Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Roots of "Knoxville's Backyard"


There is a reason I've been following the meandering tendrils of the Ijams family tree. What began as this month's research quest to push back the generations beyond my mother-in-law's third great-grandmother Sarah Howard Ijams Jackson led to desperately probing all the collateral Ijams lines, then reading Ijams wills, then pursuing those named descendants.

Early in the process, as an orienting device, I began the narrative by explaining just how to pronounce that unusual surname, Ijams. Handily, an Internet search brought up a web page providing a quick answer in a discussion about a place called the Ijams Nature Center. While I included that link in the post earlier this month, the farther I dove into the research, the more I realized that website didn't just lead to a coincidental resource for the Ijams surname, but was a representative resource for the very family I had been researching.

Thankfully, when I first stumbled upon that link, I had asked myself, "What is the Ijams Nature Center?" That question led me first to promotional material from the city's visitors center, but beguiled me even farther along an unwinding trail of articles on gardening, bird watching, and preserving not only nature but also the city's history. At first due to general interest, I read up on the place—which sounds like a wonderful spot to visit—but it wasn't until I started down the line of Sarah Ijams' brother Joseph's descendants, especially his youngest son who benefited so much from his uncle Isaac's largesse, that I started seeing names which looked rather familiar.

As you probably have realized by now, the twenty acre South Knoxville farm which Harry and Alice Ijams acquired in 1910 has become one and the same as the nature preserve now dubbed as "Knoxville's Backyard." Perhaps because of Harry Ijams' avid pursuit of ornithology, and his wife's equally dedicated involvement in local horticulture both as a businesswoman and as a pioneer of the emerging garden club movement, their twenty acre home became a showcase for the hard work behind their interests.

Harry—known as H. P. Ijams, a commercial artist and illustrator for the Knoxville News-Sentinel—was widely networked with ornithologists, conservationists, proponents of the Smoky Mountains region. Alice devoted her energies to the formation of garden clubs and the development of the local Girl Scouts resources.

After Harry's death in 1954, following by Alice's declining health, their daughter Jo became instrumental, along with the garden club formed through her mother's inspiration, in launching a city-wide effort to preserve the Ijams property as a public park. That dream was achieved, though after Alice's passing, when the city bought the property in 1965. The result eventually was named the Ijams Nature Center.

If you, as I did, wondered whether the name of that nature center in Knoxville and that of my mother-in-law's roots represented any more than just a coincidence, now you know the connection. That, however, is not the end of the story. At least, it is not the end of my questions, for we have one more trail to pursue before we wrap up this month's research project.

One last question is prompted by the same website which first informed us of the pronunciation of the Ijams surname. As a caption to the first of several photographs of the nature center, the brief entry directed us to "find the park...just past Tennessee School for the Deaf."

Why would the Ijams Nature Center be next to the Tennessee School for the Deaf? Was there another continuing connection to explore here?  

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