My first memory of going to buy shoes was at the Coffin Shoe Store in Fountain City. Without fail, every year my mother took me to get a new pair of Stride Rite black or white patent leather Mary Janes. And, most of the time, the late Charles Coffin is who slid my feet onto the metal sizer (a Brammock Device, officially).
I miss the old store, which was situated in the triangle created by Broadway and Essary Road that now houses Fountain City Jewelers, Salsarita’s and a branch of ORNL Credit Union, among other things. But when I was a growing up, there was the Lion’s Den Shop for Men, the White Stores and the White Way along with Coffin Shoes.
When I was older, my stepfather, Tom Underwood, told me that Charles and his brother, Jim Coffin, were his first cousins (through their mothers), and dropped that the Coffins were related to the renowned playwright Tennessee Williams (through their father).
Tennessee was born Thomas Lanier Williams III in Columbus, Mississippi, to Cornelius Coffin Williams (a shoe salesman) of Knoxville and Edwina Dakin of Clarksdale, Mississippi. As life turned out, walking in his father’s footsteps in the shoe business was not for him. Whether his nom de plum was given by classmates in college or he adopted it himself as an homage to his Tennessee roots (he told both stories), by the time he was 28 and moved to New Orleans young “Tom” was “Tennessee.”
Much has been written of the Williams part of his family tree. His grandfather, Thomas Lanier Williams II for whom he was a named, was a Knoxville alderman. The house he was born in on Riverside Drive still stands. That’s giving him short shrift, but his wife is the star of this particular bit of history.
Nancy Isabelle “Belle” Coffin Williams, Tennessee’s paternal grandmother, was born in Greeneville in 1853. She died young at the age of 31 in 1884. Her grandfather, the Rev. Charles Coffin DD, was Massachusetts born and Harvard educated. He moved to Greeneville to teach and eventually take the helm as president of Greeneville College (now Tusculum). A hearty sum of $1,500 annually wooed him away to Knoxville to become president of what was then East Tennessee College (now the University of Tennessee) for six years. One of his sons, Cornelius Worcester (Belle’s father), was the progenitor of the line that gave us “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and “The Glass Menagerie.” His other son, Charles Hector, gave us the founders of the oldest shoe store in Knoxville. Though the Fountain City Store has long passed into memory, the store in Bearden remains.
Tennessee’s father and paternal grandparents as well as several other ancestors in the Coffin family are buried in Old Gray Cemetery on Broadway.
Beth Kinnane is community editor for KnoxTNToday.com