The days of daredevils and Model Ts at the State Capitol

Published 9:05 am Tuesday, August 1, 2023

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On September 18, 1915, a man named H.H. Gardner scaled the walls and columns of the Tennessee State Capitol while an estimated 8,000 people looked on. He climbed all the way to the top of the flagpole, stopping every so often to yell three words to the large crowd:
“Don’t forget Satan-Et!”

Today, most of us treat the Capitol building with respect, if not reverence. When people are there, they (usually) act in a respectful manner. If they trash the place or do something unsafe, untoward or do damage to the building, they will (theoretically, at least) be arrested, or at least escorted out of the building by state troopers.

There was a time when we didn’t treat the Capitol so well. The notion that the building “belongs to us all” took on a different meaning in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when it was the largest indoor gathering spot in Nashville.

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From the 1880s until the 1920s you read frequent mention of huge social events staged in the Capitol. In May 1883, for instance, about 4,000 people attended a dance there, and they had a hard time controlling the crowd. “The hall of representatives, where arrangements had been made to dance, was so packed that it was almost impossible to move,” the Nashville Banner reported. “Several attempts were made to persuade all who did not dance to go out into the corridors so as to make room for dancing, but these attempts were in vain, and the dancers had to content themselves with dancing in an exceedingly small space in the center of the room.”

The Capitol was the closest thing that Nashville had to a convention center during that time. In addition to political conventions, one finds references to organizations from the Tennessee Stock Breeders Association to the American Institute of Architects to prohibition workers holding conventions there.

In August 1903, about 1,500 African-Americans, members of the National Negro Business League, gathered at the Tennessee State Capitol. Their keynote speaker was none other than Booker T. Washington.

During this era, ordinary citizens thought nothing of wandering into the Capitol for a concert, lecture or meeting. In 1889, an item in the paper listed three libraries that were open to all Nashville citizens. One of the three was the Tennessee State Library, located in the room directly across the hall from the Senate Chamber.

What surprises me most are the stunts. Apparently, if someone had the idea of something to entertain people at the Capitol or on its grounds, it wasn’t hard to get permission.

In August 1911, a Ford Dealership owned by Harlan Major got the OK to drive a Model T from Cedar Street – now known as MLK Boulevard – up the steps up to the Capitol. Before several thousand spectators, the car ascended all 73 steps. When the auto reached the Capitol door – get this – someone opened the doors, and Major drove through the building, past the governor’s office, and out the other side.

In any case, I don’t recommend you try this today, because state troopers will not take kindly to a vehicle heading up the Capitol steps.

It was four years after the Model T ride that a curious ad appeared in the newspaper. A man known as the “Virginia Dare Devil” – later identified as H.H. Gardner – would climb the state Capitol building – from the outside. His venture was being underwritten by a soft drink called Satan-Et, which was produced by the Garrett Corporation of Norfolk, Via. (and which I have come to find did not last long on the market.)

According to the Tennessean, Gardner’s stunt did not disappoint his spectators. “Reaching the roof, the human fly hung from the cornice by one leg and waved at the crowd. From here to the top of the dome was the most perilous part of his journey, but with apparent ease he succeeded in mounting to the top and then to show that he was a complete master of his art, Gardner climbed to the top of the flagpole and kissed the flag flying from the top.”

My theory is that the Capitol’s “stunt” stage ended because of two reasons. One is because, eventually, it aged into one of the oldest buildings in town. The other was the emergence of other forms of entertainment. Today, I think most of us all prefer to watch sporting events on weekends rather than gather at the Capitol and watch someone, or something, climb its stairs, or the building itself.

Bill Carey is the founder of Tennessee History for Kids, a non-profit organization that helps teachers cover social studies.