This time of year, people tend to think about things shiny and new, like colorful wrapping paper and the latest electronics. All eyes turn toward the bright, festive lights of downtown Knoxville or Chilhowee Park and The Cove, or even the houses around them.
But many of our ancestors also enjoyed decorating their homes during the holidays, often with nature’s artwork or simple homemade crafts. Little touches made the cold, dreary days easier to take.
In South Knoxville, members of the Chapman Highway Garden Club braved brisk temperatures on Nov. 30 to bring Christmas cheer to Marble Springs State Historic Site, the final home of Tennessee’s first governor, John Sevier.
The garden club decorated the inside and outside of the site’s historic tavern as well as the exterior of the Sevier home using mostly natural materials. Club members Linda Braun, Fran Brown, Jan Brown and Carol Linger adorned the structures with cedar, pine, spruce and running cedar as well as some grapevine wreaths. Modern red ribbon provided a bit of color.
Sevier himself was a colorful character. The Virginia native was the first governor (1796-1801, 1803-1809) of the state of Tennessee and served as governor of the short-lived state of Franklin, but before that he was a widely known frontiersman, soldier, politician and ambitious landowner. He led numerous attacks against Native Americans but was also respected by them. He famously feuded with Andrew Jackson and nearly dueled with him.
Last weekend, Marble Springs, 1220 W. Gov. John Sevier Highway, hosted candlelight tours to give modern visitors a sense of the past. Unguided tours of the grounds are free, but there is a fee for guided tours, which include access to the buildings.
The Mabry-Hazen House, just east of downtown at 1711 Dandridge Ave., celebrated the holidays last weekend with an open house. Built in 1858, it served as home to three generations of one family until the final owner died in 1987.
Docents decorated the premises for the holiday festivities, making the home looked loved and lived in. The museum has more than 2,500 family artifacts that help present over 160 years of Knoxville history.
You’ll want to visit Mabry-Hazen to soak in the history, but you might want to do some homework ahead of time. Evelyn Montgomery Hazen, the last owner, was a forward-thinking woman of her time whose actions created a scandal and had a tragic effect on her adulthood. She entered into an engagement that lasted 15 years and marked its end by suing her ex-fiancé for breach of promise. Despite the cloud that hung over her, she was an important figure in Knoxville’s historic preservation.
Back across the river, Ijams Nature Center, 2915 Island Home Ave., always has plenty of festive greenery. It also has numerous trails to help you walk off holiday indulgences. You can do that on your own, but Ijams will celebrate the beginning of winter on the shortest day of the year, Tuesday, Dec. 21, with a family-friendly walk from 6:30 to 8 p.m. You can also venture out for a New Year’s Day hike from 10 a.m. to noon.
Most of us think of Ijams’ history as beginning with HP and Alice Ijams purchasing 20 acres of land along the Tennessee River as a scenic place to bring up their four daughters. But since Ijams was designated as a Nature Park in 1968 and then a Nature Center in 1975, it has expanded tremendously.
Ijams now manages 315 protected acres, including Mead’s Quarry and Ross Marble Quarry, which produced marble for structures locally and nationally. Marble was a big deal in the 1900s, but even that timeframe is a whippersnapper compared with the history that’s still underground.
The Mead’s Quarry area boasts a system of limestone caves that are around 1 million years old. Through the centuries, water dripping within the caves has left behind minerals that have formed such features as flowstone and stalactites.
Now, you probably won’t encounter the caves, especially at night, but just be aware when you’re hiking around Mead’s that you are treading on ground that’s not only beautiful but ancient.
Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor who particularly enjoys spotlighting South Knoxville.