What is it we think of when we talk about a "sense of place"?
Perhaps that might seem an odd question to ask in a blog about genealogy. It is, however, not a matter of space and the objects which fill that location, but is truly owing to the people who make that place theirs which bestows us with what we call a sense of place.
It is the people who have lived in a home which make a house history compelling. Likewise, for a location like Knoxville's School for the Deaf—a place I've never visited, though now would certainly like to—it is not the buildings but the people who have made them what they are who fascinate me.
Of course, my introduction to the school came only on account of my pursuit of the Ijams family history—first, in following young Joseph Henry Harrison Ijams from his birthplace in Ohio to his college years in Iowa and then in subsequent teaching capacities for deaf students in Iowa, Washington D.C., and, ultimately, the Tennessee school in Knoxville.
With Joseph's unexpected death in 1882 in the midst of his career, the story of his five now-fatherless children beckoned me further, leading to the story of Joseph's youngest son, Harry P. Ijams. That, in turn, revealed the story behind one of the city's shining examples contributing to a sense of place, the land which eventually became the Ijams Nature Center.
That Harry, as an adult, moved from the downtown location of the Ijams home once centered around the school's well-being, to the more bucolic Island Home setting which, within ten years, became the new location for the school for the deaf, is not lost on me. I wonder: were those two relocation decisions merely coincidental? Or was there a connection between the two that led the school, once again, to be neighbors with the Ijams family?
I have tried in vain to find an answer in the recountings of local history. Though people in Knoxville certainly exhibit one qualification for a city which has a sense of place—valuing where they came from and what makes them what they have become—in all their many online postings about how-things-came-to-be, I cannot find anything more than a token nod to the fact that the school's neighboring nature preserve was originated by the son of the school's former director.
"The school itself has an unexpected connection with its eastern neighbor, Ijams Nature Center," an online article on the history of Island Home states, alongside the only photograph I've been able to find of Joseph Ijams, himself.
Though there are websites which include several pages of history of the Tennessee School for the Deaf, including a specific section on the administration of Joseph Ijams, there from 1861 to 1882, and another section on the administration during the school's move to their new campus in 1924, there was nothing on the reason behind the decision to move to that specific new location.
There are, of course, possible ways to research this detail further. I can look at records of the sale of the old campus for Knoxville's city hall, and also for records of how the school—under the control of the state of Tennessee—acquired their new campus at Island Home.
In the meantime, though, I can't help but wonder whether any of Joseph Ijams' children had anything to do with the direction that move took the school in the early 1920s.
Whether today's students give any thought to those who—a century ago—made the school what it is now, even though I have never stepped foot in the city of Knoxville, its old city hall building, or the school campus or nature center, because of the history I now know, those locations bestow upon me a sense of place. And it's all because of the people, not merely the space.