Deconstructing Ben Atchley Street: Hatter Road, and the Origins of Homberg Drive

Bearden’s Ben Atchley Street controversy presented me with a learning curve. I’ve been tarrying in that quarter, shopping or dining, at least a couple times a month since Lyndon Johnson was president. I’ve spent many hours working there, too: first with an afternoon bicycle paper route; later, frying various unappealing objects in a chain restaurant’s kitchen; later, in an office, trying to get the hang of those new floppy disks; later, MCing a series of variety shows at the now-defunct Black Box Theatre. I’ve had 1,000 meals at Long’s, at least 200 at Naples, and I get my glasses worked on at Luttrell’s. I can’t get away with much in Bearden, because too many people know me there. But even after that long acquaintance, I wasn’t even sure what Ben Atchley Street was.

So I went looking around, and found it, a short street with nothing on it, hardly distinguishable from the parking lots on either side. I didn’t recognize it because Ben Atchley Street is a relatively new name for that shortcut. I had noticed the street before, mainly because that little lane had another name, 10 years ago, an intriguing name that might make anybody wonder. More about that in a minute.

Mayor Victor Ashe had some wild hairs, especially the one that inclined him to rename streets for notable politicians of his acquaintance. Of course, the streets he picked for the honor of renaming tended to be short streets with nothing on them. That was a courtesy for businesses who wouldn’t have to change their addresses. It happened to lots of streets, including another one just up the street. Up on Bearden Hill is a short lane called Gerald R. Ford Street. The 38th president came to Knoxville a couple of times. I don’t know that he ever hung out in Bearden much.

Ford was not a bad president, all things considered. But putting his name on a street displaced the old name, “Keener Street,” which was the name of a notable family who once lived in that big house on the hill. That house was the birthplace of Bruce Keener Holloway, a World War II fighter ace who became a four-star general in charge of the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War. He was a man of global consequence.

Left alone, the name Keener Street made a connection with local history. Now future historians will scratch their heads about how Gerald R. Ford wound up on top of Bearden Hill.

Ben Atchley’s name might seem less puzzling, though he’s more strongly associated with other parts of town. He was an admirable state senator, and in recent years we’ve found lots of reasons to miss his even-tempered approach to public service. In West Knox County there’s a state veterans’ home named for him, reflecting his work as a legislator.

That raises a bit of an irony. Google “Ben Atchley,” and you’ll find a whole lot about the street-closing controversy, and a whole lot about the veterans’ home. You’ll do a lot of scrolling before you find out anything about Ben Atchley. In the Internet era, the honors obscure the man.

Some city planners advise against naming streets after people who are still alive. It’s especially ungraceful to have to close those memorials while the honoree is still alive.

Anyway. When we see a street with the first and last names of some notable personage, perhaps someone we know, we don’t wonder about their origin. We just say, “Oh, that Victor!”

***

But until about 2003, Ben Atchley Street was “Hatter Road.” That old road sign did get my attention, and prompted a trip to the library. The old name had a lot to do with why the larger neighborhood is called Homberg Place.

Bearden, as a few old-timers will tell you, did once support some industry. Even when it was best known as a tourist mecca—this pre-interstate stretch of Kingston Pike was part of two national routes, the Dixie and Lee Highways—Bearden became home to Knoxville’s biggest hat manufacturer. Founded on Jackson Avenue downtown in 1911, Bowman Hat Co. moved to Bearden in 1933, building a new 15,000 square-foot factory on a street that had been known as Old Kingston Pike. By 1950, that section of street was known as Homberg Drive, reportedly in honor of one of Bowman’s best sellers.

That raises the question of spelling. In the ‘50s, newspaper stories sometimes referred to the street as Homburg Drive, but Homberg was the spelling that appeared in city directories. I did some checking, and Homberg appears to be a respectable variant of the hat style. Brooks Brothers uses that spelling.

Anyway, that name “Hatter Road” first appears in the 1950s, when Bowman was manufacturing 720 hats a day. They made high-grade hats from imported pelts, those of Belgian hares and Australian rabbits. That street was previously known as Elizabeth Street, perhaps for some practical woman who liked shortcuts.

The Homburg style was the hat most popular early in the 20th century. It was considered kind of a retro style, narrower of brim than the fedora, which was starting to look passé. When President Eisenhower wore a Homburg to his first inauguration in 1953, it prompted a “college craze” for the sort of Homburg hats Bowman made. Though hats remained standard among businessmen, it had been years since they’d been popular with college men. Collegiates had once been a hatmaker’s most promising market, and old Ed Bowman found it heartening. Finally, he hoped, the silly days of college boys going around shamelessly without hats on was over.

But the Homburg craze, however spelled, didn’t last long. Business declined. Bowman died in 1962, and didn’t have to witness the rest of what was probably the worst decade in American history for men’s hats. In 1968, his family closed their store at Homberg Drive and Hatter Road. It was later renamed by a non-hat-wearing mayor for another guy who, like me, doesn’t wear hats much either.

CORRECTED: The Ben Atchley State Veterans Home is in West Knox County, between Hardin Valley and Karns—not Maryville.

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