The Top Twenty-Five
1. George Dempster (1887-1964)
He'd be right up there if only for his most famous product, the Dempster Dumpster; make fun of it all you want, but it's hard to argue that anything any Knoxvillian has ever done had a stronger effect on the daily lives of most Americans.
However, George Dempster would make this list even if he'd never dreamed up the Dumpster. Dempster Brothers built other things too, like many of the early highways and bridges that changed the way Knoxvillians lived. In one way or another, George Dempster seems to have been central to most of the big projects in Knoxville between 1920 and 1960, including the construction of McGhee Tyson Airport, the Henley Street Bridge, and Bill Meyer Stadium. And he was an important member of a cadre of men and women who established the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
He was also a city councilman, two-time city manager, and, from 1952 to 1955, mayor of Knoxville, a colorful but essentially level-headed politician who often helped counterbalance Cas Walker's excesses. He might be best remembered for an anecdote near the end of his life. In 1960, Knoxville businessmen were perplexed by how to respond to the fact that hundreds of black demonstrators were showing up in previously all-white restaurants, demanding to be served. Then and for the next several years, restaurateurs and politicians across the South would resist the Civil Rights demonstrators with attack dogs and firehoses. That could have happened in Knoxville, too. Worried Knoxville businessmen asked Dempster how they should handle the situation.
"I can answer that in three words," the 73-year-old Dempster said in 1960. "Let 'em eat."
Dempster's fingerprints are on nearly everything that happened here between 1920 and 1960, the heart of the 20th century.
2. David Chapman (1876-1944)
The establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park may be the single most amazing thing that happened in the Knoxville area in the 20th century. The nation's most popular national park was created not by federal edict, but by the will and sheer guts of a small group of men and women, most of them Knoxvillians. Chief among them was David Chapman.
The man who's sometimes called the Father of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park began as a downtown Knoxville druggist. Later on, he was also an officer in the National Guard, eventually a colonel who led troops in World War I.
In 1923, he became involved in the association of conservationists attempting to foundraising about $10 million through private and mostly local sourcesa national park in the Smoky Mountains, a range then threatened by mining and timber interests. Chapman became the association's chairman and chief purchasing agent, a tremendously difficult job. Most national parks are founded by the federal government, on federal land; this one was founded by private citizens through buying privately held land. Several of Chapman's allies are on this list.
Chapman was also an officer in two local banks, as well as director of the Knoxville Sentinel. He is, of course, remembered in the name of Chapman Highway and Mount Chapman, one of the highest peaks in the Smokies.
3. Bob Neyland (1892-1962)
No, he didn't invent the Vols, at least not of whole cloth. But before Neyland coached the Vols, you could walk around old Wait Field at half-time and shake hands with all your fellow Vol fans. Neyland invented an unusual style of football, and along the way, he inspired something we'd later call Volmania.
A Texas-raised civil engineer and army officer who had been an aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur at West Point, Neyland arrived in Knoxville at 33, primarily to fill a vacancy in UT's ROTC program; he moonlighted as an assistant football coach. After he became head coach in 1926, Major Neyland, as we knew him for most of his career here, developed a very peculiarsome might even say perversestrategy that wouldn't work for everybody, but worked very well for him during his quarter-century as the Vols' head coach. Insisting that there were more ways to score on defense than on offense, Neyland emphasized defense over all other aspects of the game. He seemed to consider possession a disaster waiting to happen, and was known to call for a punt on third down. Neyland games were often very low-scoring affairs, without a touchdown on either sidebut he won a lot of them. In the 1930s, the Vols and their suddenly legendary defense rose to national prominence. Nine of Neyland's 21 teams were undefeated (in the 1939 regular season, they were unscored upon); the Neyland-led Vols won seven SEC championships and oneand, to date, the Vols' onlynational title. He's touted in national college-football histories as one of the greatest coaches of all time.
He retired for health reasons in 1952 but remained closely involved with UT athletics until his death. By then, UT football, played in the stadium named for Neyland, had evolved from a club of college boys having fun with a pigskin to a sociological phenomenon called the Big Orangewhich would have profound effects on Knoxville traffic patterns, six Saturdays every fall.
