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Turn-of-the-Century Life in Knoxville's Bowery

Dear Dr. Knox:

I read an article from March 1, 2010 entitled, "Mr. Jim Lay's Marble City Saloon," which indicated to me that you might be able to help me.

My great-great grandmother lived at 127 1/2 South Central for a brief time after 1910 (she was still in Union County in the 1910 census). I understand that Prohibition cleaned the Old City up to a degree, but that her block was still very close to the "Red Light District" if not in the midst of it. She died in 1917 of typhoid fever and she was married (although I've not found a certificate record yet) to J. Logan Satterfield. I'm not sure when she moved in, but I have found him in the city directories during that era. Our family history said that she married him and that they ran a boarding house. Her daughter, my great-grandmother was forced to work very hard for her stepfather and a man who was boarding there decided to marry her and take her out of the situation. He was my great-grandfather. He was in Knoxville working and had moved there from Lake City (Coal Creek). 

I have seen the site of the boarding house and it appears to be rather small unless the building or address is different than it would have been in 1910. I've also researched the types of businesses that surrounded this family--livery stable, confectioners, etc. 
My first and most pressing question to you would be about photos. Do you know of any photos from this block between 1910 and 1917? 

Also, what was that area like in those years (after Knoxville banned saloons)? 

Next, was there a typhoid epidemic in Knoxville in 1917 or was hers a more isolated case? I briefly looked through some newspaper evidence to research typhoid, but didn't find anything conclusive.

I really want to know how the two women may have lived and what they might have gone through.

Neither one is listed in the city directories, only Mr. Satterfield. If he was married, wouldn't his wife had been listed somewhere?

In those Central Ave boarding houses, was there really enough housework for two women, or could they have been engaged in other types of work?
I would appreciate any help you could give me.


Delaina Rhodes

Dear Mme. Rhodes:

We rarely prioritize answering such specific inquiries about one particular ancestor's circumstances a century ago, and in fact, in the interest of self-preservation, we do have a rule against answering multiple queries from a single inquirer. But we'll make an exception in this case, just because those particular circumstances are so interesting. The 100 block of South Central in the early 20th century was one of the most fascinating and dynamic times and places in Knoxville's history. 

You've likely gathered the area was known as the Bowery during the saloon era, a rowdy, mixed-race neighborhood of gambling dens and poolhalls and cocaine parlors and especially saloons.

You're correct that Central was near Knoxville's only legally recognized Red-Light District. Seen as a way to control prostitution by segregating it, "Friendly Town," as it was known, was officially on Florida Street, parallel to Central about three blocks to the east (part of it's now called Randolph). In the vicinity of that street, from 1900 to 1915, the height of the progressive era houses of prostitution were generally allowed to operate unmolested. Several houses of ill repute had previously operated on Central proper, and probably still did ca. 1910, but after the saloon era those were more clandestine.

Regarding your question about photographs, you might want to check with Mme. Sally Polhemus at the Calvin McClung Collection, but don't go in with high expectations. Photos of that part of town are very difficult to find. That Marble City Saloon photo is quite a rarity. Photography was a more involved and expensive pursuit in those days, and the more upscale blocks of Gay Street were more likely to be photographed. The city was not proud of that street, and few businesses hired photographers to promote themselves.

That block of Central comprised Knoxville's highest concentration of saloons until the end of 1907, when they were officially abolished. Some of them went underground, as the businesses reorganized, typically, as billiard halls or "soft drinks" establishments. Sometimes "soft drinks"  weren't exactly that. A popular Knoxville "temperance brew" called Swanky was busted around 1912 because it was, basically, real beer.

And we hear stories that there were some speakeasies on that block. But most of the businesses on Central, ca. 1915, were legitimate: cobblers, barbers, grocers, confectioners, livery stables, several restaurants.

It was not always the safest or prettiest block in town, maybe, but it was very lively, interesting and diverse place. It was a rare mixed-race commercial block, with both black and white-owned businesses, though more of the latter. A couple of Knoxville's earliest black-owned movie theaters were on that block, in storefront spaces. What made it most unusual was that it seems to have been a draw for immigrants.

And it was during that time, just before World War I, that the first wave of Greek immigrants established a foothold in Knoxville. Knoxville's first Greek restaurateurs (before the Regases!) were thriving on that block during your ancestor's time there. The Cavas family, who ran a café called the Boston Restaurant at 136 S. Gay, were one; a gentleman named Constantine Stergiokis ran a restaurant at 139 S. Central before 1910. And for whatever reason that stretch drew an unusual proportion of Italians, running several ice-cream parlors and confectionaries: Joe Maglio, the Armetto family's long-lived establishments (you can still see their name on the side of Sullivan's), Angelo's, and Cianciolo and Musco's. There were also a few Jewish merchants on the block, like shoe seller Benjamin Shapiro and grocer Henry Bloom.

The block always had a reputation as a point of entry for immigrants, and had once been considered part of Irish Town, but by 1910 most of the Irish had joined Knoxville's prosperous  classes and were moving to the suburbs. Which, at that time, were just about six blocks north.

Concerning typhoid epidemics: I haven't heard of a major typhoid epidemic in 1917, but typhoid was not uncommon in those days, and tended to visit us in small outbreaks. I have the impression some Knoxvillians died almost every year from typhoid. Central might have been a particularly hazardous place in that regard; typhoid is a water-borne illness, and First Creek, which was just east of Central, was particularly filthy, draining sewage from slum areas. People in this neighborhood were known to trust it perhaps more than they should have.

The building that includes 127 today is a small building, as you observe, just a tall one-story commercial building, now the location of Lox hair salon. No, the street numbering on that block has not changed in the last 100 years -- but a few of the buildings have. The building that's there today looks newer than most of those on the block, perhaps ca. 1920-30. Clinging to the side of the adjacent Crown & Goose building is mortar evidence that there was once a taller building in this space, probably a modest two-story Victorian vernacular commercial building. It could have been a boarding house.

Those were small times, in terms of our standards for lodging. Rooms were often barely big enough for a bed. But it's possible, or likely, that your great-great-grandmother's building was a larger building, perhaps a two-story like most on the block. By the way, the one-half fraction in the address was not employed consistently, but in this case may have referred to the second story.

Yes, two women could probably make a living running one boarding house. They probably got plenty of business: that was a pretty good place for a boarding house, not far from the busy Southern Railway terminal. Railroad passenger traffic energized that block on a daily basis. Many of the people who would have stayed there were wholesale merchants and buyers, people  who came in on the train to shop in the wholesale stores that lined Jackson to stock stores in smaller towns around the region. Also people trying to sell bulk merchandise to those firms.

City directories tend to emphasize heads of households. Often other family members were listed separately, but it wasn't unusual for them not to be. When a working woman lived alone or was head of her household, she usually was listed, but married women were sometimes "implied" under the husband's name. City directories are great helps, and are better than any other source at giving us information about the personality of a neighborhood, but they're also full of errors, researched on a deadline by people who weren't necessarily well educated.

The 100 block remained interesting through the 20th century--some of the Greek-owned restaurants hung on there until the 1970s--but after World War I, it became more and more known for catering to the black community. There's a fascinating description of it, ca. 1950, on p. 69 of Cormac McCarthy's novel, Suttree. In the late summer of 1919, after two years after your great-great grandmother's death, it was the scene of the worst racial violence in the city's history, when misled guardsmen aimed machine guns down this block, killing and wounding a still-unknown number of black citizens. Unlike other "race riots" around the country, the "Red Summer" riot was more or less a confused massacre.

Yours very truly,

Z. Heraclitus Knox, Ph.Z.

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.

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Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis.