History Project’s Neely regales East Knox crowd with tales of their past

Nick Della VolpeInside 640, Our Town Stories

Town Hall East hosted local history buff Jack Neely as its featured speaker at the group’s Monday night meeting. Neely has been collecting interesting tidbits of Knoxville’s past and reporting these stories in local newspapers and publishing them in books for years.


Most folks remember his “hidden history” features in the now-defunct Metro Pulse weekly. Neely’s current focus is as co-head of the Knoxville History Project (along with former Ijams Nature Center executive director Paul James), which is housed downtown on Vine Street.

Jack Neely talks to Town Hall East members at Eastminster Presbyterian Church Monday night. (Photo by Nick Della Volpe)

A crowd of nearly 100 turned out at the Eastminster Presbyterian Church fellowship hall to hear Neely talk about East Knoxville’s history. He seamlessly spun yarns dating back to the mid-1880s, starting with early settlers like Ferdinand Beaman, whose Lake Outtasee and Beaman Lake helped foster the fun aspect of East Knoxville, through the later baseball games and July 4th and Labor Day festivals at Chilhowee Park.

Neely spoke of the national attention that came to Knoxville during the 1910 and 1913 Appalachian Exhibitions at Chilhowee Park, as well as the first Knoxville electric trolley line from downtown to the park. He traced Cal Johnson’s history from slavery to his post-Civil War grave-relocation work and then on to horse racing, operating saloons, real estate ventures and his starting one of the first movie theatres –  this one on Central Avenue (the old Joy Theatre, newly reopened as classics, horror and early-film venue Central Cinema), and Johnson’s other ventures.

Many attendees were surprised to learn of the many other East Knoxville firsts like football games (back then even the University of Tennessee made use of that East Knoxville field), and the many famous jazz performances, R&B and rock ’n’ roll music events at Chilhowee Park, the annual music festival started in 1889 that included opera, and the first plane landings along Speedway Circle.

Raconteur Neely finished his talk with the commercial history surrounding the Burlington business district and engaged folks in a discussion of the ongoing Knoxville History Project, of which he is executive director. His colleague, James, KHP’s development director, set up a display in the back of the room and sold an assortment of History Project books to interested attendees.

There is a lot to be proud of out East – a history to celebrate and build upon. The current Magnolia Corridor streetscape project by the city, the restoration of the Burlington business facades, and the recent dedication and opening of The Change Center are hopefully just the tip of the new East Knoxville redevelopment.

Town Hall East’s next community meeting will be held on the second Monday in March. That March 11 meeting will feature a briefing from local school officials on progress and activities in area schools.

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