By Mike Steely
Cherokee Mills sits at the corner of Sutherland Avenue and South Concord next to the city’s Safety City. The old Mills building, now the home of many companies, was built in 1917 and operated as a textile mill until 1956.
Recently Magnolia Cherokee Mills LP bought the 184,000 square foot building for $16. 5 million . An icon of Sutherland Avenue, the mill has hosted many different functions over the years, probably the most memorable being the Tom’s Potato Chips factory.
Tom Q. Black, a Tellico Plains native, bought the building in 1956 and operated Snack Food Manufacturing in the western end of the building. There’s some local confusion over Tom Black and Tom’s Potato Chips which were made there.
Many local people probably believe that Black started the hugely successful Tom’s Potato Chips but, actually, he only produced them.
Tom’s Potato Chips was developed by anther Tom, Tom Huston, who started Tom’s Roasted Peanuts back in 1925 in Columbus, Georgia. His growing company, Tom’s Food, maintained manufacturing in several states including Knoxville.
Tom Black’s Tom’s Potato Chips were widely distributed in the region and he leased part of Cherokee Mills to Atlantic Mills which operated a department store there for years. Atlantic Mills predated big box stores like Kmart and Walmart.
Black became a huge supporter of the University of Tennessee and especially the track team there. He loaned the track coach use of the wooden floors of a tobacco barn he owned for winter training. He later contributed funds for the construction of an outdoor track just west of the university. Today “Tom Black Track” continues to serve as an athletic field and has hosted many tournaments over the years.
Tom Black died in 1970 and is buried in the Highland Memorial Cemetery.
Several companies have owned the Tom’s Food brand over the years including General Mills, Rowntree-Mackintosh, and, in 2005, Lance Inc. bought the company. Tom’s products today, in the small and large bags, include potato chips, corn chips, fries, tortilla chips, and pork skins. Bugles are also made under the Tom’s brand.