Remembering Chilhowee Park

My memory bank is chock full of vivid memories of times and events at Chilhowee Park.  My guess is that virtually everyone reading this has at least one unforgettable remembrance of this iconic Knoxville landmark.

On KNOXVILLE HERITAGE we have included a number of vintage photos of the park and the Exposition Center building that anchors the site.

Click the photo to view the Chilhowee Photo Gallery

Ironically, I never knew the building as the Exposition Center. It seems to me that it was known as the Administration Building in the fifties…but, it has been called by many names as can be seen in the photos.

Well, this week Charlie Ellenburg sent me some interesting photos of Chilhowee Park, dating back to its construction in 1910.  They caused me to reflect back on my personal connection to this historic location.  I hope they do the same for you and that you will share both stories and photos from your times at the park.   It’ll be a treat for all of us to enjoy.

We will await the posting of your stories on the comment section… or just email them to me and I will post them for you.  But until you do, here are mine.

In 1956 my Dad taught me to drive on the road encircling the lake at the park.  He later taught my brother, David, and sister, Sally, on the same loop course.  All of us learned in a 1948 Plymouth coupe…straight shift! I never drive by on Magnolia that I don’t smile and think of those days.  My kids have heard the story a few too many…times they tell me.

In the early fifties I fished in the lake…from the shore.  A cane pole, string, a hook and worms or dough balls made up my tackle box…or tackle grocery sack to be more accurate.  What I infrequently caught would be considered bait rejects today, but I thought I was Captain Ahab.

I played Little League baseball on the field where in the fall the midway was located, on the South side of Magnolia.  The rocks left by the departing carnival each year made a groundball take some funny hops the next summer.  But we didn’t seem to mind.  It seemed as smooth as Fenway Park to us.  The field was later moved to what is now the Zoo site.  I think they also moved the rocks to the new site…or so it seemed.  I also played Babe Ruth baseball on the all skin diamond in the Northeast corner of the park, just below where the Tennessee walking horses were kept and trained.

Richie Hooper, Bobby Smallman, Tommy Lawson, Ralph “Bobo” Bean, David Lovell, Jimmy Pettiford, Doug Wise, Dick Long, David Lawson, Wayne Hunter, the Finley brothers, Kenny Bomar, David Anderton, Greg O’Conner, Joe Higdon and David Gurley also played on teams with or against me in the early fifties.   And numerous others also played in the 50s. Rich Hooper and I later worked for the City Recreation Department maintaining both fields during baseball season.

My first real job was ushering at the horse shows held in the small oval rink lined with box seats, where the zoo now stands.  Three bucks!  Man alive…I was rich!

In 1953 the Harlem Globetrotters played on center court…”B” Court.  It was the original Trotters with Reece “Goose” Tatum and Marquis Haynes.  They played the perennial losing team the Washington Generals led by Red Klotz.  I was picked from the stands to be the butt of the joke Tatum pulled when he shot a free throw with a ball connected to his hand by a string. There must have been all of 500 people in attendance.

The most vivid memory for a broad cross section of Knoxville youth during the 50s and 60s centers on the “Fair,” as the Tennessee Valley Agricultural & Industrial Fair was commonly known.

It seemed like the Fair marked the end of summer and the beginning of fall.  Not Tennessee football…the Fair!

Jobs at the Open Air Theater were prime opportunities. Some worked at the various games on the midway and some helped clean up and set up.  Some, like Charlie Cox, parked cars on their lawn.

I remember the mechanical robot grab machine where it looked so easy to extract a “valuable piece of junk” from the pile and drop it in the chute.  I’m confident no one was ever able to make it work.  Knocking over the 3 milk bottles, made of lead I think, was a popular game.  The basketball shooting game where the basketball was slightly larger than the hoop you had to shoot it in to win…or so it seemed… frustrated many who thought it looked so easy.  Yep, it suckered me in too.

