Tucked away in northeast Knox County is a historical treasure hiding in plain sight. On Strawberry Plains Pike, not far from I-40, Aubrey’s, and other outposts of modern civilization, sits the frontier home of Alexander McMillan, one of the earliest European settlers to this area.
McMillan was a native of County Derry, Ireland, who made his way to the American colonies in the auspicious year of 1775. He quickly joined up with the rebels against the British crown, as the Irish are wont to do, in Boston. An early winter excursion to Quebec cost him the tips of his fingers on one hand to frostbite. Eventually, the Revolution brought him to the Battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina, which is where he saw his last service in the birth of the United States.
He rejoined his family in Virginia once the colonies had won their independence, but by 1783 McMillan made his way here, to what was then still part of North Carolina along with other Knox County founders: Robert Love, James White and Francis Ramsey. He was eligible for the North Carolina Land Grab Act due to his service in the Revolution. Though well past military service age, he joined then Gen. Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812 in New Orleans. Afterward, he returned to his home on what was then called “the road to New Market” to live a quiet life.
Reportedly, McMillan and his wife, Margaret, were buried on land he once owned (5,000 acres), referred to in records as the Sherrod farm near the Old Caledonia Church, but their graves have been lost to history. Thankfully, their house remains. And, thankfully, the work of the home’s present owner, Judith Zachary, got it enshrined in the National Register of Historic Places.
Zachary was born in Springfield, Missouri. She mostly grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas. While working in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she met and eventually married Chris Zachary, a Central High School baseball standout from the class of 1962 who spent 11 years in the major leagues. After his baseball career was over, Chris, who passed away in 2003, wanted to return to Knoxville. Eventually, in 1994, they purchased the McMillan House, which is not particularly visible from the road.
“I have a passion for antiques and early American history,” Zachary said. “When I first saw the house, I knew it had to be from the 18th century.”
It took her seven years and the enlistment of committed friends to pore through records the old-fashioned way, in dusty courthouse attics or blinding hours going through micro-fiche records in libraries to find the documents that proved the age and original ownership of the land. In addition to the listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the property was among the first Knox Heritage homes.
“It was really amazing,” she said. “I went to the Greene County courthouse (Knox County was Greene County then) and was told to go up a ladder into this room where all the old, original records were. I held them in my hands. I made copies of all of it.”
Officially, the house was built in 1787, but it’s possible it was built in 1785.
“Of course, there is no way to know for sure,” Zachary said. “And regardless of which one is actually the oldest, this is certainly ONE of the oldest frame houses still standing in East Tennessee.”
Enjoy this selection of photos of McMillan House, graciously shared by its owner:
Beth Kinnane is community editor for KnoxTNToday.com