Jan Loveday Dickens: History via pound cake

Beth KinnaneEast Knox, Our Town Neighbors

There aren’t too many lengths Jan Loveday Dickens won’t go to in her explorations of local history, especially the stories from the “land between the rivers” in East Knox County. And her tried and true currency for gaining access to private properties and records is pound cake.

“I pave my way with pound cake,” Dickens said. “It’s my calling card. That and homemade apple butter.”

Jan Loveday Dickens exploring the wetlands near Historic Ramsey House.

Over the last three years, that’s been a LOT of cake. Dickens has just put the final period to a research project that is the foundation of a new, permanent exhibit coming to Historic Ramsey House, hopefully by year’s end. “A Community Born of Water and Stone” explores the broader stories of the area bounded by the Holston and French Broad rivers out to the borders of Jefferson and Sevier counties.

Dickens said the project looks at the Francis Ramsey family “within the context of their community. We’re looking at the histories of other settlers in the area, the women, the children, the Cherokee and the enslaved. The Ramseys did not exist in a vacuum.”

The new exhibit will be installed in renovated space in the visitor’s center at Ramsey House with a chronological timeline, panels with greater detail on specific individuals and events and notebooks with reference materials. Even with all that, Dickens said the vast majority of her research won’t make it into the final display.

“I’ve scaled it back three times and now turning it over for a final edit. While a lot of the richest history is from what we now call Forks of the River, there is just so much more from the broader area,” she said. “I could write a book, or several, from all of this research and my adventures.”

The installation will be funded by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, but the gathering of the information to create it fell to Dickens, a board member and education chair at Ramsey House. She is also an art and history teacher at Kelley Volunteer Academy.

“One of the first things I did was have a brunch with the descendants of the families that first settled the area,” she said. The names of those families include Campbell, Kennedy, Jack, Armstrong and McMillan, to name a few. “I just asked them what they knew, if they still had anything. That was the jumping off point.”

The Covid-19 pandemic stymied progress as access to some museums and libraries was, at best, limited. But she pressed onward, ordering books, visiting properties and collecting documents (or copies) to fill binder upon binder with histories of families, churches, schools, the rivers, etc. All of her effort will soon come to tangible fruition.

Dickens said she always had an interest in history, first spurred with stories told by her father on Sunday drives. An English class assignment while a student at Carter High School in the 1970s fanned the flames.

“Shirley Underwood had us interview older relatives for stories about our community and write about it,” she said. “It was inspired by the ‘Foxfire’ series. Those are recordings that I treasure. I had no idea then that it would lead me here, now.”

In many ways, Dickens said the completion of her research was the culmination of that homework many years ago, just on a larger scale. And she gives a lot of credit to Underwood.

“I had never really planned to go to college, then one day she asked me to stay after class. She told me, ‘you can do this.’ She’s still a very dear friend,” Dickens said. “She changed my life.”

For more information on Historic Ramsey House go here. For information on Humanities Tennessee go here.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com.

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