4. Weston Fulton (1871-1946)
Modern industrialists credit Fulton with launching Knoxville's high-tech industry 40 years before ORNL, when the young weatherman invented an electrical device called the sylphon in 1902. That one invention made possible a number of others, from the automobile thermostat to the depth charge. Eventually Fulton owned over 125 patents, many of which were developed and manufactured by the Fulton Companylater Robertshawwhich, at its peak, employed several thousand.
Fulton was also a progressive civic leader who served as vice-mayor in the 1920s, and a prominent member of several influential organizations, including the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association.
5. Lizzie Crozier French (1851-1926)
Widowed in her early 20s, French spent the rest of her life as a single mother, which gave her an acute understanding of the struggles of women in male-dominated Victorian America. Somewhere along the way, she became Knoxville's most influential feminist.
Raised on Gay Street as daughter of a popular former congressman, French was a persuasive speaker. She was known to stump for women's rights as early as the 1880s, when she was teaching at the East Tennessee Female Institute. By the beginning of the 20th century, she was a published author, founder of the Ossoli Circle (named for feminist Margaret Fuller's presumed married name), then a literary/intellectual organization of politically active women with an intent to educate women on the great issues of the dayall the great issues, from U.S. naval preparedness to the sources of anarchism. She founded the Women's Educational and Industrial Union in Knoxvillewhich successfully pushed for the hiring of a female police officer, called a Police Matron. She organized the Knoxville Equal Suffrage Association and was for a time president of Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association.
French's "Address on Women's Rights" appeared in the Proceedings of the Bar Association of Tennessee in 1912seven years before Tennessee cast the critical vote in women's suffrage nationwide. She lived to cast her first vote, at the age of 69. In her 70s, French became, perhaps, the first woman to run for City Council, in 1923albeit unsuccessfullyand when she died at 75, she wasn't in Knoxville, but in Washington, D.C., lobbying for a bill to benefit working women.
6. Cas Walker (1902-1998)
He'll be loved and hated for years to come, but there's no question he livened up this town for most of a century. He tried to make the 20th century his own. Heck, he didn't just try. Cas bought the 20th century wholesale and sold it back to us at bargain rates. Born and raised in Sevier County, Walker had little formal education when he moved to Knoxville in the mid-1920s. At first, he was only a grocer, with a small local chain of stores, but his passion for promotion led him into several realms of influence and the century's most complicated legacy.
As mayor, Walker was recalled after less than a year (1946) in office, but he would be one of the longest-tenured City Council members in history, serving from 1942 to 1971. He's generally remembered as a regressive politician, a frustrating obstacle to progressive initiatives; to many Knoxville businessmen today, he represents the reaction that doomed the progressive metropolitan dreams for Knoxville that some held dear during the first third of the century. He opposed relaxing Knoxville's prohibitionist laws, opposed fluoride in the water, and opposed City-County consolidation, as he opposed most big-ticket city projects, which he routinely branded "Communistic." He opposed many civil rights initiatives, though through promotional efforts he somehow maintained warm relations with many Knoxville blacks. He may also be as responsible as any other individual citizen for anticipating suburbanization and abandoning downtown. He pulled out of downtown and put his groceries in the suburbs. "Knoxville's on wheels," he would say.
Many would agree with George Dempster's famous assessment of Cas: "If I had sent off for a load of SOB's and they sent only Cas, I'd sign for the shipment." However, Walker is generally regarded as a positive, even progressive influence in the early development of country music, primarily through his radio station WROL, from the 1930s to the mid-1950s. WROL took more musical chances than the somewhat more popular WNOX, nurturing the careers of early bluegrass artists like Flatt & Scruggs.
He fired the Everly Brothers, sure enough, but as Charlie Louvin recently told us, "Cas saved a lot of hillbillies' lives."
7. Harcourt Morgan (1867-1950)
For a kid born and raised in rural Ontario, Morgan might have seemed an unlikely candidate to be the only person in history to have occupied both of Knoxville's most regionally powerful offices: president of UT and chairman of TVA. He began humbly, as an entomologist, coming to UT to teach at the ag school in 1904. An especially effective teacher of conservation who emphasized the integral relationship between people and the land, Morgan became dean of the College of Agriculture, advocating expanding the campus.
