By Renée S. Gordon
The state of Tennessee has much to offer a visitor, sites, attractions, outdoor activities, history, spas, luxe accommodations, numerous dining opportunities and breathtaking scenery. In fact, the options are so numerous as to be overwhelming. In order to ensure that the state is as visitor friendly as possible Tennessee has developed a series of thematic trails that are clearly marked with informational signage, meander through the state and make it incredibly easy to have the adventure of a lifetime. Individual pamphlets with historic information, maps and general information are available at locations along the route and online. www.tnvacation.com
Knoxville is an ideal base for a Tennessee odyssey because of its prominent place in regional history, its location and its inclusion on most of the trails. Native Americans inhabited the site as early as 1000 BC and by the 1700s the Cherokee were in control of the area. It is believed that DeSoto entered the area known as Kuwanda’talun’yi, Mulberry Place, in 1540 but the first fully documented Europeans, the Timberlake Expedition, arrived in 1761.
Whites began to settle west of the mountains after the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution, when the region was still part of North Carolina, many bringing their slaves with them. James White, a former Revolutionary War officer, was awarded a 1,000-acre land grant in 1783 and built White’s Fort in 1786. Four years later his son-in-law Charles McClung laid out 64 town lots, land for a Presbyterian Church and town common. The settlement was named to honor Washington’s Secretary of War Henry Knox and the Town was established in 1792.
Our first trails are some of Knoxville’s most unique; the 11 designated dogwood trails and garden byways that showcase 60-miles of landscaping. Visitors can walk, bike, drive or hop aboard a guided bus to tour as part of the annual Dogwood Arts Festival.
The blossoming dogwood tree was first cultivated in America in 1731 but its existence in North America is much older and the word first entered the language in the 1500s. Native Americans used the bark for medicinal purposes and as a dye. It also figures in one of the Cherokee’s most famous legends. A warrior, spurned by a princess, mortally wounded her. In a vain attempt to staunch the blood she placed dogwood blossoms on the wound. The flowering white dogwood species with red tipped petals is still commonly known as the Cherokee Princess.
The Dogwood Arts Festival began 51 years ago when a NY Times reporter referred to Knoxville as a “scruffy little town.” Insulted, the town’s ladies began lighting their trees to add some panache. Today the festival is one of the region’s most prominent events. There are more than 20 events during the month long celebration including workshops, juried craft shows, a Diva Luncheon, the Dogwood Parade and, in its 3rd year, a Chalk Walk. In Italy in the 16th-century artists known as “Madonnari” began drawing religious scenes on the sidewalk and living on the profits made from coins tossed atop their artwork by the crowd. The art form has virtually disappeared but visitors can see some of the best in their field during the festivities. www.Dogwoodarts.com
White’s Fort should be your initial stop if you are taking a historic trail through Knoxville because the city began in this area. White’s settlement was initially only his two story log cabin but grew to be a fortification. Since 1970, travelers can take a self-guided tour of the seven cabins, museum, loom room and smithy. Buildings are outfitted and programs on frontier life are regularly scheduled. www.discoveret.org/jwf or www.jameswhitesfort.org
The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (WBHOF), one of the city’s most modern structures, is located one block from the fort, one of its oldest. This outstanding international museum is the sole museum in the world dedicated to the preservation and presentation of the history of women’s basketball internationally both amateur and professional.
The 32,000-sq.ft facility overlooks the Tennessee River and is fronted by the world’s largest basketball, a 10-ton fiberglass ball that is 30-ft. wide and has 96,000 pebbles. Tours last a minimum of 90-minutes and begin with a 17-minute orientation film, “Hoopful of Hope.” There are 24 exhibit and interactive areas. Highlights of the visit include an animatronic figure of Senda Berenson the “mother of women’s basketball,” the All American Redheads limo complete with a home air conditioner on top, a seat among the players for a locker room talk and the 115 Hall of Fame Inductees gallery. www.wbhof.com
In 1858 the Greek Revival, two-story, wood frame Mabry-Hazen House was erected for Joseph Mabry and remained in the family until 1987. At the onset of the Civil War Mabry donated $100,000 of his own funds to raise a Confederate regiment and his house became headquarters for General Felix Zollicoffer. In 1863 Mabry signed an oath of allegiance to the Union and the house became a Union headquarters. On Xmas Eve in 1881 his business partner killed him and his daughter Alice Mabry Hazen inherited the house.
