Visiting Knoxville’s historic Mabry-Hazen House
By Hayden Evans
Including in one’s itinerary a visit to the historic and majestic ante-bellum Mabry-Hazen House in Knoxville should be interesting for fans attending athletic events at the University of Tennessee or vacationers to Dollywood, Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains.
I discovered the Mabry-Hazen House a few years ago while covering for a newspaper an anniversary celebration of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment of the Tennessee National Guard. The entire unit was encamped on the grounds for the weekend. It is well known that the 278th recently came back from a year of arduous duty in Iraq. The unit traces its lineage to Colonel John Sevier’s old regiment of King’s Mountain Revolutionary War fame.
During my initial visit I learned that Mabry-Hazen was rife with history including the Civil War and had only been open to the public since 1992. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Hazen Historical Foundation Inc operates it.
In 1858, Joseph Alexander Mabry, a prominent businessman, built the Italianate house on Pine Hill overlooking what is now downtown Knoxville. The house served as headquarters for Fort Hill during the Civil War. Confederate and later Union officers occupied the home depending on which side held Knoxville. The Mabry family lived upstairs while the officers occupied the downstairs and soldiers camped on the grounds. For 130 years, the same family lived in the residence.
The property includes the 4-acre Civil War “Bethel Cemetery,” which is one of the largest privately owned Civil War cemeteries anywhere with graves of 1670 Confederate soldiers from every southern state and 50 Union prisoners.
Later, I attended two of the marvelous Victorian Christmas celebrations held annually at Mabry-Hazen. I’ve also attended three delightful formal teas at the house. The first time for tea I was one of four men and about 50 ladies in attendance. In the English as well as Southern tradition, the women all wore beautiful hats and most wore gloves. I attended the event as a freelance writer for a story. The next two visits, including this past December, my wife, Joyce, accompanied me to the tea. The teas are held quarterly.
The savories provided by the Mabry-Hazen volunteer ladies included cucumber, egg salad, salmon salad and Queen Alexandra’s sandwiches. The sweets were chocolate bonbons, Victoria Cake; the kind Queen Victoria made for Prince Albert, scones, and shortbread – all delicious. It was enjoyable to experience the traditional British social custom. Much to my relief I found that I could sip tea properly, use the right silverware appropriately and eat the dainty tea sandwiches and sweets without appearing too unsophisticated.
In celebration of Christmas, Mabry-Hazen’s volunteers turn the Italianate house with its ornate Victorian furnishings into a wonderland. From the elegant, beautifully decorated music room to the Victorian grandeur of the formal parlor, the home was a study in living history. Mabry-Hazen features all original furnishings and has a treasure trove of one family’s collection of lead crystal, fine china, solver, glassware and antique furnishing.
Restored to its previous grandeur, the site boasts one of the largest collections of original artifacts including, Wedgwood, Rookwood, Weller, cut glass, pattern glass, amberina, lusterware, silver, textiles, books, rugs, and period furniture.
Joseph Mabry was a shrewd, colorful character who possessed large land holdings and wielded great political power and influence as a state legislator. He was president of the Kentucky-Knoxville Railroad and published the Knoxville Whig newspaper.
A dispute over a land deal with Thomas O’Conner, president of Mechanic’s National Bank, led to a shootout on the main street in Knoxville in October 1882. Joseph Mabry Jr., and his son, Joseph Mabry III, an attorney, were killed in the gun battle. Killed earlier as a result of the feud were Willie Mabry, the other son of Joseph Jr., and two Lusby men, father and son. It was a shootout similar to the famous western story of the OK Corral seen in the movie and on television. Mark Twain in his book Life on the Mississippi documented Mabry and his son’s murder.
The second generation to live in the home was headed by Rush Strong Hazen, a wealthy businessman, who married Alice Evelyn Mabry. Rush Hazen was a community leader and generous philanthropist. In the book and TV series, “Christy,” the benefactor of the missionary teacher character in the mountains was a Mr. Hazen Smith. In real life, it was Rush Hazen. He also established the YMCA in Knoxville.
The last to live in the Mabry-Hazen House was Evelyn Montgomery Hazen who died in 1987. The daughter of Rush and Alice Hazen, Evelyn was a beautiful and highly intelligent woman. She graduated from the University of Tennessee at age 18. An English major, her career included staff writing for the New York Times and Knoxville Journal, teaching at old Knoxville High School and research assistant for Dr. John C. Hodges of the University of Tennessee in publishing the first edition of the well known Harbrace College Handbook of English.
Independent and strong willed Evelyn sued her former fiancé for breach of promise and won the case in court to include the appeal. The romance had begun in 1917 and continued into the 1930s when the fiancé began dating another woman. Times were different back then and Evelyn was forced to resign her teaching position and ostracized by Knoxville’s society for what was considered a scandal. In court, the intimate relationship of the couple was revealed and the story in the newspapers shocked the city.
Evelyn eventually became a recluse attended only by a housekeeper. However, realizing the historic significance of the Mabry-Hazen estate, she made provision in her will for the house and its collections to become a museum. She was a woman ahead of her time. A spine tingling ghost story involving Evelyn is connected with the house that the tour guide may reveal during your visit.
The Mabry-Hazen House, 1711 Dandridge Avenue, is located one mile East of the Summit Hill exit off James White Parkway. Travelers should take the exit on I-40 East in Knoxville to the James White Parkway. Call (865)-522-8661 for visiting hours and additional information including directions. Mabry-Hazen is across the street from the Alex Haley Park that has a large statue of the famous author, Haley. The historic home is less than a mile East of Knoxville’s coliseum and civic auditorium.
(The author is a Middle Tennessean who has lived in Clinton, Tennessee for 30 years. He is a retired army officer, retired banker, author, journalist, and free-lance writer. He also is director of communications and public relations for a staffing company with offices in Knoxville and Oak Ridge.)