Sorority Village's Past
Earlier this summer, I went on record expressing skepticism about whether there were likely to be any traces of the 1863 Confederate offensive in the grove soon to be the site of Sorority Village. I thought it was an educated opinion. It had the looks of one, anyway. In my office map of Civil War embattlements, no trenches or other fortifications are marked over there, in that big green triangle at Kingston Pike and Neyland. That made some sense. Most of its hillside sloping down to the river was not within even within sight of the Union positions, anyway. And the area had been farmed, I’ve been told, for decades—before the University of Tennessee put temporary student housing on it in the late 1940s. And, of course, partially regraded for various highway projects. What could have been left after all that?
I’m also generally weary of the popular view that all history is Civil War history. The duration of that war was only four of the 220-odd years that people have been treading back and forth across that slope. Maybe there are Civil War artifacts, but maybe there’s also a horseshoe from the Federalist era, a broken hoe from the Jacksonian era, or a glass eye from the late Victorian era; an early steel sylphon from the nearby Fulton plant, a thrown connecting rod from a 1937 Packard, or a campaign button for Wendell Willkie.
But we have to admit that among all human endeavors, wars are among the junkiest. For four years, two opposing economies were united in a massive effort to manufacture durable metal objects to be strewn across battlefields, for later generations to find.
And, as it happens, this summer they did find some more of it, right there. At the top of the hillside, the part that does offer a clear shot of Fort Sanders, UT archaeologists have discovered trenchwork, some fireplaces, some likely cannon placements, and—if there remains any doubt about what unnaturally packed earth means—even some undeniable Civil War artifacts that have been biding their time just under the turf these past 145 years. Not a whole lot of it—most of it’s old trash that apparently got left in the bottom of a refilled trench. Plate fragments, and parts of a South Carolina jug. Minie balls, of course, which are sprinkled all over central Knoxville like Parmesan cheese. Surprisingly, some of the most easily identifiable artifacts in these Confederate trenches include two Union belt buckles. Was it a guerrilla prank? Were there a couple of Yankees in Fort Sanders who couldn’t keep their pants up? Chapman suggests they were “recycled” by the often under-provisioned rebels.
Several of the items they’ve found are spent brass primers for Confederate artillery. Stand there, beside that big oak tree, and to the northeast, over toward the top of 17th Street. The Confederate siege didn’t fail because they couldn’t get off a good shot.
He says they intend to put the artifacts on display at McClung Museum later this fall, to augment their existing Civil War exhibit. But it’s not likely to slow the development of long-awaited Sorority Village.
I’m more concerned about the design of the new development itself. It sounds like it’s not going to do much for the city, or the campus. It will be entirely fenced off, with the only entrance on the west side—away from campus—and accessible by automobile. Few will consider walking to it.
It’s a sort of trainer gated community. Sorority Village may play a valuable role in preparing the girls for retirement.
Bijou Theatre's Stars
It’s fun, in this year of the centennial of what’s arguably Tennessee’s oldest theater, that they hung up a big weatherproof sheet that hints at the history of the place: A huge banner lists maybe 60 actors or musicians who’ve performed at the Bijou since 1909. A theater’s flytower wall, typically a big, windowless rectangle, can be a challenge to exterior design, and it doesn’t hurt to liven it with some interesting reading. It would have been nice if they’d sought counsel on the spelling of Adrian Belew, the adventurous musician who played there just recently. (Did he notice it?) But any list that includes the Ramones, Tony Bennett, the Marx Brothers, and Talullah Bankhead suggests a place with some versatility.
As a whole, though, the list illustrates a phenomenon we noticed earlier this year when we polled local scenesters about their opinion of the best Knoxville bands of all time. People have strong prejudices in favor of the recent. Of the 60-odd performers on the Bijou’s century list, all but nine or 10 are still alive, and still performing. More than half on this list of legends performed at the Bijou in the last 10 years or so, and are perhaps likely to play there again.
Several of them are people I’ve had the good fortune to meet. (And here’s my suggested fad for the year: Make up T-shirts listing all the famous people we’ve had conversations with. We should all do this on a personal basis. Previously dull gatherings would at least now make for interesting reading.)
If I’d been on the banner performer-inclusion committee, I would have proposed a few historical performers, to balance the century out a little: like Pavlova, the most famous ballerina of her day, who performed at the Bijou late in her career. Blackstone (the elder), certainly one of the most famous magicians of the 1920s. John Barrymore, who performed here in 1940; his sister Ethel is on the list, but John—who, thanks to his movie career (not to mention granddaughter Drew), may be better known today—didn’t make the cut. Gene Autry, the most famous of the singing cowboys. Sydney Greenstreet, the most famous fat man of his day. I also learned, just recently, that the legendary humorist/commentator Will Rogers performed at the Bijou during his rope-trick days, ca. 1911-12. In an interview in the late 1920s, during which he praised the incipient Smokies Park project, he mentioned having played the Bijou, years before.
If anyone remembers Rogers’ Bijou show, I’d like to talk to you.