Local Color: Fountain City

A continuing photo series by Shawn Poynter

In the sixth installment of our series on Knoxville neighborhoods, photographer Shawn Poynter walks along Fountain City to create a wide-ranging portrait. Previous installments examined Sutherland Avenue, North Central, Vestal, and Fort Sanders, and Magnolia Avenue.

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Its most conspicuous fountain is the one in the duck pond, and it wasn’t there when the place was named. And it was never a city of any sort, in the sense of an incorporated place with actual elected officials. But even 52 years after it was annexed, Fountain City still feels like a distinct and somehow independent place, different from the rest of Knoxville suburban sprawl, if maybe not as different as it was 20 or 30 years ago.

Fountain City began as a resort. Just beyond Sharp’s Ridge, it was sharply separated from Knoxville, which was invisible from here. It was a slightly different dimension from Knoxville, greener, quieter, with cleaner air, cleaner water, and nobler thoughts, or so its many visitors believed.

It was first known as Fountain Head, because one source of First Creek burbles out of the side of a little rock bluff.

A natural refuge for regional “camp meetings,” multi-day events that were the evangelical equivalents of Bonnaroo, it kept some of that religious flavor, especially in its reputation as a refuge from the temptations of alcohol. By the late 1800s, Knoxville had scores of saloons; Fountain City had none at all. Meanwhile, this secluded valley was developing a secular reputation, as a health resort.

If the springs lacked provable medicinal value, the belief that they did may have been part of some cures. In 1885, its reputation was such that it spawned the Fountain Head Hotel, a four-story palace with running water in each room (fresh from the creek!), an Italian band that played every evening at dusk, and, because Fountain Head was becoming known as a place for falling in love, it got a heart-shaped pond.

Meanwhile, its investors boosted its reputation as an educational center, too, when they recruited Holbrook Normal College, a teachers’ school with more than 100 students, to establish a campus there in a building almost as grand as the hotel.

If it was never a city, it did rate its own post office. It was known for a while as Fountain Head, Tenn., until it was pointed out there was already a post office that went by that name in Middle Tennessee.

It was such an appealing destination that, in 1890, developers built a small railroad directly to Fountain City from downtown Knoxville. After that, Fountain City’s paradise drew Knoxvillians for picnics, Fourth of July ceremonies, balloon ascensions, fireworks, athletic events like baseball games and footraces (the area’s first-ever bicycle race was from Knoxville to Fountain City, in 1894), and speeches by politicians and labor organizers, like Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, who drew thousands.

Shangri-La is a dream, though. The era of the destination springs-related resort was waning. By 1900, the hotel was evolving into a sort of sanitarium, and soon after, it burned down, leaving only its heart-shaped duck pond. Holbrook folded, its building becoming a public school.

Fountain City survived, and evolved in the 20th century mainly as a nice residential suburb in what could seem like a secret valley, likely first populated by people who had visited for years wishing they could make it permanent. It began booming in the 1920s, just as other automobile-oriented neighborhoods like Sequoyah Hills, Holston Hills, and North Hills were catching on.

Few houses were like the one the Hugh McClung family built in 1922, on the crest of Black Oak Ridge, an Italianate house and terraced gardens they called Belcaro, sometimes called the most beautiful residence ever built in Knoxville. Visible from Fountain City below, it was as much a landmark as any private residence ever is.

And by then Englishman Arthur Savage, an industrialist in marble-cutting equipment, had moved in and built his extravagant oriental-style stone garden on what became known as Garden Drive.

The little valley drew lots of other interesting people, some of them eccentrics who did remarkable things. Originally from Mississippi, attorney John Webb Green was one of Knoxville’s most prominent attorneys when he moved to Fountain City, not far from the McClungs. Every morning, his chauffeur drove him down to the Broadway bus stop, and he’d ride in to his office on Gay Street. He later led the effort to establish Fountain City Park. Including the Fountainhead for which the community is named, it’s now the city’s most popular privately-owned park. (The Lions’ Club owns and runs it.)

Hassie Gresham moved from Washington County to attend Holbrook College, but stuck around to become principal at the new Central High—perhaps the first female principal in Tennessee. Gresham School is named for her.

Born in Union County, Roy Acuff moved to Fountain City with his family as a teenager, played baseball for Central High, and learned to play fiddle from a Fountain City mechanic. After several years playing on Knoxville radio stations, he got a gig with the Grand Ole Opry, and since he happened to be there anyway, created Music City.

A family band from Illinois by way of Oklahoma, the Ridgels, moved to Fountain City in 1926, and apparently found their new home’s name fun to work with. Under the name Ridgel’s Fountain Citians, they made some classic early recordings. “Now boys keep away from the girls I say, give them plenty of room,” they sang. “You’ll find when you’re wed, she’ll beat you till your dead with the bald-headed end of a broom.”

After the war, Fountain City began claiming to be the largest unincorporated community in America, a claim that’s extremely hard to disprove or, for that matter, prove. It mounted its own memorials to its own war heroes, as if it were a city of its own.

In 1962, when Knoxville annexed the community—it was by then certainly more than a neighborhood—there was no overt violence, but the news was greeted with a symbolic funeral parade.

Incorporation didn’t seem to change Fountain City a lot, at first. For years, it seemed the refuge from traffic and noise that it always had been. Bit by bit, old Fountain City shifted from houses and yards to parking lots or chain stores. Even Bel Caro, the mansion up on the hill, was torn down, without warning, a shock neighbors still talk about 18 years later, even to people who never saw it except from down below. Fountain City sometimes seems determined to become just like the rest of suburban America.

Still, today, in a few remaining spots—Litton’s on a Friday night or the duck pond on a Sunday afternoon—you won’t mistake it for somewhere else. Walking down Hotel Avenue, an almost-urban scrap of street named for a hotel that’s been gone for more than a century—alongside the multiply tempting Creamery Park Grille, with lush, well-kept Fountain City Park across the street, it can still seem like a place that’s spiritually, if not municipally, independent of Knoxville and the world beyond.