The fireworks have already been popping for days as we finally arrive on Independence Day. No doubt they will be going on for several more. Though illegal in Knox County, if you’re going to do it, be careful and don’t end up like poor William Martin did back in 1851.
Martin, at the age of 23, was the first person interred in what was then Gray Cemetery (it didn’t become Old until they opened New). The graveyard hadn’t even been dedicated yet when Martin was buried somewhere in the northwest corner, having succumbed to injuries he received during Knoxville’s Fourth of July celebrations. The young ironworker was wounded by an exploding cannon. That must have been one heck of a fireworks display on Asylum Hill (Summit Hill Drive in the area of the Lincoln Memorial Law School).
Not much else is known about young Martin or the rest of the celebration from that year. Knoxville didn’t have any regularly scheduled programming until what eventually became known as Festival on the Fourth began in 1984. The city needed to find something to do with that nifty amphitheater and space over in World’s Fair Park.
But that does not mean the day wasn’t celebrated, with exuberance, across the county. Far from it. Looking back 70 years to 1953, the US was a few weeks away from ending its participation in the Korean War, which essentially closed in a stalemate. Dwight D. Eisenhower had been president for a just seven months, and George Dempster, previously a city manager, was mayor of Knoxville.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported on families picnicking at Concord Park, sailing on Fort Loudoun Lake, kids riding ponies at Chilhowee Park and Field Day Events in Fountain City. The Fourth was on a Saturday that year, and many area churches left their doors open.
There was one report of all the shows East Tennesseans were missing out on since television hadn’t arrived yet. WATE debuted as Knoxville’s first TV station a few months later that same year.
The first Titanic movie from 20th Century Fox was showing at the Park Theatre as well as the Knoxville and Family drive-ins. World War II hero Audie Murphy was starring in Column South at The Riviera. Knoxville native Patricia Neal didn’t have a movie out in 1953, but she was still making the news. She had just married author Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, James and the Giant Peach) on July 2 and was off on her honeymoon. A decade later she would win an Oscar for Hud.
In the world of “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” the KNS reported the concerns we still carry with us on holidays, especially the Fourth: traffic accidents, impaired driving, fireworks injuries and drownings. Much loved Fountain City columnist Lucy Templeton (see Dr. Jim Tumblin’s story here) wrote about how the summer of ’53 had been terrible for squash. She also voiced concern over seeing fewer bees and pondered the wisdom of insecticide use by some of her neighbors. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring wouldn’t come out for another nine years.
America was still in the grip of McCarthyism in 1953, and several articles from that time reflect the Cold War obsession with all things Soviet and rooting out “reds.” But KNS editor Loye Miller opined that it was time to “free the classrooms” from the reluctance to tackle tough and controversial subject matter for fear of getting a visit from the goon squad:
Freedom of thought and expression is a basic American right. But if creative thinking and honest inquiry are stifled in our schools, that right becomes but an empty phrase.
In another editorial from July 3, he wrote this:
Let us have fun on this Fourth of July. And let the Revolution continue – against bigotry and the thinking of small thoughts and the oppression of man’s soaring spirit, against all those things which could rob the Fourth of July of its exalted meaning to free (people) everywhere.
Indeed. Enjoy your Independence Day.
Source: The Knoxville News Sentinel digital archives, July 3-5, 1953