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225 Years of Commerce and Industry (Part 1)

Jessica Karsten
Monday, October 3, 2016

225 Years of Commerce and Industry (Part 1)
A History of Knoxville’s Diverse Business Community

Photo: Gay Street, 1937, Thompson Photograph Collection 
(Photo courtesy of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection – Digital Collection. Click photo to visit collection.)

Knoxville is celebrating its 225th anniversary this month, and with that celebration comes an observance of the city’s vibrant and industrious past. While a number of elements have shaped Knoxville into the dynamic city it is today, none have been as impactful as the evolution of business and industry. Regardless of the era, Knoxville has always been an ideal destination for people to start and run their businesses, and has served as the hub for a variety of progressive industries and technological advancements.

1791 – 1840s: Budding Industry in a New Business Destination

Established in 1791, Knoxville ambitiously served as the capital of the Southwest Territory of the United States. Given its isolated position in East Tennessee, the city’s first initiatives were manifested through the creation of roads and highways to make the area more accessible to early settlers. These people recognized the city’s prime location as a frontier outpost and the possibilities for future growth and development, which encouraged significant migration to the area by individuals and families hoping to take advantage of abundant opportunities.

During its early years, the city experienced a number of transitions and advancements in its developing industries. Local agriculture began to transform from frontier-based to settled field and livestock culture, with an emphasis on hog and cattle driving. The Knoxville Gazette, established the same year as the city’s founding, was the source of news, legislative announcements, and advertisements for locals. This early print publication was one of the first newspapers in the U.S. and marked the beginning of Knoxville’s long-standing media and communication industry. Blount College, now the University of Tennessee, was founded in 1794 as one of the first American colleges west of the Appalachian Mountains and continues to serve the region as a premier research institution.

Knoxville also began attracting a number of skilled workers and business professionals including architects, cabinetmakers, and physicians during this era. Many specialists and entrepreneurs established their businesses in the area, making downtown Knoxville a bustling center for commerce and industry. A number of stores opened on Gay and Main streets like the McClung, Wallace & Co. wholesale company which established itself as Knoxville’s first wholesale house in 1837. The introduction of the wholesaling industry marked a significant milestone in Knoxville’s business community, as it would soon become a dominant center for wholesaling in the south. 

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