When Harry “HP” Ijams and Alice Yoe Ijams bought 20 wooded acres along the Tennessee River in South Knoxville in 1910, they were thinking in terms of a bird sanctuary and a natural playground for their children. They had no idea that their home site would become a sanctuary for nature lovers and a playground for people of all ages by the end of the century.
And they surely never expected their property to act as a retreat for Knoxvillians chafing from the bonds of self-isolation during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. But that’s what Ijams Nature Center has become.
“Ijams is a really special place for Knoxville,” says Amber Parker, Ijams’ executive director. “I always think of it as Knoxville’s backyard.
“It is a place where people can come – maybe they don’t have a backyard or maybe they need more area to roam or really they just want to connect with nature in some way, and we provide that for them. So it’s really critical that this space is there during such a stressful time because people need the solace that they get from being in nature even more now than ever.”
HP was an illustrator and an ornithologist. Alice was an avid gardener. While he created his bird sanctuary, she planted gardens and grew flowers that she sold to a local florist. Together they helped create the local Girl Scouts organization and donated land for a scout camp along the river.
Alice was the driving force in establishing a local garden club, and in 1966, the Knoxville Garden Club and Knox County Council of Garden Clubs joined forces to protect the bird sanctuary and grounds. They applied for an open-space grant, and the city of Knoxville purchased the land, which was dedicated as Ijams Nature Park in 1968.
It was rechristened Ijams Nature Center on Nov. 8, 1975, when it became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The original 20 acres has expanded to include 315 acres, including 12 miles of trails and the Mead’s and Ross quarries.
Ijams descendants continue to play a role in the ever-evolving life of Ijams. Parker says she interacts with the family “constantly,” especially siblings George Kern and Martha Kern, and Martha’s son, Stuart Ijams Cassell. “Martha is on the board of directors, and her son, Stuart, just rolled off the board,” says Parker.
The family members are strong supporters of the nature center and their ancestors’ vision.
No buildings remain from the time the family lived on the property. Parker says the original home was demolished more than 30 years ago.
“It structurally wasn’t sound anymore,” she says. “However, on the foundation they built the Miller Building, a small classroom building that is now our nature preschool building.”
The building is surrounded by the garden that Alice Ijams created.
“It’s still absolutely beautiful over there,” Parker says. “A lot of weddings have happened in that space, and of course the nature preschoolers are always running around and playing in those spaces as well.
“So it really is exciting because that space that the Ijams created for their daughters and to allow their daughters to have free play in nature and to roam the hills and really soak up all the goodness that there is in nature, our nature preschoolers are getting that now on the same foundation that the Ijams home was on. There’s just this really wonderful legacy and a sort of coming full circle back to that.”
Although the buildings at Ijams, including the visitor center and the bathrooms, have been closed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Parker and other employees are staying busy on site to make sure visitors can absorb the wonder and escape of the nature center.
“We have committed to maintaining our trails and keeping those 12 miles of trails and all of our open spaces open,” she says. “People can come out and are coming out daily – hundreds of people every day – to explore. And we really cherish that and we want to keep that open because that is our mission.
“Our mission is to connect people and nature. And if we’re not doing our mission then, as a nonprofit, we’re not doing our job.”
Betsy Pickle is a veteran entertainment, features and news reporter who particularly enjoys spotlighting South Knoxville.