Dear Dr. Knox:
This was my great-grandfather's saloon in Knoxville before prohibition, I think the address was 135 Central Avenue. I would like to know what additional information that you can find about this.
This is a splendid photograph, one we have never seen before. Photos of the Central Street saloon district are hard to find. Old City saloons of the modern age should frame copies of this one and hang it beside their health-board certificates.
It's a pity our photographers at the time were not much interested in saloons. This may have been the single most interesting part of Knoxville, ca. 1900. Known during this time as the Bowery, an avenue of all varieties of entertainment, it drew salesmen, riverboatmen, factory workers, and, especially reformers from around the country, some of whom declared it was the most dangerous place in the South outside of New Orleans.
Knoxville's saloon era was a lively one and lasted for more than half a century, ending rather abruptly in November, 1907, when the city voted itself dry, about 11 years before the nation did. At the time Knoxville banned its saloons, there were more than 100 of them downtown alone. Central had the highest concentration of saloons in Knoxville. This particular block had the highest concentration of saloons on Central: 10 saloons on a single block in 1907. Much of the block is still intact as part of the Old City and, I'm pleased to say, maintains some of the Bowery's old character.
Mr. James P. Lay was right in the middle of it. He first appears on the Bowery in 1903, running a saloon at 133 S. Central, adjacent to a barber shop and another saloon. He and J.F. DeArmond maintained a healthy next-door rivalry for a while; in 1904, his establishment included an "eating house" run by a black man named Howard Lee, apparently as a separate business. (Could that be the young man in the doorway?) Upstairs were rooms to let, which was typical. You could eat, drink, sleep, and get your hair cut. A good saloon offered everything a gentleman needed.
Lay was a little unusual in that day when many, perhaps most, saloonkeepers lived in the building where they operated the saloon. Lay lived out in the country, in a place called Luttrell, though maybe not the Luttrell, Tenn., we know today; there seems to have been a community in South Knoxville. In any case, he must have had a horse.
In 1905, Lay apparently bought out DeArmond, and tried running the place as one big double saloon at 133-35, perhaps much like the current-day Crown and Goose, which is nearby. 1905 is the only year Lay is listed as directly associated with 135 S. Central, and may be the year of the photograph.
Marble City was Knoxville's nickname at the time, as you may know. Later, the term came to apply mainly to a section of Sutherland Avenue, but ca. 1900, when Knoxville was gaining fame in the nation's great cities for its high-grade limestone and marble, the whole city went by that name. This photograph bears valuable information to historians, because saloons are usually listed in historical records only by proprietor's names, not by their popular names. From city directories we know that Mr. Jim Lay ran a saloon at 135 Central, but not that it was known as the Marble City.
The advertisement for Lexington Beer, featuring the profile of a handsome horse, is interesting. America supported hundreds of regional breweries in those days, and each saloon seems to have specialized in delivering a different brand.
Curious, we contacted a brewing expert in Lexington who said he'd never heard of this predecessor--but we did find an advertisement for this beer which offers some clue about its reputation: "Just before retiring a glass of Lexington Beer will insure a peaceful, unbroken sleep. It is soothing and restful for the nerves...."
Mr. Lay ran the saloon at 133 through 1907. After the saloon ban went into effect at the end of 1907, he tried to make a go of a "pool and soda water" establishment at that address. A lot of saloonkeepers tried to go the soft-drink route, but it wasn't nearly as lucrative, and for most it was just a holding pattern to stay employed while changing careers.
Interestingly, in 1908, 135 S. Central became a very small movie theater for black audiences, run by legendary slave-turned-capitalist Cal Johnson. It didn't last long, but it was one of the first few movie houses in the city's history.
Today, both buildings, near twins, are still standing, on the southern fringe of the Old City, near the Crown & Goose (which is itself a union of two old Bowery-era saloons). Today, 135 S. Central is residential, a small occupied condo building. Lay's original location, the ground floor of 133, is currently vacant, and awaiting its revival.
Yr. obt. Svt.,
Z. Heraclitus Knox, Ph.Ud.D.
Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis. Send all your queries, big or small, to editorATmetropulseDOTcom.