This Saturday, on Market Square, Knox Heritage launches its Historic Downtown Knoxville Walking Tour.
It’s a handsome piece of work, a long, pocket-sized booklet with photographs. It’s the closest realization of an amenity I had hopes would be in place 20 years ago.
Back then, it seemed like a swell idea. Travel some, look around, and you’ll notice the livelier cities always have these things. You see newcomers, especially the smarter, richer-looking ones, reading these printed guides as they walked around Charleston or Baltimore or Asheville, spending money. Several cities have multiple tours: Civil War tours, ghost tours, literary tours, culinary tours, architectural tours, music tours, celebrity tours, women’s history tours, African-American history tours, scandal tours, gunfight tours. They’re popular.
By American standards, Knoxville is old, and complicated; it would seem to have at least as many interesting stories as other cities. I figured we needed a good walking tour. Give folks something to do, after lunch or before a show: a reason to look around, and some hint about the complexity of the place. It seemed strange, in 1990, that we hadn’t gotten around to producing anything of the sort.
No “historian” back then, just a low-level hack for a magazine company, I typed up a proposal and sent it to a prominent downtown-booster group. I included gunfight stories, Civil War stories, literary stories, Roy Acuff stories, all connected to distinctive sites, buildings or just spots on the sidewalk.
They called me right away. They loved my proposal, they wanted to buy it and use it. They did buy it, and paid me pretty well, by my standards then. The daily paper took an interest—this was before Metro Pulse—and printed a preview of my tour as a big illustrated Sunday feature.
Then what happened? Nothing. The downtown-booster group never got around to printing it. Later, the organization dissolved. I kept my draft around until the typewritten pages were stained with paper-clip rust.
Later, an Old City booster organization approached me to do a history tour that would connect the old saloon-district days with the pageant of major musicians who’d played at Ella Guru’s. I worked on it for a few months and came up with a draft and turned it in on the deadline. Well, thanks, the board’s chairman said, what do we do now. He didn’t have a plan for actually printing the thing. He didn’t have a plan for paying me, either. He left town.
About the same time, the East Tennessee Historical Society was putting out the Cradle of Country Music tour, for which I supplied some research. It actually was completed, very well done, I thought, and I’m glad it’s available again, after a spell when it wasn’t. But it was intended to be the first of three walking tours that would serve as a well-rounded whole: the second one would be literary, the third about the Civil War and its aftermath. I was going to help with those, too, and started files. But then both the staffers I was dealing with left, too.
That’s the melancholy of Knoxville. People with big ideas find better jobs or go to prison or fall in love, and they drop everything.
So we still didn’t have a general-purpose walking tour. But somehow, as each successive freelance brochure-writing project crashed, I became known as Tour Guy.
It was unintentional. Writers, you may notice, tend to be introverts, ill at ease in social situations. We mumble and stammer and never think of the right thing to say until the next day, at which time we quietly write it down. Introverts don’t go around looking for tours to give.
But people would call me to give them a tour, and I’d put it on the calendar. I tailored tours for high-school kids, retirees, genealogical groups, convention spouses, Appalachian scholars, travel journalists. My smallest tour was for a visiting English lord. The biggest were literary pub crawls, Agee Ambles and Suttree Staggers, involving actors and dancers. After stops in half a dozen pubs, they sometimes lasted 12 hours.
Compensation was crazy unpredictable. I never had a set fee—I’m a reporter, after all—but happily accepted gifts. Sometimes they’d give me an embarrassing lot of money; sometimes a three-hour tour would yield the equivalent of two days’ pay. Sometimes they’d buy me lunch. Sometimes they would just say thanks and walk away. It was like spending a Saturday afternoon in a casino. Stick a few hours in, you never know what you’ll get.
After a few years, I was getting calls from people who didn’t even know what I did for a living: “Fella told me you like to give them walking tours.” Some callers, I found, assumed I was on the payroll of the city or the Chamber or the tourist bureau. Others assumed that I was a bored retiree, and that they were doing me a favor by paying attention to my yarns. In a column I announced I was retiring from walking tours, to tend to my regular 55-hour-a-week job. But they kept coming.
All the while, I wondered. If there’s so much interest in downtown Knoxville’s history—as there obviously is—why the hell doesn’t somebody else do it?
Finally, this month, somebody else is.
One who answered the call is an in-person human being, my friend Laura Still. Heretofore best known as a poet, she is advertising her walking-tour service, and I have reason to believe it’ll fly. I’ve had a sample of it, and she knows the stories at least as well as I do, and shrinks from none of them. She’s at knoxvillewalkingtours.com. (Be sure you use the plural.)
The Knox Heritage tour, independent of Laura’s, in a printed thing you can follow yourself. It’s framed more around architecture than stories, but it’s well done, and the closest thing I’ve seen to what I proposed back in 1990.
Thanks, folks. Finally, I can crawl back into my hole.