Category Archives: Around Chattanooga

Interesting things I have learned about Chattanooga and the surrounding area

Portrait of a working woman

Chattanooga’s Chambliss Center began in 1872 as an orphanage. It has since morphed into a limited residence program for displaced teens and a 24-hour daycare center for working parents. The center’s mission is “to preserve family unity and to help prevent the dependency, neglect, abuse and delinquency of children by responding to the community’s childcare needs.”

For a year producer Maria Shriver shadowed a mother who depends on Chambliss services, as part of a documentary series on the working poor. Recently our Sunday school class decided to take a look at Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert (see The film presents a year in the life of a mother living and working in the Chattanooga area, and it led me to the conclusion that our communities have social obligations to the working poor—people who provide essential services to families of all classes—in the face of huge financial obstacles.

What can go wrong will go wrong

Thirty-year-old single mother Katrina Gilbert takes two of her three children to Chambliss Center so that she can work long, hard hours as a certified nursing assistant, at $9.50 an hour. In Katrina’s world, anything that can go wrong does go wrong. She married young, with the dream of having a family and buying a home. That dream went sideways when her husband became addicted to painkillers and lost the family’s income. To keep her family afloat, Katrina moved with her three children into a trailer. Her husband moved home to Alabama to live with his mother.

In the documentary you see Katrina make a tremendous effort to keep the kids and their dad connected, regularly driving them to Alabama for visits and encouraging him to find work near the children. Periodically Katrina loses her food stamps, and she must choose between getting much-needed medical care for herself, feeding her children, and paying the legal fees for divorce. Eventually she gives her trailer to the children’s dad and moves in with her boyfriend, a cheerful working man who also has several children and problems of his own. She is accepted into a college program only to be denied scholarship money, making furthering her education impossible.

Despite these and other setbacks, Katrina remains positive, sure that everything will work out. She’s a loving (if sometimes overwhelmed) mother and a devoted caregiver to the elderly residents of the nursing home where she works.

We’re all related

Anyone who has family responsibilities can relate to Katrina. She isn’t some layabout: She works hard and she loves her patients and her children. She has meaningful personal relationships—some that flounder and others that bring her joy.

Tribulations like Katrina’s are not limited to the poor. After viewing the film, a friend in the class talked with me about it. “Sound familiar?” I asked, knowing that she and I had a shared history of single motherhood, and she quickly nodded. We both related to the sorrow the children feel when Dad is not a constant presence in their lives, the panic when a child gets sick and you have no backup plan for daycare, the anxious maneuvering for summer care, the confusion over how to respond when the children blame Mom for Dad’s absence. Because of education, my friend and I had more choices than Katrina, but I’m not sure I made my choices with Katrina’s equanimity.

Focus on hope

Our connection with Katrina is the thing that pushes back on, calling Katrina “the most sympathetic poor woman in America” and pointing out that Shriver hand-picked Katrina because she is so easy to empathize with. As Shriver herself says in an interview with Atlantic Monthly, “everyone in this story is trying.” points out there are a lot of people who make bad decisions, and they need help too. Would we empathize with a less likeable woman whose poor decisions resulted in addiction, illiteracy, homelessness, and utter hopelessness? Maybe not so much.

The question to ask, though, is why the film maker chose to focus on hope rather than hopelessness. If Maria Shriver has an ulterior motive, it is to show that there is a need for social change. Katrina just can’t make it alone, no matter how hopeful she feels or how hard she works. In the absence of family support, she needs the support of her community.

In interviews Shriver suggests solutions: Our communities should encourage women to go to school, vote on women’s issues, and mentor other women. Women should partner with men to exert economic power by making spending decisions that support companies whose employees receive fair wages, family sick leave, and benefits. Those who can donate time and money should support nonprofits—like Chambliss Center—that do what they can to shore up the working poor in America.


Death in the Dynamo

J.D. Frost’s Dollface

With its hilly terrain, historic Civil War battlefields, and well-advertised attractions Rock City and Ruby Falls, Chattanooga has long been a popular tourist attraction in the Southeast. Before the turn of the 20th century it was also a railroad hub and industrial powerhouse. By the 1930s our city became known as the “Dynamo of the South” because its factories and foundries generated a lively industrial economy. That economy eventually waned, but in the 21st century the city’s economy has been revived by investment in new manufacturing and in the country’s fastest
Internet connection. Now known as “Gig City,” Chattanooga has a high-tech vibe that attracts young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs. It has also attracted artists and novelists, among them retired optometrist J.D. Frost. This August Frost released his mystery Dollface, a police procedural that portrays Chattanooga as a young, hip destination city with dark undertones.

