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NPS archive photo by R. P. White
Last train out of Ravensford
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was once dotted with small communities serviced by railroads. This is the last train of the Appalachian Railway out of Ravensford in 1935. The row of trucks belong to Civilian Conservation Corps workers, who came along behind the train and removed the track.
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NPS archive photo
Most of the infrastructure in the park today was created Civilian Conservation Corps workers during the 1930s.
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NPS archive photo
Down at the company store
Timber barons set up shop in the Smokies in the early 1900s, employing hundreds of local people, but often paid them in “scrip” that could be redeemed at the company store rather than in cash. Make-shift rail lines were punched up the mountainsides, one holler at a time, to move heavy logging equipment in and the timber back out.
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NPS archive photo
Clear-cutting left hillsides denuded, like this slash job (below) by Suncrest Lumber Company along a ridge in Cataloochee.
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NPS archive photo
Prior to the establishment of the Park, logging companies set up mill towns throughout the Smokies.
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NPS archive photo
The George Caldwell family in Cataloochee, circa 1902. Except for the store-bought clothes of the oldest daughter, all clothes worn by the family in this photo were made “from the sheep’s back.”
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NPS archive photo
Last man standing
“Uncle Steve” Woody of Cataloochee was the last remaining resident in the North Carolina side of the park. He finally moved out in 1942 at the age of 90. His house is one of the few remaining historic structures in the park.
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NPS archive photo
Old general store in Smokemont.
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NPS archive photo
When FDR came to town
President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicates the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1940 in front of the just completed Rockefeller Memorial, honoring the families $5 million contribution to the park.
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NPS archives photo
Early tourists don bathing caps for a dip in what was no doubt icy water at the base of Abrams Falls in 1955.
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NPS archive photos
Through the roof
Open-top touring vehicles like this one passing through Newfound Gap in 1957 (above) became popular as tourism increased.
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NPS archive photo
Like all national parks, the Smokies belong to all American people. As only the 10th national park and first one in the East, public land was still a new concept.
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NPS archive photo
Before bear-proof trash cans, campgrounds and picnic areas became the bears’ main stomping grounds, giving rise to a host of problematic encounters.
The creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 75 years ago is nothing short of a miracle. The pitfalls were enormous and often narrowly skirted.
The battle for a park came close to defeat many times, yet park boosters fought and clawed their way to the finish line. It seemed they had fate on their side, delivering a needed push at all the right turning points.
Had the quest for a park come any earlier or later, it would have missed the rare coalescence of events that aligned in the decade leading up to the park’s creation in 1934.
“The odds were so extreme of it happening because of all the things that had to come together,” said Dan Pierce, a history professor at UNC-Asheville and author of The Great Smokies: From Natural History to National Park.
“Essentially it couldn’t happen today.”
Park fathers realized early in their quest they would need a suitcase of different strategies depending on who they had to win over. On the national stage, the argument to save the Smokies was largely environmental.
The national parks of the West were in vogue among the elite. The desire to save grand landscapes and set aside natural wonders was not only understood, but proved to be a successful motivator. By the early 1920s, the Eastern politicians even developed a case of national park envy.
“They thought ‘By God they have some big ones out West. We need one, too,’” said George Ellison, a naturalist and historian on the park who lives in Bryson City, N.C.
Another national motivator was the new pleasure of auto touring. A big roads movement was afoot, aimed at the vehicle as a form of recreation, Pierce said. Americans would need somewhere to drive their new cars.
The question quickly became not whether but where to put a national park in the East, Ellison said.
“The mountains were the only place you could do it. The population was too great elsewhere,” Ellison said.
But where in the mountains was another story.
In Western North Carolina, the leading site in the public’s eye was not in fact the Smokies, but Grandfather Mountain. Those inside the park movement, however, realized a park that straddled two states to include Tennessee would give them a stronger position: double the political clout on a national stage and double the fundraising.
Charles Webb, the publisher of the Asheville Citizen newspaper in the 1920s, orchestrated a shift in the region to support the Smoky Mountains instead. Webb would go on to play a critical role in creating the park, from convincing local people of its worth to driving fundraising.
