The Too-Logical Result of Our Property-Rights Totems

The bizarre news from Stoney Point, off Northshore Drive, provides further evidence of one of my least-favorite theories.

Until last month, I’d assumed the worst-case scenario for Admiral David Glasgow Farragut’s embattled birthplace would be that the large stone marker would be off-limits to anyone but the few affluent property owners who bought property there. Now the marker’s just gone. The current property owner had it removed. The story is that it’s in the hands of a “collector” in Texas.

The inscribed stone was a 1900 project by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. America’s most famous military man of the time, Admiral Dewey, the hero of Manila Bay in the recent Spanish-American War, rode in a flotilla of riverboats just to dedicate it. The dedication drew thousands, and made national news; reporters came from New York and Washington to cover it.

Before that day, locals rarely pronounced the word “Farragut.” The fact of his birth was known to historians, who occasionally mentioned it, but before Dewey’s grand gesture, Farragut’s name didn’t appear on anything in Knox County. The big dedication of this marker prompted Knox Countians to name first a school, then a hotel, then a restaurant, then an incorporated community, for David Glasgow Farragut, first admiral of the U.S. Navy, and native son.

Some are still looking into the legality of removing the marker. It’s likely that, in 1900, paperwork guaranteeing easements just didn’t seem necessary. This was private property, but a very public bit of private property. For more than 40 years after the placement of the monument, it was a ferry landing, visited by thousands yearly. Then came new roads and the big dam, and Lowe’s Ferry closed. Still, in the late 1940s, the owner of Stoney Point wanted to donate the land to be a public park, even a tiny national park. Some congressmen, including the 2nd District representative, got behind the idea and started the paperwork. It was never completed.

Heritage, and especially honor for the bravest of military heroes, is important to conservative politics. In recent years, the issue of property rights sometimes looms larger. What happens when they come in conflict?

The issue came up earlier in the summer when a rural property owner sought to burn down an 1840s house—one of only half a dozen frame antebellum houses remaining in Knox County—for the spectacle of it. An agent for the owner denounced organized efforts to prevent the blaze, insisting that the owner was “a conservative Republican” and therefore had the right to do whatever he pleased with the house. Its fate remains unresolved.

Conservatives don’t campaign against history. Concerning preservationist issues, local conservative politicians have learned to say that heritage is important—then add, quickly, that respect for property rights is paramount.

That can sound reasonable. But can a community where the current property owner is the sole arbiter of historical value ever enjoy a visible, tangible heritage?

It’s a mathematical question. Property changes hands, sometimes by purchase, sometimes by inheritance, sometimes deliberately, sometimes almost by accident, when an unexpected death discloses a surprising heir. In a growing community, property tends to change hands pretty rapidly.

A certain percentage of the population—a minority, but a substantial one—has no particular interest in physical heritage. Based on people I meet, I’d guess it’s about 10-20 percent of the population. To them, history’s a boring high-school memory, like calculus, and thoughts about dead people are just kind of creepy and gross.

They’re not necessarily bad people, or dumb people. Some of them are charming. They’re often very practical sorts for whom a word like Heritage is pointy-headed mumbo-jumbo, not nearly as compelling as a Carnival cruise or dreams of retirement to a golf resort in Florida.

Laws of probability suggest that every privately owned historic site will eventually end up in the hands of someone who doesn’t care much about history. Independent-minded property owners have an advantage over preservationists: one property owner can cancel generations of care. Without some permanent enforceable protections in place, a community will erase its own history.

***

Consider the peculiar case of Knoxville, Tennessee. Among America’s older cities, Knoxville started life as a nationally important town, home of heroes and statesmen. It was the birthplace of the state of Tennessee, and for over 20 vigorous years its capital.

If many Knoxvillians today aren’t aware of their hometown’s national significance, it may be partly due to the fact that the “old capitol” where the Legislature met is no longer standing. Nor is the large hall where the Tennessee Constitution was signed in 1796. Nor the office where Tennessee’s first newspaper, and its first law books, were published. Nor East Tennessee’s first bank. Nor the large, legendary riverfront tavern known to dukes and diplomats. Nor any of the original buildings of a college that became a university.

Over the years, some of these landmarks were honored by their owners. Some once had plaques on them. Each of them eventually wound up in the hands of a property owner who didn’t care much. They all vanished.

In 1805, a French traveler described Knoxville as a state capital consisting of about 200 houses. Guess how many are still intact.

Just the one. Even Blount Mansion was a narrow escape; in 1925, its lawful owner wanted to tear down the home of the frontier governor and signer of the U.S. Constitution for a parking lot.

