On Thanksgiving Day, every right-thinking American family feels some pressure to recreate an old-fashioned ideal of the iconic feast, a Norman Rockwell tableaux: the extended family gathered happily around a long covered table, with a patriarch poised to carve the bird. There’s an unwritten rule that there is to be no food on the table that would startle our great-grandparents, should they happen to visit in spirit. No pasta, no crepes, no burritos, no falafels. Turkey, dressing, gravy, sweet potatoes, green beans, corn, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie is acceptable. It’s acceptable because it’s always been that way. Thanksgiving is not about surprises.
Another unwritten rule is that everyone is supposed to spend the day at home, strictly with blood relations, presumably in accord with our ancestors’ ideals. Stores close so employees “can spend the day with their families.” It’s a principal everyone is supposed to understand.
Of course, after the ceremonial noon feast, Thanksgiving degenerates into a surfeit of football on television and an unscheduled nap. When a family gets up a quorum to go see a movie, they feel a little rebellious, maybe blasphemous, boldly modern .
Just for perspective, it might be useful to remember a real Thanksgiving like our grandparents or great-grandparents knew. A century ago, surely, Thanksgiving was authentic.
As it happens, old newspapers offer a great deal of detail about how Knoxvillians celebrated Thanksgiving in 1906. A feast involving turkey was prominent, yes. But accounts suggest that Thanksgiving was more public and less predictable than it is today. The first thing you notice is that almost nobody spent the day at home.
Of course, some left home mainly to go to church. Most churches offered some sort of Thanksgiving Day services, and several included elaborate musical programs, featuring vocal recitals interspersed with violin and cornet solos.
Beginning very early in the morning on Thanksgiving Day, 1906, the suburbs of Knoxville echoed with gunfire. You could even hear it from the streetcar lines. Many hunters, in fact, hopped on a streetcar, shotgun in hand, and rode until they spotted a likely field, got off, and took aim. But one seasoned hunter announced publicly that Thanksgiving was one day they never hunted. It was dangerous, he said. Stick your head above a bush on Thanksgiving Day, and you’re likely to get shot.
His words were prophetic; it happened all over Knox County. Near Concord that Thursday, a 9-year-old aiming at a quail shot and killed his 12-year-old brother. The same day, another boy hunting with his dad near Fountain City fell and blew shot through this leg.
Even one of Knoxville’s most prominent citizens, Col Cary Spence, veteran of the Spanish-American War and new president of the Knoxville Board of Trade—was, using a euphemism still useful to spin-doctors a century later—“peppered” by 22 individual pellets of birdshot that lodged in his leg, arm, and face. The surgeon couldn’t dig all the unexpected seasoning out of the colonel’s flesh.
The shooter was a stranger to Col. Spence, “an overeager Nimrod,” as a reporter called the unnamed shootist. Still, “Col. Spence entertains no enmity for the hunter for whom he was a target,” reported the Journal & Tribune , “but he does entertain a very high degree of enmity for his marksmanship.” (A dozen years later, Col. Spence, recovered from the wounds of a Knoxville Thanksgiving, would lead the 117th Infantry against the Hindenburg Line.)
It was perhaps safer downtown.
The Auditorium Skating Rink at Main and Gay advertised a special Thanksgiving Matinee featuring a “fancy-skating” exhibition by the Nichols Brothers and “new moving pictures,” silent films shown while customers skated.
There was public football (the UT Scrubs vs. the Knoxville High team in combat at Baker-Himel Park). “Both teams average between 140 and 145 pounds, and play fast football,” reported the Sentinel . A newer sport wasn’t quite as popular as football then, but for those interested, there was Thanksgiving basketball (the YMCA Featherweights vs. Kimberlin Heights, at the court at Johnson Bible College). And there was an all-day bowling tournament at the three-alley headquarters of the Knoxville Bowling Club that served bowlers a Thanksgiving meal of turkey, possum, and roast pig, and wasn’t over until 11 p.m.
And Staub’s Theatre at Gay and Cumberland offered an especially heartwarming Thanksgiving matinee of the play, The Royal Chef , a “musical cocktail” about poisoning and decapitation on the fictional island of Oolong. Its pride was “electric lighted feather boas.”
“The boas, which are worn by the girls, light up in varied colors, giving a kaleidoscopic effect to the setting,” reported the Journal . “Another electric novelty is the umbrella, which is used in the last act. The umbrella is…16 feet in diameter and descends from the flies opening out as it comes down. The audience can see nothing upon which the umbrella is supported, and it sails down like a bird in its flight, the girls holding ribbons which hang from the spokes of the umbrella, dancing around in Maypole fashion. At a signal the umbrella lights up with 262 tiny incandescent lights of varied colors.”