“The paper really becomes a huge advocate for it and provides a publicity barrage,” Pierce said.
But park boosters also had to sway the Southern Appalachian National Park Commission, sanctioned by the Department of Interior to recommend the best site for a park. The Smokies initially wasn’t in the running. Armed with beautiful photos of the Smokies, boosters convinced the commission to at least visit the mountain range.
At the time, they were known simply as the Smoky Mountains. The word Great was slipped in as a clever bit of marketing genius, and possibly helped sway the National Park selection committee to recommend the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1925.
Park boosters still had to convince the nation at large that the Smokies had what it took to be a national park. That was accomplished in part by the photographs of George Masa and the words of Horace Kephart. The two roamed the mountains, capturing their eloquence and presenting it to the nation through brochures and newspaper articles.
Masa’s photos did for the Smokies what Ansel Adams did for the grand parks out West: inspire those who had never seen the mountains to want to save them. Their work even served a similar purpose locally.
“A lot of people had never been into the Smokies themselves, other than seen them from a distance so they didn’t even know what was there in many cases,” Pierce said.
While preservation was an effective motivator on the national stage, at home, park boosters needed a different tack. “I think it was the first time they had heard that kind of notion of conservation articulated,” Ellison said.
The pitch to locals hinged on a promise of commerce. Create a park, and an influx of tourists will follow.
“The argument was one of economics, that this would be a huge economic benefit to the region,” Pierce said.
After all, it held true for the parks out West, whose ranks included the famed Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon.
“If you look at the gateway community of essentially every national park, it became like it was touched with a wand of gold,” said Margaret Brown, Brevard College history professor and author of The Wild East, a leading park biography.
But there was another hurdle to overcome. The Smokies were home to massive logging operations in the 1920s. The timber barons had bought up vast holdings and were furiously slashing their way up every holler and across every ridge. They were poised to clear-cut the entire Smokies — and nearly did.
Not only were the powerful timber barons a force to contend with for park boosters, but local people had become dependent on the market-based economy ushered in by the logging boom. Park proponents had to convince people that tourism could fill that void.
For park boosters, the creation of the Smokies became a race against time. Every day that passed, more timber fell, and the appeal of the park-to-be was diminished. But the devastation wrought by massive logging also helped rally support to “save the Smokies.”
“The Asheville Citizen did a series showing the contrast of beautiful areas and not very far away where cut-and-run logging practices had pretty much devastated [the landscape],” Pierce said.
Of course, people in the mountains at the time had little point of reference for a national park.
“They didn’t know what a national park was. Nobody did,” said Claude Douthit, 81, of Bryson City.
Only nine existed in the country at the time, and most were out West.
“I guess a lot of people didn’t have any idea what was going to happen,” said J.C. Freeman, 81, who was a boy in Swain County, N.C., at the time. “I had a couple aunts who had been to Yellowstone and came back talkin’ about the mud puddles and geysers a spewin’. I wasn’t sure if that’s what we’d be getting.”
Freeman was disappointed to learn not only would there be no geysers, but the romping and roaming he had enjoyed through the Smokies would actually be curtailed.
“They told us there wouldn’t be any hunting and fishing in the park. So I couldn’t see much advantage to having one,” Freeman said.
The high mountains not only served as a communal hunting and fishing ground, but also was used as an open range for livestock, free to roam and forage on the acorns and chestnuts.
“My grandfather would tell me stories about taking the cattle into the Smokies in the spring, going back a couple times a year to check on them and driving them back down in the fall,” said Bill Gibson, 61, who grew up in the shadow of the Smokies. People notched them and branded them to tell their animals apart.
While the businessmen and political leaders in Bryson City were pushing for the park, average people who relied on the high mountains for sustenance saw it differently.
“The business people were a little more educated and could see further out to where it would be an advantage,” said Commodore Casada, 99, of Bryson City. “People like me, I just felt like there was something being taken away. You could go hunt, fish, camp out anywhere, anytime you wanted with no limit on anything you caught or killed. I had taken that as a right for me, and I saw it as being taken away after the park was established.”
