To some people, Bearden today might conjure up images of a place conveniently close to downtown and the University of Tennessee campus. Others might think of the popular residential areas and trendy restaurants and retail stores.
But a look at its history before it got mostly built out shows a place perhaps even more expansive figuratively in terms of the diversity of its social, cultural and occupational offerings.
Many of these unique aspects have been captured in a newly published Knoxville History Project book, “Historic Bearden: The 200-Year Story of Knoxville’s Fourth Creek Valley,” written by Jack Neely, with editing and image sourcing by Paul James.
Neely, the well-known Knoxville historical writer, called the book a fascinating challenge for several reasons, including Bearden’s eclectic past.
“It’s a community where a lot of people know each other, but over the years it was made up of several seemingly unrelated phenomena,” he said.
Among these, he pointed out, are that it has been the home of Knoxville’s first public airport off Sutherland Avenue, East Tennessee’s first mental institution where Lakeshore Park is, the region’s biggest rose-producing facility (Baum’s Home of Flowers), Knoxville’s best-known hat factory (Bowman), and Cherokee Country Club, Knoxville’s first permanent 18-hole golf course.
And during the Dixie Highway era before Interstate 40, it had probably Knoxville’s highest concentration of motels and motor courts, he added.
“All the while, it’s also a place where people lived, when the idea of living in neighborhoods accessible by car, with yards and trees and driveways, was new,” he continued. “And it held not just one but two or three different African American communities, each with its own personality. They mostly coexisted separately, but sometimes connected with each other in surprising and even dynamic ways.”
In this multi-part series on the book, the Shopper News will look at some of the unique aspects of this community’s history. While the book is laid out in a way that offers a reader an easy opportunity to read snippets at a time or examine photographs of a specific topic of interest, it follows a chronological pattern.
That begins with the community’s early settlement by those of European descent in the late 1700s.
After several name changes, Bearden took on its current name in honor of the Middlebrook Pike farm owner Marcus DeLafayette Bearden, a Union Civil War veteran who served as mayor and Knox County sheriff. He was also a state legislator when the mental hospital off Lyons View Pike was approved in the late 1800s.
The book also focuses on such topics as affluent residents moving into Sequoyah Hills, suburbanization, World War II industrialization, the drive-in era and “Bearden Reimagined,” which pinpoints developments of recent decades. The book also highlights the community’s churches and schools.
The drive-in culture that became popular in the mid-20th century was done simply for fun and convenience. Now it has been reinvented somewhat for safety during the pandemic, and that caught Neely’s eyes.
“The whole drive-in culture, drive-in restaurants, banks, movies, even some stores, was most prominent in postwar Bearden,” Neely said. “It’s interesting now, during the COVID summer, that we’re trying to rediscover that, for different reasons. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, people were charmed by drive-in stuff because it was convenient, novel and fun. Now we’re trying to find that again to stay healthy and maybe save lives.”
Neely writes of the Knoxville Drive In that opened in 1948, two years after the suburban Pike Theatre showed its first film, and such early drive-in restaurants as Dixieland Drive-In and Bill’s Drive-In before the proliferation of chain restaurants.
Even a longtime resident of Bearden is likely to learn plenty of new detail in the book. So did Neely, who had not only previously researched various aspects of its history, but also visited regularly his four grandparents there and set foot in the community often. The latter included having a paper route in the Lyons View area, working at the Bearden Shoney’s, and visiting Parker Brothers hardware often with his father.
“It’s a place I thought I knew,” he said. “But a couple of years of research surprised me at several turns, and it brought up things I’d never even heard people talk about.
“The Bearden train station, the aerial stunt shows, the slot-machine joints and all-night roadside jazz clubs. And (actress) Tallulah Bankhead showing up late one night at the Highland Grill and having a strong word with some drunk Vol fans! I’d never heard anything about that.
“I’d say two-thirds of the book is information I knew nothing about when I started researching it.”
(The $24.95 book is available through knoxvillehistoryproject.org, or at the East Tennessee History Center, Union Ave Books, Bennett Gallery, Mayo’s, and Bobby Todd Antiques).