Nannie Lee Hicks: Fountain City historian

Dr. Jim TumblinFountain City, Our Town Stories

Finally, after years of searching, the genesis of Nannie Lee Hicks’ work has been uncovered in the files of the C.M. McClung Historical Collection in a photograph and its caption dated Nov. 14, 1937. But the story started even earlier than that.


Not long after Miss Hicks joined the Central High faculty, someone from one of Fountain City’s several study clubs, probably the Reviewers Club, called Miss Hassie K. Gresham, venerable principal of the school, and asked, “Would you come speak to us next month on the history of Fountain City?”

Nannie Lee Hicks

Miss Gresham answered “No” and paused.

The caller said, “May I ask why not?”

Miss Gresham answered, “Because my American History teacher, Nannie Lee Hicks, is better prepared to do so.”

Miss Hicks was even better prepared when the time for the talk arrived. By then, she had researched old church records, studied materials in the libraries and interviewed members of the community. When she delivered the talk, she was really well-versed in Fountain City and other local history.

Another newspaper article, “Central Seniors, Led By Teacher, Trace Ancestry, Dig Up Relics In Absorbing History Course,” outlined the innovative teaching method that became the next step in her quest. The author, Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Lee Morgan Davis (CHS 1922), grew up in historic Lakeview (now Gentry-Griffey Funeral Chapel), the home of his maternal grandfather, Dr. Gideon Morgan.

As Davis explains, each student in Miss Hicks’ senior level American history class was assigned to write on some happening in local history. They were required to interview a parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, neighbor or someone in the community with a particular knowledge on the subject they chose. Then they were to do library research to expand the material further into a 1000-word theme.

In the process the students collected papers, charts, maps and sometimes made miniature reproductions. More than one project resulted in a skit acted by students during a class session. Class scrapbooks contained copies of early deeds, Revolutionary War service records, family pedigree charts and other historic items that were collected.

Mary Ellen Crawford of Smithwood worked on her line of kinsmen who lived and died on American soil for over a hundred years and went even further back to the Crawfords who flourished in Scotland and England during the 15th century when grim Cromwell and arrogant King Charles fought for the crown. Roy and Frances Truan of Beverly traced their family back to France. Ruth King researched the beginning of the Bearden area and discovered first settlers there of the Rossman and Kennedy families. Several students were thrilled to discover they were eligible for various societies like the Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution or the Sons or Daughters of the Union or the Confederacy.

Those familiar with Foxfire magazine, the 10 Foxfire books and the nomination of a North Georgia teacher for the National Teacher of the Year Award in 1988 will recognize the technique. Little did that teacher know that he was “reinventing a wheel” and adding a flourish or two to a teaching method Miss Hicks had pioneered much earlier.

Material from the themes was consolidated into the first publication called Discovering Knox County (A Unit of Work Compiled by Members of the American History Classes of Central High School) (1938).

A series of volumes were issued over the next 17 years titled: A History of Knox County Communities (Written by the Students of Miss Nannie Lee Hicks’ American History Classes, Central High School, Knoxville, Tennessee): Vol. I (1941-1942), Vol. II (1947), Vol. III (1950), Vol. IV (1950-51), Vol. V (No date), Vol. VI (1958). Two additional unnumbered volumes followed: History of Some Knox County Churches (1959) and More About Knox County (1959).

When eminent local historian, Mary U. Rothrock, began work on what would become the classic The French Broad-Holston Country (A History of Knox County, Tennessee), published first in 1946 and reprinted in 1972, she asked Miss Hicks to write Chapter 25 (Some Early Communities of The French Broad-Holston Country). Bearden, Campbell’s Station, Loveville, Ball Camp, Powell’s Station, Hardin Valley, Fountain City, Asbury, Corryton, Mascot and Skaggston have Miss Hicks to thank for this 36-page documentation of their early days.

The Simon Harris Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution sponsored Miss Hicks’ 86-page booklet Historic Treasure Spots of Knox County, Tennessee in 1964. The booklet contains details of the Massacre of George Mann, Isaac Anderson’s Log School House, Thomas Hope’s architecture at Swan Pond and many other historic homes and places in the county.

By 1968, with encouragement from Fountain City’s Nocturne Garden Club, Miss Hicks synthesized much of the material that had been collected into her book, The John Adair Section of Knox County Tennessee. A second printing, the Bicentennial Edition, was issued in 1976. In 1986, the name was changed to A History of Fountain City (with sections on Smithwood and Inskip) and the third (Knoxville Homecoming ‘86) edition was printed.

Finally, in 2000, the Heritage Committee of Fountain City Town Hall added a color photo of the original gazebo in Fountain City Park as the cover, updated photographs and added a ten-page biographical sketch of Miss Hicks and printed the Millennium Edition.

After 41 years as teacher of American history at Central and several years in retirement, Miss Nannie Lee Hicks passed away on June 10, 1979, following a brief illness. She is buried in the family burial plot in Woodlawn Cemetery beside her father and mother.

A 50-year member of Fountain City Methodist Church, Miss Hicks also belonged to the East Tennessee Historical Society, the Fort Loudon Association, the Jefferson County Chapter of the Tennessee Society for the Preservation of Antiquities, the Blount Association, the John Sevier Association, the James White Fort Association, Ossoli Circle, Fontinalis Club, Nocturne Garden Club and many teachers’ organizations. She was Regent of the Daughters of the American Revolution from 1956-59 and president of its Knox County Regents Council from 1958-59. She was listed in Who’s Who of American Women and received the United Daughters of the Confederacy History Award.

Her thousands of students, as well as the readers of her books and essays on Fountain City history, Knox County history and our “treasure spots” will continue to count Miss Hicks in the forefront of those Fountain Citians who made a difference.

Author’s Notes: The eight-volume set of Miss Hicks’ students’ essays can be found in both the reference section of the C.M. McClung Historical Collection and the Heritage Room of Central High School.

Jim Tumblin, retired optometrist and active historian, writes a monthly series called “Fountain City: Places That Made a Difference” for KnoxTNToday.com.

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