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Of Lost Lakes and Hot Tamales

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by Jack Neely

After my column pondering the whereabouts of the Lost Lake of Lake Avenue, I heard from several folks, among them historian and retired physician Dr. Digby Seymour, who grew up in that neighborhood. He's not old enough to remember the lake—I doubt anyone is—but he sent me a copy of an old newspaper article, undated but apparently about 50 years old. It outlines a story that's as interesting as I should have expected it would be.

Melrose Place, now on UT's campus, is named for the hilltop home of Maj. Thomas O'Conner. When the prominent local industrialist lived here, he was reputed to be the wealthiest man in Tennessee. An especially striking antebellum mansion in the Tuscan-villa style, Melrose is one of the few Knoxville homes that's ever mentioned in surveys of Southern architecture. UT, which is a jealous god, tore it down in the 1950s. Hess Hall is there now.

Anyway, Maj. O'Conner complemented his antebellum mansion with a touch of his own: at the bottom of his sweeping lawn, he had laborers dig a "lake" about 200 feet long and 60 feet wide. They say that as O'Conner's workers shoveled out the lake bed, they found the bones of men and horses lost in the Confederate siege 12 years earlier. As near as I can tell, O'Conner's lake was in the bottomland at the eastern end of Lake Avenue.

O'Conner apparently had his concrete-lined lake stocked with carp, installed a fountain of some sort in the middle, and even built a small boathouse on its shore. Among the young gentry, O'Conner's lake got a reputation as an effective courting spot. But as it turned out, O'Conner himself wouldn't enjoy his lake for long.

If Thomas O'Conner's name is familiar, it's likely because it's attached to a famous gunfight on Gay Street in 1882, in which O'Conner shot and killed both of Knoxville's Joseph Mabrys, father and son—before succumbing to return fire. The bank building where it happened, the one O'Conner himself had established that same year, is still there at 612 Gay, with a marble facade inscribed MECHANICS BANK AND TRUST COMPANY.

O'Conner's widow, Fannie, remained at Melrose until her death over 40 years later, but O'Conner's lake fell into disrepair. One story has it that a servant, impatient with the usual techniques of apprehending fish, threw a dynamite bomb in old Maj. O'Conner's lake, which ruptured the concrete bottom.

Whether that's true or not, the lake dried up some years before it was finally filled in, around 1909. Most of O'Conner's old estate was redeveloped as a residential area. O'Conner's old lake house was moved about a quarter-mile west and survived for some years as a streetcar terminal on Cumberland. Lake Avenue got its name about the same time.

I'll never again suggest it's an illogical name for a street. Now that I know the story, I can't think of a better one.

* And I got lots of response about the tamale column. I still haven't learned any more about the earliest origins of Knoxville's taste for the Aztec specialty, or of the chili-tamale-combo dish long known here as the "full house." But I did learn a good deal I did not know, especially in a letter from retired insurance man and well-known rare-book scholar Ron Allen. He says the tamale man I'd heard referred to as "Mr. Andrew" was one Andrew Taylor, who was a tamale vendor on Central Avenue from the '30s through the '60s. Allen says people drove to Knoxville just to buy Andrew's tamales.

However, Allen says the short, bowlegged tamale vendor downtown was someone else altogether, named George. He says George sold tamales on Gay Street, and, in season, ice cream. Allen never knew George's last name, and is not certain George rolled his own, or bought from Andrew Taylor.

The late Charlie Green, the Mississippian who sold tamales from a pushcart around University Avenue for years—and whose mention in John Egerton's book Southern Food got me started on this quest—has certainly gotten better press than most tamale vendors ever do. Allen, however, says he was always partial to Sarge's tamales, which you can still get at Sarge's Barbecue on Western Avenue, near New Gray Cemetery. Allen says Sarge's tamales are the true spiritual descendants of the spicy ones Andrew made. (Green was, I've learned, a relative latecomer who arrived in the '70s, after Taylor and other Knox tamaleists had passed from the scene. Green used to tell people his secret recipe—preserved today at Mary's Hot Tamales on Magnolia—was over a century old and came from a Mississippi slave family.)

I'd been to Sarge's many times for his nonpareil barbecue, but before last week I'd never thought to order a tamale there. It's been my loss. Sarge's tamales are much thicker than anybody else's I've tried, and meatier, with a filling that's something like a dark, rich, smoky, finely ground beef sausage. Sarge offers the Full House, of course, but his tamales are plenty moist enough to eat by themselves, and hot even when they're cold.

The origin of the Full House remains elusive. I received one disarmingly simple recipe for a "Full House" from the Clinton Courier-News Cookbook attributed to former Knoxville Journal writer Jack Rentfro. It involves one can of tamales and one can of chili.

For his part, Ron Allen doesn't weigh in on the origin of the "full house." Distinctively Knoxvillian or not, he regards the full house as an indignity for a good tamale, which should be enjoyed au naturel.