Sunday Serendipity: I Show My Hand

ostensible planter of daffodil bulbs

Last weekend I went in search of some historical documents, any I could find, for a young cousin doing some research on our family genealogy. I didn’t turn up much that will be helpful insofar as the particular thing she was looking for. But I did come across an envelope from Thompson Photo in Knoxville, and within, a stack of black and white photographs, reproductions. I’d forgotten about them completely, and can’t remember how I came by them to begin with.

In the late 1960s a pair of siblings purchased a bucolic piece of land, including a large main house, a smaller servants’ quarters, and at least one other outbuilding, situated high atop a bluff on the main channel of the Tennessee River. The land was and is in Knox County, but only just; to the immediate south is the Blount County line. The smaller parcel, roughly two and a half acres and including the servant’s quarters, belonged to Alberta Joslin—Bobby—my maternal grandmother. She died of a massive coronary before she could even take possession of the house and property. But my great-grandmother Gracie, Bobby’s mama, ultimately did. It was this house that also served as temporary shelter for other extended family members when they needed it, as Gracie said she wanted, including me when I returned home to Tennessee after three years living and working in Colorado.

It was also the first house my child would know, the one he came home to as an infant at the tender age of three days, and where he would live with his two smitten parents until he was almost three years old, when circumstances insisted we take our leave of the little cottage high on the bluff.

I vaguely recall being loaned these historic photos of the property so that Thompson could reproduce them, but by whom? I don’t know. It might have been Ann Exum, who was living in the big house at the time I moved into the cottage (the property had been divided and the big house had changed hands a couple of times by then, and Gracie was living in a nursing home), or it might have been Honey and Lamar Alexander, who bought it from Ann.

The significance of the photos, though, is that they represent the era when David Carpenter Chapman and his family lived in the big house, and their servants in the small one. And while Chapman had a varied career, his most noteworthy accomplishment was arguably leading the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When I was still a peanut, I can recall spending summer vacations and the occasional Christmas prowling around the property up on the ridge, and examining the elegant script within the huge leather-bound guest book in the big house, which included David Chapman’s own signature, and much later, the signature of a certain second-grader penned in a halting hand.

I can’t say who the woman is in these photographs, because Chapman’s first wife Augusta McKeldin died, and he subsequently married Sue Johnston. Given that Chapman died in 1944, I will speculate the woman in the photos, based on her attire, is probably Augusta. This is pure speculation.

David Carpenter Chapman and friend
this porte-cochère was in front of the main house and later removed
this image clearly shows the west-facing elevation of the main house, possibly before a subsequent finger was added, which served as a casual dining space adjoining the kitchen

The above image is puzzling. The house in it does not resemble what the big house looked like when I knew it, but is positioned roughly where it should be; it might have been altered over time, but there was never a wraparound porch on the big house as is shown here. Just visible in the far right of this image is a small vernacular structure, which is possibly Bobby’s cottage, if this is in fact the big house in another, earlier guise.

this is a bend in the river I know well

Gracie once told the story of an elderly man who came and knocked on her door one day, who claimed to have been born in the little cottage. He wanted to come inside and see, and Granny Grace said yes, of course. I never knew his name. But I have long wondered about his identity, imagined he must have lived there when the Chapmans lived in the big house. And it has dawned on me he might have been born in the same small room that once served as my own child’s nursery almost a century later.

What a wonderful discovery, these photos. And although I had long forgotten them, I suspect some foggy corner of my head remembered, because the story of the imagined family inspired by the real one has positively flowed from my fingertips when I have the presence of mind to sit down and tell it in little bits of fiction.

years later, did you meet my great-grandmother, dear one?

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