The Market House – a magical memory
Knoxville is full of memories of places that once were. The one that has long intrigued me is the Market House.
A market house was a fairly common institution in the 19th and 20th centuries. Before Big Ag dominated the picture, farmers – and their wives – needed a place to sell their produce, butter, cattle and meat, and a structure in the center of town or in the business district seemed like a place. logic. At first, farmers also sold from their wagons, but eventually automobiles replaced them.
Knoxville’s first Market House was built in 1816 but did not last long, and then farmers sold their wares from their wagons parked on the downtown streets near the riverfront. In 1854, another Market House was built on land donated to the city in the center of town. During the Civil War, the Union Army used it as barracks and stored ammunition there, and market business was conducted outdoors.
I have vague memories of my paternal grandmother, Lela Fern Miles Pickle, telling me that she went with her father, Samuel A. Miles, to his stall at the Market House when she was little. Grandmother was born in 1901, so this would be the ‘new’ Market House built in 1897.
I feel like my great-grandfather sold vegetables, but I imagine it could have been anything. I don’t know if young Fern helped him or just accompanied him out of their house in East Knoxville. She married my grandfather in 1919, and she was busy raising her two children after that, so I doubt she continued to accompany her father to the market, if he was still selling there at that time.
Grandma’s descriptions of the Market House were a far cry from the experience I had shopping with my mom at the “modern” White Stores, IGA and Kroger in East Knoxville and Burlington. The Market House was a large wooden structure that was a hubbub of activity and a feast for the eyes and the nose, she said. The second floor of the building housed an auditorium where musical, social and political events took place.
I’ve learned over the years that the aromas Grandma fondly remembered weren’t liked by everyone. One of my favorite rabbit holes on Facebook is the “Knoxville Tennessee History & Memories” group, and I’ve soaked up a lot of information — and other people’s memories — from it. The smell of fish is one of the main complaints from locals who remember being at the market.
Smoking was acceptable inside and out, although spittoons were not always practical, and in fact the west side of the Market House was known as the Spittin’ Side.
In the mid-1900s, as suburbs and grocery stores grew on either side of town, the Market House lost its appeal. The Market Square itself fell into disrepair, and the city government voted in late 1959 to demolish the Market House and renovate the area. Before any action could be taken, a fire destroyed part of the building and soon after the entire structure was razed to the ground.
The new 1960s Market Square Mall, a pedestrianized space lined with retail businesses and adorned with mushroom-shaped concrete pavements, became the modern symbol of downtown Knoxville – until it also deteriorated and eventually reborn into the bustling site of restaurants, shops, entertainment and twice-weekly farmers’ markets that it is now.
Betsy Pickle is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys spotlighting Downtown, South Knoxville, and East Knoxville.