The concept of a national park was especially difficult to grasp for those being kicked off their farms.
“People thought ‘Well that’s foolish. We got this valley all cleared out and raising cattle and crops. Why do they need us to leave to make a place for people to loaf around in?’” said Hattie Caldwell Davis, whose home place and farm in Cataloochee Valley were claimed by the park. “When they made it into a park, everybody thought it was a disgrace.”
While park proponents were busy rallying support and raising money, a looming logistical problem lay ahead: buying up the land. The timber companies would not go quietly. They would want top dollar for their vast holdings and would be quick to turn to the courts.
And of course there were the thousands of rural people who lived in the park-to-be. Sure, the park had its share of rugged outposts and remote log cabins, but there were also well-established communities, replete with churches, stores and schools. Uprooting them would be no small thing.
The creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would have to rely on the power of eminent domain for a novel purpose.
“This was the first time it had been used for recreational purposes, which isn’t an absolute, clear common good the way a road is,” Brown said.
There was a great debate over the boundary for the national park. Most settled areas lay in the valleys, so a park that took in only the high mountains would not be nearly as controversial. Initial maps indeed left out most of the settled valleys, targeting only the sparsely populated uplands dotted by remote cabins and hardscrabble farms.
“People living in marginal land were easier to make offers to, were easier to motivate,” Brown said.
But as the park movement progressed, lines were redrawn to take in a few well-to-do farming communities like Cataloochee in North Carolina and Cades Cove in Tennessee. Park boosters balked initially, but the National Park Service insisted.
“They said, ‘We honestly cannot make a park only on rugged, uphill land. We need to have some beautiful valleys for visitor centers and campgrounds,’” Brown said.
When word circulated that the park line had been expanded to claim Cataloochee, no one believed it, Davis said.
“They thought ‘No it was just a rumor. They will never take us here,’” Davis said. The valley remained in denial until a preacher announced the news in church one Sunday.
By then it was too late to orchestrate a resistance.
“There was already momentum to create a national park,” Brown said. “A lot of people in those communities were taken off guard.”
Whether the bait-and-switch was concerted is unknown. It was nonetheless effective. Had places like Cataloochee and Cades Cove been part of the map all along, rallying support for the park would have been much harder.
“The American people wouldn’t have allowed it to happen,” Brown said. “They would have said ‘These are the Jeffersonian communities that our country was built on.’”
The impact was blunted by the park service promising that no one would have to leave. While the park would buy the land, hundreds of families living within the park would be allowed to stay on their farms and lease it back from the park, the park service claimed. However, this was not a promise the park would ultimately keep.
The logistical challenge to buy land dragged on for 12 years, much longer than park fathers anticipated. By the time they were done, the national park boundary claimed 1,132 small farms and forced the removal of more than 7,000 people.
While so many elements had to coalesce simultaneously, the most critical was money. Without it, no matter how much public or political support boosters could muster, there could be no park. Money, and lots of it, was needed to buy the land for the park. Park proponents estimated it would take $10 million.
The states of North Carolina and Tennessee each pledged $2 million toward the cause in 1927, contingent on the rest of the money being raised from private donors.
“Anyone who had big money at the time was hit up for a donation,” Pierce said.
The one who ultimately came through was the John D. Rockefeller Foundation, without which it is quite likely there would be no Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Rockefeller’s heirs laid down a whopping $5 million, and suddenly the park became possible.
That still left $1 million to raise, and park proponents turned to the public in the towns and cities surrounding the Smokies. An oft-repeated tale that captures the hard-fought nature of the park’s creation is that of local school children collecting spare pennies.
“I remember how the people took their pennies to school to help buy the land for the park,” said Douthit.
Generating enthusiasm for people to open their pockets proved difficult. Fundraising fell so far behind, that the National Park Committee nearly pulled the plug on the Smokies. The big daily newspapers in Asheville and Knoxville regularly browbeat the public into giving more and chastised them whenever fundraising stalled.