And the rides….the centrifugal swings…they looked so benign hanging down but so scary when in motion.  And the tilt-a-whirl that spun its riders into nausea.  I always liked the bumper cars…we called them the dodgems…”let’s see if I can broadside that clod in #6.” I remember the ferris wheel in the main park getting stuck one night and people had to be rescued from a swinging car at the top.

Let’s not forget the food.  Dip dogs, snow cones and “disappearing”…or so it seemed…cotton candy.  Funnel cakes hadn’t yet come on the scene.  The cacophony of sounds from the barkers, game hawkers, rides and screaming girls (sorry…but it was true…no boy would be caught dead screaming in fear on even the scariest of rides…not cool) filled the air.  The mixture of smells was also evident.  Coupled with the shaking of the rides there was the occasional… puke…sorry, but that is what it was called.

The alligator lady.   The tattooed lady… she couldn’t get a job on the midway today, ‘cause most of the girls in the audience would be more covered with ink than her.  I really liked the death-defying motorcyclist on the circular roller drome.   The sword swallower and flame eater gave me the willies.

You name it, the Gooding Midway seemed to have it.  A lot of memories were wrapped up in those spectacles.

Well, those are some of my memories, what are yours?  Send some memories and photos if you have them… it’ll be fun to see what remembrances you have.


  1. Barbara Robertson Woodard on January 19, 2013 at 10:09 am

    I have a lot of memories regarding Chilhowee Park but my most vivid memory is that my father taught me too drive at the park, The first time I had to pass a car while driving was at the park.

  2. Ken Bomar on January 19, 2013 at 10:43 am

    You know that I lived and grew up only a couple of blocks from the park on Ashland Ave. That allowed me to literally spend every day in the summer at the Little League field . I would arrive about 9 am and play till noon, then go home for lunch and return in the afternoon and stay until 4:30 or so. We would sometimes have only 3 or 4 players on a side so we would split the field in half ( anything to the right of second base was an automatic out) . In organized play, I was part of the Yankees, the arch-rival of your Red Sox. Our coach was News-Sentinel sports writer Harold Harris, who we thought was just a notch below Casey Stengel.
    In the late fall/ winter I moved inside to the big building on the hill, where I competed in basketball for the round ball version of the Knoxville Raiders, a midget football team I was also a part of. Add to all of this the lake where we all fished and the countless hours we spend at the tiny zoo (we thought it was huge). And yes, when the fair came to town, some of us made some extra pocket change the week before it opened running errands for the people setting up the rides and exhibits.
    When I was a freshman at East HS our family moved to Nashville but I never forgot the great times I had at Chilhowee Park that were such a large part of my life.
    Your old buddy,
    Ken Bomar

  3. Ruth Letson on January 19, 2013 at 10:49 am

    I spent many a Saturday at the roller skating rink and always enjoyed it.

  4. Jerry Beets on January 19, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Dear Ross:

    I remember those good old days as well playing baseball with those you mentioned.

    If anyone is ever in Savannah please look me up.


  5. Celeste Brichetto Millen on January 19, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    I lived one block from the Park, so I grew up seeing it as a magic place. On Sundays, after a big meal and a nap, My Daddy would take me to the park to “fish” (the game where you fished for a plastic fish and won a prize), ride the Merry Go Round, get cotton candy and head home. During the Fair, we’d park cars in our yard. “Park right here. 50 cents. Get out any time.” And Fireworks, don’t forget the fireworks. We’d walk to the end of the block and watch the display with lots of “oooos” and “ahhhhs.” Many happy memories.

  6. ron french on January 19, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    In the early sixties the lake at the park would completely freeze. Then, on a dare, some of the guys, Fred and Wesley Bailey and I would run across the frozen surface. It was foolish and spooky because we could feel the water move under our weight underneath the ice.

  7. Lucinda McCay on January 20, 2013 at 11:55 am

    I, like you, have many memories of the park and the fair. The firework’s displays were some of my first memories. My dad carried me on his shoulders and when the loud bangs and booms started I was terrified. I felt so vulnerable on the top of his tall frame.

