Thompson Photograph Collection, McClung Historical Collection
J. Allen Smith & Company
The J. Allen Smith & Company building at the corner of East Depot Avenue and North Central Street in Knoxville.
Because Knoxville may get in the news these days via the college-sports pages, it sometimes surprises folks that it is, at its core, an industrial city. Economically driven by its extractive industries, especially marble and iron—a century ago, Knoxville was known as the Marble City—Knoxville diversified to manufacture railroad equipment, textiles and furniture.
Even today, Knoxville factories produce medical equipment, automobile parts, even signs for the New York subway system. But to the regional consumer, Knoxville’s most famous products are those that can be found on grocery shelves.
One is century-old Bush Brothers, the national canned-bean purveyor, which originated in Chestnut Hill, Tennessee, in the foothills of the Smokies; moving their headquarters 40 miles west to suburban Knoxville is a fairly recent development.
However, a couple of other grocery items are more Knoxville-bred, from ideas germinated right downtown, generations ago.
Think of the essential Smoky Mountain breakfast and it might include some scratch White Lily Flour biscuits, made from the simple recipe on the bag, which has never been improved upon—and a strong cup of JFG coffee. They’ve both been around as long as anybody can remember, and both evolved along the narrow, sooty streets of Knoxville’s central business district.
White Lily’s origins go all the way back to the Reconstruction era.
Knoxville seemed “finished” by the Civil War, by some accounts. Badly abused by the war, both by shelling and by quartering thousands of soldiers from both sides, the city showed obvious scars for years. Some of its most charismatic leaders left town for good. Knoxville’s apparent postwar neutrality was mainly pragmatic in nature, and may have started as a tense balance of political and regional affiliations. Still, the city welcomed strangers, as if assuming they might be friendlier and harder-working than the locals. The city was uncommonly open to new industry. Within a couple of decades after the war, Knoxville had a reputation as one of the industrial centers of the South.
The classic Reconstruction-era story is of industrial opportunists, maligned as “carpetbaggers,” coming from up north to make some money hereabouts. There were certainly a lot Northerners who came to Knoxville in those years. But sometimes it flowed in the opposite direction.
Born and raised in rural Elbert County, Ga., near the South Carolina state line, J. Allen Smith had lived and worked in Atlanta before coming to Knoxville in 1873, a young man ambitious to start his own business. Hilly East Tennessee grew some wheat in those days. Everybody likes bread, and for the rapidly growing population, there was a demand. Smith guessed he might have some success with a grain wholesale business here, and guessed right. He first just bought and sold grain on a wholesale basis. In 1881, Smith fixed up a small mill and started doing some milling of that grain, to make flour.
He must have has a knack. In 1886, still in his 30s, he built a five-story factory in a rapidly developing northeastern corner of downtown, a former swamp that was becoming known as Irish Town, due to the population of working-class immigrants in the vicinity. It was a neighborhood of both million-dollar wholesale houses and cheap saloons, dozens of them, which also catered to the demand for cocaine, prostitutes, billiards, and gambling. It was maybe the grimiest, most dangerous neighborhood in East Tennessee, and must have seemed an unlikely place to manufacture something that would become famous for its unadulterated purity.
That neighborhood did have some advantages. Smith’s bold plant was less than a mile down the street from an industrial barge wharf on the Tennessee River, where riverboat traffic flowed to Chattanooga, Huntsville, sometimes as far as Memphis and New Orleans. More importantly, Smith’s plant was immediately adjacent to the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia railway, which already connected Atlanta, Mobile, and Memphis with the population centers of the Northeast (The ETV&G would soon become part of Southern Railway). Knoxville likes to think of itself as remote, but it was not then.
Smith equipped his factory with state-of-the-art milling equipment. To install it, he enlisted by another talented newcomer, a young Englishman named William J. Savage. The 25-year-old machine-shop whiz, an inventor of sorts, had tarried in several Northern cities before coming to Knoxville. Savage was so pleased with his work for Smith that he stayed in town and started his own rolling-mill manufacturing business, later branching into the marble-mill machinery business, prominent in Knoxville for more than half a century. In Knoxville’s industrial history, no figure is more associated with heavy steel equipment than William J. Savage—but he came here to J. Allen Smith to help make something light and fluffy.
Smith was famously concerned with quality control. In his factory they manufactured not just flour, but the elm-stave barrels they packed it in.