Today the house sits on seven-acres and guided tours are offered. The more than 5,000 items in the home are 100 percent original and architecturally of special note are the fireplaces in every room and the 18-ft. windows.
The nearby four-acre Bethel Cemetery is the final resting place of more than 1,600 confederate soldiers. Caledonia “Cal” Johnson, the city’s first millionaire, was an African American slave born in 1844. He gained his freedom and opened a business. At the close of the Civil War he obtained a government contract to disinter soldiers in temporary graves and rebury them in cemeteries including Bethel. He went on to own the city’s sole racetrack. www.mabryhazen.com
Crescent Bend, the 1834 Armstrong-Lockett House and Memorial Garden, was built for Drury Paine Armstrong. This house once part of a 600-acre working farm with hundreds of slaves was also a station on the Underground Railroad. Still visible is the tiny hidden room beneath the staircase in the entry hall. The mansion features a premier silver collection and one of only three Philadelphia tall case clocks, one of which is in the White House. The woodwork and glass are original and the bricks were handmade on site by slaves. The three-acre formal Italianate garden with terraces and fountains provides stunning views.
The Museum of East Tennessee (MET) helps visitors understand the history of the 35 counties that make up the region and provides an overview of the area’s geography and history from 1542-1982. The MET was founded in 1993 and houses more than 10,000 artifacts. You begin with “Voices of the Land” and the Cherokee presence and continue pass exhibits such as Davy Crockett’s famous rifle “Betsy,” a Virginia road wagon, country music gallery and Civil Rights display. www.easttnhistory.org
African American regional history is preserved in the Beck Cultural Center. The center hosts a series of traveling exhibits as well as a significant permanent collection. Highlights of the collection are slavery artifacts, documents, historic photographs, antique dolls and important artworks by African American artists. www.beckcenter.net
A wonderful way to spend the day is at the 53-acre Knoxville Zoological Gardens where you can visit over 800 animals and 230 species all living in specially designed habitats. I suggest you head straight for the black bears by walking through a log to view them in a recreation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It should be noted that this is the largest protected bear habitat in the east. Next visit Buttercup and then Talullah, an awesome reticulated python and an albino crocodile.
What truly elevates this zoo out of the realm of the ordinary is its animal encounters. Visitors can get up close with a 10-lb. penguin or a 6,000-lb. white rhino and they’ll pose for pictures with you! www.knoxville-zoo.org
Knoxville’s self-guided “Cradle of Country Music Tour” is an absolute must. It begins with a bang at the only Visitor Center with a live radio music broadcast, WDVX Blue Plate Special, daily. Guests can purchase lunch in the on-site Café Gourmet and take a free seat for the broadcast. www.wdvx.com
There are 19 locations on the tour including the hotel in which Hank Williams died and sites connected with Dolly Parton, Elvis and early gospel singers. A memorial to unknown early musicians is located on the trail as well as the place where the first African American string band played. The tour emphasizes how hillbilly, mountain and black music blended to form something uniquely American.
Two scenic trails I must mention are “The Long & Winding Road,” designed for motorcyclists and “The White Lightning Trail.” The White Lightning Trail incorporates 163 sites and all aspects of TN history, music, civil rights, crafts and pioneer living, along the 200- mile passage used to transport moonshine. www.whitelightningtrail.com
There are a number of unique eateries along the trails that are so special they should not be missed. Litton’s is famous for its burgers with handmade buns and assorted baked goods. www.littonsburgers.com. Magpies Bakery specializes in cakes and cupcakes made using the best fresh ingredients. www.magpiescakes.com. Time Warp Tea Room is an adventure in itself. Here you can dine in a booth with a mini jukebox amid motorcycle memorabilia and play games on antique pinball machines. www.timewarpvmc.org.
Unforgettable trails begin and end in Knoxville and you can walk, mount up, climb in or hop aboard one of the city’s free trolleys (www.katbus.com) to explore America’s stories. I promise it will be memorable. www.knoxville.org
I wish you smooth and insightful travels!