In exchange for a donation, people were given a signed National Park Founder’s Certificate, which stated as park founder they were “entitled to the particular respect and gratitude of visitors who through the years and ages will benefit by the vision and generosity of those who have made possible the preservation of the virgin forests and varied flora of the choicest section of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.”
Many of these prized certificates still exist in the mountains, squirreled away with family Bibles and records, passed down from one generation to the next. Joyce Patton, 75, of Canton, N.C., still has the Founder’s Certificate awarded to her mother. A school teacher in Sevierville, Tenn., during the park movement, Patton’s mother gave up a year’s salary for the creation of the park.
“I’m sure mother’s contribution was just a stone in the creek compared to what Rockefeller and others did, but for her it was all she had,” Patton said.
The regional fundraising fell short of its goal, however. Many who made pledges of support during the campaign failed to deliver in full.
“People pledged they would give $10,000 and then the Depression hit and they only gave $1,000,” Pierce said.
Ultimately, people in the mountains put up just $800,000 toward the park’s creation.
“There was more symbolic value than actual monetary value,” Pierce said. “It showed the politicians how people felt, that the park had widespread support by the people in the region and that they really wanted this.”
It also had another important side-effect: it made the Smokies “the people’s” park.
“It does give local people a lot of ownership or feeling of ownership that they helped make this happen,” Pierce said.
When it came time to collect on the promise of $2 million from each state, park proponents hit resistance.
“A lot of lawmakers who voted for it did so because they thought the park would never happen,” Pierce said. “They thought ‘I’ll vote for this and it will make me look good but we’ll never have to pay this money.’ But of course Rockefeller throws them a curve, and the states had to pay up.”
North Carolina Governor Angus McLean tried to backpedal on the funding in the late 1920s, forcing a contingent led by Charles Webb, the Asheville Citizen publisher, to travel to Raleigh and demand the Governor relinquish the money.
At the end of the day, however, park proponents still came up short. The cost of land for the park had exceeded their estimates. Once again, the park was nearly derailed, and once again it was saved. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt announced the government would contribute $1.5 million to finish buying the land.
By the time land purchases came together and Congress passed an act creating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934, the fight had been so long and so fraught with obstacles, it’s likely park boosters were amazed at their own success.
“We owe a lot to the people at that time who had the foresight and energy to do it,” Ellison said of the fight for the park’s creation. “If they had waited any later it wouldn’t have happened.”
There are so many what-ifs that the propitious intersection of events is hard to imagine. Even harder to imagine is a world without the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Park founders race against time as timber barons wreak havoc
While it’s hard to imagine as one gazes at the vast wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park today, more than two-thirds of the lush forests were clear-cut by timber companies in a couple of short decades preceding the park’s creation.
Logging was a deeply entrenched way of life and integral to the mountain economy long before the arrival of timber barons in the 1900s. For many farmers, cutting trees from their land was one of the few ways of earning hard-to-get cash money.
“The farmers all around would bring in a truck load or two of logs a year,” recalled Commodore Casada, 99, who worked at a furniture sawmill in Bryson City.
The timber companies swept in an entirely different style of logging than the occasional load of logs, however. The slash operations of the timber giants denuded the mountains, gobbling up massive forests in lightening speed.
“Looking at these wonderful mountains with this timber, they couldn’t wait to cut it down,” said Duane Oliver, who grew up in the Swain County, N.C., portion of the park prior to its creation.
Large mill towns were born virtually overnight to support the operations. Oliver remembers the hustle and bustle of Proctor, one of the larger logging towns, which ushered in a movie theater and a tennis court into the formally rural area. The people also got their first resident doctor.
While the lumber camps attracted hundreds of workers from outside the region, the logging operations and their railroads gave rise to a cash-based economy on a scale previously unknown by local people. For many, the desire for a steady paycheck often outweighed their internal conflict over the destruction they were witnessing.
