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Underground Knoxville: That TVA dig on Locust Street

You never know what you're walking on, especially when you're in downtown Knoxville, where people have been living, working, and playing since the 1780s. There's lots and lots of stuff down there. Most of it we'll never see. Archaeologists rarely get a chance to poke around downtown except when it's a federal-government project. Thanks to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, every time the federal government is involved in a construction project, even if it's a TVA parking garage, they've got to have a careful look at what they're disturbing. They did that on the abortive federal-courthouse project on Gay Street in the '90s, and when they built the transit center a few years ago.

So for the last several weeks, a team of mostly young archaeologists has been at work on a part of downtown most Knoxvillians don't pay much attention to, the middle of a block between Locust and Walnut, well behind the Daylight Building. The neighborhood was always kind of on the edge of things. The area has been an ordinary surface parking lot for years, but underneath was a complexity of evidence of other uses. Archaeologists Jessica Stanton, Marianne Shuler, and Paul Shockley led a group of reporters around the site this morning, and for those who are curious about that sort of thing, it was pretty fascinating.

The public will get a chance to see it on Saturday. Drop in, around the time of the Market Square Farmer's Market about a block away.

Archaeologists found the remains of Roberts Flats, an 1890s brick apartment building with bay windows, three stories tall; archaeolgist Jessica Stanton says it probably closely resembled what's now known as Kendrick Place, which is nearby. It was torn down several decades ago. It wasn't the first thing here; they found further evidence, now a dark rectangle, of a mid-19th-century house, probably wooden, before that. One of the oldest items found, a fragment of a slate sundial, stuck forever at V o'clock, was in that space.

Though the dig involves only a narrow section of Walnut Street frontage, it happens to include the foundations of the ca. 1880 home of one of the most interesting and influential Knoxvillians of the 19th century, German immigrant Peter Kern (1835-1907), one of the most popular merchants of the Victorian era, and eventually mayor of Knoxville. His house was demolished sometime before 1950, the rubble plowed into its own basement, and much of it appears still to be there. But the dig involves only the northern frontage of Kern's house; the rest of the basement of Kern's handsome Victorian is apparently still there, underneath the Daylight Building's rear parking lot.

Kern had a two-story stable capable of housing 20 horses, which were used for his bread and candy businesses. There was a rusty horseshoe there, of course.

We're lucky Victorian-era folks weren't very efficient about trash disposal. They've found lots of interesting stuff, though its interestingness may be in the eye of the beholder. Several bottles, dating from the Victorian era to the 1920s. One of the oldest is a ca. 1870s "Chesebrough Vaseline" bottle, dating from when petroleum-jelly inventor Robert Chesebrough was still a young man.

Another bottle is embossed, "Dr. King's New Discovery for Consumption," reportedly an 1880s elixir that included morphine, alcohol, and chloroform.

An unmarked heavy "cucumber bottle," so named for its shape, probably held some pressurized drink, perhaps ginger ale. They haven't positively identified any of the artifacts to Peter Kern himself, who died about 40 years before his house was demolished and paved over, but it's interesting that Kern, as much as anyone, is the guy who introduced the soft drink to the Knoxville market.

And there's a returnable Knoxville Pure Milk Co. bottle--never returned perhaps because the lip is chipped. There are some small 19th-century extract bottles; if anything has Antiques Roadshow value on this site, it's probably these bottles, prized by collectors.

There was the glass part of a 19th century oil lamp, a broken cut-glass candy dish, the lower part of a clay or porcelain figurine--a child's legs, with blue shoe, a la Little Lord Fauntleroy; a rusty hose nozzle of a former era; some musket balls and a Minie ball; lots of beef and pork bones, especially short sawn bones as if from a slice of ham; and an oyster shell. Oysters were actually fairly common in Knoxville, beginning in the 1850s, shipped almost daily in season via train from the Chesapeake Bay area.

TVA will host a free Public Open House on the site this coming Saturday, from 10 to 2. The entrance is on Locust Street, not far from Summer Place. 

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