Here’s a headline you don’t read every day: “Pretty Flowers Displace Hog Jowls and Liver on the Square.” The referenced “square,” of course is our own Market Square downtown, and the story in question was noting the change in wares on April 15, 1933, the Saturday before Easter.
The old Market House must have had a sweeter perfume that day, with the Knoxville News Sentinel gushing over the hyacinths, lilies, pansies, irises and violets. There were piles of eggs, colored and plain, as well as rabbits and puppies. It was duly noted on the latter two that they were indeed “live.” Thank goodness.
The world was hanging in a delicate balance on that Easter weekend 90 years ago. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just been inaugurated to his first term as president the previous month, still in the early years of the Great Depression. John Steinbeck was still six years away from publishing The Grapes of Wrath. It came out in 1939, the same year that saw the beginning of the second war to end all wars. Adolph Hitler had ascended to absolute power in Germany in January 1933.
John T. O’Connor was the mayor of Knoxville. We appreciated him so much we named our senior citizens’ center for him. Harry Hill McAllister was the governor of Tennessee. Bank failures had wiped $6 million out of state coffers, and he quickly went about slashing where he could in the budget to try and right the ship. He was an ardent support of the Tennessee Valley Authority and other government programs that arose during FDR’s presidency. In April 1933, the mockingbird became our state bird and the purple iris became our state flower.
And speaking of TVA, the newly formed organization was immediately up against it in Washington, D.C. The president of the United States Chamber of Commerce, Henry Harriman, had sent a sternly worded letter to his members and to Congress that government plans for the Tennessee Valley were diametrically opposed to everything the chamber stood for. Attorney General Homer Cummings retorted, in short, that the government was not, in fact, Wall Street.
Though the repeal didn’t happen until Dec. 5 of that year, the reversal of prohibition was underway in 1933. FDR had campaigned on it. And it was creating quite the blusterfuss in Knox County. Tennessee is, to this day, technically a dry state: it is up to each municipality to determine the what, when and where of alcohol sales if there will be any at all.
But beer was front page news that Easter weekend. A state law had already been passed making beer sales legal effective May 1, ahead of any federal repeal of prohibition. A total of 14 county squires (what we now call commissioners) demanded a special session for regulating sales and traffic across the county.
Meanwhile city council was kicking around what the new beer tax would be. It seems the general consensus would lean toward “reasonable” regulation. It was pointed out that the fee over a decade prior was $250, and it would be logical to reinstate the same amount. That $250 in 1933 is equal to nearly $5,800 today.
The ministers of several local Baptist and Methodist churches were aligned in opposing beer sales entirely. They were actively encouraging boycotts of all grocers and restaurants selling it.
While there was no official Easter parade, the KNS did have a photographer running about downtown to catch folks heading into church in their holiday finery. Let’s hope the weather holds out this weekend for those celebrating.
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel digital archives, Knox County Library, April 15-17, 1933.