“People were glad to get jobs that paid money,” said Luke Hyde, 69, of Bryson City, whose grandfathers on both sides worked as loggers. “Most people in the mountains were subsistence farmers and considered it lucky to get work where they made money. Even when I was a lad people conducted business by barter. Money was in short supply so people would swap things.”
The timber boom wouldn’t last forever, of course. The barons would soon move on, leaving the mountains denuded and thrusting the local people back into poverty — only this time, without their prized forests. The stripped hillsides would no longer be fertile hunting grounds and the creeks once teeming with trout would be decimated by clear-cutting.
In this sense, the park movement entered the stage at just the right time. When talk of a national park in the Smokies began percolating in the early 1920s, local people could see logging would soon go bust. It made it far easier to latch on to the idea of a tourism economy hung on the neck of a national park, even though it was still a foreign concept.
“You’ve got to understand how poor people were. They were looking for anything that might help,” said Claude Douthit, born in 1928 amidst the movement to create the park.
While the lumber companies had brought a short-lived boom, mountain people could see that the jobs would dry up when the lumber companies disappeared. But unlike logging, tourism would be here to stay, park proponents pledged.
“If we use this a magnet to draw tourists, it will be something that will produce forever,” Pierce recounted of their argument. “If we make this a park it will be like the goose laying the golden egg.”
When the states of North Carolina and Tennessee began buying land for the park in 1927, there were eight large lumber companies operating in what would become the park — among them the well-known Ritter, Norwood, Kitchen, Champion, Suncrest, Whitmer-Parson and Crestmont — as well as a myriad of smaller ones.
Some timber companies had already logged most of the timber and saw a chance to unload the wasteland left behind.
“The lumber companies had come in here and dry-cleaned the whole darn thing,” said Douthit. “They came in and bought the land for nothing, cut the lumber then sold their land to the park.”
The timber companies didn’t exactly go quietly, however. They fought hard for a national forest instead of national park. With a national forest, they could return every few decades to recut what had grown back, but not so with a national park.
Many timber companies balked at the price initially offered for their holdings — in North Carolina it was $10 to $20 an acre — and went to court to get more. The crux of the argument was they needed to be paid not just for the land, but the value of the still standing timber.
While lumber companies had certainly burned through vast tracts of timber already, they weren’t ready to quit while there was still logging to be done, according to Dan Pierce, a UNC-Asheville professor who is an expert on Smokies history.
“Most of these companies still had plenty that had not been logged,” Pierce said.
The timber companies had the deep pockets necessary to fight the land takings in court — and in the meantime continued logging. One of the more storied cases involved Champion, a large timber company with a paper mill in nearby Canton. To demonstrate the cost of logs needed to feed its mill, Champion faked a shipment of specialty spruce from Sweden at a vastly inflated price to flout as evidence of the great cost they would incur through the loss of their timber land.
A jury awarded Champion a generous amount, due in part to the economic tour de force the timber companies were in local communities (although the IRS later discovered a juror in the case got a $15,000 bribe from Champion).
The government appealed Champion’s award — indeed it seemed whichever side lost would have done the same — and the two appeared locked in a dead-end battle.
“Champion recognized this could drag on a long time, and meanwhile they have all these assets tied up,” Pierce said. “Once the Depression hits, Champion realizes ‘If we get this cash, we can do a lot with this.’” So they settled out of court for $2 million — about $20 an acre.
The lengthy court battles with the timber companies pushed the tab for the park’s creation higher than anticipated. Park proponents estimated the raw cost of buying land would be $10 million, and it was.
“What they didn’t figure on were the legal fees and the cost of appraisers to estimate the value of the timber,” Pierce said, “which ran close to $1 million.”
The timber company owners went to their graves claiming they had lost money on the sale of their holdings to the park.
But Margaret Brown, a history professor at Brevard College and the author of a leading book on the park’s creation, The Wild East, thinks otherwise.
“I think they made out like bandits. They made money on the land three ways. They bought it very cheaply, they got everything off it they could, and then got reasonably good prices from the United States government once it was sold,” Brown said. “I think they did just fine for themselves.”
