Assistant Park Manager Ben Nanny had his fingers in almost all of Mead’s improvements.
Kelly Brown (far left) and his students at Laurel High groomed the quarry.
The Stanton Cemetery, on a bluff above the quarry, has burial dates as long ago as the mid 1800s.
After four years of rehabilitation, the Mead’s Quarry property still bears the dull scars of its demoralizing past. In shallower patches, a bed of tires and corroding metal line the lake floor, heaps of sodden shingles rot trailside, a rusty water heater crouches on a hill. These relics recall the quarry’s heyday, as a nationally-recognized marble mill, and its hard-knock past, as a dumping ground. Since Ijams Nature Center usheredthe maligned, 50-acre site under its wings four years ago, park officials and volunteers have groomed the land tirelessly, working to reintroduce it to its former spirit. “It was a huge project, starting in 2001 with cleanup,” says Ben Nanny, a lanky young man who works as assistant park manager at Ijams. (The 160-acre park is located off Island Home Avenue in South Knoxville.) “It was a dump; it had been for 20 years. There were no gates so at the time people could drive right up to the quarry to dump any kind of trash you can imagine.”
Nowadays, hikers and their dogs tromp through the park’s rough-hewn trails, spongy with wood chips. The quarry’s shoreline and vistas are cleared of debris, its water a frosty, emerald green.
Before Ijams’ acquisition, Mead’s Quarry was little more than a receptacle for corpses, stolen cars, industrial waste and doffed innocence. Pickup tracks backed up flush with the shoreline to empty their beds of garbage; makeshift huts sheltered vagrants, and local kids staggered and leapt from the quarry’s craggy walls. The stuff of nostalgic country music songs and languid, sticky afternoons, neglected quarries have long provided springing boards for devil-may-care teenagers; today, they can be found there still. The kids of Laurel High, a small private school located inconspicuously in Fort Sanders, hold their wilderness-training classes at Mead’s Quarry several times a month. For the past couple years, along with several boy-scout troops and other volunteer groups, the Laurel kids have hacked their way through trails, split rails, and plucked trash from the soil. “The kids need community-service credits, and I thought what a good opportunity to get them outside and tell them to roll up their sleeves,” says teacher Kelly Brown. As Brown and his students revamped the property, he taught them to identify plants, to make fire, to scale rock walls, and to strengthen their appreciation for the environment.
Now more than just a setting for wily, inappropriate activity, Mead’s Quarry is a community’s triumph, a testimony to elbow grease and patience, a reference point for how far South Knoxville has come.
Geologists have inferred that 450 million years ago Knoxville was covered by water. During this time, animal remains plastered the sea floor, creating a sedimentary rock that would later become gray- and rose-colored Tennessee Marble, a comely, un-crystallized form of limestone. Positioned near the center of a marble basin, Knoxville produced so much marble that by the early 1900s it was known as Marble City.
In 1881, John W. Ross of the Ross Marble Company, and Frank S. Mead adopted the Mead’s Quarry property for $100. Eleven years later, Ross married with the Republic Marble Company and the two began parenting the quarry under the newly joined Ross-Republic Marble Company. Things were off to an auspicious start, as roughly 150 workers reared the quarry into a profitable trade, slicing up to 35,000 cubic feet of marble from it annually, at 40 cents an hour, ten hours a day. A tight-knit village of company housing settled in the vicinity; a general store opened and Stanton cemeteryspread across a hilltop 90 feet above the quarry. A lofty mill was flanked by a queue of seven kilns, used to burn the quarry’s scrap limestone into lime. Barges and trains shipped great slabs of marble off for statues and monuments famously erected in government buildings in Maine, New York, Ohio, Washington D.C., and Indiana. In time, workers drilled into a cave system, puncturing the underground spring that pools into the quarry, stair-stepped so that the 20-acre lake is as deep as 100 feet on the north end. Water proved to be an obstacle for Ross-Republic, as it struggled to keep it pumped out of the areas where they worked.
By 1929, miners discovered that the lower-level limestone was of poorer quality, wrecked by fractures. The onset of the Great Depression took its toll, too, and 48 years after its conception, the quarry closed.
After a dozen years of inactivity, Herald Williams of the Williams Limestone Company purchased the half-tapped land, employed 70 workers and operated the kilns with white gas. Following the bankruptcy of his company in the mid ’70s, Williams died and left the property to his grandchildren, Vivian Davis and John Williams of Atlanta, who didn’t bother to gate the abandoned quarry off from undesired visitors. In subsequent years, the site was frequently used as a shooting ground and a dumpsite for thousands of pounds of trash. In ’77, one company even proposed using the quarry as a landfill.