With apparent pride in his new home, Smith called the industrial palace Knoxville City Mills. White Lily was just one of several flours Smith produced at the mill—he in fact created dozens of different varieties, many of them with colorful names: Jasco, Mayflower, Orange Blossom, Alpine Snow, Standard Fancy. One, advertised as a “special baker’s cake flour,” had a name chosen to convince the skeptical: it was called Evidence.
Somewhere along the way, J. Allen Smith created a new flour that was uncommonly light and pure. A new flour needed a new name, and by one story, he named it for his wife, Lillie. There’s another story; an early partner of Smith’s was one Jasper Lily.
Regardless of its nomenclature, White Lily became Smith’s most popular and famous product and, arguably, Knoxville’s. A conspicuous feature downtown, the White Lily factory was one of the first things Southern Railway passengers saw of Knoxville.
In 1903 Smith built a 175-foot smokestack for the generator that powered his mills. It was in operation for only 35 years before the company went all-electric, but it was a monument that made Smith’s mill easy to find. During the heyday of passenger train travel, the White Lily smokestack was perhaps the tallest structure in Knoxville. On the ride from Mobile to Richmond, it was a memorable landmark.
The J. Allen Smith Co. was a major success, and its owner became a major local philanthropist. He was a big backer of the major Appalachian Exposition of 1910, the Knoxville Welfare Association, the University of Tennessee’s agricultural experiment station, and, during its greatest need during World War I, the Red Cross. He and his wife Lillie moved into a big hacienda-style house by the new golf course on the west side of town, with a commanding view of a turn in the Tennessee River.
Smith was in his mid-70s when he died in 1925, before he ever got to taste another local product soon to be starting up just across the tracks and around the corner.
East Tennessee grows even less coffee than it does wheat, but it’s always been a popular beverage.
From 1882, James Franklin Goodson had a successful grocery wholesaling business in Morristown, about 40 miles east of Knoxville. He was known to take special care with his coffee, especially after a New York supplier disappointed him. He died in 1913, and by 1921 his son, Floyd Goodson, began roasting his own green coffee, and was looking into starting a business that concentrates mainly on that product. It was the middle of national Prohibition, and the demand for coffee had never been higher.
Goodson moved to Knoxville in 1926 and started a factory in East Tennessee’s most interesting industrial neighborhood, near the same freight yard that had hosted J. Allen Smith’s company, and started a coffee factory to roast and grind imported beans from select suppliers in Latin America. In memory of his father, he named it JFG, his father’s monogram.
Importing coffee by the ton from Colombia, Venezuela, and especially Brazil, JFG began processing and marketing its own brands for a large regional market, selling coffee in eight states, roughly those within a 300-mile radius of Knoxville. In 1936, JFG moved into a large old hat factory on West Jackson, almost in the shadow of the White Lily smokestack. By then, they were known for their slogan: “The Best Part of the Meal.”
Goodson earned a reputation as “the Coffee King.” For decades, downtown sometimes looked awful, a sooty wreck that earned it one famous writer’s distinction of “ugliest city in America,” but locals didn’t mind it much, because it smelled like good coffee.
For 70 years, White Lily Flour and JFG Coffee were being manufactured within shouting distance of each other. There JFG eventually earned some national status, becoming Delta Airlines’ favored in-flight brand. The company also started manufacturing some other foods, like peanut butter and mayonnaise.
Knoxville had lots of factories, some of them much larger, in plant size and employment, than White Lily and JFG: textile mills, marble mills, big machine shops like the Fulton plant, which employed thousands making precision equipment. But most of the big ones were tucked away from the daily hubbub of the city, often forming their own neighborhoods.
It says something about the nature of the quality-food industry that these two thrived downtown, in the daily gaze of thousands of downtown commuters, and thousands of tourists coming and going from the train station. The factories themselves had advertising value. Perhaps the typical passenger on the Birmingham Special, or the typical UT student, or the typical attendee to downtown Knoxville’s famous live-radio country music shows, did not ever have the opportunity to purchase anything from Brookside Mills, or the Fulton Bellows plant, the Knoxville Iron Company. Knoxville’s heavy-industry giants weren’t familiar brands that people saw on store shelves. But all these random visitors might well buy a sack of flour, or a sack of coffee, and maybe very soon.
When much of traveling America funneled through Knoxville on the Southern Railway, a big factory near the station with big signs painted on brick—and, in JFG’s case, a distinctive aroma—may have been better than a TV commercial.
