Requiem for a barn, a newspaper and a newspaperman

Last month, the day after my wife’s stepfather died, we went for a walk at the UT Arboretum to find a little peace after the harrowing final week of home hospice before David Lee McCoy peacefully slipped away.

As we pondered what to include in his obituary, my brother-in-law said that one already had appeared on the front page of The Oak Ridger that morning, written by the paper’s publisher/editor. There in the parking lot of the Arboretum, he read the obit to everyone – but from his phone, not from the paper. That in itself is a bit of an obituary.

It’s not every day you see an obit on the front page. But then, it’s not every day you meet a guy like Dave McCoy.

He was a newspaperman’s newspaperman. He spent most of his adult working life beating the bushes as advertising director of The Oak Ridger, as publisher and editor of The Clinton Courier and founder of Senior Living.

Dave did a column during his Clinton tenure, cleverly titled “Courier and I,” but he wasn’t a writer, per se. He knew great writing when he read it, though. He was at his best as an editor, not so much in the “Strunk & White: Elements of Style” sense, but in the broader sense of knowing what flies and what doesn’t in a great newspaper.

Still, what he really loved was advertising. He loved selling The Oak Ridger as the perfect medium to potential advertisers, to help them grow their businesses.

They could reach their customers five days a week via “the paper” that landed every afternoon on front porches from one end of the city to the other, deftly folded into a hatchet-shaped triangle and launched from moving bicycles by 12-year-olds like me.

It was journalism in its purest form. Dick Smyser, editor of The Oak Ridger, had a sprawling reputation as one of the finest eyes in the news business. Tom Hill, the paper’s owner and publisher, made it a model of profitability. With Dave McCoy as their primary face-to-face liaison and in one of the most interesting little cities in the world, The Oak Ridger was a case study for any aspiring journalist interested in the intellectual health of a community.

And what a community it was.

Nevertheless, Oak Ridge, like the other Manhattan Project communities, became a casualty of entropy, and Dave McCoy lived long enough to see the newspaper industry run out of gas. The businesses he loved to visit and promote began to disappear. The people who worked for him moved on, retired or passed away. The relationship between the paper and the city he loved was severed when The Oak Ridger was bought by Gatehouse Media, which now owns about 130 daily newspapers in two dozen states. Gatehouse is based in a suburb of Rochester, New York: Pittsford, specifically, a town with almost exactly the same population as Oak Ridge but with absolutely nothing in common with it – or with us.

Then the internet really pulled the plug, and Oak Ridge’s little paper suffered the same devastating loss of ad revenue that has thrown every other newspaper in the country, from The New York Times and Boston Globe to the Knoxville News Sentinel and The Tennessean, into a brave new world that is as merciless as it is capricious, and as unreliable as it is frustrating and manipulative.

News. Truth. Facts. Journalism. Sustainability. None of these words mean what they used to mean. Dave McCoy knew it.

Now he’s gone, like the era he was so much a part of.

This brings us to another victim of the Dutch elm disease that has killed newspapers across this country and every other country where they had been a vital part of the culture: Knoxville Mercury.

In my opinion, Metro Pulse, its predecessor, was as necessary to life in Knoxville in the decade and a half after 1999 as the Village Voice has been to life in New York City since its founding. Or as the Phoenix was to life in Boston in the ‘70s and the Chronicle was to life in Austin in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It was a true alternative paper, free to pick up all over town, with great writing, cool ads and all the info you needed about concerts, galleries, festivals and happenings of every description. Whether you were a hometown hipster or a visitor seeing Knoxville for the first time, Metro Pulse was your connection to this burg.

But a little more than two years ago, its parent news corporation shut it down. (For the record, I had an article in that final issue.) They say it was a dollar and cents decision.

In any case, the editorial staff of Metro Pulse felt destined to continue their work. They decided to start a new paper, called it Knox Mercury and developed a nonprofit approach to funding their work through a cooperative relationship with the Knoxville History Project. Then they seemed to aim their monetary focus on the idea of “business models,” “ownership models,” “media platforms” and fundraising.

Nevertheless, as Ken Doctor of Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab wrote recently, “Sprinkling some nonprofit pixie dust won’t save the newspaper industry. Only new ideas can do that.”