Then, with the unexpected death of President Brown Ayres in 1919, the Board of Trustees appointed Morgan president of UT. It was a controversial move; some had never seen him in a tie. But he held the position for 15 years, advocating his manifesto, "The State Is the Campus"; during his tenure, the student body quadrupled in size, anticipating the postwar boom. He drew criticism in the national press for not using his position to speak out in favor of John Scopesespecially considering that Morgan had taught evolution, himselfbut was generally well-liked. In spite of his Canadian background, he seemed to symbolize the pragmatic conservatism of this region.
In 1933, President Roosevelt appointed him one of the original three directors of TVA, and the only one of the three who had lived here before TVA. Morgan served on that triumvirate for 15 years, including three years as TVA's chairman. He finally retired from the board at age 81. Though perhaps not quite as dynamic as his younger colleagues on the board, Morgan pushed for conservation and rural electrification.
In a 1935 article for Fortune magazine, James Agee described Morgan as a "man with a drawled, humorist's mouth and the stringy body of a farmer [but] temper that picture with light washes of cultivation and city living."
8. Samuel Heiskell (1858-1923)
Our mayor at the beginning of the century turned out to be the longest-tenured mayor in Knoxville history. At the helm for most of the period from 1896-1915, Sam Heiskell was a man of fascinating contradictions. One of our most scholarly mayors, Heiskell would write a three-volume history of Tennessee during the Jacksonian era. However, he was also one of our most deadly mayors, and known to go armed. As an attorney in his mid-30s, shortly before his mayoral years, Heiskell had been arrested for firing shots inside the courtroom during a scuffle with another lawyer.
A progressive voice during Knoxville's boom years, Heiskell was known for his work with education, quality of life for blacks, and mental health; in 1915, he led passage of a special tax to build a new high school for blacks. A lifelong scholar who had traveled extensively in Europe, Mayor Heiskell was surprisingly liberal, even by modern standards, and experimented with the legalization of prostitution, which he believed was inevitable, establishing an effective "red-light district" northeast of downtown. He lost one of his biggest fights, against local prohibition, in 1907, and did not live to see the return of legal beer to Knoxville. Still, Heiskell saw the city through several crises, and presided over Knoxville's first expansions beyond the downtown area.
9. William Rule (1839-1928)
He began the century as a Union veteran, a former mayor and postmaster, and current editor of the Knoxville Journalbut at 61, Captain William Rule wasn't quite ready to retire. He still had 28 years of full-time service ahead of him.
The Journal would have its ups and downs later in the 20th century, but Rule's own Journal, the one he founded in the 1880s, was known for its departure from the sensationalism and bias of most Victorian-era newspapers.
Rule himself was a strong Republican, even in days when it was dangerous to be a Republican in Tennessee, and made no secret of his allegiance in his editorials. Before Rule got into the newspaper business in the 1860s, Knoxville had been a town of Democrats and Whigs; he was as responsible as any individual for making the Northern conspiracy called the Republican Party seem respectable here.
Rule is also remembered as the lifelong mentor of Adolph Ochs, the influential publisher of the New York Times, who had worked for Rule's Knoxville Chronicle in the 1870s. Ochs kept Capt. Rule's letter of recommendation on his office wall.
He remained editor of the daily Journal until his deathof appendicitisat the age of 89.
10. James Sterchi Sr. (1867-1932)
Son of a Swiss immigrant, Sterchi founded Sterchi Bros. Furniture (two other Sterchi brothers bowed out early), turning it from one small store on Vine Street into the 60-store chain that was one of Knoxville's biggest business concerns, ever; in the 1920s, Sterchi's claimed to be the largest furniture company in the world. Beyond selling furniture, the store also sold many early home applianceshundreds of thousands of families across the South bought their first radio or television from Sterchi's. But perhaps more significantly, Sterchi's sold phonographs. So their customers would have records to play on their new phonographs, beginning in the 1920s Sterchi's sponsored several important early recordings, especially of country music, including the first of country-music legend Uncle Dave Macon.
Individually, James Sterchi was also the director of the first Appalachian Exposition in 1910 and helped develop Chilhowee Park.
11. Lowell Blanchard (1910-1968).
A middle-class college graduate from Illinois might have seemed an unlikely candidate to become East Tennessee's most influential country-music impresario, but that Lowell Blanchard was. He arrived in 1936 to become a radio announcer for WNOX; he founded what would quickly become Knoxville's best-known country-music program, "Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round," as well as the "Tennessee Barn Dance." Through his live shows he helped launch countless country-music careers, including those of Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, and Archie Campbell. Blanchard used his name recognition to work his way into local politicshe served on Knoxville's City Council for most of the period from 1944 to 1953as well as for his favorite charities, including the Easter Seals and the March of Dimes.
