Clinch River, Coal Creek, and Chow Chow

Norris is a small East Tennessee town known for its lake, marinas, state park, museums, and a giant Tennessee Valley Authority dam. Like most small towns surrounding Knoxville, new businesses are springing up and outdoor areas are being developed for tourism.

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Here are my recommendations for stuffing your face, immersing yourself in nature, and brushing up on your history.

Sweet Cafe
Breakfast is not typically the meal that impresses me during the day, but Sweet Cafe has just the right combination of simple and special. I took two sunny side eggs with grilled onions and goat cheese, extra crispy “home fries” (skillet potatoes), whole wheat toast, and coffee.

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Inside the cafe, chalkboards with bible scriptures, commandments, patron photos, and community prayer requests line the walls.

I mentally lit a candle for each person on the list as I dipped my toast into runny yolk and blessed my home fries in chipotle sauce.

A dozen or so older folks filled the central tables, and listening to them talk was a treat. Clearly they meet there on a regular basis and they have an agenda.

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When I arrived, they were discussing how much the pharmacist was charging each of them for various medications in the event one of them was receiving an unfair advantage.

Next they discussed the origins of a story going around and scouting the source based on who found out about it on which street. I tuned out once my plate arrived, and they moved on to other subjects.

On one side of the cafe is an ice cream counter that I imagine is packed during warmer months. I sat envious about these massive globe light fixtures. Aren’t they wonderful?

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Vega Cafe
Originally I intended to visit Apollo restaurant but found out they closed before I could visit. Fast forward several months and now Vega Cafe has opened in the old Apollo location. A friend recommended this cafe so I went back, and everything I tried was delicious.

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I took the smoked chicken club with bacon, avocado, lettuce, and cranberry aioli on toasted grainy wheat bread. The smokiness of the chicken melted so well with the salty bacon and tart sweetness of the cranberry.

I also drank about half a gallon of their delicious cantaloupe water.

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As I waited, I was able to read up a bit on the owner via framed articles. He has a rather interesting background as a chef and entrepreneur, and with a rather extensive client base that includes overseas service.

Someday I might go back and ask him to tell me stories, but I was having trouble honing any social skills with this chocolate cake in the case beside me.

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As a baker and former bakery owner myself, I have developed fairly accurate superpowers that allow me to decipher if a cake is homemade or not.

I could be wrong but the texture, consistency, taste, smell, and colour of this cake and its icing all showed signs of being HOMEMADE. It would be well worth another trip just for a slice of this cake.

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Clinch River Brewing
In the former Aquatics Lab, Clinch River Brewing and Tap Room peacefully overlooks the water. CRB is just one of the places I sneak off to sometimes when I am just not feeling downtown Knoxville and do not have the time or freedom to actually leave the city/country.

Recently, CRB announced they will be opening a second location in downtown Knoxville but nothing beats a serene outdoor patio by the lake.

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My favourite sandwich here is the Piggy Back with smoked pork belly, Benton’s bacon, sweet chili pepper jam, and homemade pickles on toasted French bread with something called Chow Chow.

Chow Chow, I learned, is a spicy mustard and cabbage-based relish, and I am a new fan.

I told myself that if I save half for later it is okay to indulge in a spicy, faintly chocolatey molé beer (or two).

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Archer’s Foods
In the shared building central to Norris Square, you can find Archer’s Foods.

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In addition to any type of food your heart desires, they have a heavenly wine and craft beer selection comprised of local and international companies. Here is one of many rows:

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Archer’s has a walk-up butchery that supplies several restaurants and patrons with fresh locally-sourced meat. After hearing about Dave’s famous Kimchi, I dutifully picked up some to take home.

I don’t really have a theme song for this blog, but this was playing through my head most of the day. On second thought, maybe I should have chosen a song by that pop band Savage Garden.

Savage Gardens
Savage Garden Road has an unmarked driveway that makes a sharp curve up behind the hill. There is no sign for the garden but you will see the backside of massive rock formations to your left.

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A gentleman on the property guided me to a small parking circle across from a covered picnic table and told me where to start.

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Note the visible path to the left

Savage Gardens are owned by his family and are open to the public from March through May each year. There is not much about them online so I just decided to take a chance and drive out, not knowing what to expect.

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A soft trail leads you through budding wildflowers, ferns, trillium, ivy, succulents, and on to the giant limestone garden.

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The gardens cover about thirty acres and the trail makes a giant loop. My witch senses were tingling so I went off path and stretched out in a clearing for a bit, but the rocks were always in sight.

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Norris Dam State Park
I entered through the far end instead of starting at the Visitor’s Center, but ultimately parked there.

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Norris Dam State Park holds over 4,000 acres and has more than 800 miles of shoreline, according to the website.

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From the Visitors Center, I started out on the white trail that leads to the Tall Timber, Christmas Fern, and Other trails.

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Unlike my excursion at Savage Gardens, I usually stay on path and sit by the water for a while.

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I’m so curious about what kind of tree this is.

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Norris Dam
Norris Lake is over 200 miles long and spans six counties in East Tennessee. The Norris Dam was created in 1933, when the federal government and TVA took on the great task to control massive flooding and to set the groundwork infrastructure to bring electricity to the area.

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I have walked across Norris Dam countless times over the last few years, toward the marina where some family and friends rent boat slips.

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The water here is a lovely teal and aqua, with loads of private coves to dock your boat and spend the day.

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Walking back to the Visitors Center, there is a plaque to honour a worker who died while in construction. The poem gives me chills:

“Mourn not the dead who in the cool earth lie, dust unto dust
The calm sweet earth that mothers all who die, as all men must
But rather mourn the apathetic throng, the cowed and the meek
Who see the world’s great anguish and its wrong, and dare not speak”

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Coal Creek Miners Museum
A small museum off Main Street keeps the history of the Coal Creek, Fraterville, and Briceville Mines. When I arrived at the Coal Creek Miners Museum, two friendly ladies greeted me, set up a short video, then gave me a private tour.

I learned about convict labor and the establishment of the 11/29 law that ensured only convicted men of colour were sold for labor.

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One lady led me through the progression of miner strikes and revolts against insufferable conditions, illustrated by glass prints and framed documents.

Various tools, hats, lunch tins, water canteens, medical kits, gas masks, and newspapers from the time are on display also.

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There is an exhibit room with territory maps and scales, and one in the back that tells of the 1902 Fraterville Mine disaster.

Nearly every male in these communities were killed, leaving only the youngest of male children that could not yet work.

Many did not die immediately, but were trapped and slowly suffocated to death. You can read letters some of them wrote while waiting for their last breath to pass.

The mining company showed no penance, and the damage inflicted on the land left it impossible to use for agriculture or civilization. The people who remained have had a long, miserable journey to build the communities that thrive there now.

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W.G. Lenoir Museum Complex
Hundreds of thousands of artifacts tracing to Early American life in East Tennessee can be found at the W. G. Lenoir Museum Complex.

The Rice Gristmill, Water Wheel, and Threshing Barn are on surrounding property, and the nearby Museum of Appalachia is well worth a visit for anyone interested in frontier village and mountain life.

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Admission is donation based and you can find anything from typical home decor and furniture, farm/kitchen machinery and tools, weapons, pottery, glassware, baskets, quilts, and more.

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In the area for a few days? Follow me to Clinton and Oak Ridge.

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4 thoughts on “Clinch River, Coal Creek, and Chow Chow

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