A wandering Tennessean comes home

Nov. 19, 2012 @ 12:13 PM

It’s great to be in Tennessee.

In fact, I’m having a hard time remembering why I ever left.

I moved to East Tennessee this past July, when my partner started a teaching job at the University of Tennessee. I spent the previous 13 years in Madison, Wis., and 10 years in Chicago before that.

This fall, I’m proud to join the reporting staff of The Mountain Press. Pleased to meet you.

It’s a homecoming. I’m a Tennessee native – born in Knoxville, raised in Nashville. Like other high school kids I have met, I couldn’t wait to leave my hometown. So after I graduated, I started college in the Windy City.

It’s cold there.

After I graduated, I kicked around for a few years in Chicago. Then I started down an academic career path. I ended up in a graduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It’s cold in Wisconsin, too.

Fortunately, I wasn’t in grad school very long before I decided the academic life wasn’t for me. That’s when my journalism career began.

I spent 10 years writing for the Madison alternative weekly newspaper Isthmus, the last seven as a staffer. Like a lot of alt-weekly journalists, I covered many beats. I wrote about crime, courts and politics, as well as movies, music and food.

Now I’m delighted to be covering beats in Sevier County.

The winters are mild here. I can’t stop thinking about that. I’ve spent a lot of time here already. I have deep roots in Tennessee and the Smokies.

In 1808, my great-great-great-great-great-uncle Peter Brickey established a farm on Wears Valley Road, in what is now Townsend. My dad, who lives in Nashville, owns a chunk of that land. He inherited it from my grandfather Herbert Burns, who was born there in 1912.

Grandfather passed away 10 years ago. His sister Inez Burns was an educator, historian and preservationist in Maryville. A stretch of Wears Valley Road is named for her. I’m proud of her. We called her Bab. Grandfather and Bab’s mother, Nancy Brickey, was born on the farm in 1879.

My oldest ancestor here was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather John Brickey. A Huguenot, he came from Virginia to settle in the Townsend area. He lived from 1740 to 1807.

A few years ago, I took a picture of his gravestone, which is in Townsend’s Myers Cemetery. The hair stood up on my neck. The U.S. is pretty young, as nations go, and I’m amazed and humbled when I think about how long my family has been here.

My East Tennessee memories don’t quite go back to 1807. I have many happy recollections of visiting my mom’s parents in Maryville, and my dad’s on the Brickey farm.

That farm is a wonderland for a kid. There are hills and streams. Rocks to climb on. I caught frogs. Grandmother rang a bell to call for supper, and supper meant vegetables my grandfather grew in his garden. Okra. Crowder peas.

The farm wasn’t the only wonderland. I also liked spending time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – though I didn’t truly appreciate that incredible place until I got much older and began exploring its trails.

Guess what was the true wonderland for a kid visiting retired grandparents in Townsend?

Sevier County.

My brother and I begged to be taken to Pigeon Forge. Again and again. We couldn’t get enough.

We loved Dollywood when it was Silver Dollar City. I still hum the song from the flooded-mine ride. One day on the train ride, actors playing bandits playfully heaped verbal abuse on my grandmother. She heaped it right back. I was impressed.

I grew up near the old Opryland theme park in Nashville, and as a result I considered myself a connoisseur of theme parks. Silver Dollar City and, later, Dollywood ranked right up there. As did Magic World. Memories of the flying saucer ride there haunt me.

It’s wonderful to be back and see sites I remember. And to see how Sevier County has changed. Wow, how it has changed.

One thing hasn’t changed. During my time in the Upper Midwest, which I now think of as the wandering years, I missed Southern friendliness, Southern graciousness. Midwestern friends said I was dreaming. Midwesterners are too friendly, they said.

I have been back for a little while, and I am happy to report: Southern friendliness is real. People smile. They hold doors. They make eye contact. Would you believe Midwesterners aren’t always so good at eye contact? I’m looking forward to meeting you, and making eye contact with you, as I report Sevier County’s news.

— Kenneth Burns is a reporter for The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 214 or e-mail kburns@themountainpress.com.