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The Blacksmith's House

The slow death of a forgotten literary shrine, on Clinton Highway

by Jack Neely

Despite Knoxville's newfound appreciation for saving historic buildings, one remains unsaved. It's a turn-of-the-century home of literary distinction, but it's not downtown or in a toney old neighborhood. It's a board-and-batten shack out on the Clinton Highway.

You need some poetic license to call James Agee's book, A Death In the Family, a novel. It won the Pulitzer for fiction, before it inspired a major Broadway play called All the Way Home, and later even a movie and a TV special. It's just not necessarily fiction.

The novel's a nearly literal memory of the death of James Agee's own father, whose name was also James Agee, killed in a car wreck 84 years ago today, on May 18, 1916. It happened in northwest Knox County, at Bell's Bridge over Beaver Creek. Agee—Jay Follett, in the novel—was found dead in his car, and carried to a nearby blacksmith's shop.

The location is described by a stranger over the phone to Mrs. Follett before she knows she's a widow:

"out at Powell's Station, at Brannick's Blacksmith Shop, about 12 miles out the Ball Camp Pike... It's right on the left of the Pike comin out just a little way this side, Knoxvul side of Bell's Bridge."

I don't know why, in siting Follett's death, Agee conjured the name of the aimless, untraceable turns collectively known as Ball Camp Pike; according to the obituaries, his actual father died near Bell's Bridge on a more straightforward road, old Clinton Pike, and there was indeed a blacksmith's shop right there.

Long ago, they tore down the blacksmith's shop, maybe when they built the highway that replaced the pike. But they missed the blacksmith's actual house.

Maybe 15 years ago, inspired by an article by roving Journal columnist Vic Weals, my friend Jack Rentfro talked me into coming along to have a look. Jack, who lives out in these parts, was then working as a reporter for the old Knoxville Journal himself. It was long before I got on this weird Knoxville history binge, but the expedition sounded like an interesting way to kill a Saturday afternoon. We drove out there and had a look around.

The roads are straighter than the ones over which Jay Agee drove his Model T, a little too fast, on that warm evening in 1916. By the newer roads, the site's hardly 10 miles from Fort Sanders.

Jack and I found the house, covered with vines, visible from the road but only if you're looking hard. We paid a visit, but nobody was home, and apparently hadn't been for some decades; there wasn't much to the house, two or three rooms, with rotten floors, probably past saving even then.

In his column, Weals postulated that Agee probably made up the name Brannick; in 1916, the blacksmith's shop was owned by a man whose name sounds like an advertisement for it: Will Dew. He didn't live here, but provided this house for his hired blacksmith.

Jack and I knocked on a few doors in this odd little cluster of small houses nearby. We found a neighbor, a middle-aged man, who recalled that a blacksmith had lived there, long ago. We were even more astonished to chat with an old lady in an old house up on the hill across the street; she appeared to be close to 90, but could still get around. She told us she had lived there, 70 years earlier, and she remembered the wreck. A young man, wasn't it? she said. Driving by himself, in the middle of the night. She said she'd heard there'd been a famous book written about it, but she had never gotten around to reading it.

In a larger way, that wreck on the Clinton Pike inspired Agee's whole career, pushing him to crowd as much as he could into a life he somehow suspected would be a short one. He died young in a car like his dad did, but of different causes.

I'd had the memory of that odd little shrine in the back of my mind, but was never sure what to do with it. Sometimes, believe it or not, people call me and ask exactly where the death in A Death In the Family occurred. I've always told them approximately, never sure about the landmarks or the distance. Once I took Clinton Highway all the way to Clinton, and kept my eyes peeled for the blacksmith's house Jack and I explored. I didn't spot it. I stopped bragging that I knew where it was.

Not long ago, Jack told me he'd noticed it again, still there, if just barely. He told me again how to find it. I drove out just a little ways past the old Lindbergh plane filling station, just this side of Beaver Creek, like the man said on the phone in 1916. Today it's right across the highway from the Checkerflag Sports Bar and the Spritz & Glitz Salon.

There's not much left of the house. It's still in the dense woods, partly covered with vines, by the bank of the creek, but it has obviously been upset by something, probably the extensive landscaping just next door. The only part that hasn't collapsed is the northern gable, which is listing backward at 45 degrees. Only the brick chimney stands tall in the middle of the rubble. Sometimes a house is so inconsiderable you don't even bother to demolish it all the way. It looks as if it's slowly sinking into the banks of Beaver Creek.

There weren't any No Trespassing signs, and I crept down the slope through the brush until I could almost touch the blacksmith's house. I was thinking that thick vine lacing the rubble looked something like poison ivy when, not so far off, I heard a pop like a .22. Expeditiously, I climbed back out. I hope my kids might forgive me for leaving them without a great idea for a novel.

May 18, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 20
© 2000 Metro Pulse