SHANE RHYNE STILL REMEMBERS A certain Wall Street Journal story about his town in 1980.
Promoters in Knoxville were drumming up exhibitors for the World’s Fair to be held two years later. More than $45 million was earmarked for a 70-acre site near the University of Tennessee – Knoxville.
But WSJ reporter Susan Harrigan was skeptical. “Not one major corporation has signed up for an exhibit here,” she wrote, “and a mere handful of foreign countries have agreed to participate.”
Then came the fightin’ words, according to Rhyne, the public relations director for the East Tennessee
Historical Society. Harrigan wrote, “Nevertheless, with visions of international exotica in their heads, leaders of this scruffy little city of 180,000 on the Tennessee River are . . . comparing Knoxville to such previous world’s fair hosts as Paris and New York.”
Fact is, the projected 11 million visitors did come, and even generated a profit, unlike any North American counterpart before or since—a manmade miracle, in a way, but also a tribute to hardheaded perseverance packaged with a swig of mountaineer graciousness.
Knoxville history—and that of all east Tennessee—is a story of self-reliant, independent- minded settlers who literally climbed mountains to get there. Some say the resulting isolation instilled permanent differences from that “other” part of Tennessee.
Native Americans like Sequoyah, the Cherokee leader who created a written language from scratch and taught 96 percent of his people to read in three years.
In 1784, John Sevier led a group that set up the independent state of Franklin, later absorbed into Tennessee. During the Civil War the mountain men sided with the Union by a two-to-one margin.
Historian Bruce Catton labeled Knoxville “the most dissident of all Confederate cities.” Wary of following the crowd even now, east Tennesseeans tend to vote Republican while the “westerners”
seem wedded to the Democrats.
The state constitution was written and signed in 1796 at the Blount Mansion, now a visitor attraction on a hillside not far from the University of Tennessee. Thomas Jefferson called Tennessee’s constitution “the least imperfect and most republican” of all its peer documents.
Thus, in 1980, “it became a badge of honor to be picked on by the Wall Street Journal,” says Rhyne.
The city’s central location (a third of the U.S. population lives within 500 miles), and three converging interstates helped draw visitors to the World’s Fair, says Rhyne. “We were able to play off on geography. People could be on their way to Disney World and say, ‘Why not stop at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, too?’”
Today, in a kind of salute to a snub, a reporter’s offhand epithet has turned into an affectionate nickname. In fact, adds Rhyne, several businesses, such as Scruffy City Publishing, have used the name as a springboard to success.
The “S” word actually dates back to the late 1940s and a book, Inside U.S.A. Its author, John Gunther,
wasn’t content to stop at “scruffy.” Knoxville, he added, “is the ugliest city in America.”
Gunther’s punch in the belly predictably roused local pride. It became the inspiration for the
Dogwood Arts Festival, one of the city’s largest annual events. Residents began re-landscaping with the pink and white-blossomed trees, said to grow here bigger and better than anywhere else in known civilization. Today the festival fills the month of April, spotlighting seven “trails” and five “garden byways,” plus myriad other activities from quilt shows to concerts and sports events.
Visitors to Knoxville during the World’s Fair found more reasons for the local pride. They were in a hilly city not only on a great river but nestled between the spectacular Great Smoky Mountains and two other national parks, surrounded by a scenic waterworld. Seven nearby lakes with multirecreational opportunities are the legacy of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the 1930s federal corporation that built 20 dams on the Tennessee River and its branches to provide power for hundreds of communities in the South. One of the river branches, the Clinch, has become a mecca for trout fishermen around the country.