Entrepreneur by 22, Karnes showed taste, good timing

Dr. Jim TumblinFountain City, Our Town Stories

J. Howard Karnes was born on Sept. 4, 1859. He was the first of seven children of Civil War veteran John M. and Sarah (Gammon) Karnes. “Uncle Jack,” as John was known in the community, had served as a wagoner under Col. Joseph Cooper in Co. G of the 6th Tennessee Infantry (USA) and had become perhaps the best-known farmer in North Knox County.


Howard Karnes attended school in his community and began his career. He married Ida Bell Powell (1865-1956) on Dec. 4, 1884. They became parents to three children: Edith, William Howard and Robert Houston.

The Karnes built their palatial home, now known as Magnolia Manor, on land once owned by his ancestor, the famous James McMillan (1793-1866). In 1842, James and Alice (Houston) McMillan built a log cabin and tenant house on their 600 acres near the large spring on their property. James kept a journal from March 23, 1825 to Nov. 11, 1866 in which he recorded the planting and harvesting of his crops and orchards, along with family births and deaths and many of Knox County’s historic events before, during and after the Civil War.

Perhaps the most significant entry in his journal appears in March 1844 where he writes: “Planted 30 odd apple trees east of Mr. Bell west of my house also planted cedars along lane west of house.” 175 years later many of those trees continue to make Cedar Lane one of our most delightful residential streets.

Howard Karnes (1859-1932). Pictured here with his granddaughter, Elizabeth Miller, Karnes built a large harness and saddlery business on Market Square.

Karnes began his business career as a traveling salesman for Oates, White and Co., local harness and saddle manufacturers. He formed a partnership with W.C. Webb (1847-1912) in 1881, and Karnes and Webb soon employed 12 skilled workmen in the manufacture and wholesaling of saddles, bridles, harness and horse collars.

By 1885, Karnes had acquired sole ownership and expanded his business to occupy Nos. 31-33 Market Square and employed 25 workers. “The Manufacturers of Knoxville, Tennessee” (1901) said of the business: “His trade covers East Tennessee and contiguous states. By close attention to business he has built a trade that a man of his age should be proud of. Yet he is not a slave to his business. He is public spirited, genial and popular with everybody. He is also very much interested in livestock and farming. He resides on one of his farms north of the city, near Fountain City, and owns a splendid 850-acre river bottom farm on the Clinch River, in the Ninth district, formerly known as the Gallaher farm.”

J. Howard Karnes established a reputation for quality goods and services. During his last years, he expressed his pleasure that saddles and harnesses he had sold some 30 years before were still in use by many farmers who had traded with him early in his career.

After 33 years in business, Howard sold in 1918 and retired to private life. His timing was appropriate as, by then, the “horseless carriage” was fast becoming the popular mode of transportation and the nation was embroiled in World War I. In retirement, the Karnes made many vacation trips to Florida, usually in a new car, as he traded cars almost every year.

He continued to make occasional nostalgic visits to Market Square and made his final trip only one week before his death on June 8, 1932, at 73 years of age. His services were conducted by Rev. J.E. Wolfe in Fountain City United Methodist Church with burial in Greenwood Cemetery.

His nephews were the active pallbearers: James and Wallace Gillespie, John and Howard Karnes, Howard McCampbell and Powell May. The honorary pallbearers were a veritable “Who’s Who” of prominent Knox Countians: Judge John W. Green, S.V. Carter, Michael Shetterly, Frank H. McClung, Pryor Brown, Dr. A.F. Kern, Dr. J.B. Parker, Jacob Metler, John H. Boyd, Fritz Staub and J.H. Henderson.

Surviving her husband by some 24 years, Ida Powell Karnes continued to live in the home place until her death on Nov. 18, 1956, at age 91. A member of Fountain City United Methodist Church for 60 years, she was survived by her daughter, Edith Karnes (Mrs. Hugh B.) Miller, and son R. Houston Karnes; granddaughters Elizabeth Miller and Alice (Karnes) McSween Adams; and great-grandchildren Elizabeth Ann (McSween) Lockhart and John Houston McSween.

Author’s note: Thanks to Elizabeth M. Lockhart and John H. McSween for permission to use the photographs and information from the Karnes Family Bible. Also to J. Steven Cotham, Bill Irwin and Jean Dobbins Payne.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *