Ask anybody, and they’ll tell you things were pretty slow and simple in the old days. It’s a majority opinion, so it must be true.
Consider Knoxville, Fourth of July, 100 years ago. According to the Journal, “a Sabbath-like stillness prevailed downtown.” As the police affirmed, “it was one of the quietest July Fourths on record in Knoxville. There was no killing, or even a serious fight.”
The Fourth fell on a Saturday in 1914. Most stores were closed, but the courthouse was open, even with a few court sessions. Farmers were selling on Market Square. The Gay Theatre showed three different movies, including heartthrob Francis X. Bushman’s latest, The Countess. The Gay’s appealing motto was “the only ventilated theater in Knoxville,” but it was the last weekend they could use it. The 800-seat Queen, on the 500 block of Gay, was about to open, with such high-quality ventilation it was already advertising feature-length films, like the 150-minute French silent Les Miserables.
The Union veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic were mostly men in their 70s and 80s but stirred their old bones to ride the streetcar up to Fountain City Park, for the ritual reading of the Declaration of Independence, a group singing of “America,” and this year a novelty, a civilian witness to the Battle of Gettysburg.
The steamboat T.L. Brown left from the Seventh Street wharf, near the university, offering a day of music and dancing on board. Downstream, Cherokee Country Club hosted a popular all-day golf tournament.
Railroads’ special rates suggest a lot of people were in motion on the Fourth. The Smokies were such a novelty they weren’t always even called the Smokies in 1914. The Elkmont train left from Southern on a two-and-a-half-hour trip to “spend the day in the mountains of Blount County.”
Some folks were stuck in Knoxville. A few of them, several thousand anyway, rode the streetcars out to Chilhowee Park. It was still a small white city of pavilions built for the National Conservation Exposition, which the previous fall had attracted one million.
There was baseball there that day, four games in the city league featuring local clubs, the Red Seals, a team from Concord, the L&N Railroad team. The Knoxville Railway and Light Company team was likely a crowd favorite, considering they were responsible for bringing most of the audience to the park.
There were some boxing matches, too, with boxers from around the country, some black matches, some white ones. All were disappointingly short, with knockouts by the third or fourth round.
“Something Doing All Day,” Chilhowee Park advertised, and it was true. There were even “moving pictures”—in 1914, it didn’t necessarily matter which ones—and a live brass band, playing both classical and popular dance tunes.
Men swam in the lake, and “ladies watched their fancy swimming and diving stunts.”
There were shooting concessions and photo booths and a roller coaster and, for the kids, a merry-go-round, and a new miniature train.
The vaudeville team of Wiley and Sylvester presented a two-act comedy at the park auditorium. Later, of course, there were fireworks.
Those bored with vaudeville, baseball, dancing, movies, and boxing could walk across the street to Johnson’s Racetrack and, for a quarter, see a combination of events never seen in the same afternoon in any later century. A series of footraces, the 100-yard dash, the 220, the half-mile; a bicycle race; and, on the same half-mile track, a motorcycle race.
“Something Doing Every Minute,” the promoters promised, credibly. “No Waits.” A brass band was playing.
The motorcycle race got the most attention. Local champ Stanley Tinsley on his Flying Merkel took on challengers in six races, among them riders of an Excelsior and an Indian. All averaged more than 50 mph on the oval track, which had been a horse track until Tennessee banned betting.
The bicycle race was a challenge match between Knoxville’s top professional bicyclists, messengers from two rival factions, the U.S. Postal Service and Western Union. The mailmen won, but it introduced the one sour note of the day. When a mail carrier collided with a telegram rider and knocked him down, Western Union cried foul. “The race this afternoon was unfair and the decision unjust,” Western Union declared.
Over at the university was something else altogether. The Fourth marked the grand event, open to the public, of the Summer School of the South. That teachers’ school was, every summer, even bigger than the university in enrollment, drawing students from all over the country, and one from Cuba. On the Fourth, as always, they made a big parade, culminating in an extravagant variety show at Jefferson Hall on the Hill, in which each state, or region, presented a colorful skit or vaudeville-style floor show.
Most student-teachers were from the South. Each Southern state offered some whimsical cliché versions of their state’s culture, or staple crops. The Alabamans danced with cotton-boll hats. The Texans danced with pistols and lassos. The Floridians dressed in bright orange.
Among them, for the summer, were 67 Northerners. At the big final presentation, the Yankees may have been the crowd favorite. They called themselves “the Barbarians.”
In war paint, they re-enacted the Boston Tea Party, and followed it with something called “the Tea Party of the Future.” Women carried hoes and rakes and industrial implements. The men sat down to tea, with baby dolls and poodles. A sign proclaimed Votes for Women.
Later, at a more serious moment, the Summer School announced its Resolutions: the prohibition of child labor, which had been a major impediment to education in Tennessee. Another resolution called for better state funding for “Negro schools”: “no state or region can make large and permanent progress” with an uneducated underclass, they declared.
Another resolution called for “world peace, the limitation of armaments, and international conciliation.”
That was an even tougher one. That day, Knoxville’s newspapers carried news of riots in Austria-Hungary over the previous week’s assassination of an archduke in Sarajevo.