Part of a series: Scene & Heard: Doing Business
What makes Knoxville unique? We often point to the cultural and entertainment offerings downtown, but most residents identify Knoxville with their own neighborhoods outside of the center city. In this third edition of our ongoing series, we visited unusual longtime businesses in Knoxville to simply record what we saw, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city. These may be familiar places we've all heard about, or curious things that may surprise even their neighbors—but they're all Knoxville, and they're all worth getting to know better.
Arriving by car to Duncan Boat Dock on Fort Loudoun Lake is a bit like coming upon a lost civilization in the jungle. As you alternate between cookie-cutter suburbs, thick forests, and the sharp but repetitive curves of Duncan Road, you're lulled into a bit of a trance, so that when the vegetation clears and the horizon opens, the lake and boat dock seem to be appear out of nowhere.
But while obscured to those on land, Duncan Boat Dock is a firmament of summers on the water in West Knoxville. So, too, is its owner and manager, Ben Duncan. Today, on an idle Tuesday afternoon, and most every other day, the 85-year-old can be found sitting in the shade in his padded blue recliner, flanked on one side by an old friend who's stopped by to sit for a while, and on the other by Mary, an elderly woman Ben says "works for me, watching the cash drawer." His friend amends that. "Mary is Ben's girlfriend of 40 years," he says.
Just a few feet away, it's hot out on the water but it's cool here by the store, a dangerous differential for those intent on staying alert. Only the faint putter of boat motors coming in or going out to the channel, or the still fainter swirl of water the color of old green glass, can be heard. "We've been known to fall asleep out here," Ben admits, chuckling to himself. From this three-pump gas dock, Ben has watched generations of Knoxvillians grow up and grow old, most of them wearing little more than what they were born with.
In mid-June, the lake season hasn't quite peaked, and won't do so until around the 4th of July. But while slow during the week, on the weekends Ben says boats line up to fill up on gas that today is running $3.39 a gallon. The dock itself is modest and spread out, a collection of small buildings, sun-bleached wooden gangplanks, and corrugated sheet metal housing a few more than 100 boats. Large metal cleats line the edges of the gas dock, and ropes and black gas hoses lie about, waiting to be used. An old barn and chicken coop sit just across the water from the dock, vestiges of a history particular to this region and the Duncan family.
That old barn once stood where Ben sits today. It was moved when TVA flooded the land in 1943, and if it hadn't been moved, Ben says TVA would have burned it. Out in the water, where boats now glide across the green glass, leaving ephemeral tracks that wash against the overgrown shore, was the family farm, where his family raised crops like wheat, corn, and watermelons. The Duncans weren't happy about losing their best land and being left with the hilltops, even if it meant inheriting the lake front property that allowed them to make a living and be the envy of so many today. "They were farmers. They thought this would ruin 'em," Ben says. "It was the end of life for them." So when the waters rose, they opened the gas dock in 1944.
Ben was upset, too, but he wasn't there. Between the 11th and 12th grades, he'd been drafted to fight the Germans, arriving on Utah beach with the 79th infantry just six days after D-Day, June 6, 1944. In honor of Memorial Day this year, Ben has put up the American flags around the dock, and says he "went up to the veterans cemetery and looked them all over." All told, Duncan spent three years in the Army, earning a purple heart, among other medals, for his service in Europe.
When he returned, Ben tried his hand at various jobs, delivering mail, raising eggs in the coop (now used to store boats and supplies), and eventually taking over at the gas dock from his brother, Landon, in 1973. Duncan reckons that since returning from the war in 1945, he's spent about four days away from Knoxville. "People want to know if I ever want to go to the beach. Well, I'm on the beach every day," he says.
His blue recliner is only the latest model to support Ben's large, lumbering frame, which moves like some powerful machine built for another era that's slowly rusting over. His hands and forearms are tan and marked by purple discolorations that look like burns. Below the dock, large yellow carp circle, their mouths open and sucking at the air, like ghosts, waiting for someone to come along and feed them dog food from the plastic bags above, just 50 cents each. Ben says the dock goes through a 20-pound bag of dog food every two weeks.
A little girl, maybe 5 years old, in a bathing suit dances around the dock, playing with a pinwheel. "What do you got there, Rachel? A windmill?" Ben says. She stares back at Ben, unsure what to say.
"She calls it ‘my blow thing,'" says a woman, possibly her mother. "And we're supposed to know what that means." Rachel announces to the group that she can do jumping jacks, and proceeds to do three or four, then stops abruptly, noticing a bandage wrapped around Ben's left hand. "What happened to your hand? What happened to your hand? What happened to your hand?" she asks, as Ben struggles to hear and understand her. "Huh?" Ben says, following her eyes down to his hand. "Well, I had a little accident. Me and a kid had a run-in, and he got the best of me," he laughs.
"Blow it a kiss and maybe it'll get better, Rachel," the woman suggests. Rachel hesitates for a moment, then kisses her hand and blows. Her father arrives shortly and they move along.
Ben never had children of his own. He reckons his dock is probably the only one in the area still owned and operated by its original family. Asked how long he plans to work here, he says he'd like 20 more years but concedes that probably won't happen.
Asked who will take over when he can't work here anymore, he suggests maybe one of his nephews, but he's not sure. Like everything else, he chuckles to himself about it, and doesn't seem too concerned.
"Once you turn your toes up, there's no sense in worrying about that, is there?"