Had the 1940s travel writer John Gunther or any of the “scruffy little city” folks from New York met Barbara Aston-Wash, they would have had a hard time getting away with anything remotely dismissive about Knoxville.
Barbara, former Knoxville News Sentinel feature writer, home and furnishings editor, social writer and champion of the People and Parties flame for decades, loves her hometown. A Holston Hills girl, Barbara is one of those people who knows everybody and their Knoxville history – both proud and scandalous!
She is a beautiful writer with a style all her own, and reading her stories is like having a conversation with her. Her writings through the years have varied from the original People and Parties columns, furniture trend stories from the market at High Point, N.C., a peep behind the doors of Knoxville’s elegant homes and personality features on everyone from Knoxville’s madam Helen Davidson to the Cecils, owners of Asheville’s Biltmore Estate.
Now, Barbara has completed one of her dreams. On the bookshelves is “Bless Her Heart,” a novel based on the life of Ellen McClung Berry, daughter of Hugh Lawson McClung and Ella Gibbins McClung. Ellen Berry (1894-1992) was the great-great-granddaughter of Knoxville founder James White and the great-granddaughter of Charles McClung who platted Knoxville’s streets and helped write Tennessee’s first constitution. The book has been a dream of Barbara’s for years and a true labor of love.
Ellen Berry’s story is a fascinating one. Barbara says it is like “a gold coin.” One side is bright and shiny, filled with love, riches, world travel and royal connections. The flip side is a life marred by tragedy, sorrow and misplaced trust that took her fortune. The Ellen story is a good one, and Barbara tells it through Ellen Berry’s eyes and “remembrances,” winding in what she knows about Ellen and the McClungs and life in Knoxville during Ellen’s time and from her own research, interviews and conversations with Ellen.
“Bless Her Heart,” however, is so much more than that. Whether intentionally or just from an innate love of her hometown, Barbara has highlighted some of the more remarkable events and important people in Knoxville’s past. The book shows this city as a place of importance, one that surges forward despite its challenges. Through Ellen’s eyes, the story takes the reader back to Knoxville in the 1900s and highlights some of the remarkable things that happened here.
For example, Barbara writes of the opening of the 1910 Appalachian Exposition, when President William H. Taft turned on the lights in Chilhowee Park in what would today be considered a “technology” breakthrough: “President William H. Taft will be turning on the lights in the Park. Members of the crowd looked around for the president, but he was nowhere to be seen. President Taft, who at the moment was in Beverly, Mass., pressed a telegraph button that rang a bell in Chilhowee Park, turning on the lights.”
The Wright Brothers, whose plane was on exhibition at the fair, also visited in 1910, and Barbara tells of Ellen meeting them.
“The book is a work of fiction,” says Barbara, “but I did a lot of research to get the times, places and people correct.”
It is a good read, and a book that should be on the bookshelf of any proud Knoxvillian.
Barbara will have additional book signings coming up, including one at Glenmore Mansion in Jefferson City, 2-4 p.m. Saturday, June 9. To request a copy of the book, $29.95 plus shipping, email Jack Williams, a friend who has been helping Barbara with this project: firstname.lastname@example.org.