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TVA's archaeological dig downtown: More on the Secret History of the Summer Place site

The East Tennessee Historical Center's Brown Bag Lecture at noon on Thursday was especially well attended, standing-room only. Well over 100 heard the presentation by several scholars who had an extraordinary opportunity last year, to dig around in the dirt of downtown Knoxville. It doesn't happen often, but whenever a federal project affects a potentially historic plot of land, they're obliged to have a good look. This site of the new TVA parking garage was probably the most thorough excavation downtown in almost 20 years.

Though the study area was less than a square block of one of downtown's less-exciting quarters--between Walnut and Locust, just south of Summer Place--what we might reasonably assume to be plain dirt turned up enough evidence to suggest frameworks for a few novels. In the awkward L-shaped site, more or less wrapping around the Liberty Building, which is currently being demolished (that buiding, which is less than 50 years old, may have had too deep a basement to make historical finds beneath it likely), they stirred up a pocket civilization. The archaeologists, including Hunter Johnson, Ted Karpynec, Keith Little, and Travis Rael, found bottles, ranging from 20th century milk bottles to 19th century syphillis remedies. They found lots of toys, from marbles to ceramic doll limbs. They found lots of animal bones, mostly the edible animals, pigs, cows, sheep, chickens, turkeys, and fish, but also forlorn remnants of a cat. UT Professor Kandace Hollenbach noted the variety of leftovers, high and low but mostly storebought, she said, and the number of fruit pits, suggesting a healthy diet that included blackberries, raspberries, grapes, peaches, and passion fruit.

They found a few inevitable Minie balls from the Civil War period, apparently of Union make. There are bits of a tobacco pipe, lots of buttons, part of a perhaps early 19th-century sundial, frozen in time at about 5:00, And they found the fragment of a metal letter-press, with German script, broken but suggesting religious text, with references to angels.

They also found evidence of something distinctly non-angelic specifically, as they termed it, a dungeon. It was one of the surprises, barely hinted at when we visited the site last summer.

There was a nice big three-story apartment building facing Locust, with bay windows, called Roberts Flats. In a picture they showed, it looked something like a larger version of the Glencoe, on State. Built around 1900 it was apparently there and occupied until the 1970s. If it were still there today, of course, it would be worth millions.

It was interesting that they found evidence of that building, beneath what had been parking-lot pavement, but even more interesting that they found evidence of buildings torn down even before it was constructed. One was what they called the Mission Home, operated around 1890 by some people associated with the German Lutheran church, around 1890, during an early reform era when Homes for Friendless Women were popping up elsewhere in town. It may have been a welcome refuge for some. But it also served as a detention post, in lieu of jail, with the main holding cell in the basement. That's what they're calling the Dungeon. The chief evidence they found for it was that it had been filled in.

The same house, torn down maybe 120 years ago, had served as an orphanage of sorts, and at times held as many as 35 inmates, women and children both. Its population, they say, is the likeliest source for all the poignant broken toys they found in the privy.

Nearby, but facing Walnut, was the home of one of Knoxville's most prominent citizens, German baker Peter Kern (1835-1907), who built the still-prominent Kern Building on Market Square in 1876, and became mayor of Knoxville in 1890. His nice big house was torn down in the 1930s, and was within a short time a parking lot. In his backyard, he had a remarkable two-story stables, capable of holding 20 horses. Kern used horses with bread deliveries, of course, but was also involved, for a time, in horse-drawn public transit.

Kern built his house there around the 1870s. There's not much clear written record about that neighborhood before then, except that it was, during the Union occupation, the location of a paymaster's office. Whether people lived there, on what was considered the northwestern outskirts of Knoxville, before the Civil War, is unknown. But scholar Keith Little emphasized the impressive distribution of fine dinnerware shards, some of it perhaps from the late 1700s. Combined with glass fragments of thicknesses corresponding to the era, he suspects were people living on the site by 1820 or so.

They went into some discussion of the block's first commercial presence, a boarding house that evolved into a hotel, facing Asylum Street (now Summer Place) called the Windsor, and owned at one time by the prominent Albers family. (Another German connection. Germanness was a recurring theme in the presentation.)

They did not mention that in his 1926 recording, "Knoxville Blues," Middle Tennessee banjoist Uncle Dave Macon ad-libs a mysterious reference to "the Windsor Hotel, in Knoxville, Tennessee." I don't think it was still in operation then, but maybe he had fond memories of it.

Angels, dead cats, doll arms, sundials, bullets, chamberpots, and soft-drink bottles, all in all it was a pretty complex autopsy of several eras, long forgotten underfoot.  

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