12. George Barber (1854-1915).
Probably our most famous architect, George Barber moved here from Illinois in his 30s and opened an architectural firm; while here, through his mail-order designs he became a nationally influential designer of late-Victorian homes. Queen Anne houses built from Barber designs are still standing all over America, but nowhere in greater concentration than here in his chosen home.
13. Jake Butcher (1936- ).
Son of a successful Union County banker, he came to Knoxville to purchase the old-line Hamilton National Bank in 1974 and made it his own United American Bank. He won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1978, but lost the race to Republican Lamar Alexander. He turned to his next project, a World's Fair, which seemed to be a success, one of the best-attended American fairs in history. Then, in 1983, his United American Bank collapsed in one of the biggest bank failures in U.S. history. After a massive investigation of his banking practices, he pled guilty to bank fraud in 1985. He now sells Toyotas in Chattanooga.
14. David Lilienthal (1900-1981).
An attorney from Wisconsin who came to be part of FDR's original triumvirate at TVA, Lilienthal became probably the most dynamic and influential director of TVA during its formative 15 years. He went on to become the first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.
15. Cal Johnson (1844-1925).
Raised to be a slave to the McClungs of Gay Street, after emancipation Johnson became a successful saloonkeeper who combined wits and hard work to become a wealthy man through a series of investments in Knoxville business and real estate. In the 1880s, he had been elected city alderman. He ran a well-known horse-racing track in East Knoxville, which survives in form as residential Speedway Circle. With his own money, he founded Knoxville's first black YMCA in 1906.
The 20th century was hard on him; the state Legislature shut down his racetrack, and his saloons, in 1907. But he remained among Knoxville's wealthiest men and most daring entrepreneurs, hosting the first airplane landing in Knoxville and opening an early movie theater.
In 1922, Knoxville established the Cal Johnson Park in his honor; Johnson donated a large marble fountain to the downtown park, located on the site of the later Cal Johnson Recreation Center and Chamber of Commerce building.
16. Pat Head Summitt (1952- ).
Born in Clarksville and raised in rural Middle Tennessee, she was hardly out of college in 1974 when she became coach of UT's women's basketball teamthen called the "Volettes." In the 24 years since then, she has accomplished more than any women's basketball coach in world history. She led the USA team to a silver medal in the 1976 Olympics, and the gold medal in 1984. Meanwhile, her day job as coach of the Lady Vols brought more national championships than any women's team, ever; along the way, Pat Summit has brought respect not only to women's basketball at UT, but to women's basketballand women's sports in generalnationwide.
17. John Duncan (1916-1988).
That's John Duncan Seniorand not as much for his many low-profile years as U.S. Representative of the Second District as for his steady hand on the tiller when he was mayor during five and a half potentially turbulent years from 1959 to 1964. During his tenure, Knoxville went through many sweeping changes, including major urban renewal projects and desegregation, plus the annexation of major suburbs of Bearden and Fountain City, the latter of which Duncan achieved over staunch local protest. He also helped launch the Dogwood Arts Festival and presided over its most dynamic yearswhich also folded in with Duncan's partially effective campaign to clean up what had been called both the "dirtiest" and "ugliest" city in America.
18. Lawrence D. Tyson (1861-1929).
Lawrence was an industrialist, military leader, philanthropist, state speaker of the House, and a U.S. senator. Originally from North Carolina, he was a veteran of the Apache wars when he moved to Knoxville at 30 to teach military science at UT; he'd already married Knoxville heiress Bettie McGhee. As a businessman, Tyson helped develop Knoxville's textile industry; he was also a leader in the development of the public library, which his father-in-law had founded. At the time of his death, his widow Bettie established Tyson Park and Knoxville's original airstrip; through the deal, the city agreed to name McGhee Tyson Airport for the Tysons' only son, a flier who was killed in the final weeks of World War I.