Unmonitored and unsafe, the lake and its surrounding property was home to increasing criminal activity;in ’78, an arsonist set six piles of tires ablaze over a period of weeks, and in the years that followed, several people drowned, including a 17-year-old boy who was knocked from a cliff and pinned underwater by tumbling rock. In ’86, the armless, legless remains of a man were pulled from the lake, generating a mysterious court case that’s still under scrutiny. In ’87, a man was shot in the leg while wandering the grounds, and later that year, three prostitutes were convicted of aggravated assault and armed robbery after stripping a fellow prostitute of her clothes, shoving her into the quarry and leaving her there.
An outraged Island Home community rallied the City to spend upwards of $4,000 during the late ’80s to clean up the property, but the quarry cried out for more. In ’97, a 24-year-old killed his 15-year-old girlfriend on site and dumped her body there, and in 2002, two men leapt from a 90-foot cliff above the emerald water; the first man made it successfully and called up to his friend to follow suit. The next man hit the water at the wrong angle and perished.
The string of tragedies, and the property’s growing resemblance to a battleground, prompted the organization of the Island Home Community Club, spearheaded by Cota and Minnie Tharp, a married couple who had worked in and lived near the quarry since 1925. An 80-year-old Minnie Tharp, now deceased, was quoted in 1990 as saying, “What I see in my mind is trees and flowers around the quarry with walkways leading to different areas. There would be displays showing how quarrying was done and who did it and where the marble was used.”
The Tharps would have celebrated the modern day Mead’s, dotted with birdhouses, picnic tables and information kiosks bearing black-and-white pictures of the mill in its former glory and encircled by two miles of trails, one of which bears the couple’s name—Tharp’s Trace.
In 2001, the City purchased the property for $57,000 and leased it to Ijams for 100 years. On May 17 of this year Mead’s Quarry officially opened to the public, coinciding with Ijams’ 40th anniversary.
Whipping the park into such shape was no short order, as Nanny can attest. Over the years, the park assistant has hauled hundreds of bags of trash from the derelict property. Though he removed some trash by skimming his canoe along the lake’s edge, he admits he wasn’t up to the task of actually fishing things out from deep in the water. “We wondered if we even wanted to pull something up that’s been down there for so long,” he says. “We don’t know what we’d be disturbing, the amount of silt we’d be dealing with. We got stuff as best we could, and the sheriff’s department does do some dive training out here, and so some of their divers offered to pull out trash.”
On a weekday in early December, Nannyrolls up to the Mead’s parking lot in a large piece of earthmoving equipment. Today, he’s got designs on uprooting some stubborn non-native invasive plants and replacing them with cedar and ninebark, an ornamental shrub. “The non-natives take over an area and make it more difficult for native plants to compete,” he says. A dearth of soil has also provided problems. “There’s not a lot of soil, because all the industrial work in the area scraped it clean,” Nanny says.
Ijams aims to enrich the soil by taking KUB up on its offer to spray woodchips throughout the area. “KUB contracts through several tree cutting companies who remove trees off power lines,” says Nanny. “They end up with truck loads of wood chips that they need to dump somewhere. In several years it will help with the soil.”
Nanny has spent the last year smoothing the kinks from the park’s aesthetics. Besides overseeing the construction of its stone walls, information kiosks, picnic areas and platforms—most of which he’s built with brick left from the kilns—Nanny witnessed the mill’s demolition. “That was tough,” he admits. “We kind of wanted to keep the mill and the kilns to use for interpretive reasons to show people what the working quarry looked like, but there were pieces of metal just flapping in the wind and people were climbing up the side of it.”
Where the mill once stood, there is now a flat gully, speckled with sculpture created by the One Ton group, local artists who work with scrap marble.
Elsewhere, the fairly steep Tharp’s Trace is punctuated by stirring vistas, noted on an Ijams map by sets of binoculars. One spot in particular takes the breath away: A few paces away from the sun-dappled Stanton Cemetery, on a dizzying outlook above the quarry, a wreath ten feet in diameter frames the postcard vista. Designed by Brown, who’s long made natural sculpture, the hoop was woven with bamboo and locust. In the frosty weather, one can see Chilhowee Mountain and Mount LeConte in the distance. Below is the quarry—deep and clear and cold.
“The water quality is surprisingly good,” says Nanny. “Tests we’ve done show it’s pretty clean. There’s actually a freshwater jellyfish in the lake that’s a clean water indicator.” Also home to the rare Berry Cave Salamander, the spring-fed quarry has, with much persuasion, managed to bob above its murky past.
“People who’ve lived in the area stop me on the trails and say how happy they are,” says Nanny. “They say how they’re not afraid to come here anymore.”