Ironically, if it weren’t for the massive logging operations, it is likely the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would not be here. The timber companies made critical contributions to the park movement.
For starters, they played a valuable role sorting out the muddled nature of property deeds in the high mountains, Brown said. When the timber companies arrived in the early 1900s, land ownership often dated back to the first land grants. The boundaries of the original claim, let alone how it had been parceled up through the generations, was fraught with confusion.
When timber companies made their first forays into the Smokies, they often relied on a land speculator to buy up a hodge-podge of tracts and resell them as a block, often landing in court to sort out who held clear title. Unfortunately, a few landowners were out-lawyered and in effect had their land stolen. By the time the park came along two to three decades later, much of the land had been consolidated as large tracts owned by a handful of timber barons.
The timber era also had pushed the region into a cash economy, and it seemed there was no going back to a subsistence lifestyle, Brown said. Addicted to commerce, even if on a rural scale, it made people more willing to accept the idea of tourism as a replacement.
But most importantly, the nation and locals alike saw intrinsic value in the Smokies. Before the timber barons, people couldn’t imagine losing the mountains, so they had no concept of saving them.
“It raised the consciousness of people that it was something they wanted to protect,” Brown said.
Families sacrifice land for creation of the park
Gudger Palmer has never forgotten the fond memories of growing up in Cataloochee Valley. At 100 years old, one memory in particular brings a smile to his lips every time he returns to his old one-room school.
“That’s the place where the greatest love letter was ever written,” Palmer said. “I was sitting up front and someone punched me on the side. I reached back and saw it was a tablet. I opened it up, and there it was written with a pencil. I knew who it was from, that little girl sitting in the back. It said ‘I love you as good as apple butter.’”
Palmer was a grown man by the time the Great Smoky Mountains National Park claimed his homeplace in Cataloochee Valley. Palmer’s been asked many times, as have all Cataloochee descendents, what it was like to lose his land. At the annual Cataloochee reunion one year, Palmer asked the others how they respond to the inevitable question.
“I said ‘How can you tell other people just how you felt?’ and they said, ‘No, Gudger, you can’t tell other people,’” Palmer said. “There’s no way of getting across to you the feeling we have of losing Cataloochee.”
For Raymond Caldwell, 86, the hardest part of moving out was seeing how much it hurt his father.
“I think daddy carried that grief with him right on through the years, and he lived to be 92. He thought it was awful to have to give up their home and move out with not much compensation,” Caldwell said. “He loved that valley. He would go over there and stay in the campground by himself and walk on those trails up into his 80s.”
More than 1,200 family farms were bought up for the park’s creation, uprooting roughly 7,000 people and forcing them to start anew. Over the decades, they returned to the spots where their homes once stood, watching as the forest slowly closed in, first claiming the fields and the garden plots. The foot paths they’d worn over time slipped back into the earth. And eventually, their old foundations were obscured by the sprouting wilderness. At least to the casual passerby.
“I always had in my mind a picture and could see where everything was,” said Commodore Casada, 99, who grew up on Deep Creek, a section of the park outside Bryson City, N.C. “I could tell where the barn was and the house and so on and so forth, but no one else could now.”
Even though Hattie Davis was only 6 years old when her family moved out of Cataloochee Valley, her memories are vivid, too.
“It is in my mind completely. I can still see the rail fence and the fat cattle and the fine horses and herds of sheep. The long straight rows of corn,” she said.
Every year since the park was created, Cataloochee families hold a reunion at their old church, the Palmer Chapel, which draws up to 600 descendents today. The reunion was bitter-sweet in the early years.
“They loved being with their family and friends again, but they would see their houses falling down and some would cry,” Davis said.
Davis grew up in the Caldwell house, one of the few buildings that was preserved by the park and offers a glimpse of the past. But when Davis walks through the house, through the kitchen where her mother made biscuits or the room she slept in as a little girl, the nostalgia is sometimes more than she can bear. Davis is even more heartbroken by the growing number of initials carved into the doors and banisters and woodwork of her childhood home.
