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J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(865) 687-1948

Knox Countians Who Made A Difference

Clay B. Atkin

(1864-1931)

Industrialist and Developer

Part I  

When we hear the name C.B. Atkin, many of us think of Knoxville’s finest hotel in 1900--the Hotel Atkin and its opulent dining room on Gay Street between Depot and Magnolia Avenue.  Or the C.B. Atkin Furniture Company in Oakwood.  Or Burwell Avenue in Oakwood and the Burwell Building downtown on Gay Street, named in honor of his wife, Mary Harris Burwell Atkin.   

Not nearly so well known is C.B. Atkin’s contribution to land development in Oakwood and central Fountain City.  His Fountain City Land Company and Fountain City Railway Company, successor to the Dummy Line, made him important in our Fountain City history. 

Clay Brown Atkin was born of English ancestry in Knoxville on December 27, 1864. The family home was on the present site of the Andrew Johnson Hotel (Gay Street at Hill Avenue).  His parents were Samuel Thatcher Atkin (1824-1900) and Nancy Ellis Ault Atkin (1823-1892).  Samuel, a man of many talents, had supplied iron from his foundry to the Confederacy during the Civil War.  He was a tinner, sawmill operator, coffin maker, brickyard owner, furniture manufacturer and furniture storeowner.  Samuel’s father, Rev. George Atkin came to Knoxville in 1819 from Ohio and was once the pastor of Church Street Methodist Episcopal Church.  

“Brown,” as his peers called him, attended the old Bell House School for nine years, which covered the entire grade and high school curriculum at that time.  One of his friends and classmates was William Gibbs McAdoo (1863-1941).  McAdoo later was the owner of the Knoxville Transit Company and the developer of the system of rapid-transit tunnels under the Hudson River in New York City.  He became Secretary of the Treasury under President Woodrow Wilson.  On May 7, 1914, McAdoo married the Wilson’s daughter, Eleanor Randolph Wilson, in the White House.  From 1933-1938 he was a member of the U.S. Senate from California. 

After graduating from Bell House School, C.B. attended Vanderbilt University for a time.  Then he returned to Knoxville at age 18 to enter his father’s retail furniture business. He worked in the custom-made furniture factory founded in 1879 between State Street and Gay across from the Court House. Atkin’s chair factory, finishing department, lumber room and machine shop occupied about one-half of the block between Main and Cumberland and employed 30 hands. The company anchored the south end of the block and Staubs Opera Company the north end.  

In 1886, C.B. and his older brother Frank S. Atkin purchased their father’s businesses.  Several years later their partnership was dissolved and C.B. then manufactured mantels as C.B. Atkin Company at 812 S. Gay and Frank operated the Tennessee Mantel Manufacturing Company at 918 S. Gay.  

Cabinet mantels had become very much in demand in the 1890s.  C.B. Atkin saw the potential for their sales to increase dramatically in a time when many homes had numerous fireplaces, which often were the sole source of heat.  He geared up to mass-produce them and, for a time, he was known as the world’s largest manufacturer of those necessary appointments to the Turn-of-the-Century home.  A trade magazine called him the “King of Mantel Makers.”  

While Mr. Atkin was at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, his factory burned to the ground.  He rebuilt, continued making mantels and won a gold medal for his exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.  At first he had only 24 employees but, by 1913, as he grew the business, his employees would number from 325 to 450 depending on seasonal demand.  

On December 19, 1894, Clay B. Atkin married Mary Harris Burwell, the daughter of William G. and Mary Price Burwell. She was born in St. Clair, Pennsylvania, on October 29, 1871, but the family moved to Knoxville in 1891. C.B. and Mary made their first home in his family home at 912 S. Gay Street. Their three daughters were among the last children to be born on Gay Street before the street became totally devoted to business. Edith was born in 1896, Eleanor in 1899 and Marian in 1901.