    But my most vivid memory is a sad one. I believe it was early 1962. The horse stables on the grounds caught on fire. Many horses burned to death and the huge barn burned to the ground. My friend Patty and I drove down to see it and there were charred horse carcases everywhere. I still have a strong memory of that gruesome scene. Do you remeber that event?

    Thanks for your memories. Many of them are mine………Lucinda

  8. Prent Dixon on January 20, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    Memories learning to ice skate on the frozen lake, being chased by ducks while walking to baseball practice, and the many basketball games played in the Jacobs Building.

  9. tommy pritchard on January 20, 2013 at 7:32 pm

    For a year or two my family lived about 1.5 blocks from the park on E Fifth avenue – in a house tht Bill Deatheridge had lived in. I remember primarily 3 things: playing little league baseball with the White Sox, parking cars in our back yard for the Fair, and listening to the lions roar from the zoo in the warm summer nights.

  10. John Anderson on January 21, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    I remember fishing in the lake and feeding what we caught to the raccoons in the zoo. Donnie Sherrod EHS ’62 was one of my fishing buddies. He was killed in Viet Nam. Although it was before my time, my older sisters told me about dances in the Jacobs Building. Knoxville had an ordinance against people of different races dancing in the same building. Blacks would enter through the front on the ground floor and whites through the back on the balcony level. They had big name entertainers, but only blacks were allowed to dance. The dances stopped in mid or early 50’s.

  11. Allen McGill on January 21, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    I lived within walking distance of Chilhowee Park by way of the old dump road off Cherry Street, Jefferson Ave, Woodbine Ave or 5th Ave. Some of my early memories were of my brother Bill, and my cousin Richard and myself sneaking into the Jacobs Bulding where they had the indoor wrestlng ring set-up. We would wrestle until one of us got hurt or mad, and then the fight really started. Every now and then we would get caught and the watchman would run us off, but never did he call the cops and have us arrested for trespassing. We also fished the lake with the Cates brothers, Frank Sowers, the Dotson brothers and others. Sometimes all that we had was a string, safety pin and dough balls (bait of the moment). Our fishing pole consisited of and old branch off a tree or a long wooden stick. Never caught any record setting bass, but caught a lot of future memories. The TVA&I Fair was always the highlight of Fall. It came just after school started and I remember getting a half day off just to go to the Fair. Of course we never used that half day off to go to the Fair , but to do other important things like hanging out at Wray’s Shopping Center, fishing or playing football. There was alawys plenty of time to go to the Fair later. Sneaking into the fair was always a passage of rights. The closer you came to getting caught, the bigger the bragging rights. I don’t ever remember getting caught, because you could always get lost in the crowd pretty quick. Jumping the fence at Petree’s Florist was my place of choice to sneak in at. I later parked cars for the state when they were building I-40 and always made more money sneaking people in than I did parking cars. The rides and the “Freak Shows” as they were called, was always fun. When the fireworks were over, we knew it was time to head home, because even then, we had curfews and if you didn’t want to spend the night on the front porch, you obeyed the curfew. And who could forget Nan Denton’s Dip Dogs with plenty of mustard. In my adult years, I worked for Dickey Ailor selling what was then called “Corn Dogs”, but the Fair never held the excitement that it did when I was in my teens. The Zoo was another place we would go to. I don’t recall having to pay to get in , but I do remember Kathy, the spitting monkey. We would always stand back and watch the unsuspecting visitor react with disgust and surprise at her spitting abilitiy. She was always accurate with her targets. The lions and other animals almost became like pets because we saw them so much. I still frequent Chilhowee Park when there are special events there (the Fair, Car Showws, Gun Shows, etc), and still remember a chldhood filled with fun and lack of fear. It was truly fun growing up in what was then known as “Park City”, and Chilhowee Park was very much a part of that growing up.

