Copyright * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
Clay B. Atkin
Industrialist and Developer
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
1906 City Directory carried this promotional message:
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.”
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
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
booklet, called “Oakwood 1905--The Magic Suburb with All City Conveniences,”
contains fifteen mostly full-page photographs featuring:
documentation of the Oakwood area before development.
of the macadamized streets, water mains and sewers under construction.
of the workers and their relatively primitive equipment during construction of
the rail bed for the electrically powered streetcars that would serve the area.
views of the Southern Railway’s Coster Shops (where many of the homeowners
worked) as seen from Morelia Avenue.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.,
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.
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
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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(Courtesy of the C.M. McClung Historical Collection)