The detective

Chattanooga police detective Moses Palmer is a divorced father of one driven from the Atlanta police force by his powerful—and vengeful—father-in-law. He attracts unwanted attention from the press and the bad guys, creating such animosity from his superiors that he is constantly in jeopardy of losing his job. He has a keen sense of place, a new partner, and a guilty secret from his childhood—a secret he’d rather not face. Sound familiar? As a Michael Connelly fan, I picked up on the similarities to the Hieronymus Bosch series from the beginning of the novel. It seems that J.D. Frost is also a fan of the scruffy Bosch. Frost attended an optometrist’s convention in Los Angeles, where he saw first-hand the backdrop of his favorite Bosch novel, Angel’s Flight. That visit inspired Frost to recreate himself as a novelist with Dollface.

The story

Palmer has been in Chattanooga only a brief time when a stalker/serial killer begins sending him taunting videos of gruesome murders. Frost does a creditable job of moving the plot along while exploring the animosity that the lead investigator and city officials feel toward Palmer and the negative publicity he seems to have brought the city. Frost also explores the protagonist’s childhood tragedy and his divorce, giving the reader a glimpse into what may come in the next two installments of this planned trilogy of mysteries. And Frost cleverly uses his knowledge of optometry to create a clue that breaks the case for Palmer and his partner.

The stage

Frost uses the city and surrounding countryside to define Palmer’s character and further the plot. The stage is almost exclusively set in a limited area of downtown Chattanooga, offering only the briefest of scenes in Red Bank and Hixson. Riverside Drive is a major conduit for Palmer as he searches for the killer. The irony is that Palmer is something of an aquaphobe—
a bad thing for a Chattanoogan, since the Tennessee River dissects the city. Palmer takes circuitous routes to work in order to shield himself from water. As a result we get really detailed descriptions of downtown Chattanooga, East Ridge, Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain, and even the ever-congested Brainerd Road.

In a sense, the river is a character in the novel. It’s always on Palmer’s mind. Driving down Riverside Drive, he makes note of the current in the river—some days the “the river is flat,” others the river is tumultuous. He looks down from a Lookout Mountain mansion/crime scene to see Moccasin Bend, a recognizable bend in the river. And in the end he cannot avoid becoming immersed in the river as he tracks down the serial killer through the Bluff View Art District and into the water.

What’s next

Frost has an interesting perspective as a first-time novelist at age 67 and a regular visitor to Chattanooga from his home base in Alabama.   He says he is working on the next Moses Palmer novel, the second in a planned trilogy. Let’s hope Palmer has exorcised his water demons and can now cross the river to explore the North Shore and beyond.

An aside

In this book Palmer briefly visits his hometown of Summerville, Georgia. In life, Summerville is a picturesque small town set in beautiful rolling hills. It is also home to Hayes State prison, which has recently become notorious for brutal conditions, lax security, and an excessive number of inmate deaths. The prison is within eye shot of a the peculiar, sprawling Paradise Gardens, a ramshackle set of buildings created by the late folk artist Howard Finster. Summerville is the home of an annual folk festival, Finsterfest, each May. Visiting Paradise Gardens is a real treat for those who love folk art. I can’t see Moses Palmer at Finsterfest, but that town would be an interesting backdrop for Palmer’s expert detecting.


Love many, trust few: The life of Anna Safley Houston

Last summer I took a temporary job as manager of the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts. No, I didn’t move to Houston! This Chattanooga, Tennessee museum contains Victorian art and antiques collected by Mrs. Anna Safley Houston.

When I began the job I was new to the museum. A perpetual open house visitor, I was very interested in the Victorian home that houses the collections. But over time, my interest focused on the collections. What at first seemed to be an old house filled with Victorian fru fru quickly became a fascinating window into the Victorian mind. I can attest from experience that a visit to this museum can send one scurrying to one’s parents’ basement to unearth treasures ranging from ceramic piano babies to marked milk glass.

The life of a collector

For sale in the museum is journalist Tom Williams’ biography Always Paddle Your Own Canoe: The Life, Legend and Legacy of Anna Safley Houston. The book’s title comes from her childhood autograph book in which a friend says: “Love many, trust few/And always paddle your own canoe.”

To say that this independent Victorian woman always paddled her own canoe is an understatement. Anna Safley Houston could fell the tree, mold it into a canoe, and fashion the oar before she ever launched the canoe.