So Knox Mercury foundered. It’s a shame, because it seems like it didn’t need to happen. But it’s like a sailing vessel that hits an uncharted reef. If it had been on the depth chart, they could have avoided the crash. “Unfortunately, this internet-rattled advertising environment makes for treacherous sailing.”

All the charts are out of date. You set sail at your own risk, and no startup is guaranteed a smooth ride.

The cessation of the Mercury’s publishing, both online and on paper, is a profound loss to Knoxville.

The third part of this requiem is for a barn. Not just any old barn. The loss of this one breaks my heart. Like the death of many newspapers, there’s no way to stop the hourglass. I can’t tell you exactly where it is because curiosity hunters are a pain in the butt, but the barn is located somewhere between Seymour and Dollywood.

A friend of a friend asked me if I’d make him some furniture out of barn wood. Then he asked if I’d take down the barn. The land on which it sits has been sold, and the new owner wants the barn to go away. It is structurally compromised, and making it safe would cost a fortune.

I’ve had a thing for cantilever barns since the first time my parents took me to Cades Cove back in the ‘50s, and I saw the Tipton barn in a brilliantly sunlit early-morning fog. When I went to see the barn I’d been asked to dismantle, it had a similar effect on me. I felt an instant and deep connection to it, all the deeper knowing the barn has to be taken down.

This barn was built about 1835. Although some elements were added much later, like a metal roof to replace the original wooden shakes, the barn’s structural timbers, hayloft flooring and livestock cribs are all original.

It’s a double-crib barn, so there are two livestock enclosures built with dovetailed square timbers 14 to 16 inches a side and 8 to 20 feet long. The mortise and tenon joints in the hand-hewn post and beam skeleton of the barn are still incredibly tight.

Resting on top of the double livestock cribs are massive shoulder beams, 30 inches in diameter, 36 feet long, tapered upward at both ends and carrying the full weight of the cantilevered hayloft and roof. The trees from which they were milled had to have been 100 years old before they felt the ax 180 to 185 years ago. Cut down, delimbed, debarked, tapered and moved by man and mule power. Then they were lifted up onto the livestock cribs – without forklifts.

I have sat in the barn alone a couple of times and tried to imagine the sounds and voices and accents of the 40 to 50 men it must have taken to build the barn; the women who kept them fed; the children underfoot; and the livestock needed to accomplish this feat of engineering and architecture. And no, this barn was not built with slave labor; it was built with love and the brilliant hardscrabble independence of God-fearing people who respected the Cherokee and who were closer to this land than you and I will ever be.

Two artifacts from the barn stand out. The first is a hoop net, found in the hayloft, with ash hoops of various diameters from 8 to 36 inches held together by hand-knotted string nets, used to catch whatever ran in the cold streams flowing off of Chilhowee Mountain. The other is a feeding trough, pulled off the interior wall of one of the livestock pens, fashioned from a hollowed-out 12-foot poplar trunk, like a salt-curing tub. The front edge of the trough was lined with parts of iron mule shoes and a straightened-out iron wagon wheel rim, so the mules or cows wouldn’t chew the trough to bits.

I’ve built a number of tables from the poplar, white oak, walnut and cherry boards I’ve pulled from the barn. So some parts of it will have a purposeful life beyond its dismantling. But that will come by the end of this year. Then the spot this beautiful old barn has occupied since before the Civil War and before the Trail of Tears, before Texas became a state and California discovered gold deposits in the hills, will become the driveway to a New York retiree’s new Sevier County dream home.

That’s how Tennessee history is destroyed. Dust to dust.

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1 Comment

  1. Bill Winters

    Thank you, John, for sending me a link to this article. I’ve always enjoyed your writing, and especially enjoyed your musings on the editorial page of the Oak Ridger a few years ago. Always interesting, thought provoking rants of a sort, but they usually made me smile at least, if not more.
    I first met David McCoy back in the 80s, as he’d sweep into my shop, with a special ad offer of some sort. He seemed to move quickly, but I don’t ever remember a time when he didn’t take the time to laugh at my jokes, or make me laugh at his. We always enjoyed his visits, whether we did any business or not.
    I knew Barbara back then, too, as she tried to keep the kids in decent bicycles, and would sometimes trade business horror stories with me.
    I thought David and Barbara were a good thing together. Always liked them both.
    As for you, John, how do you even have time to write anymore? Seems like you have a very busy life, and congratulations to you again for your growing family.
    Thanks again for the link. Bill


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