Sevierville: Summer of 1915

Much has been said and written lately about James Agee and the 100th anniversary of the year that inspired his famous prose, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” The essay, set months before the death of Agee’s father, was attached as a prologue to his book, “A Death in the Family,” for which Agee was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958.

In 1947, the text was arranged for voice and orchestra by Samuel Barber. The piece is said to be a simple, dreamlike depiction of a summer evening a century ago in the American South. Agee was born in Knoxville in 1909. The family lived at 1505 Highland Avenue. Due to his father’s death in an automobile accident a year later, the summer of 1915 was his last summer living in Knoxville.

The poetic essay relays a time and place where:

A street car raising its moan: stopping, belling, stertorous, rousing and raising again its ironclad moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks: the iron whine rises on riding speed; Still risen, faints, halts; the faint stinging bell; Rises again, still fainter, fainter, lifting lifts, faints forgone, forgotten.”

The little isolated town of Sevierville was nothing like industrialized Knoxville, only 30 miles away. The Knoxville, Sevierville and Eastern Railroad had tracks from Knoxville to Sevierville but the tracks ended at the Sevierville Depot on the west side of the Little Pigeon River. The courthouse was less than twenty years old and there was not yet a public high school in the county.

However, another part of the narrative could just as easily have been describing life in Sevierville:

But it is of these evenings I speak. Supper was at six and over by half past. There was still daylight, shining softly and with a tarnish, like the lining of a shell; …… and the locusts were startled, and the fire flies were out, and a few frogs were flopping in the dewy grass…..”

Back then Sevierville came to life on Saturday when farmers came to town. It was when Sevier County residents, from both town and country converged on the small business district. Saturday was the day farmers came to town to purchase supplies, get a haircut, conduct business, and socialize. On any given Saturday, shoppers might observe everything from street peddlers to sidewalk preachers to minstrels.

That summer, Stanley McMahan obtained the entire interest in Walker Milling Company, located two miles south of Sevierville on the Little Pigeon River, and changed the name to Stanley Milling Company. The following year McMahan would purchase property on Bruce Street on which to build a new mill with 200 feet of floor space and modern machinery. The mill was purchased by the John and Effie Temple in 1934 and became Temple Milling Company.

The ice plant at Sevierville Mills on Main Street provided ice to customers throughout the hot days of summer. Marshall Franklin drove the “ice wagon” with sawdust scattered over the ice to slow down melting. One hundred pounds of ice could be purchased for 25 cents.

Owned by James Coy Trotter, the first car dealership in Sevierville had opened a year earlier. A newspaper article in the Montgomery Vindicator in October 1929 stated that Mr. Trotter sold about 1500 new Fords since 1914.

C.L. Thurman also became an automobile agent in 1915, just as a sideline to his stable business. His first garage was located in the 30 by 40 foot building on the southeast side of the public square, opposite his stable. During 1915 he sold three automobiles. His first car sold was an Overland which cost $495.00.

K. Rawlings Furniture Company was located on Main Street and operated an undertaking business on the second floor. P.T. Haggard operated a manufacturing company on New Road (now Park Road) where he built caskets. Haggard was known to fill orders for caskets day or night.

Lodging, particularly for traveling salesmen known as drummers, could be found at the Central Hotel, a white two-story clapboard building with a double stacked porch on the front facing public square. There was no running water and rooms were heated by a coal burning grate. Other lodging establishments included Mitchell Inn, operated by Mary Ann Mitchell, and Snapp House, managed by Stewart Yett.

John B. Waters, Sr., only 31 and still single, was elected mayor in 1915; replacing outgoing Mayor Hugh C. Blair, Sr. Waters would later marry Myrtle Paine, daughter of Judge Ambrose Paine, the first mayor of Sevierville. A prominent real estate broker and auctioneer, Waters had recently developed Joy Street where he would build his home and raise his family.

James Murphy Newcomb was serving as Sheriff of Sevier County. Newcomb was elected to one term (1914-1916). He later moved to Oklahoma where he died in 1962 at age 90.

Established in 1890, Murphy College was a subscription school located on College Street (now Cedar Street). Students who lived within walking distance commuted daily to class while those living in the rural sections of the county lived in a dormitory or boarded with a family who resided near the school. Dr. E.A. Bishop was serving as president of the school.

Sevier County Bank and Bank of Sevierville were operating across from the courthouse on what is now Court Avenue in 1915. A drug store, Caton, Lawson and Company, was located between the two banks. The new Sevierville Hardware building was completed in 1915 across from the courthouse as well.

In 1915, the newest subdivision was named Grove Addition but commonly called Thomas Addition. It consisted of 56 lots divided out of nine acres of the M.P. Thomas Farm. New streets were made including Cherry Street, Elm Street, Belle Avenue, Grace and Porter Avenue; later extended and named High Street after Sevier County High School was opened in 1922. Some of the most fashionable homes in town were built there.

In the summer of 1915, life was tranquil in Sevierville. It could be described much like Agee depicted Knoxville in the following excerpt from his famous essay:

Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces. The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums. On the rough wet grass my father and mother have spread quilts.”