Descriptions like that can make our hearts yearn for those old-fashioned Tennessee Thanksgivings of days gone by.
Many looked forward to the next day’s feature, the controversial English actress Olga Nethersole, who six years earlier had been arrested in New York for staging the overtly sexual play Sapho ; she was bringing it to Knoxville for the day after Thanksgiving.
College football was already part of the Thanksgiving tradition in 1906. Specifically, Thanksgiving was the day of the Alabama game. It was an away game that year, in Birmingham, and in those pre-radio days Knoxvillians didn’t have any opportunity to pay close attention to the play-by-play, unless they rode along with the team in the train that left that Wednesday afternoon.
As they left, they might have passed another train in which was seated an old lady who carried a hatchet.
She got off the train at about 3:30 in the afternoon, and apparently looked around a little bit. Then she walked alone down Gay Street to the Cumberland Hotel, the grand old hostelry at the northwest corner of Gay and Cumberland. It was a sensible place to stay, not Knoxville’s grandest nor its cheapest hotel; rooms went for $2-3 a night.
The old lady, dressed in black, with a sober hat, wore a white ribbon. She signed the register: “Carry A. Nation, Guthrie, Oklahoma.”
Her name had become her mission. The presidential candidate of the Prohibitionist Party was famous for smashing up saloons with her hatchet. She had been arrested 29 times, and was right proud of it. She had been in Knoxville once before, a brief railroad layover, but this time she promised to spend the better part of a week here. She said she had work to do.
She was one of the most famous people in America in 1906, and there were already reporters in the hotel lobby waiting to see her. “Always good to see reporters,” she said. “They’re my right-hand men. I do local smashing, and they do general smashing. Anyway I entertain a feeling of sympathy for them, for I’m in that business, too.” She handed out copies of her journal, The Hatchet , and went from one reporter to another, pinning miniature hatchets on their lapels.
She introduced herself, unnecessarily. “I’m Carry Nation, anti-saloon, anti-whiskey, anti-beer, anti-tobacco, anti-pipe, anti-cigarettes, and especially anti-billiard room. I’m here to fight the devil and all his cohorts.”
The Cumberland Hotel, where she made that declaration, was known for its billiards saloon. There were in fact three saloons on that one block of Gay alone in 1906, plus a whiskey store and a cigar maker.
“I’ve seen worse things in Knoxville than I ever saw in any town, and I have seen a good many,” Nation declared. She mentioned in particular the conspicuous advertisements for whiskey and beer on the sides of buildings all over town. “You need a hatchetation here, and if the women will get together and go with me, I’ll lead them on a crusade that’ll stir things up.”
Knoxville supported almost 100 saloons in 1906, almost all of them downtown. Some put up signs saying, “All Nations Welcome Except Carrie.” Several more serious Knoxville saloonkeepers hired guards to stand outside the door. If any old lady even looked like she might be interested in coming in, they were to close the door and lock it.
She then spoke at the Market Hall, the public hall on the second floor of the Market House on the subject of The Work of Women Against the Saloon. She was, she declared, for “prohibition and women’s suffrage, not women suffering.” To her, it was all the same, one big struggle against male thoughtlessness. She described her career smashing saloons, how she had started with rocks, but found hatchets to be more efficient.
At the time she spoke, there were five saloons on Market Square, on either side of the auditorium. There were also two liquor stores on the Square, and a small cigar factory.
“N’othern woman at my age has done or will do what I’m doing. I’m 61 years old and without money or without aid of friends and carrying on a battle against the saloon and single-handed with my hatchet have put one after another of them out of business.”
“Would to God that every woman in the land had aided in the smashing…there would not be no such places.” It’s not clear that she got the support from local women she’d asked for.
She got up in the morning of Thanksgiving Day and spent the hours of 8 to 11 walking “unaccompanied over the city, looking in alleys, dark corners, etc.” Then she returned to eat a peaceful Thanksgiving dinner at the Cumberland.
Some were surprised that, for her, Thanksgiving Day in Knoxville, which some reformers had called the most sinful city in the South outside of New Orleans, was “a quiet day, she being molested by neither internal nor external disturbances, her frame of mind during the day being quite pleasant.”
She showed signs of softening, even during her five days in Knoxville. “Of course, there are some good people in Knoxville,” she allowed. She even admitted that she’d learned that saloon men were not all to blame. “There are some really nice men among their number,” she said. For the time being, she left Knoxville’s 100 saloons unsmashed.