    • Thomas Minnis on January 22, 2013 at 10:09 am

      The article on “the” park was great. It really brought back wonderful memories and the excitement of my Burlington, SAFE, growing up. As my brother Bo says, “we grew up in a leave-it-to=Beaver World” and your blog is a fantastic rememberence. Thomas Minnis

  12. Bill (Kinser) Ellenburg on January 22, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    Well, I have several memories of the Park. Our older brother Mickey hit the first home run in the “nes” Little League that played at the Park. I can remember catching blue gills with homemade tackle in the lake. But perhaps one of my more vivid memories (and “lessons”) was about the ducks and geese. Friends and I would steal the duck and goose eggs from under the bushes around the lake and take them home. Mother would cook them for us, even though she disapproved of what we were doing. Well, one time wew brought home some eggs that were from ducks/geese (I don’t remember which) that had eaten wild onions! Needless to say, when we smelled them after Mother cooked them, we didn’t want any. But she made us eat them anyway! Lesson learned! I can remember selling lemonade for Bob Beard at a vending stand next to the lake, and in the late ’50’s I spent a couple of summers sweeping the floors of the basketball courts in the “admin building” for Bob (for pay, of course – $1.00 an hour!). Oh yes, one more – one of my best friends growing up used to hang around the horse stables. I could never understand his fascination with them. He went on to become one of the top Tennessee Walking Horse trainers in the state! – David Cunningham! “The good old days!”

    • Paul Brown on September 21, 2023 at 7:24 pm

      Mr. Ellenburg, I have a question about your family in East Knoxville. I live in a house on South Chilhowee Drive (Holston Hills) that was built in 1950 for the Jay G. Madden family. According to a surviving family member, the builder’s name was Ellenburg. Did any of your relatives work in construction after WWII? Thanks for any info you may have.
      Paul Brown

  13. Charlie Ellenburg on April 5, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    I also view Chilhowee Park and the enjoyment/participation of its many activities as a Burlington kid’s “right-of-passage”, and many of my memories are the same or similar to others.

    I played little league baseball on the Kiwanis team where the zoo is located with some great guys…John Justice, Glen Pinkston, Rodney Harkleroad, Stewart Barnard, David Walker, Ronnie Jeffers, Jerry Hawkins, Steve Bolden, & Archie Culvahouse. I never could hit the ball, and struck out a lot, but wonderful memories were created.

    Before the Interstate was built, Bob Terry, Tom Parker, and I would spend hours climbing around in the small caves which were adjacent to and accessible from the park. As I think back about the tight places and crazy spots we entered, if my mom had really known what we were doing she would have grounded me for a month.

    I caught my first fish only with a line, sinker, float, hook, and worm. I used the eyes of the fish I caught as bait for the next attempt. Never did catch anything worthy of taking home, and also spent time at the zoo, but thought it was a rather nasty place. I don’t ever recall having to pay to get in the zoo.

    My first job was working for Bob Beard cleaning the Jacob’s Building and lining the baseball field below the stables. Road my bike to work since I lived close by next to McCarty’s Mortuary. Bob must have provided first jobs for many youngsters while he worked for Parks & Rec.

    I, too, climbed the fence at its corner next to Petree’s florist to get in the fair when I didn’t have a pass. As a teenager I worked at Bob Beard’s archery concession. It was one of the few that actually gave the participant a good chance to win something, if they could shoot the arrow into the apple hanging from the string. No gimmicks, just good eye sight. Immediately after the fair left town I walked the midway looking for money. I also loved working at the Burlington Methodist Church’s concession stand cooking hamburgers, eating cornbread and beans, and seeing old friends.

    The skating rink was a great Saturday activity. Just like many others, I tried to skate, but usually ended up on my rear end wondering just how Jeannine Rogers could skate so gracefully.

    I remember other circuses coming to town that used the midway. Seems like it was primarily the Cole Brothers which had a big tent, animals, and performers. Jobs were available for helping to set-up, tear down, and shovel elephant poop, if you could stand it.