 

Col. Perez Dickinson’s former home, a magnificent structure built at 518 West Main in 1832, near the present site of the First Baptist Church, came on the market in 1904. C.B. Atkin bought it and extensively remodeled it into an even more impressive home for his wife and three daughters. In addition to providing an idyllic home life, C.B and Mary saw to it that the family took time for travel, which included ten or twelve trips abroad.  

Shortly after the turn of the Century, the Southern Railway’s Coster Shops were built out Central Avenue Pike on the cusp of present-day Lonsdale.  Recognizing that the employees needed nearby affordable housing, Atkin entered the field of real estate development. He bought 132 acres of land between Central Avenue and Broadway from the Churchwell family. It was heavily timbered with hardwood suitable for the manufacture of mantels and later for furniture. By selling them with a small down payment and generous terms for paying off the mortgage, he quickly sold homes in what would become known as Oakwood.  

The 1906 City Directory carried this promotional message:  

“Oakwood—this is Knoxville’s magic suburb, founded in 1902 by C.B. Atkin. Oakwood’s transformation from acres of forest into a thriving village of 300 houses, with the city advantages of a car line, graded and macadamized streets, water mains and electric lights, all within forty-two months, represents a remarkably successful enterprise. Only fourteen minutes from the Southern Railway depot on Oakwood cars, leaving every fifteen minutes.” \

In an impressive 1905 promotional booklet of 27 pages with a C.B. Atkin byline, he pointed out that 700,000 board feet of lumber were cut on the land.  However, enough trees were left standing to create the appearance of a public park. He laid out water mains at a cost of $9,000. Then from 50 to 100 men were employed in making further improvements and constructing 34 houses on Morelia Avenue.  

Subsequently, Atkin built another 62 houses on Burwell Avenue, a street named in honor of his wife.  Eventually, there were almost 300 homes on those two streets and on Springdale, Caldwell, Quincy, Warren and Columbia Avenues.  He also constructed the three-story, 52x215-foot Oakwood Manufacturing Company between Morelia Avenue and the Southern Railway’s Middlesboro line.  This branch of Atkin’s downtown factory would later employ up to 600 workers.  

The booklet, called “Oakwood 1905--The Magic Suburb with All City Conveniences,” contains fifteen mostly full-page photographs featuring:  

·         Photographic documentation of the Oakwood area before development.

·         Views of the macadamized streets, water mains and sewers under construction.

·         Scenes of the workers and their relatively primitive equipment during construction of the rail bed for the electrically powered streetcars that would serve the area.

·         Period views of the Southern Railway’s Coster Shops (where many of the homeowners worked) as seen from Morelia Avenue.  

Many of the streets were named for Atkin’s friends and business associates. McMillan Street was named for E. E. McMillan, a neighbor of the Atkins; Caldwell Avenue for Joshua Caldwell, a distinguished attorney; and Harvey Street for Charles H. Harvey, the president of Knoxville Railway and Light Company.  Morelia Avenue was named for a small town in Mexico where the family had vacationed and Churchwell Avenue honored the family from whom Atkins had acquired the land.  

Many of the homes have some late Victorian influence and others are Craftsman style.  A few on Churchwell and Caldwell are California-style bungalows. But Oakwood was more than an early subdivision; since it had grocery stores, shoe shops and barber shops, a drugstore and up to six service stations and eventually the venerable Brown’s Cafeteria.  

But, C.B. Atkin’s career had only begun as he would be involved in building the South’s first “sky-scraper” office building and would also acquire a street railway, expand into the furniture business and build two hotels and two theaters.

Part II  

C.B. Atkin was never one to rest on his laurels. Soon after developing Oakwood, he began seeking other opportunities. When he observed the advent of central heating and less demand for mantels, Atkin ventured into furniture manufacturing as his father had, making living room, bed room and dining room furniture. The downtown factory and the new one in Oakwood shipped furniture all over the United States. And, he was seeking other opportunities in real estate.  