In Knoxville she claimed repeatedly that she was 61 years old; biographical sources indicate that she arrived here just three days after her 60th birthday. In either case, she may not have been exactly the same Carry Nation that Western saloonkeepers feared. Her saloon-smashing career had peaked three or four years earlier. She had other problems; her daughter, declared legally insane, had been institutionalized.
She befriended the Journal cartoonist, and asked for a copy of his caricature of her that appeared on the front page of the Thanksgiving issue. She walked northward toward Market Square with her cartoonist friend, “just as the theater crowd was wending its way southward,” toward Staub’s, to see The Royal Chef . Several recognized her, in some astonishment.
As they walked along Gay Street, the cartoonist noted that she “jumped with all her force on cigar stubs and cigarette butts when she saw them in the street.” She explained that if she didn’t, boys might pick them up and smoke them.
Her afternoon lecture attracted 7-800, more than the capacity of the smallish hall; many had to sit in windows. She denounced Republicans and Democrats alike. President Theodore Roosevelt was an “anarchist,” she declared. Perennial Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan was a “coward.” Her own Prohibition Party was the only party to take seriously, the only one “which pursues relief from the greatest curse of the age.”
She spoke a second time later that night, on the subject of “Law vs. Anarchy.” She described smashing saloons in Topeka. “I felt like a giant!” she said. “I knocked away the faucets, threw the cash register on the floor, smashed the slot machines, and then knocked the bungs out of the beer kegs. Beer began spewing all over the place…. I was soon wet to the skin.”
She later gave a gamier lecture to men only. The first half was about drinking and smoking. The second half emphasized “the more corrupt vices, and Mrs. Nation had much to say about them. She did not mince matters at all, but plainly said all she had in mind,” most of which apparently wasn’t considered printable in a family paper like the Journal .
A Sentinel columnist wrote that “tears came down the furrows of a smile, so subtle and quick is her flow of humor and pathos…. Her remarks were quite frank, so much so that the men blushed. She had truth to convey, and the methods employed were of little moment to her…. At some future time, this one woman may be worshiped as Mohammed is now….”
Nation is remembered as a caricature. But in 1906, much of what she said made sense. To many progressives, a new and dry America was the certain future of America. The 19th century had been dark, drunken, and violent. The 20th century would be sober, peaceful, and progressive.
Knoxville had a high murder rate, and newspaper accounts suggest that most of the murders in the city had something to do with alcohol, and specifically with saloons. Every year saw a couple dozen saloon murders in Knoxville. When Nation was here, a man named John “Shorty” Smith was in the Knoxville jail, scheduled to hang a week later for shooting a his girlfriend in a Central Street saloon the previous year.
“I killed Susie Dayton, and I don’t care much,” he confessed. “The only thing that I hate is that I did not kill the Negro Dave, who caused all the trouble between the woman and me. I have been in jail here over a year, and I have been treated good. Somebody has got to die every once in a while, and all of us sometime.”
The Rev. J.R. Lauritzen visited him before the jail’s Thanksgiving meal to cheer him up with an inspirational hymn: “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”
Most Knoxvillians didn’t care much about college football in 1906, but those who did got some bad news from down South, which trickled back via telegraph late on Thanksgiving. UT lost to Alabama, 51-0. “Tennessee didn’t just hand the ball over to Alabama and tell them to chase back and forth across the field and see how many times the goal line could be crossed in a certain length of time,” reported the Journal , “but she might as well have done so.”
The Sentinel’ s sports editor allowed the game two full sentences on page 16. One of them was, “The visitors were completely outclassed.”
Maybe worse, UT’s second-string team lost to Knoxville High, 6-5.
Another disappointment of the holiday weekend was Friday’s performance of Sapho at Staub’s. Some who packed the house expected the play that had been controversial in New York would stir things up here. It was well acted by the English diva, Miss Nethersole, but, according to the Journal , the script was “stripped of the actual sensuality, bestiality, and lechery which is part of the book. The ‘three-minute kiss’ is reduced to a five-second osculation which might easily be emulated here in Knoxville.” You wouldn’t even have to pay the Staub’s admission of a quarter to see that.
Carry Nation left town, and the 100 saloonkeepers of Knoxville heaved a sigh of relief. But the ball was rolling. Knoxville made a lot of fun of Carry Nation, but a majority of voters, all male, apparently decided she had a point. One year after Nation’s visit, the all-male electorate of Knoxville voted the city dry. And eventually her cause did carry a nation.