent highway running from this city to the north and to the south, forming a link in a national system of highways that will bring into your borders the...wandering pleasure seekers of the country...." Of course, he might have been reading in the papers that the Dixie Highway project was already underway.
"Yes, as in the olden time, all roads led to imperial Rome, so in time to come, all roads in this splendid section shall lead to queenly Knoxville."
And he predicted endless annexations: "Soon the lusty and beautiful towns now clustered as jewels about our queenly Knoxville will be given royal welcome into her borders, which again and again shall be extended, until the furnace fires at Mascot shall shine upon her eastern gate...."
He foresaw that pollution would obscure our view of the mountains, but it wasn't necessarily a warning. He sounded excited about it: "The pillars of smoke from the fires of industry at that quaint old college town named for Mary Grainger [Maryville] will obscure the vision of the watchman of the gate looking toward that pyramid of mountains capped by old Thunderhead."
Among the festival's events were some of the first UT football games. In those days, a football game was often scheduled as an attraction of the Free Street Fair.
It's hard to ignore an irony there. Many cities bigger and smaller than Knoxville still have fall festivals, but not long ago, a city official explained to me why Knoxville could never sustain an annual fall festival. It was because of football, she said. Not only do Knoxville's six home games arrive on six different Saturdays each year, most of their kickoff times aren't known until days before. Between late August and early December, it's just impossible to plan a predictably annual weekend festival in Knoxville.
Somehow, though, I remember the day in October, 1982, when 100,000 fans watched the Vols play Alabama exactly as, one block away, we entertained another 100,000 at a World's Fair. I was working at the Fair that day, manning the gates at the Egyptian pavilion; there was no sag during the game, no quiet spell. It was, in fact, unusually crowded during the game. I remember several visitors asking me what that noise was over toward that big metal-encased brick building. Was it part of the Fair, they asked, and was it extra.
Less than a century ago, the football game was indeed part of the Fair, and one of the events over which the Prophet reigned.
The street fair's grand finale came on the evening of the final Saturday: the Grand Historical, Allegorical, Emblematic, and Illuminated Carnival. That was where the Prophet made his final appearance and wished us Godspeed until next year.
One year, though, he didn't come back. I haven't run across a reference to the Prophet after World War I. During that time, I think, Knoxville lost some of its pride in itself as a city. But this weekend, if you think you see, out of the corner of your eye, a bearded creature with horns lurking around Market Square or the old courthouse, welcome him back.