We could go on to describe lost Civil War relics and homes of several nationally notable authors. Cormac McCarthy’s South Knox home, for example, described in his Pulitzer-winning novel, could have been a landmark. Its last owner decided it wouldn’t be.

Knoxville, the city, has developed some tardy appreciation for its complicated heritage. It doesn’t extend very far into suburban and rural areas, where suggestions of heritage are sometimes greeted with hostility. I sometimes wonder if, on some psychological level, we don’t like the idea that we have a history. A property-rights community tends to slouch toward blankness.

© 2011 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 6

Raincrow writes:

Bravo. Abso-freakin'-lutely Bravo. This may be your most politically incisive column ever. And thank you for "waving the bloody shirt" in the faces of those who wave it all the time without knowing what it means.

utmargarita writes:

Jack, you rock.

JPZiller writes:

There is already a park nearby that commemorates Farragut. What is the significance of an engraved rock bought by a private organization and dedicated by a man who many in Knox County, when asked, would not know or would confuse with the creator of the library cataloging system? If this one rock really matters, get together and make another marker, put it in the county park, and let the inscription give the exact location of the Admiral's birthplace relative to the rock's position. Or just lie and say that the new position is the birthplace.

kroskow writes:

in response to JPZiller:

There is already a park nearby that commemorates Farragut. What is the significance of an engraved rock bought by a private organization and dedicated by a man who many in Knox County, when asked, would not know or would confuse with the creator of the library cataloging system? If this one rock really matters, get together and make another marker, put it in the county park, and let the inscription give the exact location of the Admiral's birthplace relative to the rock's position. Or just lie and say that the new position is the birthplace.

I'm really glad your philosophy wasn't prevalent in Philadelphia when the notorious crack was discovered in the Liberty Bell; someone would have melted it down and made a brand spanking new one!

Swanky writes:

in response to JPZiller:

There is already a park nearby that commemorates Farragut. What is the significance of an engraved rock bought by a private organization and dedicated by a man who many in Knox County, when asked, would not know or would confuse with the creator of the library cataloging system? If this one rock really matters, get together and make another marker, put it in the county park, and let the inscription give the exact location of the Admiral's birthplace relative to the rock's position. Or just lie and say that the new position is the birthplace.

Reminds me of the guy who had the ax George Washington used to chop down that Cherry tree. The handle was worn, so he replaced it, and the head was rusty so he replaced that too. But it is the ax GW used!

utmargarita writes:

in response to JPZiller:

There is already a park nearby that commemorates Farragut. What is the significance of an engraved rock bought by a private organization and dedicated by a man who many in Knox County, when asked, would not know or would confuse with the creator of the library cataloging system? If this one rock really matters, get together and make another marker, put it in the county park, and let the inscription give the exact location of the Admiral's birthplace relative to the rock's position. Or just lie and say that the new position is the birthplace.

The truth of the matter is that "the park that commemorates Farragut" wraps around the cove and surrounds the land where the "rock" was. That park's boundary is only about 25 feet away from where the monument was. This "rock," by the way, was actually a carved monument that stood about 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide, and was made of Tennessee pink marble mined at the Bond Quarry on nearby Keller Bend. For the past year Knox County has made various offers to preserve the monument, and even offered to move it over about 25 feet so that it would be within the boundaries of the existing park, but the owner of the private property said no. She did not want it anywhere close to her land. The Knoxville News Sentinel reports that she was tired of the hassle and didn't want trespassers. Trouble is, the section of Farragut park immediately next to where the monument stood is public land, so folks who might like to stroll down the beautiful, tree-lined path along the water's edge--which was the old Lowe's Ferry Pike--are not trespassers. True, the old road had been closed off to the public for a few years in order to prevent fishermen from putting their boats in at an old ramp that was no longer safe. There seems to be some confusion that this section will remain closed, but it CAN'T... unless Knox County wants to violate a federal deed restriction. The closure of this section of Farragut Park has been justified for the short term, because there was also concern about keeping folks from further trampling any important archaeology artifacts that were close to the monument. But now that the monument is no longer there, the county, by federal law, is going to have to open up the old road and make it available again for public recreation or else risk some legal troubles. With or without the old monument being there, the path to Farragut's birthplace will still be public once again soon. But I like your idea of creating a new monument there! It could be placed just a few feet away from where the old one was. If the original ever shows up again, it could be put on in the East Tennessee History Center or wherever its rightful owners--the Bonny Kate Chapter of the DAR--want to display it.

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