I refer to it affectionately as Knobite Corner, but my hometown, where I grew up and don’t think I will ever leave now, is Madisonville, Tennessee, fifty-odd miles southwest of Knoxville. A small town—population a bit over 3900 in the 2000 census–, the county seat of Monroe County from the 1820s, its original name was Tellico, a corruption of the Cherokee place name Talequah (which now is used in the mountain town of Tellico Plains). In 1830, it was renamed Madisonville in honor of a local politician, Madison Greenway.
When Jamie announced that this week’s theme was based on the songs “I Am a Town” by Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Our Town” by Iris Dement, and “My Hometown” by Bruce Springsteen, I was immediately drawn by the Springsteen song—for reasons that I’ll explain shortly.
As the county seat, we have, in the middle of town, the county courthouse.
It’s a maze of dark rooms and staircases, dating to the period after the Civil War. The county historian mostly operates out of its basement. I’ve heard strange tales about that basement—
There are, within a few blocks, a plethora of both churches and banks, the oldest church being Presbyterian.
I’ve never exactly figured out why the ratio of churches to banks is so nearly exact here. I finally settled on an explanation that works for me: that if it is possible to serve both God and Mammon, then by George, we’re gonna do it in Madisonville.
This house, damaged in an arson fire a few years ago and in the process of being refurbished, has a local history connection: it’s owned by descendents of our most famous politician, the late Democratic senator Estes Kefauver, who was born in Madisonville in 1903 and buried here sixty years later.
(For you outlanders: although y’all pronounce his last name Kih-FAW-ver or some variation thereof, us locals say it right. It’s KEY-Faw-Fer.)
Madisonville is also the hometown of the late great Judge Sue K. Hicks (1895-1980). He was a member of the prosecution team in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, but he’s best known as the inspiration for Shel Silverstein’s song “A Boy Named Sue”, which was a major hit for Johnny Cash in 1969.
Perhaps our saddest famed former resident, though, is meteorologist Isaac Cline. Born in the Fork Creek community in the knobs between Madisonville and Sweetwater in 1861, he’s remembered for a dreadful miscalculation. Isaac and his superiors at the nascent Weather Bureau refused to believe reports coming out of Cuba about the strength of an incoming storm. The results of their hubris were an appalling eight thousand deaths (two of them his own wife and unborn child) in the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, still the most deadly natural disaster in U.S. history. He’s the subject of a superb book by Erik Larsen (ISAAC’S STORM: A MAN, A TIME, AND THE DEADLIEST HURRICANE IN HISTORY, 2000).
Isaac Cline and Judge Hicks were graduates of our local Methodist two year college, Hiwassee, a college that has survived more than one hundred fifty years but, sadly, seems to be declining toward closure thanks to decades of financial problems.
In the sixties, there were problems in race relations, mostly at the local high school, where the principal, they say, locked himself in his office rather than deal with them. In the seventies, we danced frenetically to the Bee Gees. In the late eighties, Wal-Mart moved in, out on the 411 bypass, damaging already strained businesses in downtown, some of which closed. Some of their buildings are occupied by newer businesses; others stand empty, waiting for someone to come along and rescue them from their long declines. We have a restaurant in our old department store, a car lot where the Firestone store closed in my midteens, a new bakery in the old pharmacy. . .
I should explain that all these pictures I’ve used (with permission) were taken by my beautiful and talented niece Amanda Gamble. The one that brought the Springsteen song to mind (and is the point I’ve been working toward interminably) is this one, which ties in neatly with the song’s bridge:
They’re closin’ down the textile mill across the railroad tracks,
Foreman says these jobs are goin’ boys, and they ain’t comin’ back
To your hometown. . .
Down the slope from the Presbyterian church, these tracks split off downtown from what used to be the primary school (replaced only this school year by a new behemoth of a building), and beyond that, from two sewing factories. In Madisonville, these two factories were major employers until the late 1980s, when manufacturing plants began to move into Vonore’s industrial park, some fifteen miles up Highway 411. Many women had raised families on the earnings they got from a low base pay plus production. I worked as an insurance clerk and general secretary in one of them from 1984 to 1993, when our largest customers decided they would take their business to Guatemala, where they could get the work done cheaper.
So that’s why I hear the Springsteen tune so poignantly in my head, sung as it is from the point of view of a man thinking of moving his family somewhere else in hope of finding work.
. . .take a good look around. . .
Take This Tune is a weekly meme hosted by my friend and fellow music lover Jamie.Each week she posts a video and asks participants to write about their memories, associations, or impressions based on that song. If you’d like to join in, please click on the link above.