The year is 1865, only two years after the bloodshed of the Knoxville Campaign, and the city is struggling to resurrect itself.
Rising from crumbled foundations and carnage is a new breed of Knoxvillian – freed blacks and immigrants flood the city in expectation of opportunity.
An imaginative 16-year-old girl, packed onto a ship from England following her father's untimely death, is one such lowly dreamer. Made to marry a man she didn't love and forced to move from shack to shack, she reinvented her humble prospects and drew Knoxville's budding artistic circle to her riverside refuge, known to all as "Vagabondia Castle." Scribbling stories in ledger books since girlhood, she would go on to write beloved children's classics including "The Secret Garden" and "A Little Princess."
Her name – one that has since become as shrouded and obscure as her literary garden – was Frances Hodgson Burnett.
"Burnett is a well-hidden secret in Knoxville," Whitney Jones, lecturer in children's literature, said. "Very few people know about her presence here, which is unusual because I think we know a lot about the other authors who've had histories here. Maybe it's because she left here and never came back."
As a girl from impoverished origins with a heart fixated upon far more worldly prospects, Burnett felt "almost imprisoned" by the poverty of her Knoxville life.
"Having to live in dirt-floor shacks, it just wasn't the image of herself that she had," Jones said. "You can tell this by the name she gives to the shack on the river, Vagabondia Castle. She had these illusions of grandeur and decided to make this shack into some kind of artistic refuge for the high-thinkers of Knoxville."
Jones describes "a pretty large community" of artists inhabiting mid-19th century Knoxville, a city rife with historic transience due to its river location and recent installation of a major railway line. Burnett hosted musicians, bartenders, philosophers and artists of all stripes in her ramshackle home.
"It was very poor, very dilapidated," Jones said, "and she sort of recolored it through her imagination into this artist's refuge, this salon for philosophical and artistic thinkers, and held court there."
Today, the rickety shanty has long since splintered away and with it most of its modern remembrance. An unobtrusive rock, its gray slate inscribed with a commemorative paragraph about the author, serves as sole sentinel to Burnett's memory.
Swallowed by the shadow of Calhoun's On the River, the location historians believe to have once been the site of Vagabondia Castle, Calhoun's manager Steve Fletcher has walked past the stone tribute countless times without paying mind to it.
"I've worked at Calhoun's since '98 and walk by (the rock) twice nearly every day on my way in and out of work," Fletcher said. "It's right next to the dumpsters."
Fletcher, who has never heard anyone at the restaurant mention the land's literary significance, read the rock's engraving out of idle curiosity but believes he is an exception.
"I'd been here quite a while before stopping to read it and learning of Burnett's presence," he said. "It's a strange thing, realizing such an interesting and valuable bit of local history could go so ignored.
"The rock is hardly visible and doesn't do her story or memory justice."
When she wasn't entertaining Victorian-era hipsters at Vagabondia, Burnett spent her approximately 10 years in Knoxville exploring the surrounding wilderness, publishing her first few stories in the national magazine Godey's Lady's Book, and gathering inspiration for future written works.
"She often said she started really writing, or getting the ideas for, 'The Secret Garden' here in Knoxville because of the outdoor, wilderness feel," Jones said. "In her memoir, she talks about this little bird leading her off into the fields and woods of Knoxville, and that's when she has these hugely transcendent moments where she realizes how connected she is to nature."
Now enjoyed by barbecue lovers and football tailgaters, Jones said the river view at the site of Vagabondia Castle was nature at its most relatable for Burnett.
"It does make for a nice image because rivers lead to the ocean, oceans lead to the rest of the world, and that's where she wanted to go," she said. "She always had these visions of a future life outside of Knoxville."
Her vision of escape was finally actualized in her mid-20s when Burnett and her husband moved house to Washington, D.C., where both became involved with politics and Burnett's celebrity as a writer flourished. Strained by the burden of keeping up public pretenses, she began acting in ways wholly outside the expectations for her gender at the time, even scandalously divorcing two husbands and allegedly having multiple lovers.
"She left her children behind to travel across Italy and Europe and spend large amounts of her time in these other places," Jones said. "She tried to construct an image of herself as being incredibly motherly, and yet at the same time she could just go off and leave them forever."
Burnett never returned to Knoxville – not even to visit her mother's grave. Although she "certainly never seemed to look back," Jones believes it is important that Knoxvillians do, and that her memory be preserved.
By doing this, Jones argues, it can ensured young artists today feel nurtured, not imprisoned, in Knoxville.
"Part of the reason she escaped Knoxville, it seems, was because she felt she could never expand here or be an artist; there was little opportunity for a girl with a big imagination," Jones said. "By remembering her, we can show that Knoxville has plenty of room for ambitious, artistic women. I mean, we have multiple art galleries on Gay Street and really strong music and theater venues.
"In many ways, we have sort of become that artistic community that she wanted so badly to create when she dubbed the small house by the river 'Vagabondia Castle.'"