In the seventh installment of our series on Knoxville neighborhoods, photographer Shawn Poynter visits Lonsdale to create a wide-ranging portrait. Previous installments examined Sutherland Avenue , North Central , Vestal , and Fort Sanders , Magnolia Avenue , and Fountain City .
Lonsdale may be our least-known historic neighborhood. Most folks have heard of it, but your average Knoxvillian may not even be competent to offer confident directions about how to get there. It’s a comfortably scaled neighborhood of Victorian and early 20th century houses, a few old commercial buildings, several of them clustered to form a sort of downtown, and a few very large factories which weren’t built for looking at. It is, at heart, an old mill town.
It’s not far from anything but tucked away, behind a steep ridge from Mechanicsville, way across the interstate from the reviving historic neighborhoods of North Knoxville.
No major arteries go right through Lonsdale. Western Avenue barely skirts the edge of it, and even then, it’s not one of Western’s busier, more familiar parts. As it leaves downtown, Western is a broad five-lane divided highway. A couple of miles out, near Pleasant Ridge and I-640, it’s a six-lane divided highway. In between, it’s ostensibly the same avenue, but where it touches Lonsdale, Western is a narrow two-lane country road, winding and thickly tree-shaded, crossing angled railroad tracks at grade.
Other parts of the city may happily pave themselves over with widened roads and strip malls, but much of Lonsdale looks a lot like it did when Granddad grew up here. This summer, several front yards have healthy-looking corn growing in them.
Laid out in 1890 by developer William B. Ragsdale, Lonsdale is an old neighborhood, much older than Sequoyah Hills, say, or Island Home.
There are several Lonsdales in the English-speaking world, an old town and region in Lancashire, England, more of them in Canada and Australia. There’s an Earl of Lonsdale, and lots of places in Knox County, from Cumberland Avenue to Fort Loudoun Lake, are named for random English noblemen. In England, there’s a boxing prize called the Lonsdale Belt and a horse race called the Lonsdale Cup. The word is so associated with sports in the UK that it’s also a line of athletic clothing.
If you’re asked about the origin of the name Lonsdale, any of those precedents would make a perfectly respectable guess. However, Knoxville’s Lonsdale is a portmanteau, a strictly local combination of names, specifically those of the developer’s maternal and fraternal families. His mother was a Lonas, his father a Ragsdale. Delete the first a, and the Rags, jam them together, and you’ve got Lonsdale. It could as easily have been Ragsnas.
Obviously more interested in names than most developers are, Ragsdale took some care in naming the streets, and may well have been influenced by Knoxville’s unusual blue-gray veterans’ reunion the same year as Lonsdale was founded, a mile to the south at Fort Sanders. Ragsdale had some Confederate uncles, but in his development seems to have favored Union commanders. Confederates Stonewall (Jackson), (Joseph) Johnston, and (Braxton) Bragg got honored with streets, but were outnumbered by seven Union generals: Sherman, Burnside, Sheridan, McClellan, McPherson, Schofield, Thomas.
The cross streets are mostly named for states. And, again, the Northern states predominate—though two, Tennessee and Texas, are some of Lonsdale’s longest and best-known streets. Tennessee Avenue is Lonsdale’s Gay Street. Where it intersects Johnston is the market long known as the Breeze Thru, with a banner proclaiming “the Old City of Lonsdale.”
Lonsdale was mostly a working-class neighborhood. Brookside Mills was not far away, and some of Lonsdale’s early residents had jobs there, and walked to work. Soon, Lonsdale had its own local textile mill. Then Knoxville Iron Company, one of the city’s biggest employers since its origins downtown on Second Creek—today, the Foundry at World’s Fair Park is its only remnant—moved over the ridge to Lonsdale in 1903. It was probably a major loss to Knoxville’s tax base, but it became the main motive force for Lonsdale.
With an industry that big, Lonsdale could seem like a little city, and in 1907, it got approval from the state Legislature to incorporate itself. For a decade, Lonsdale, Tenn., had its own mayor (the first was a Dr. M.M. Copenhaver), its own firehall, and—perhaps a more critical need than a mayor—its own jailhouse. Lonsdale’s Oddfellows Hall, built on Johnston Street in 1901, still stands, and recently disclosed a secret: a coffin and skeleton used in long-ago rituals.
Despite its association with the Knoxville Iron Company, Lonsdale wasn’t considered part of Knoxville proper until the massive annexation of 1917 that drew in thousands of acres on all four sides of the original city and doubled Knoxville’s population. Lonsdale got a branch library in 1925. A couple years later, Rule High opened up on the
hill, a major presence in the life of Lonsdale for the next 64 years. The big school has been mostly empty since 1991. From 1941 to 1956, Lonsdale had its own 500-seat movie theater, the Lee.
Lonsdale evolved. In 1951, it became home to a subsidized housing project, Lonsdale Homes, originally known as the Knoxville Housing Authority Negro Project. Soon afterward, the city established a public park here on land donated by W.P. “Buck” Toms, the textile executive, progressive city leader, and scouting pioneer for whom the Boy Scouts’ Camp Buck Toms is named.
Lonsdale was generally a nice place to live for people who weren’t looking for trouble. For those others who preferred trouble, it offered plenty. It was a home to several bootleggers, including the infamous Big Six, and home to several colorful taverns and juke joints: the ones people like to remember are the ones with memorable names, like the Hound Dog, the Twilight Zone, Sugar Hill. Some Tennessee Avenue bars used to post lists of people who were not welcome inside.
Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Suttree, tags the neighborhood with some oblique references, but novelist David Madden, who grew up in nearby Lincoln Park, was more at home there. Several of his early stories are set in Lonsdale. His major novel, Cassandra Singing, was originally set in Lonsdale, until his publisher told him it was too long and complicated. The only way to uncomplicate it, Madden determined, was to take it out of Lonsdale. The final version of the 1969 novel is set in rural Kentucky.
The late newspaper columnist Jim Dykes used to relate a murky legend of the “Shroud of Lonsdale.” The story changes with the teller, but it concerns a hospital bed sheet, first discovered in a Cas Walker sack, stained with a the blood of outlaw Billy Ray Callahan, slain in a fight on Clinton Highway in the 1950s.
It’s peaceful most days, and unlike most modern neighborhoods, it still has some semblance of an old downtown, at the intersection of Tennessee and Johnston, where the corner market sells the essentials for living, and about a dozen different varieties of hot dogs.
Through a few ownership and process changes, the Knoxville Iron Company still thrives as Gerdau Steel, manufacturing rebar from scrap iron. It remains an enormous presence in Lonsdale, its low hum as constant as the ocean. The recent death of a worker as the result of an accident in that factory proves that making steel is still a dangerous business.
The steel mill is responsible for the community’s loveliest spot. Racheff Gardens were established by Bulgarian immigrant Ivan Racheff (1892-1982). Racheff told people he came to America partly because he loved the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. He worked for Ford and Douglas Aircraft before 1938, when he was sent to close down the failing Knoxville Iron Company in an orderly fashion. Instead, he bought it and revived it, living in a small apartment on the factory site. In the late 1940s, he had a crazy notion that a factory should be a beautiful thing, and established Racheff Gardens. Since 1970, they’ve been run by the Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs. It would be a beautiful place anywhere, but its context, adjacent to a big steel mill, should put it on any short list of Knoxville’s surreal experiences.