Roots in South Knoxville’s Wilderness

Roots in South Knoxville’s Wilderness: Jon and Nancy Burnett

By Jessica Boling, Knoxville News Sentinel

Jonathan (Jon) Burnett’s connection with South Knoxville’s wilderness stretches back over a century. Now he has passed along a piece of unspoiled land for future generations to enjoy.

Earlier this month, Burnett and his nephew, Michael Burnett Jones, sold 22 acres of land to Ijams Nature Center. The property was adjacent to Ijams, and with the new land, the park now encompasses over 300 acres of undeveloped wilderness in South Knox.

Burnett’s father, Walter Scott Burnett, purchased the land in the early 1900s. “Back around the turn of the 20th century, Dad started collecting pieces of property in South Knox,” said Burnett. “He bought parcels of land and put them together. I think he had somewhere between 40 and 50 acres including the top of that ridge.”

The property Ijams bought from Burnett and Jones includes a large hill with a spectacular view of the surrounding area. “You can see it from downtown, and you can see downtown from the top of the hill,” said Burnett.

Ijams’ Director announces the land purchase. Jon and Nancy Burnett sit to James’ immediate right.  Photo: Amy Smotherman Burgess/Knoxville News Sentinel.

Burnett, 84, and his wife, Nancy, grew up in the Island Home community. “He was my paper boy when he was 9 years old, but we didn’t know each other then,” said Nancy. The two grew up as neighbors but did not date until Nancy was out of high school. “It was the summer of 1950 when he first noticed me,” Nancy said. “A year and a half later, we had a date,” Jon added with a chuckle.

The couple got married in 1953 and remained in South Knox until the late 1960s. For several years, they lived in a small house located on the property now owned by Ijams. “We called it the Cozy House because it was small and we had three children by the time we moved away,” Nancy said. Jon’s oldest brother lived nearby, and their three other siblings eventually built houses in the area. “We have all lived there, all 5 children and our mother. One by one, we built houses on the property. After my mother died, I ended up with half the land, and my nephew Mike ended up with the other half,” Jon said. “We just sold the vacant land on the hillside to Ijams.”

Nancy remembers a time when the couple considered building a house on top of the hill on the property. “Then we thought it would be too much trouble to run a road and power up to the top,” she said. Instead of building a larger house for their growing family, the Burnetts moved back to Island Home in 1958.

Jon enjoyed a successful law practice with time left to pursue his hobby, flying small aircraft. “When I was a boy living in Island Home, I’d go sweep out the hangars at the airport and get a free ride,” Jon said. “That started my love for flying.”

The Burnetts have not lived in South Knoxville since the 1960s, but spending the first three decades of their lives made an impression. “South Knoxville is very dear to us,” Nancy said.

“There is nothing I’d rather have done with the property than selling it to Ijams,” said Jon. “Ijams got a good deal, and it makes us very happy to see it preserved.”

Jon was a member of the first board of directors for Ijams when it became a public nature park in the 1960s. “I feel like it’s kind of come full circle,” Nancy said.