Some Fall Notes

An old bar’s deeper heritage, a daring exhibit at UT, and Hillbilleconomics

A few weeks ago, I tried to triangulate the oldest bar in town, and my general conclusion was that it was probably the Bistro by the Bijou, with several asterisks and footnotes that obliged me to describe several other contenders, one of which was Manhattan’s in the Old City.

I got a note that the building that contains Manhattan’s may be older than I had figured. I noted that it has been a photographic studio and then a Greek-owned chili parlor in the 1920s, and a speakeasy or beer joint then or soon after, but I didn’t take it back farther than that. It’s a one-story brick building without the usual Victorian flourishes. I’d assumed it was a 20th-century building.

However, I heard from reader Sandy Stevens-Woodland that the building is definitely a good deal older. She says it was her great-grandfather’s pharmacy in the 1890s, and wasn’t a brand new building then. During the renovation of the building as the Manhattan’s we know, in 1986-87, she says sandblasting briefly revealed the name of her ancestors’ pharmacy on the side of the building. She says Stevens is an ancestor of several prominent Knoxvillians, including former Vice-Mayor Jack Sharp and PR man Alan Carmichael.

These days, drugstores are sterile, fluorescent-lit and often cold and dismal places, which the exception of Long’s on a Saturday. In the 1890s, though, drugstores were often noisy and crowded, especially down here on Central. Most offered counters where a man could sit on a stool and take his drugs, sometimes dissolved in a glass of water. Pharmacists were much less fussy about prescriptions, which weren’t demanded for many drugs. Customers could often obtain opiates or even cocaine by request, and take the drugs at the counter.

Ms. Stevens-Woodland doesn’t have any reason to believe her great-grandfather’s pharmacy was like his cocaine-parlor neighbors, but she says he did advertise something as “Stevens’ Magic Elixir.” Whether that gives his old building longer legs as a contender as one of Knoxville’s oldest bars, I’ll leave up to you.

If any time this season you have a mind to just quit a Vols game at halftime, or earlier, walk over to the University Center and see the photographic exhibit in the concourse. A decade or two ago, it might have been even more controversial than the notorious Pearlstein exhibit, the clinically nude drawings that raised such a stir with the moral majority in the ’80s. The current exhibit may shock us because it features photographs of old UT buildings, with insinuations of preservationism.

In the past, even the recent past at UT, preservationism was the equivalent of Bolshevism. The university’s administration looked suspiciously at old buildings, especially its own. The exhibit combines historical shots of the old UT Hill, from as far back as the Civil War. It’s a little chilling to realize that, at this university that flourishes its 1794 founding date like a club tie, has not a single brick in place from any building as it stood on the Hill in a circa 1870 photo. The Campus Heritage Project, shepherded by administrator Tim Ezzell, highlights several interesting old buildings, including the carriage house at White and 16th, once part of a private residence, but now a prized campus relic.

They’ve always said it’s a matter of cost and priorities, but you have to wonder how other colleges, even state colleges, are able to save so much, when UT’s able to save so little. The University of Virginia is ostensibly younger than UT, as an institution, but has several buildings much older than our oldest. That’s 1872’s South College, a building mainly functional by Victorian standards, has never looked so elegant as it does in this photograph.

It’s assumed, in a caption for a photograph of Estabrook Hall, the second-oldest academic building on campus and maybe my favorite, is likely doomed. When it’s gone, UT, the 18th-century university, will have only one building that hosted any teaching before the 20th century.

Everybody’s pretending they don’t know why Knoxville had the highest gas prices in the nation early last week, maybe the highest gas prices in American history. But it seems pretty obvious to me. It’s the same syndrome we repeat every time a weatherman mentions a 50 percent chance of snow.

You know what I mean. In Knoxville history, no one has ever starved to death due to snow. Even when we used to get snow, it never stayed on the ground more than three or four days. But as soon as there’s any prediction of snow, we run to Kroger and buy 12 loaves of bread and three gallons of milk, even if we doubt we can drink that much before it spoils, snow or no snow. We buy it because everybody else is doing the same thing, and we know that if we don’t, somebody else might get it. It’s simple hillbilleconomics.

Iconic grocer Cas Walker, a leading scholar of hillbilleconomics, was its master practitioner. There’s a story I’ve heard from several sources over the years: If some product was overstocked and in the way, he would announce that supplies were short—and double the price. Nothing convinces East Tennesseans to buy like that. He created a sudden demand, and would vaporize his surplus in no time.

Cas is gone, but his old customers are still here. When we hear that a hurricane might make gas scarce and expensive next week, we go out and fill every tank we can find. Faced with the likelihood of running out, stations raise prices. And it’s top of the TV news, on every station, even as a hurricane is wiping out thousands of homes on the gulf.

It was big news, but whether it’s a very serious problem or not, I don’t know. Even those who drive SUVs 100 miles a day, and bought gas every day at the going rate, didn’t have to pay as much extra throughout the whole $5 per gallon ordeal as, say, they might have for an oil change—or one lonesome nosebleed seat at the Florida game. Like Keynesian economics, hillbilleconomics is not easy to explain to the layman.

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