One century ago, Knoxville underwent one of the biggest social metamorphoses in the city’s history. Though traumatic for some—it put several hundred out of business—the change delighted idealists as the dawn of a bright new era. It resulted in a Christmas season that everyone agreed was astonishing.
The seismic shift of 1907 was Knoxville’s ban on local commerce in alcohol. Just like that, 100 saloons died.
“Of course, it was not expected that no liquors would be sold and drank by Knoxville people,” admitted the Knoxville Journal and Tribune. Liquor made it into town from other sources; reaping economic rewards of Knoxville’s liquor ban was Middlesborough, Ky. Enterprising Middlesborough liquor dealers advertised in the Journal. One rail-freight handler estimated that the trains brought in 300 gallon jugs a day. On Dec. 21, an elevator accident at the L&N depot resulted in hundreds of gallon jugs falling into the shaft. “Rivers of booze flowed in the elevator pit,” wrote a reporter. “Strong men wept.”
The East Tennessee Brewing Company on McGhee Street was in crisis. They came up with a “temperance brew” for the new soft-drink stands popping up all over downtown. Chief of Police W.P. Chandler noticed that people who drank ETBC’s “Extra Dry” seemed to act a little dopey. They cracked down. ETBC sought an injunction against Chief Chandler to allow sales of Extra Dry. A chemist working for the KPD determined that the “temperance brew” was more than 2 percent alcohol.
There were other anxieties. Shopkeepers were especially anxious that the Bankers’ Panic, which had triggered a national recession earlier in the year, might dampen Christmas sales.
Folks found ways to celebrate. The YWCA decorated a Christmas tree with Japanese lanterns and held a Christmas masquerade. Attendees came dressed as famous children: Buster Brown, the Gold Dust Twins. Adults enjoyed crackers and milk and stick candy and played children’s games. Encouraged to bring pets, some brought their Teddy Bears. (Introduced a couple of years earlier, the Teddy Bear fad seemed finally to be dying out. The Emporium was overstocked, marking them down to 95 cents.)
The Hotel Imperial at Gay and Clinch drew crowds to its famous pool hall to witness a holiday pool tournament between Sam O’Connor, the local “crack,” and George Sutton, “the Handless Wonder.” Sutton has lost both hands and forearms in a sawmill accident, and became nationally famous for his pool exhibitions. Sutton won the first round.
Turkey was popular at Market Square, but it wasn’t the only holiday entree. Both the Stratford Hotel on Wall and the Colonial Hotel advertised Christmas Day feasts; prominent on the published holiday menus of both was Spanish Mackerel. The Stratford also offered Fillet of Beef a la Creole. The Colonial Cafe offered festive anchovy sandwiches.
There were Christmas dances, basketball games, and—a Knoxville tradition for several years—the Christmas Day Bowling Tournament, held in a club house in East Knoxville. It was always a late-night affair, breaking up only when the last streetcars for town were due, near midnight.
Everybody was putting on Christmas performances of some sort; the Park City Bazaar featured a recitation by a diminutive teenager named Clarence Brown.
Vaudeville houses packed them in. The house band at the Ole Bull, on Wall Avenue, was the talented Jones family of fiddlers and banjoists; they also showed the recent French silent, Cinderella. The Marvel Theatre, on Gay, charged a nickel to see Harry Gilbert, “the White Boy With the Wonderful Coon Voice.”
The grandest theater of all was Staub’s, at Gay and Cumberland. That Christmas Day, George M. Cohan’s company would present the comedy Brewster’s Millions to Staub’s for two standing-room only shows.
But people seemed to be talking more about what would come just after the holidays: at Staub’s on the first Saturday of the new year, the English Grand Opera would present a new work by Puccini, the year after its U.S. debut. A company of 150 would perform two shows of Madame Butterfly, with two different casts, conducted by Mahler associate Walter Rothwell.
The Japanese-themed opera suited the times. Asia was suddenly chic. Gay Street department stores were selling kimonos and Japanese lanterns and parasols.
By Dec. 20, “Gay Street and Market Square were one crowding, good-natured, jostling throng.” Brass bands played on sidewalks, minstrels performed in front of stores. “Stentorian voices shouted up and down the streets, calling crowds to attention. The centers of attraction for the children were the Santa Clauses to be found in several store windows, some of them very amusing.”
