How Karns High School came to be where it is

Beth KinnaneKarns/Hardin Valley, Our Town Stories

It’s an interesting angle for selling commercial real estate at auction, advertising the arrival of a new high school still a couple of years from completion.

But that was one of the selling points in an Oliver Smith Real Estate and Auction Co. ad from The Knoxville Sentinel that ran in September 1979. The “Energy Capital of the World” land offering touted the new Karns High School construction nearby to the tune of $8 million.

The first Karns High School, built in 1913.

The history of Karns High School is one quite literally forged in flames. The first Karns High School was built in 1913. It burned and a new school was built in 1938 (see our earlier story here).

That school lasted for 40 years, with some considerable additions and amendments along the way, until March 10, 1978, when a 16-year-old Karns student decided to set the place alight. Apparently dissatisfied with not doing enough crippling damage on his first attempt, he started a more devastating fire five days later. He was arrested and confessed to his crimes on March 23.

Incidentally, a month later Hardin Valley Elementary pretty much burned to the ground. Both losses threw a major monkey wrench into Knox County Schools’ already budgeted building plan. But within a few days of the Hardin Valley loss, the County Court (predecessor to Knox County Commission) voted 16-2 to authorize KCS to build the new Karns High School on a 41-acre site in the Byington-Solway Industrial Park or any other acceptable site. By and large, according to KNS reporting at the time, the community backed the use of the industrial park acreage:

They said the park site would be within 3½ miles of 90 percent of the school’s students and would be adjacent to the Byington-Solway Vocational School, which would add to the advantages of such a location. – KNS, April 17, 1978

The Byington-Solway Vocational School is now called the Byington-Solway Career and Technical Education Center. So how did it end up on acreage originally purchased by the county for an industrial park, that at the time, was hell and gone from anything that resembled the kind of infrastructure that supports industry and was basically in the middle of a bunch of farmland?

Damage after the second fire at Karns High School in March 1978. (Photo/the Karns Chronicle)

The land where the technology center and the high school now sit was once part of a 200-acre farm owned by Walter Lynch. Lynch was a native of the Sharps Chapel community in Union County and a former county squire (what we now call commissioners) there before having to sell his land to the Tennessee Valley Authority for the building of Norris Dam and the creation of Norris Lake. So, he moved his family out to Karns and started over on a new farm. In the 1940s, he also served as a squire for Knox County Court.

According to Lynch’s grandson, Mike Gordon (himself a Karns High graduate of 1965), by the mid-1960s Lynch was looking to sell the land because, basically, it was going to be easier to divide money amongst his 11 children versus trying to equitably divvy up 200 acres.

“That’s to the best of my recollection,” Gordon said. “Other family members may remember it differently.”

Though it took a couple of passes through the county court and met resistance along the way, by the end of 1968, the purchase of the land for $240,000 by Knox County to create an industrial park was approved. The L&N Railroad also committed to purchasing some adjacent land to sweeten the location for prospective companies. It took a few years for companies to arrive, but by 1974 Vinylex Corp. and Fletcher-Bressner Inc. were moving in. And, of course, the entire landscape of Karns/Hardin Valley has changed dramatically since then.

The Byington-Solway Vocational School opened for the 1976-77 school year, and its construction was funded by the state of Tennessee. It was welcoming students in as long-time KCS Superintendent Mildred Doyle was leaving office and Earl Hoffmeister was moving in. Little did Hoffmeister know that within two years, he’d be leading the charge to build another school in the industrial park. The new Karns High School was built on the blueprints of William Blount High School, with a few adjustments, because Hoffmeister wanted to save money on architectural fees.

The “new” Karns High School opened for the 1981-82 school year, three years after the fire.

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.


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