19. Cowan Rodgers (1878-1936).
A nationally ranked tennis champ at the turn of the century, Rodgers was also an early advocate of automobiles. He sold them to Knoxvillians and, for a short period around 1900, even manufactured them, by hand. Rodgers probably introduced the automobile to Knoxville, spearheaded several of the first paved roads into the city. He founded Rodgers Cadillacthough he originally sold steam-powered Locomobiles, circa 1902. Today, Rodgers is believed to be the oldest car dealership in the South. Rodgers was the first to drive a car between Knoxville and Chattanooga, in 1903.
Also a prominent banker, Rodgers co-founded Home Federal. Along with several others, Rodgers was a prominent booster of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; as treasurer of the influential Conservation Association, he was one of the first to see its economic potential for the area. He predicted "millions will annually come though our gates and scatter the golden shekels in our midst." Rodgers might also have predicted that the cars and highways he promoted would take Knoxville's "Gateway to the Smokies" status and move it about 30 miles down 441, where most of those shekels are scattered these days.
20. James Agee (1909-1955).
All told, Agee spent not quite 12 years of his youth here, but through his own writingespecially his Pulitzer-winning novel, A Death in the Family, which in 41 years has never been out of printand the work of composer Samuel Barber and playwright Tad Mosell who both interpreted Agee's Knoxville-based writing as aria and drama, Agee brought Knoxville to much of the world. Agee's descriptions of Knoxville in 1915 and 1916 are often the only thing newcomers know of the city when they arrive.
21. Jim Haslam (1930- ).
Originally from Florida, Haslam came to Knoxville as a UT football recruit during Major Neyland's last year and later founded Pilot Oil, which would become one the most prominent Knoxville-based corporations of the late 20th century. Individually, Haslam has emerged as Knoxville's most conspicuous philanthropist, who saved the Knoxville Museum of Art from bankruptcy, and a powerful civic leader who made the Public Building Authority a bulwark of local government, among many other major projects.
22. Stuart Adcock (1905-1972).
Those still bitter about the fact that Knoxville was late to get television may not remember that Knoxville was early to get radiothanks to Stuart Adcock. A radio pioneer from the crystal and cat's-whisker days, Adcock founded WNOX in 1921 while he was still a teenager. WNOX would later claim to be one of the 10 oldest radio stations in America. Not long after he started WNOX, Adcock sold his first station and founded WROL, which would become WNOX's chief competition for 30 years, including most of the influential live-music era. Adcock put Knoxville on the national radio map early in U.S. radio history and with it, helped launch dozens of careers in country music, blues, and even jazz.
23. John T. O'Connor (1881-1968).
Raised in Knoxville's urban Irish Town, this sometime boxer who worked as a machinist for Southern Railway became an important early union leader who was thrice president of the Tennessee Federation of Labor. Eventually a prominent Knoxville businessman, he became president and later chairman of the board of Home Federal. Serving two terms as mayor in the 1930s, O'Connor became influential in FDR's New Deal through his seat in the U.S. Conference of Mayors; later he was city welfare director and leader of many civic projects. In 1936, he came nearer than any Democrat in the last 140 years to obtaining Second District congressional seat. Elected to City Council when he was almost 70, O'Connor spent much of the 1950s as a liberal on that panel, calling for taxes to pay for progressive projects.
24. Brown Ayres (1856-1919).
Originally from Memphis, Ayres was a physicist who had taught electrical engineering at Tulane before he became president of UT (1904-19). Here he finished the job of his dynamic predecessor, Charles Dabney, who had begun modernizing what had been a small, creaky, 19th-century college. Ayres raised the university's academic standards, shored up UT's commitment to liberal arts alongside vocational studies, and prompted the founding of the School of Commerce, which became the College of Business. He died suddenly in early 1919, and the campus's most prominent hilltop building, then under construction, was promptly named Ayres Hall in his honor.
25. William J. Oliver (1867-1925).
An industrialist from Indiana, Oliver moved to Knoxville in his 30s and was the contractor who built the Clinch Avenue Viaduct, the first concrete viaduct in a city that would later be laced with them. Here Oliver opened his own railroad, mining, and foundry-supply factory which was said to be the largest of its kind in the South. The company was heavily involved in the construction of the Panama Canal and the World War I supply effort. He built a rail line to the Smokies, and as a member of Tennessee's first highway commission in 1909, worked for connecting the ends of the state with highways. He became president of the Appalachian Fair of 1910, the first of three major expositions held in Knoxville before the World's Fair.