Trains disgorged people from all over the region, to shop in downtown Knoxville, where Miller’s sold “new and nobby suits” for women and Woodruff’s sold “Foot Balls, complete, with bladders” and Winchester repeater rifles. In the famous Phoenix Building, crowned with its large stone bird, Hall and Hawkins Furniture claimed to be “the home that Santa Claus Calls His Own.” The candy factory of Littlefield and Steere, then still located on old Commerce Street, advertised, “Don’t take your money away from home when you can get dainty and delicious Fine Chocolates and Bon Bons made in the Knoxville factory by home people.”
Rodgers & Co., the auto dealership, Gay Street agent for Pope-Waverley’s electric car, suggested a more generous gift: “If you want to make your wife happy, present her with a Pope-Waverley automobile on Christmas Day.”
M. M. Newcomer’s sold toy automobiles—“Extra Special Automatic Automobiles,” in fact—for just 10 cents—and lots and lots of dolls. But Doll & Co. advertised mostly books: The Shuttle, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and A Six-Cylinder Courtship (“a delightful automobile story”) by E.S. Field. Retired Republican Congressman Henry Gibson’s new poetic fantasy, The Maid of Redenfayn, An Allegory In Two Worlds was “a Knoxville production of which Knoxville may well be proud.”
“The holiday spirit was rampant and thoroughly appropriate to the night before Christmas,” reported the Journal. “The stores were simply crowded to the door,” especially in the basements, which several stores had designated as Toyland.
“But it was at night out in the streets where the fun was. At the entrances to the nickel and dime theaters, of which there are no few in Knoxville, one had to leave the sidewalk to get by the throng....”
Kids rang bells and shook rattlers and blew “air-splitting” horns, “a din that left no doubt in any mind that the holiday season was close at hand.”
“And the youngster with the rubber ball was on deck, to the regret of wearers of stiff hats...” That was the particular joy of 1907. Gangs of boys crowded certain intersections, especially Gay and Wall, and pelted the high-hatted with rubber balls. “Dignity on the part of the victim apparently rendered the fun all the more enjoyable. There seemed to be a special dislike of stiff hats, and it was a lucky wearer of a derby that got through unmolested...”
On Market Square, “the wagons are lined up loaded high with Christmas green stuff, holly, and mistletoe, and cedar Christmas trees...” Jolly old baker Peter Kern, the German immigrant who had helped cultivate the Knoxville Christmas, had died a few weeks before, but Kern’s was “Santie’s Headquarters,” purveyors of candy, fruitcakes, and “Xmas novelties.”
Never mind the Panic of 1907. “People had money and the desire to get rid of it.” Dec. 24 was the biggest shopping day of the year. “It was as animated a scene as one would care to see short of a midway or a big revue...” Brass bands, minstrels, “all filing the streets with humanity and the air with noises of every character.” Downtown sidewalks were booming on Christmas Eve, without visible slack, past 9 p.m. “By 10, folks began to steer homeward, but it was getting mighty close to the midnight hour before the streets began to put on that deserted look, and even then, belated and overworked clerks and proprietors drilled along, wending their weary way homeward.”
For decades, Christmas season in Knoxville had always had a dark side. Thousands of factory workers suddenly freed from their 60-hour jobs in the factories, with a paycheck, into a city with 100 downtown saloons, usually didn’t bode well for a silent night.
On Christmas Day, up on Luttrell Street, an errant celebratory “skyrocket” smashed into the front window of the Kuhlman home, setting curtains on fire. Two men were charged with being drunk and armed: “taxed $50 each for carrying the artillery, and $10 each for wearing a jag.”
But, astonishingly, there were “no shooting or cutting scrapes” in Knoxville.
To some, the message was that prohibition works. “Christmas of 1907 will go down in history as Knoxville’s first Temperance Christmas,” declared the Sentinel. The dangerous 24-hour period between noon Christmas Eve and noon Christmas Day rendered only five arrests; in the same period in 1906, there had been 50.
It flabbergasted an old-timer who said he’d lived in Knoxville since 1867. “I never saw one like it before,” he said, “and I’ve spent 42 of them in Knoxville. Knoxville’s first dry Christmas has them all beat by a country block. I haven’t seen a drunk all day, and yet everybody seems to be enjoying Christmas right up to the handle.”
The Journal reported that the police “are not anticipating that the monotony of routine existence will be disturbed very freely during the next few weeks.”
Some statements might seem bad luck even if you’re not superstitious. On New Year’s Day, two patrolmen, Mike Wrenn and O.L. Jarnigan, went to a Central Street whorehouse to arrest a man for non-payment of $300 in fines, a routine call. They found their man, a young guy named Ernest Wells, in the lobby of the place, at about 9 p.m. Wells shot both officers to death. It was the worst night in the department’s history.