Pieces of Kingsport hotel history wound up in Knoxville

J. H. Osborne • May 3, 2020 at 7:30 PM

I was surprised at the number of complimentary notes I received on my column about Kingsport’s first, but now gone, Holiday Inn. It was on Lynn Garden Drive, and for most of its life it had the old-style, iconic neon Holiday Inn sign and marquee pointing travelers into its parking lot and welcoming or congratulating celebrants using its dining and party facilities.

One of the most interesting notes I got was about that sign being dismantled and the “rescue” of at least much of its neon tubing.

Kim Davis wrote to say she and her then-future husband Fred Sahms had been able to save some of the neon tubes from the sign. The couple now live in Knoxville, and their collection of neon tubing is shown off at neon parties in their home on occasion.

“I grew up in Kingsport after my family moved there from Chicago when I was three, so Dad (Bob Davis), an engineer, could work at the glass plant,” Kim wrote, noting “the glass plant” was then called American Saint Gobain, which became ASG Industries, then AFG. Her dad retired from AFG in the early 1990s.

“My mother was Peggy Davis, who taught kindergarten in Gate City and Weber City. Mom just passed away last May. I graduated from Dobyns-Bennett in 1979 and left Kingsport to go to Clemson, South Carolina, to to school. My brother is Brant Davis, who graduated from D-B in 1984 and now lives in Boston. I have lived in Knoxville since 1986, where I work as an environmental engineer.”

Kim’s childhood memories of the Holiday Inn on Lynn Garden Drive include eating Sunday lunch there in the 1960s, and in 1970, an extended stay there by her whole family while the floors in their home were being replaced due to a burst water pipe. Kim’s other childhood memories include a stint as a newspaper carrier for the Times News.

“In the mid-1980s, Holiday Inn was mandating that their motels change out their beautiful neon signs for an ugly green, rectangular box with fluorescent tube backlighting. At the time, my future husband (Fred) and I were scavenging up neon signs throughout the Southeast, as they were losing popularity and being thrown away. We were not interested in the metal structure of the signs — only the beautiful neon and argon tubes, which could be lit up in artful ways. I located the sign shop in Johnson City who serviced the Kingsport Holiday Inn sign, and when the time came for them to dismantle it, they sold most of the glass to me for $80. I still have it, although I have lost some of the bigger pieces to breakage over the years.”

Kim said the Lynn Garden Drive Holiday Inn sign was replaced with the newer version in 1987.

Another nice note came from George Brewer, who worked at the old Holiday Inn from the early 1980s to 1990.

“We used to have John and June Cash stay with us back then before they built their home near the Carter Fold,’ Brewer wrote. “I knew Jack Trayer back then. This was one of my early hotels when I first got started in the hotel business. We had some great employees and was quite busy back then. Thanks again for the great article which brought back fond memories.”

Trayer was the franchisee of the Kingsport Holiday Inn, as well as two locations in Bristol.

Gail Preslar wrote to tell me she remembered hearing the Holiday Inn chain came to be after its founder decided America needed a better option for lodging after he’d taken his kids on a trip to Washington, D.C., and had to pay extra for each child each night — and for less than desirable accommodations. Gail sent along a link to a newspaper article that seemed to relay that story, and I found similar information on the websites of InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), today’s parent company of Holiday Inn, and Kemmons Wilson Company — operated by the family of Kemmons Wilson, the man from Memphis who founded Holiday Inn.

And last, but not least, I received a wonderful, gracious note from Errol L. Williams, vice president, Holiday Inn.

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