Under Smith’s successors, first his son Powell Smith, who ran the company for almost 20 years until his death in 1944, White Lily Flour expanded its reputation and its franchise, becoming, for a time, especially popular in Cuba.
Meanwhile, Goodson retired from JFG in 1957 and turned over executive duties at JFG to his ambitious son, Floyd Goodson Jr., who reminded everyone of his popular dad. But when Floyd Jr. was on a marketing trip to West Tennessee, he died in a plane crash. The elderly Floyd Sr. took over the company again, and though he sold it to Reily Foods of New Orleans, he retained a role as chairman of the board, and coffee tester, until well into the 1970s.
About the same time Goodson sold JFG, the Smith family sold White Lily to the first of a series of national concerns to own it.
As employers, both JFG and White Lily were significant, but never dominant. There were Knoxville knitting mills and heavy-industry factories that employed five times as many as either White Lily and JFG put together. But as familiar symbols of quality, they were unparalleled. Knoxville got some terrible press in the middle of the 20th century, but it could still claim it made the best biscuit flour in the world. White Lily was specified in some biscuit and cake recipes, even outside the Southeast, where Smith’s invention was hard to find. Some gourmet catalogues, like Dean & Deluca, carried it.
In 1992, New York magazine heralded the fact that White Lily was finally available in stores in the Big Apple: “Any Southerner who knows his pie crust knows that White Lily is the only flour worth stocking.”
At the beginning of the 21st century, the two giants were still close neighbors, operating out of the same buildings their long-gone founders had established. The millers at White Lily could smell the aroma of JFG’s coffee, as could most of downtown. Occasionally they encountered each other, and boasted of their relative national fame.
White Lily eventually landed in the hands of food giant Smucker’s, who in 2008 closed down the plant, favoring an Ohio mill reportedly closer to their modern wheat sources. It was controversial, as some food experts claimed the new White Lily flour wasn’t quite up to the standards of the old Knoxville product. The New York Times cited Atlanta cookbook author Shirley Corriher attesting that “There’s an incredible difference” between White Lily and other all-purpose flours. “It’s much, much finer, much whiter, and much silkier.” Some claim it’s never been quite the same since the Knoxville plant closed.
By then, some White Lily Flour was already being manufactured in the Ohio facility, and other cooks praise its post-Knoxville product.
Meanwhile, needing to expand JFG’s operations, Reily considered moving the Knoxville factory from its hometown, but in 2005, they built a multi-million-dollar facility, still in central Knoxville, but just about three miles to the west. JFG Coffee is still ground in Knoxville, and may be for many years to come.
When White Lily and JFG left downtown Knoxville, they left a couple of interesting old buildings. Almost immediately, imaginative developer David Dewhirst converted Floyd Goodson’s old JFG factory into an apartment building. It’s been fully occupied for a few years, and there’s still a waiting list to get in.
Big advertising signs are sometimes considered eyesores, to such a degree that the city of Knoxville has banned new billboards. But for decades, the JFG sign on the south side of the Tennessee River, just opposite downtown, became a landmark. Knoxville-born poet Nikki Giovanni once referred to it in a nostalgic prose piece called “Coffee Signs.”
JFG had become such an icon in Knoxville and some other cities, including Charlotte, that locals made an effort to save the old signs, with their motto, “The Best Part of the Meal.” In Knoxville, a $15,000 grant from Reily Foods kicked off a fundraising campaign that refurbished the sign and established it permanently near its original perch at the south end of the Gay Street Bridge. The city demonstrated its regard for JFG’s legacy by changing a sign ordinance to allow the re-erection of a sign that would have been illegal by modern policy.
Meanwhile, just as White Lily was leaving its 130-year-old factory by the train tracks, its legacy was molting into a new form. Knoxville’s International Biscuit Festival, inspired by the White Lily legacy but not actually launched until 2010, two years after the company left, was a surprise springtime success right out of the oven, attended by thousands and recommended in national magazines like Parade, which cited it as one of America’s most notable food festivals.
And developer David Dewhirst, who successfully converted the JFG building into apartments, is at work on converting the oldest part of the J. Allen Smith’s original White Lily factory into 48 new apartments.
Things change, inevitably. Knoxville’s industrial legacy of manufacturing beloved products for Southern kitchens survives in new forms.