By the end of the week, Knoxville will no longer be home to White Lily Flour, which has been milled at its original location at Central Street and Depot Avenue for well over a century. For reasons that must make sense to somebody with a calculator, Smucker’s is moving the production to a couple of different mills in the Midwest.
The old factory is, at this writing, still in operation, along the north side of the Old City. It’s been expanded a lot over the last 125 years, resulting in an interesting conglomeration of mixed architecture and machinery, with its seven tall metal silos and loading docks fronting the freight yards. But the original four- and five-story biscuit-colored brick building on Central—the one you can see in that famous bird’s-eye portrait of Knoxville in 1886—is still there and, today, producing flour.
As I walked by at lunchtime, a thin, middle-aged man stepped out of that old building into the sunshine, and took off his hairnet, and exhaled. I asked him if he was moving to Ohio. “No, they’re just shutting us down,” he said. “I need to look for another job.”
It’s not just another local industry biting the dust. White Lily is one of Knoxville’s handiest claims to fame. People who don’t know the Vols have a football team know White Lily as one of America’s finest flours. Some chefs and cookbooks specify White Lily, especially for certain delicate desserts. Though it’s always been distributed primarily in the southeast, upscale chains like Williams-Sonoma have carried it. In 1992, New York magazine ran an excited item heralding the fact that White Lily was finally available in New York, at Dean & DeLuca: “Any Southerner who knows his pie crust knows that White Lily is the only flour worth stocking.”
Last Wednesday’s New York Times ran a story, illustrated by a photograph of the historic factory, that raised the question of whether the White Lily magic would survive the move from Knoxville north.
Writer Shaila Dewan interviewed several baking experts, including Shirley Corriher, a well-known Atlanta cookbook author, who was quoted as saying, “There’s an incredible difference” between White Lily and other all-purpose flours. “It’s much, much finer, much whiter, and much silkier.” Corriher is said to be “skeptical that a process perfected over more than a century of milling and subjected to Knoxville’s intensive quality control could be easily replicated.”
That’s not a phrase I hear every day—“Knoxville’s intensive quality control”—but I like the ring of it. White Lily’s nonpareil reputation was one of our city’s few positive superlatives. I always thought Knoxville should have made something of the association. Sponsor an annual international biscuit-baking championship, for example. Or maybe a giant Capture the Flag battle using only pure White Lily flour in the grenades.
Only in recent years has Knoxville tried to capitalize on its association with White Lily; when the tourist center reopened at Gay Street and Summit Hill, they sold, along with T-shirts and tour books, souvenir bags of White Lily Flour, produced just three blocks away. Recently there’s been talk of a biscuit festival: believe it or not, there apparently isn’t any such thing elsewhere, and Knoxville’s connection to White Lily gave the city its most credible purchase on the idea; boosters were looking to launch it next year. There’s been random discussion of encouraging pedestrian traffic through that under-visited part of downtown, and some were reportedly enthusiastic about the possibility of a museum or bake shop in the White Lily factory. It was a great idea, but none of that ever happened.
It’s got a history, and so far all of it’s based in downtown Knoxville. Georgia-born James Allen Smith came to the war-shaken town as a young man, around 1873, and founded a grain business on Gay Street, followed by a small mill on Broad. The Knoxville City Mills, of which he was a cofounder, was reorganized as the J. Allen Smith Co. They built the big building alongside Central in 1885; English industrial manufacturer W.J. Savage fitted it out with machinery, including a big roller mill, new technology at the time. It was a full-service flour factory; they manufactured not only the flour but the elm-stave barrels to pack it in. For a long time, it was pretty easy to find; its 175-foot smokestack was one of the tallest structures in East Tennessee. The smokestack was torn down in 1943, after the plant went electric.
They made several brands, various grades of flours for different purposes, some of them with odd names. One, a “special baker’s cake flour,” was called Evidence. Another, for pastries, was called Jasco. A cookie flour was Clover Leaf. By 1904, J. Allen Smith was making Roller King, New South, Majestic, Knoxville Leader, Mayflower, Orange Blossom, Alpine Snow, Standard Fancy, and Piedmont flours.
Somewhere along the way, J. Allen Smith created a new flour that he reputedly was inspired to name for his wife, Lillie. There’s another story; an early partner of Smith’s was one Jasper Lily. Regardless of the etymology, White Lily and its sister flours made Smith’s factory one of the biggest flour mills in the South, and made J. Allen Smith himself a rich man. He used his money to benefit the community. He was a big backer of the major Appalachian Exposition of 1910, the Knoxville Welfare Association, the University of Tennessee’s agricultural experiment station, and, during its greatest need during World War I, the Red Cross. He established a public clinic on Clinch Avenue.
As an old man, he built an unusually gorgeous hacienda on Lyons View Pike, designed by the then-young firm of Barber & McMurry; he died there in 1920, at age 70. Cherokee Country Club’s controversial acquisition and destruction of the J. Allen Smith House on Lyons View Pike a few years ago was a great aesthetic loss, as far as I’m concerned, but the real historic building, 30 years older, is still intact, and that’s the White Lily factory. I hope we can find a worthy use for what remains of it. A building isn’t the same as a tradition, but it’s all we’ve got left.