A Flood of Memories from a Photo Archive

I got sidetracked last Friday and, consequently, didn’t get a single thing marked off my to-do list. I’m normally more self-disciplined than that, and one part of me felt deep guilt for my getting off track and being so unproductive. Another part of me sought to justify my distractedness.

Time and opportunity to do what was on the to-do list are irretrievably gone. Yet, what I did instead proved enjoyable and might even find future productive applications. I’ll let you, my readers, be the judges.

One FaceBook group I follow is called “If You Grew Up in Halls. . . .” It’s dedicated to reminding those of us who grew up in the little community of Halls Crossroads just north of the Knoxville, Tennessee, city limits, of what life was like there “way back when.” Because of the city’s proximity and economic importance to Halls, a lot of Knoxville history is also included in the posts. One member regularly posts photos from “the good old days,” and each invariably prompts numerous comments and shared memories from people.

I recently asked the photo poster where on earth he found all of those old photos. He directed me to the web site of the Calvin M. McClung Digital Collection (http://cmdc.knoxlib.org), which hosts at least ten different collections of historic photos. Just out of curiosity and not intending to spend much time there, I clicked on the first collection in the list, the Thompson Photo Collection, the works of James E. Thompson, one of Knoxville’s early professional photographers. I found more than 8,000 photos from pre-World War II Knoxville, and that’s where I spent most of the rest of my day.

Do you know how long it takes to go through that many photos, even on the fly? And I looked at every single one of them. Some of them I merely glanced at; others I studied closely. A few I looked at a second or third time. And I learned so much about Knoxville that I never knew. I reminisced a lot. I even found myself longing to return to those days of yore.

I found a few photos from the late 1800s. The oldest, I think, dated from 1876, the end of Reconstruction. No photo went beyond 1939. Most were from the 1920s and 1930s.

I counted photos of at least fourteen hotels in the heart of the city during the Twenties and Thirties, including the Andrew Johnson and the Farragut, which were there when I was a kid and still are, but also the Atkin, the Ramsey, the Watauga, the St. James, and many others. They were elegant hotels with guest rooms the size of three or four of our typical modern motel rooms or larger, complete with their own spacious sitting areas. These hotels had grand ballrooms that looked like replicas of something from the Palace of Versailles. Huge marble-columned and -floored lobbies with spacious, well-furnished sitting areas and long, ornate registration desks. Interestingly, many of those hotel lobbies featured strategically placed spittoons for the convenience of guests who indulged in the filthy habit that made such vessels necessary.

Among the photos were several of what was at the time called the “Million-Dollar Fire,” which destroyed several blocks of the downtown. Other photos of that part of town revealed crowded streets and sidewalks, such as I recall from my own youth before the downtown declined. (Like many other dying downtowns, Knoxville has been trying to revive its heart and restore those “glory days.”)

I discovered many photos of streetcars. My grandfather had for a while been a conductor on such a streetcar, so I found myself zooming in on those photos to see if I could identify him in any of them. Alas, I couldn’t.

But the photos that most captured my attention and brought back the most precious memories were those of the S&W Cafeteria. Although it was started in Knoxville in the late Twenties, it  was still thriving when I was a kid. And it was far different from the cafeterias of today. The S&W had class! From the revolving door at the entrance to the fixtures to the wait staff, it was a classy place. It had the ambiance of elegance all about it.

Once through the revolving glass door, one stood in a marble-columned, high-ceilinged, shiny brass-furnished lobby. A large scale stood directly ahead of the entering customer. (I suppose the idea was to weigh oneself before and after dining?) To the right of the scale was where the waiting line began, but it ran the length of the right-hand wall, the dining tables being on the left, all the way to the rear. The serving line was along the back wall, just in front of the kitchen.

A wall running down the center of the restaurant, from behind the scale nearly to the serving line, divided the ground floor into two dining areas. The walls were floor-to-ceiling mirrors, probably 12 feet tall or higher. The mirrored walls gave the place a bright, spacious appearance. Every table, some for two and others for four, were covered with clean, pressed, white table cloths and white cloth napkins. The tile floor was waxed to a high gloss.

Where the waiting line began, a set of stairs led to a lower level, where the dining atmosphere was slightly less glamorous. It was for office workers who wanted merely a good, quick lunch so they could rush back to work; they would not be lingering over conversations or soaking up atmosphere. The ceiling downstairs was a bit lower, but the food was the same as that served upstairs. One just had to carry his own tray.

Upstairs at the end of the serving line, where customers paid for their meals, uniformed waiters grabbed customers’ trays heavy-laden with china, glasses, silverware, and food and drinks and balanced them precariously on their forearms and palms. The waiters raced to the diners’ desired locations on the main floor at tables or upstairs on the mezzanine at either tables or booths. They quickly removed the dishes of food from the trays to the appropriate place settings, never dropping anything or making a mistake as to which customer had which meal because they were watching closely as the customers arrived at the cashier’s station. They took the ladies’ cloaks and held the chairs out for them to be seated. Finally, they stood quietly at attention, to the side and out of the way, arms at their sides and with one hand held inconspicuously palm up, awaiting their tips. Looking back now, I think that the courtesy of S&W waiters makes even the friendliness of Chik-fil-A employees seem almost like downright rudeness by comparison.

Our family often made the trip “uptown” on Saturdays, arriving by 10:00 a.m. and making a day of it, stopping at the eye doctor’s office and shopping at Rich’s (later becoming Miller’s) Department Store before hitting the stores along Gay Street in the main business district. (It had that name, by the way, long before the word and its meaning were hijacked.) By noon, the sidewalks were teeming with people. I still can smell the fumes of the diesel exhausts from the KTL buses as they passed the milling shoppers while plying the city streets, and I can hear their low growl as they accelerated through the heavy traffic.

And at lunchtime we ate at S&W. We always ate in a booth upstairs on the mezzanine . Mother preferred the cozy privacy of a booth over the “out-in-the-public” tables. (We kids also were less likely to embarrass her there.)

The cafeteria featured a live pianist (later organist) who played during service hours. He or she even took requests. I recall on one of my birthdays the organist’s playing “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window” just for me, even creating a bark-like sound on the organ at the appropriate spots in the song.

Those 8,000 or so photos brought back memories that could potentially produce writing material for numerous pieces for years to come. And I haven’t even mentioned the photos of trains and historic railway stations or vehicles or gas stations. Or the photos of local law enforcement smashing illegal stills. And each photo has its own unique story–or more.

So was the time that I spent (or misspent) last Friday really wasted?

And to think that I still have only nine more collections of such photos to peruse! When will I ever find time to work?

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3 thoughts on “A Flood of Memories from a Photo Archive

  1. I don’t think the day was wasted, it was time well spent. Sometimes the things we’re “supposed” to do really aren’t as important or meaningful as the things we end up doing. I have several boxes of family photos to go through in the near future and I know that many of them are old vacation photos, instead of images of family members, those are important too. If nothing else it gave you a day to pause and reflect, remember and, now, share things you saw and did. I think that is special, we get so involved in the “gotta”, the to-do lists, and the chores of daily life we forget to give ourselves the gift of time spent in remembering our earlier lives, the people who were important to us, the places we were and things we did. I’m looking forward to some of those photo induced memories in future blog posts.

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    1. Thanks for your reassurances. I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments, but it’s good to have those thoughts reaffirmed by others! I wish you well on your own dive into the picture pool. May it be an inspirational experience for you even as it was for me.

      Liked by 1 person

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