“History is a conversation”

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An intimate crowd gathered at the Mabry-Hazen House this week to celebrate the end of the summer season. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh

For local history buffs, the Mabry-Hazen House is a treasure trove unlike any other.  

It’s not the 130 years worth of furniture, paintings and fine China that grace its stately rooms that make it so valuable. It’s also not the 2,000 artifacts on display, making up one of the country’s largest original family collections. 

It’s the stories. 

The sprawling Italianate home overlooks downtown Knoxville in the same way that it has since it was built in 1858. Its occupants experienced the Civil War, the technological boom that began in the early 20th century, two World Wars, the Great Depression…. not to mention deadly violence, personal tragedy and scandal. 

No wonder, then, that some visitors say they can hear three generations of the Mabry-Hazen family whisper to them through the material remainders of their lives, carefully preserved in one of the nation’s most prestigious house museums. 

It’s exactly the effect that Executive Director Patrick Hollis believes visitors should experience in a place such as the Mabry-Hazen House.

“History is a conversation,” Hollis said Wednesday as he walked the grounds, briefly stopping to discuss the home’s furnishings and other exhibits with guests. “It’s a discussion between past and present about our future.”

Evelyn Hazen. Source: Mabry-Hazen House
Patrick Hollis

Hollis and other staffers greeted the change of seasons with a “Night at the Museum” celebration Wednesday evening as the sun dipped beneath the surrounding mountains. A few dozen guests lounged about the tremendous front porch and the extensive grounds, sipping drinks and watching the shadows lengthen in much the same way that countless visitors over the past two centuries must have done. 

Hollis was pleased to note that the Mabry-Hazen House, which first opened as a museum after its last resident, Evelyn Hazen, died in 1987, has been doing exceptionally well over the past few years. 

The museum managed to keep its doors open in 2020 despite the pandemic by limiting the size of tour groups and requiring everyone to wear masks, Hollis said. With the advent of vaccines, however, the crowds not only returned but actually increased in size. 

“Last year, we were able to balance people visiting the museum with health and safety protocols,” he said. “We’ve actually seen a huge increase this year — we’re up 65 percent from our 2019 numbers.”

Hollis, who took over the museum’s reins four years ago, is a true believer when it comes to using the experiences of the past to illuminate current events. He’s excited that the current programming covers a diverse range of topics and doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of the home’s past.

Joseph Mabry, the family patriarch who built the home, lived a life that was steeped in violence.

His business dealings included the buying and selling of his fellow human beings, and he was a loyal Confederate during the Civil War. 

“Mabry was one of Knoxville’s largest slave owners,” Hollis said. “He was also active in the slave trade, so it’s hard to really nail down exactly how many people he owned. He said that he owned 17 slaves in 1860.”

Joseph Mabry’s death would be notably violent, as well. 

In 1881, Mabry’s declining fortunes had led to several feuds with other members of Knoxville’s first families. A particularly bitter feud with businessman Thomas O’Connor erupted into a brutal gun battle on Gay Street that killed O’Connor, Mabry, and Mabry’s oldest son.

Mabry’s daughter, Alice, married a wealthy suitor named Rush Hazen. They in turn had three daughters, the youngest of whom, Evelyn, would continue living in the house until 1987. 

Evelyn was ultimately engaged to a man named Ralph Scharringhaus (described by Hollis as “a cad”) who repeatedly put off their wedding and ultimately broke her heart. She ended up successfully suing her former fiancé for seduction and breach of promise to marry, but the ensuing publicity (including coverage in LIFE magazine) led to her ostracism from Knoxville society.

This rich history gives Hollis a wealth of stories to weave into contemporary discussions about race, gun violence, and gender roles. 

“We try to bring in relevant topics, things that people are talking about,” he explained. “We’ve got gunfights and sex scandals here …. We can talk about the effects of guns in society because Joseph Mabry died in the infamous gunfight on Gay Street.

“We can talk about the roles of women and the ways they challenged the relationship between romance and their own femininity. Evelyn Hazen navigated a very tumultuous love affair that ultimately culminated in her being chastised and shunned by society because she talked about premarital sex publicly. And she was the founder of our museum — it was her experiences that led to this site existing today.”

Still, the house can frustrate as easily as it can illuminate. Despite the prominence of the families that lived in its halls, the Mabry-Hazen House lacks many of the resources that professional historians thrive on. 

“It’s hard to really chase down a lot of details because we don’t have much of a paper trail,” Hollis said. “Although we have all this cool stuff, our primary document base is really limited.”

The family members didn’t leave behind any diaries, he said, although there are a couple of journals and numerous letters that chronicle the doomed romance between Evelyn Hazen and Ralph Scharringhaus. 

Hollis said Wednesday that the end of the summer season means it’s time to begin preparing for the museum’s fall programming and its popular Christmas-themed celebrations.

Hollis is especially excited by the prospect of another Halloween season in which he and the staff get to re-create a 19th century spiritualist seance. 

“When we interpret spiritualism, we not only look at it historically,” he said. “We invite energy readers, Tarot readers, and other kinds of psychics to come and discuss modern iterations.”

He added: “We think of history as this very far away place, but it often has a very important influence and effect in our modern lives. We try to connect with that.”

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on August 20, 2021