We have received intelligence that the Prophet of the Great Smokies will make his first return to Knoxville in 97 years. If you're downtown Saturday morning at 10:00, you can be among the first to witness his arrival, to celebrate the Centennial Conservation Expo at Chilhowee Park, a celebration of the National Conservation Exposition of 1913.
A little background may be in order.
During the period of Knoxville's most rapid growth and change, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Prophet appeared every October. He always approached crossing the Gay Street Bridge afoot, to survey the city over which he ruled. That's where he'll be on the morrow.
Wearing robes with astrological symbols and two long, voluptuous horns sprouting from his capacious cranium, he said to be the supernatural founder of Knoxville--it's said that he guided James White himself to establish a town here in 1791--and he would return every October to check on his favorite city, and to be appraised of its progress.
It may seem paradoxical that Knoxvillians of the Victorian era were much more tolerant of pagans than we have become today. Still, as they watched his solemn procession, naive secularists presumed he was merely a local celebrity in disguise. But as soon as they made each assumption, the personage in question was spotted bowing to the prophet.
"The Prophet of the Great Smokies...is no character of foreign importation," a reporter assured us in 1897. "No kinsman is he of the veiled monster of Khorassan...nor yet a Comus of bacchanalian song and revel, nor a roistering Rex...." He was, in short, a local.
"His home is, as it has been for ages, in the heart of the Great Smokies, far up the steeps amid the eternal blue of the everlasting peaks and ranges, above the thunder and the storm. His companions are the wood-nymphs and the eagle of the crags."
In a grand ceremony at the courthouse, near the Sevier monument, the mayor would offer the Prophet "the freedom of the city," represented by a key. After that, the prophet, not the mayor, was in charge of Knoxville. The Prophet accepted the honor graciously as a welcome "to this, our favorite and peculiar city...a splendid and progressive city, enthroned upon historic hills."
The wise heeded the Prophet's famous predictions. During what may have been his final appearance, in 1916, he forecast that women would soon have the vote. "And when you place, as you will, in their hands the ballot, it will be cast for the best in government...fear not that they will be less fair and womanly."
He also offered this prediction: "Mine eyes see a magnificent highway
running from this city to the north and to the south, forming a link in
a national system of highways that will bring into your borders
the...wandering pleasure seekers of the country....
"Yes, as in the olden time, all roads led to imperial Rome, so in time to come, all roads in this splendid section shall lead to queenly Knoxville."
And he predicted endless annexations: "Soon the lusty and beautiful towns now clustered as jewels about our queenly Knoxville will be given royal welcome into her borders, which again and again shall be extended, until the furnace fires at Mascot shall shine upon her eastern gate...."
He foresaw that pollution would obscure our view of the mountains, but it wasn't necessarily a warning. He sounded excited about it: "The pillars of smoke from the fires of industry at that quaint old college town named for Mary Grainger [that is, Maryville] will obscure the vision of the watchman of the gate looking toward that pyramid of mountains capped by old Thunderhead."
We're not sure why he hasn't returned since 1916. Maybe it was the World Wars that distracted him, or maybe it was emergent Volmania that bewildered him each year upon arriving in the metropolis. But we're told he will return this weekend for the celebration of his favorite Exposition.
We have no idea what wisdom he will impart in the morning, but based on his record, we should perhaps take heed.