    The TVA&I Fair was the anticipated event that transitioned us from summer break to a new school year. And, many of us grew into adulthood with the fair serving as a benchmark each year as we attended with our elementary classmates, then our junior high friends, then our high school friends, and ultimately our spouses, children and grandchildren. What GREAT memories Chilhowee Park created!!

    • Paul Brown on September 21, 2023 at 7:23 pm

      Mr. Ellenburg, I have a question about your family in East Knoxville. I live in a house on South Chilhowee Drive (Holston Hills) that was built in 1950 for the Jay G. Madden family. According to a surviving family member, the builder’s name was Ellenburg. Did any of your relatives work in construction after WWII? Thanks for any info you may have.
      Paul Brown

  14. MIKE O'CONNOR on June 3, 2013 at 11:27 am


  15. Bill Dyke on June 3, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    For me, as a junior high kid, the Chilhowee Park “Fair” was a time to walk with what seemed like thousands of people and see famous athletes coming the other direction and the crowd would part and let them through. I saw Doug Atkins one time and he looked nine feet tall. Ray Byrd and Bob Lobertini and Buddy Cruze and players you had read about in the papers were close enough to touch, but you knew if you really touched them they would wad you up and throw you away in a heartbeat. You didn’t tug on Superman’s cape.

    It was interesting to discover, a few years later, when I was privileged to play alongside some of those and other bigger-than-life heroes who actually were just normal folks, very talented but very normal, even sometimes dropping the ball at inopportune and crucial moments, and the crowds parting thing was mostly in my mind’s eye.

    What does stick in my memory was the year I helped with the Empty Stocking Fund Christmas Baskets. A collection of ninth graders from Christenberry (my school) and other junior high schools spent a couple of days organizing hundreds or thousands of toys (arranged by age and gender) on tables in the Administration Building. On Saturday, families who would not otherwise have had a Christmas meal or presents for the kids would come in and pick up the toys and a basket of food. The rule was that every kid could choose one toy. Very few of us were from well-to-do families, but it was humbling to watch these children walk from table to table trying to decide what one gift they would receive that Christmas. I wanted to give all of them one of everything there, but I realized that’s not how it works. From then until now, however, I have always been grateful for whatever gifts I received, anywhere, in whatever context.

  16. Doug Wise on June 4, 2013 at 3:16 am

    Like most who have posted I played little league baseball with the Red Socks, Rosses dad was our coach. Also learned to drive in the area below the horses barns where my brother Bill Wise got his start as a Tennessee Walker horse trainer. Also fished in the lake after baseball practice. My sister Phyllis a and her husband Warren Miller both East High graduates rented the apartment above the afore mentioned Flower shop. I good place to sneak into the Fair Ground. Several things I don’t think have been mentioned was the great July 4th fire work display at the lake, the Coon Dog contest sponsored by the notorious Cas Walker.

    They would chain a coon to a log in the lake and the coon dogs would swim out and try and get the coon off the log. Usually turned out the coon almost drowned the dogs. Ha! And who can forget Leo the lion at the zoo on top the hill. We could hear his roar all the way to Burlington our other boy hood hangout. And beside the roller rink already mentioned that later turned to the boxing complex where Ace Miller got his start I believe and the wrestling ring next door where our wrestling heroes put on quit a show.I agree we grew up in a wonderful era of American history where we could roam from the Houston River to Park Junior School and beyond without fear of perverts, gangs etc. Thanks Ross for giving me a time to think back and reflect on so many more memories of Chilhowee Park that I won’t take up any more space to record.

  17. John Humphries on June 20, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    I lived less than a block from the Lakeside gate,just behind the Skating Rink…I practically grew up in the park and my first job was at the Zoo…eventually got promoted to the skating Rink. My memories are too many to list. My best friend’s father managed the park and actually lived on the grounds.

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