on this story
And other improbable epilogues
by Jack Neely
I was, of course, among the 200 or so last Wednesday night who stood on the chilly Gay Street sidewalk and watched the top of the Fowler's building burn. A TV crew asked me to comment. I declined, partly because I knew I couldn't talk about this fire without talking about the Curse of the White Mule. I just wasn't sure how that story would play, edited down to four seconds on the 11 o'clock news.
You may remember that tale: after the explosive Woodruff's fire of 1904, which was the third major fire here in seven years on this east side of the 400 block, a few old-timers emerged to remember the old gypsy curse on this spot. It was back during Reconstruction, before any of these buildings were built, when it was the Old Base-Ball Grounds, and the circus used to camp here. One circus troupe brought with it a rare white mule, one of those wonders that paraded down Gay Street every few months. But this one time, while they camped here during a visit somewhere around 1870, the white mule died. Every granddaddy in East Tennessee knew that the spot where a white mule dies is forever jinxed. Still, tall buildings went up here, and their businesses prospereduntil the fires of 1897-1904, the first of which leveled the block and remains the worst fire in Knoxville history.
When the white mule story re-emerged after the fire and dynamite explosion of 1904, there were rumors that city fathers had sent out for witch doctors to abolish the curse. There were some magicians who hung their shingles hereabouts; maybe one of them got the job, and maybe he succeeded. In any case, this was a safe and prosperous block for several decades afterward. Several businesses thrive here today. But tenants of the Woodruff's building state matter-of-factly that the floors above the brewpub are haunted, that furniture gets moved around for no reason. They don't mention anything about ghostly brays or muleshoe prints in the old hardwood floors.
Anyway, just before the fire, a colleague had passed me a relevant essay from the Southern Literary Journal, reprinted in the November issue of Harper's. It's called "Equine Gothic: The Dead Mule as Generic Signifier in Southern Literature of the Twentieth Century." It offers no help concerning white-mule curses, but the essay holds that dead mules of all colors are an important, even a necessary ingredient of Southern culture and literature.
It's a fascinating thesis, but I was especially proud to see that the essay declares Knoxville son Cormac McCarthy "the unchallenged king of literary mule carnage." The essay specifically cites McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian, in which "no fewer than 59 specific mules die, plus dozens more that are alluded to in groups and bunches."
* My heart is warmed, in more ways than one, to see that the Full House has returned downtown. This ancient and indigenous Knoxville dish, the simplest version of which is a tamale dunked in chili, has been absent from downtown menus for years. The last place I know of that served it every day was the Rendezvous, on Gay Street, which closed sometime in the '80s. But it's now on the daily menuas a "Full House"at the Soup Kitchen on Market Square. I've tried it several times just to be sure, and it is indeed the real thing, even though I'm not certain Full House chili is supposed to be quite as fresh and tomatoey as the Soup Kitchen's. Theirs is also not quite as spicy as my two local favorites, Mary's on Magnolia and Sarge's on Western (which have an unfair advantage because they make their own tamales).
There's another place on Middlebrook Pike in the Ball Camp area called Little Jack's. It's a fun little hillside diner specializing in barbecue and old-fashioned country-style cooking; half of it's a food market. Anyway, in response to patron requests, Little Jack's started serving the Full House a couple of months ago. Theirs is a variation on the old full house because they serve Mexican-restaurant-style tamalesthat is, with shredded roast beef instead of spicy ground beef inside the cornmeal. Ask for a Full House, and Little Jack's will give you a hearty bowl of chili with cheese on top, onion on the side, two cornshuck-wrapped tamales, not pre-dunked, but placed discreetly beside the bowl. Again, it's not nearly as fiery as Mary's or Sarge's concoctions, though you're welcome to add your own barbecue sauce to it. It's more positive evidence of the long-term survival of the Full House.
* December saw a significant but unheralded passing, the closing of Harry Caracostis's Mall Package Store on Market Square. Harry claimed, on strong evidence, that his store was the oldest package store in Knoxville. It had been there for almost 40 years, opening almost immediately after Knoxville lifted its 54-year ban on liquor stores.
It wasn't for lack of business that he closed, as anyone who has spent a half-hour listening to Harry's stories knows. He always had a steady stream of customers of all walks of life, hundreds of whom knew him by name. Harry's license was up, and the Greek World War II veteran just figured it was time to retire. Harry has been suffering from cancer for more than a year, but that fact has never had much effect on his smile.
It was the last package store downtown. It was also the end of an unbroken Greek retail presence on Market Square that goes back nearly a century.
* Finally, one correction: In the article about the Knaffl Madonna, which appeared uncredited in an apparently popular Hallmark Christmas card, I referred to a positive review of the photograph published in 1899 in an arts magazine called Pen and Brush. There is no such thing, as some readers discovered when they attempted to look it up. The magazine was called Brush and Pencil. There's a copy of the review at the McClung Collection downtown.