A eulogy for the Smoky Mountain Market

Beth KinnaneOur Town Stories, South Knox

Some of the most popular social media memes flying around involve “dating” yourself with events, products, culture and technology that a younger generation wouldn’t remember or understand. One of my personal favorites with some local appeal was posted by a friend a few years ago: I’m “four chili dogs for a dollar at the Smoky Mountain Market” old.

There was a time when Smoky Mountain Markets were dotted all across Knox and neighboring counties. Many a UT student used to stumble out of The Library, Last Lap, Old College Inn or the original Ruby Tuesday for late-night munchies at the SMM at 20th Street and Cumberland Avenue.

The Smoky Mountain Market as it sits today in derelict condition.

Whether it was the chili dog special, a full house, a chuckwagon or a rooster with cheese (dragging it through the garden was optional), the cheap and hearty eats were a mainstay of campus life for years. But that was decades ago when The Strip still had something that resembled culture and personality.

The very first Smoky Mountain Market was opened in 1936 at 2003 Chapman Highway. It was part open-air market, selling fresh produce and Kern’s bakery products. Selling hot dogs, apparently, was an afterthought. The store was founded by Howard J. Johnson of Knoxville (no relation to the restaurant and motor court). A veteran of World War I, he was a member of Holston Hills Country Club and Magnolia Avenue United Methodist Church. He died in 1987, a few months shy of his 88th birthday.

Johnson had long sold out of the SMM by 1987. He sold his store, known as The Old Number One, in 1974 to local businessman Virgle Rushing, who subsequently expanded operations into 31 stores across the region. Rushing (whose name was also spelled Virgil) was a native of Michie, Tennessee, in McNairy County and a Korean War veteran. Before spreading the love of chili dogs across the county, he worked for Sinclair Oil. He lived in the Riverdale community of East Knox County, where a road is named for him, and was a member of Riverdale Baptist Church. He died in 2002 at the age of 67 and is buried in Strawberry Plains Cemetery. In the two decades since his passing, Smoky Mountain Markets have mostly dropped off the map.

The iconic signage.

The decaying remnants of The Old Number One still sit on the west side of Chapman Highway, immediately south of the Henley Bridge. Covered in graffiti, the landmark is facing execution. Back in December, the property was on the public officer’s agenda for the Better Building Board. Following a November inspection, the problem areas for code violations were listed as exterior, foundation, roofing, structural, electrical. The verdict gave the owners, listed as Wayland-Goodman Properties LP et al, 120 days to repair or demolish. The clock’s about half way run out on that order.

If the home of the best chili dogs in East Tennessee is destroyed, I hope someone at least bothers to save the sign. Other than a handful of pictures, the market is immortalized in Cormac McCarthy’s novel “Suttree” by the dimwitted Gene Harrogate, needing a place to be dropped off after a stint in jail: “What about the Smoky Mountain Market?”

Indeed, country mouse, what about it?

You can listen to a classic SMM radio ad here:

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com

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