Founded in 1891 by Col. J.C. Woodward of Lexington, Kentucky, the Knoxville and Fountain City Land Company had prospered.  Woodward purchased 431 acres at a cost of $159,600 and began a massive development for its time.  The deal included the Fountain Head Hotel and its adjoining 14 acres for an additional $27,500.  The Fountain Head Railway (the Dummy Line) had begun operation in 1890 and the romantic, heart-shaped Fountain City Lake was constructed the next year. The company’s advertisements promised “easy transportation, crystal springs, beautiful trees and a healthful location.”  The early 1890s were boom years for the resort and conditions were present for other real estate development.  

C.B. Atkin and his business associate Howard Karnes obtained a charter and purchased the Knoxville and Fountain City Land Company in 1905. Through their agent, Mike Shetterly, who had an office in the Fountain Head Railway Station, they sold many lots using ads reminiscent of Woodward’s.  The firm performed well until 1920 when they surrendered their charter.  During the period of their ownership, the company gave the property known as the “Old Camp Ground” to the community to be used as a public park.  

According to Nannie Lee Hicks’ The History of Fountain City, C.B. Atkin (with Howard Karns, Joshua W. Caldwell, Charles A. Stair and E. Grainger) also chartered the Fountain City Railway Company. When the 5.25-mile Fountain Head Railway (The Dummy Line) ceased in 1905, they acquired the right of way and the rolling stock.  However, steam powered street railways had become unprofitable and most of the rolling stock was sold to an iron company in South Carolina. Then electrically powered trolley cars connected to overhead cables were used until succeeded by streetcars. The standard gauge tracks were still in use by the Tennessee Public Service Co. streetcars as late as 1933.  

Mr. Atkin built the Colonial Hotel on the east side of Gay Street between Main and Cumberland next to Staub’s Theatre in 1907.  At that time his downtown furniture factory was located at the rear of the building.  W.M. Goodman’s Souvenir History of Knoxville (1907) shows an elegant lithograph of the ornate 75-room hotel, 45 of the rooms with tiled baths.  Daily room rates were $1.50 to $2.00.  Almost simultaneously in 1908, as president of the Auditorium Company, Atkin built one of the many versions of the Bijou Theater just across Gay Street.  

One of the crown jewels of Atkin’s real estate holdings, the Atkin Hotel was begun about 1910 and was ready for occupancy by the time of the National Conservation Exposition at Chilhowee Park in 1913.  Across from the Southern Railway Station on the northeast corner of Gay Street at Depot (later the site of the Regas Restaurant), the hotel boasted 200 rooms, 135 with bath, and daily rates from $1.50 up. The famous Mary Donahue served alternately as dining room manager at the Fountain Head Hotel and pastry chef at the Atkin.  Railroad executives looked forward to their stays there.  Both the Hotel Atkin and the Colonial Hotel were noted for their service and cuisine.  

Along with George R. Dempster, J. Harvey Cowan, Hu Woodward, C.M. McClung, George W. Callahan and others; C.B. Atkin is featured in Baker and Towe’s Men of Affairs in Knoxville (1917, 1921).  His activity in real estate and hotel development, his mantel and furniture factories and his role in rail transportation had made him the largest individual taxpayer in Knox County by 1921.  But he would accomplish more.  

The ten-story Bank and Trust Building was built at the corner of Gay and Clinch on the former site of Blount College, a predecessor of the University of Tennessee.  It was one of the few “skyscrapers” in the south at that time.  C.B. Atkin bought the building at public auction for $161,500, remodeled it for offices and, to honor his wife, named it the Burwell Building, using her maiden name.  He also bought the property just to the south. When the giant theater chain, Publix, acquired a 99-year lease for that adjoining property in 1928 as a location for the Tennessee Theater, Atkin decided to almost double the size of the Burwell Building by constructing an addition above the theater at the same time.  Atkin also owned the Mercantile Block, the Plaza Block and several other valuable downtown properties.  

