Fannie Mennen, born 1903, was an amazing person. She was an artist as well as a businesswoman. She was proud of the fact that she grew up in Chattanooga after coming from Lativia with her parents at 8 months. She loved to read at the Carnegie Library on Georgia Avenue. (This building is being brought back to life by Christy and Todd McCain as headquarters of Cumberland Title, their business.) Fannie was especially proud of the fact that her father was Chattanooga’s first permanent rabbi at the oldest synagogue in the city. She earned degrees in music and education in 1929 from Peabody College and a master’s degree from Columbia University. Studying at night at the University of Chattanooga, she was awarded the Ford Foundation Fellowship in 1953 to travel to Haiti. That country’s culture continued to be shown in her primitive block designs. Fannie taught art at Northside Jr. High School for 30 years.
Fannie Mennen loved nature. The rocky bluff of Lookout Mountain overlooking Rising Fawn spoke to her, and it was meant to be her home. In 1934 she bought the property, paying for it over the years on a teachers’ salary, and moved to the log cabin after remodeling it and adding a second cabin. Her brother just shook his head doubtfully and said, “This is plum out of Tennessee and ‘nelly’ out of Georgia.” The name stuck.
Fannie started the show in 1947 in an effort to showcase her own artwork, printmaking; she cut her own blocks and mixed her own dyes to make wall hangings, note cards and tote bags. Her designs included wildflowers, trees and Appalachian animals in shades of black, brown, orange and green. The first show attracted 30 fellow artists and featured paintings, jewelry, woodcarvings, prints, pottery, weavings and other arts. To reach the show on her property, folks traveled up a winding road through grassy meadows under mature shade trees. She was very protective of nature, and did not allow nails to be pounded into the trees; the clotheslines displaying the art were all tied.
“On my first years to visit there, Fannie Mennen had done a number of watercolors of insects – the subjects were enlarged visually – quite colorful – the public loved them. But her specialty was printmaking. Her own Persian cats were models. In the middle of the property was an area for musicians to play. For several years, a small string orchestra performed. They played under a canopy of autumn leaves with the sun dappling through. The effect was charming. Cider was for sale, but not food. She wanted nothing to litter her grounds, such as discarded plates or wrappers.
“People flocked to Plum Nelly from everywhere, including Nashville, Atlanta and Birmingham, as well as Chattanooga. Parking was handled as the crowds increased. It could be pandemonium outside but tranquility inside,” said Chester Martin, historian and painter.
As the art show continued to grow, a puppet show was added, to the delight of children. The New Salem Methodist Church began serving sandwiches, hotdogs, chili, cake and coffee. Wonderful mushrooms made of concrete, handmade by Josie Sibold, can still be found in many Chattanooga gardens. Pottery and paintings from this iconic show are still in places of honor in many Chattanooga homes.
Plum Nelly contributed much to the spirit of the art community, although all good things must come to an end. Miss Mennen ultimately decided to work on her art fulltime and let the “clothesline art show” live on only in people’s memories. There was a great feeling of sadness that was almost palpable in the entire art world.
Bringing part of the arts and crafts spirit to the city, Fannie and her sister Celia Marks opened the Plum Nelly Shop on Hixson Pike in 1972, along with Cornelia Bradshaw and Liz Phillips. In 1985, Joy and Jim Storey purchased the thriving business and moved it to the Corner in Riverview.
The legacy of fine craftsmanship lives on now through Plum Nelly owner Catharine Daniels. She represents the fourth generation of female-owners in a continuous succession since its inception. Located on Frasier Avenue, it is a treasure trove of local artists’ works. Catharine invites you to stop by and sample a bit of Chattanooga history when you are looking for a unique gift or treasure for your home.
by Judy Rowland