She was born Anna May Safley in 1876, about the time that art glass made an appearance in American homes. The oldest of 11 children, she was put in charge of her siblings when her mother died. At age 15, tired of caring for her brothers and sisters, she set out on her own to see the world. Among her early jobs:

  • Buyer for Marshall Field in Chicago
  • Member of the travelling “Sullivan Sisters,” a troupe of women who groomed their hair in public to sell hair tonic
  • Milliner
  • Dress maker
  • Antiques dealer

Never widowed, Anna Safley probably married nine or ten times. Her first marriage produced two children, both of whom died in infancy. During the second pregnancy, her husband left her and, when she asked her family for shelter, they declined because it was unseemly to harbor a pregnant woman with no husband. She never forgave the family for the slight: At her death she left nothing to her siblings and instead left everything to the museum that bears her name.

Anna moved to Chattanooga with her second husband, who failed to mention that he had a venereal disease until she had been infected and who eventually absconded with at least some of her money. In Chattanooga she married many men several years her junior, but James W. Houston seemed to have been her favorite. He lasted 16 years, and she retained his name when she divorced subsequent husbands.

After the Great Depression, Anna went without food and healthcare to avoid selling anything from her collection. To evade creditors, she built by her own hand a barn-like warehouse where she lived with her dog and her glittering glass treasures. At her death in 1951, the warehouse contained over 50 collections, including corner cupboards, sugar chests, guns, ceramics, and glass. In the glass collection were 15,000 pitchers. Today, the glass housed in the Houston Museum is considered one of the finest collections in the world.

The mystery that was Mrs. Houston

In Paddle Your Own Canoe, Williams mentions several mysteries surrounding Mrs. Houston. Was she a beautiful clotheshorse or a disheveled street person? Where did she get the money to buy her collections and how did she hang on to them? And why did she take on all those husbands?

Legend has it that Anna walked the streets of Chattanooga looking like a modern-day bag lady, but that she dressed to the nines for the antique buying trips that took her to every state in the union as well as Mexico and Canada. As for funds for her purchases, that mystery is likely to remain. There is no evidence that her husbands brought money to the marriages. Her early purchases were from country folk who may not have known the value of their property, and wealthy customers could have bankrolled some of her purchases. She occasionally refinanced her millinery business and her rental properties. And perhaps there was a little bit of cheating going on as well. For example, she often had purchases shipped COD and then haggled over the price with the shipping company.

The husband question is another mystery not easily solved. With Mr. Houston she expressed an interest in trying to have children, and that may have been a factor in some early marriages. Some theories:

  • As a successful business woman and collector, Anna may have been trying to get one marriage right in order to satisfy her urge to be successful at everything.
  • Marriage represents family, connection, stability, and security. Anna seemed to be lacking all those things, and marriage may have been an expression of her need for human connection.
  • Anna may have been a “marriage addict”: Marriage may have been an extension of her obsessive urge to collect.
  • Later marriages may have failed because older couples are often less adaptable than younger couples.
  • Sometimes people marry more often because they are asked more often. Anna may have accepted every proposal that came her way.

The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts

If being a compulsive collector was Anna’s flaw, it was certainly Chattanooga’s gain. The museum on High Street in the thriving Museum Hill neighborhood is well worth a tour. A visit to the museum website at is fascinating, but a docent-led tour of the collection can make an art-glass aficionado of anyone.

Remembering Civil War Chattanooga

Our book club has read a few books about Chattanoogans. One such book was the memoir of Thomas Hooke McCallie, a Presbyterian minister and patriarch of a prominent Chattanooga family. Our club discussed the book with THM’s grandson, physician David McCallie, who edited and annotated the book. I wrote the following review for the Rivermont Presbyterian Church newsletter.

In THM: A Memoir, Thomas Hooke McCallie (THM) chronicles the McCallie family’s immigration from the lowlands of Scotland and move to Chattanooga, and her recounts his own experience of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

THM was anti-slavery and anti-secessionist, but he believed that secessionist states should not be forced to return to the Union. His unorthodox views on slavery were shaped in part by his religious experience. A player in a great religious awakening that swept across America before the Civil War, THM attended Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he heard in person such imminent speakers as Henry Ward Beecher and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He also gained a new perspective on slavery from his fellow seminarians, who sought out Southerners to “assault with argument” about slavery.

THM and his family stayed in Chattanooga during the war, witnessing battle and enduring the siege of Chattanooga. The memoir offers much comment on the war, including the character of each army (Confederates were polite but not inclined to hard work, Union soldiers rude and uncouth but disciplined and hard working). In the Presbyterian Church, he preached sermons to locals, Confederate officers, and Union officers—on different Sundays, of course.

The memoir reflects the role of the church in American society during the 19th century: Faith sustained family and community and helped people deal with the very real presence of death. In one moving passage THM describes his prayers for the recovery of his dying child and his uncertainty over whether those prayers were at odds with Christ’s calling the child home. Though THM emphasizes the joy of salvation, he never turns away from the internal questioning that is central to the Christian experience.