Under the astute management of Mr. Atkin and, after his death, under the management of his heirs, C.B. Atkin Furniture Company’s product line was sold in chain stores, retail furniture stores and hardware stores in every state of the Union in practically every community of 300 or more population.  Over many years the company had up to 33 sales people on the road nationwide. Their collections included Ameritage (early American), French Provincial and Normandy lines.  By 1958 there were 600 employees on two shifts who manufactured 800 individual pieces of furniture each day--a piece emerging from the conveyer every 30 seconds.  

Ralph Pratt recalls that one Fountain City family built a new home and made a special trip to an exclusive dealer in New York to buy new furniture for several rooms.  When they returned home and the shipment arrived, a neighbor inquired who had manufactured it.  They turned over one of the chairs and it was inscribed, “C.B. Atkin Furniture Co., Knoxville, Tennessee.”  

At the pinnacle of his success, C.B. Atkin died in his sleep on May 19, 1931, at 67 years of age.  Dr. Herbert Acuff, his physician, reported that he had experienced acute indigestion the night before, possibly a precursor to the fatal heart attack that occurred as he slept.  He was interred at Greenwood Cemetery, survived by his widow and three daughters, Mrs. Edwin R. (Edith) Lutz, Mrs. J. Kennedy (Eleanor) Craig and Mrs. Charles E. (Marian) Rankin.  

C.B. Atkin was public-spirited and contributed generously toward the advancement of his community but always with little or no fanfare.  He was a director of the East Tennessee National Bank, the First Appalachian Exposition (1910), Eastern State Hospital and the Tennessee School for the Deaf.  It was reported that he aided 27 students in their efforts to complete their education at Hiawassee College.  The school itself would become a beneficiary in his will.  As Dr. Ruth Stephens observed, “So passed one of the colorful and exceedingly successful sons of Knoxville--one of those men whose influence did not end with his death.”  

Mary Burwell Atkin survived her husband by eighteen years cared for by her daughters and their families. After her husband’s passing, she could never again bring herself to visit their summer home, Edelmar.  The huge house on Topside Road on the south side of Alcoa Highway with an outstanding view of the mountains had been the scene of many happy hours when their children were young. Tragically, her grandson, Capt. Brown Atkin Craig, was killed in action in Holland in 1944 during World War II.  She passed away on January 9, 1949, survived by her three daughters, a sister and several grandchildren. The Atkin Mansion on Main Street was razed after her death but the staircase and portico survive at Allendale, the mansion in Kingsport built by Harvey Brooks and willed to the city.

Authors Note to Part I: The author remains hopeful that a booklet will be found with photographs of housing development by the Fountain City Land Company, a later project of C.B. Atkin and his investors. Many of the WW-II generation who attended the University of Tennessee will remember the inimitable Dr. Ruth Stephens as one of their professors. In a WKGN series on Knoxville industrialists in 1958, Dr. Stephens profiled C.B. Atkin in a radio program from which many of these facts are drawn. The author would like to honor her significant contribution to the history of Knoxville and Knox County.  Dr. Stephen’s essay credited C.B. Atkin’s daughter, Mrs. Charles E. [Marian Atkin] Rankin and then company president, William F. Spradlen, as her principal sources.  Appreciation also goes to Bill Eigelsbach, Nick Wyman and Elizabeth Dunham of the University of Tennessee Special Collections for finding and processing Mr. Atkin’s image and providing information from their holdings.

Author's Note to Part II. The C.M. McClung Historical Collection, Wallace W. Baumann, theater historian, and Fountain City historian, Ralph W. Pratt, contributed information for this article.   Their assistance is appreciated.  

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D-Atkin3.doc (3/4/05 1567 words)

D-Atkin4.doc (3/30/05 1332 Words) (Total 2899 Words)

Addendum

(Courtesy of the C.M. McClung Historical Collection)