For newcomers to town, a first drive into South Knoxville's Vestal can be a surprise. Here, barely a mile, as the crow flies, from a broad region's biggest university, is a lush, steeply rumpled section that looks like the backside of the backwoods, with sharp turns, one-lane underpasses, overgrown trails, and dense growth that makes it easy to get disoriented. Things may be changing, but not quickly.
But then you get to Candoro, site of the Vestival, and find another surprise, a vision of a small Italian villa in marble, one of the prettiest buildings in Knoxville. And, a couple of blocks away, a section that looks like it is, or was once, a little downtown of its own.
Many Vestal residents like it as it is, country living, or something like it, five minutes from the city. To some of them, in fact, the five-minutes-from-the-city part is not very important.
For more than a century, Vestal was remote indeed. Bridges across the untamed river were blown down or washed away. None of Vestal was even in city limits until 1917, and some parts of Vestal remained out of reach of plumbing or electricity for almost 40 years after that.
But beginning early in the 20th century, it attracted the attention of businessmen. Around 1902, three Knoxville brothers, Robert, Edward, and James Park Vestal founded the Vestal Lumber and Manufacturing Co. on Maryville Pike around 1902. It was the heyday for the lumber business, when even the Smoky Mountains were fair game—old growth, new growth, it seemed unlimited—and Vestal got most of its raw material from Sevier County on the Smoky Mountain Railway. They became a well-known local business, supplying even Steinway pianos with their high-quality poplar.
Another business, Candoro Marble, founded in 1914, would achieve even greater national prominence than Vestal Lumber, supplying marble for some of the nation's great monuments. But the big lumber company was there first, and was the bigger employer, and got naming rights. The community around their factory became known as Vestal.
Even churches were named for the lumber company, and in the 1920s, Vestal grew its own downtown, mostly around Ogle Avenue. Bigger than some small-town downtowns, Ogle had multiple groceries, a couple of barber shops and beauty parlors, a couple of pharmacies, a cobbler, even apartment buildings.
Downtown Vestal may lack the bustle it once did, before everybody had cars and Chapman Highway was such a big deal, but you still notice it. King Tut Grill, a restaurant like no other in East Tennessee, is at the center of Vestal, and now an institution.
The neighborhood itself still accommodates children and grandchildren of lumber men and marble workers, as well as students and hipsters happy to live in a place that seems distinctive, unlike anywhere else in town. After more than a decade, its annual celebration, Vestival, brings everybody together: vegetarians, Republicans, liberals, Baptists, libertarians, retirees, musicians, the people of Vestal—if only for a day.