“I cry when I see where people have put their initials on it,” Davis said, welling up with tears to think of it. “We would have gotten our tails beat good with a paddle if we marked the wall growing up.”
Every week or so for the past 50 years, Caldwell has returned to Cataloochee, usually to fish. During his working years, he would close up his plumbing store early in downtown Waynesville, set off for Cataloochee and return home with fish to fry by dark. He had a lot of time to reflect on the past, and eventually came to a realization, though he would never admit it to his father.
“The best thing that ever happened to Cataloochee was for the park to come along there,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell’s sentiment was once in the minority. Most old-timers went to their graves harboring a sense of betrayal and resentment. But later generations are making their peace.
“I think to most people now the benefits outweigh the negatives,” said George Ellison, a naturalist and historian in Bryson City. “They may well complain their family got moved out but they go back in and camp and walk and picnic on Deep Creek. It means a lot to them. They ultimately wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Davis said there was a concerted effort by many to hide their bitterness.
“They didn’t want their children to hate people,” Davis said. “The parents were so hurt they didn’t want to recall the hurt they had of giving up their home.”
Steve Woody, a Cataloochee descendent, saw the softening of emotions from one generation to the next play out in his own family. His grandfather, known to all as Uncle Steve, was the last resident of Cataloochee Valley, remaining until 1942. He died within a few months of finally moving at the age of 90.
Just two generations later, Woody is one of the region’s most ardent supporters of the park. He helped found the park boosters organization Friends of the Smokies and is on a first name basis with the park superintendent.
“I think most of my generation doesn’t harbor the same resentment. We see it as a good thing,” Woody said. “We have this great park that’s protected and is an economic driver.”
Woody thinks his father eventually accepted the park as well, though he never asked him outright.
“I think he understood that it was probably the best thing,” Woody said. “He loved to go back there. Later in life he would say, ‘If the park hadn’t come, what would Cataloochee look like now?’”
It’s impossible to know, but one thing is certain. It would not be frozen in time, forever capturing the beauty of early life in the Smokies the way it does now.
“Now it’s hallowed ground,” said Dr. Barney Coulter, former chancellor of Western Carolina University and founding member of Friends of the Smokies. “It is a source of great pride to the people who lived there.”
President Franklin Roosevelt attends park dedication
For many living in Western North Carolina, the best part about the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a visit from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Throngs of people lined the main streets of Waynesville, Bryson City and Cherokee in 1940 for a chance to see the heroic President roll by en route to Newfound Gap, where he would speak at a dedication ceremony for the new park.
“President Roosevelt was next to God,” said Henry Foy, who watched from the side of Main Street in Waynesville. “He was in the backseat and held up his hat and waved it out both sides.”
As is often the case with big milestones, anyone alive at the time seems to remember where they were when Roosevelt’s entourage drove through town.
“That was the biggest day of my life,” said J.C. Freeman, 81, who watched from the roadside in Bryson City. “He was in an open topped car. They roped the roads off. I was holding the rope as close as I could get. I thought that was one of the greatest things that could happen to a boy.”
Joyce Patton of Canton, just 7 years old at the time, was most excited at the prospect of seeing Roosevelt’s black Scottish Terrier pup named Fala.
“They had the top down of the car and he was waving with his cigarette in the holder. I saw right away that he didn’t have the dog,” Patton said, recalling her disappointment. Patton’s parents, who were park supporters, made the long car trip up to Newfound Gap to hear his speech. They were seated near the front, close enough to see Roosevelt getting out of his car into a wheelchair.
“At that time nobody knew he was paralyzed. They lined the ramp going up to the lectern with Secret Service and Park Rangers so most people couldn’t see him in the wheelchair,” Patton recounted.
While the park was officially created in 1934, Roosevelt’s dedication happened six years later on Sept. 2, 1940. By then, the Civilian Conservation Corps had carved trails, campgrounds and roads into the park, including the overlook at Newfound Gap. There Roosevelt stood with one foot in each state while delivering his speech in front of the newly finished Rockefeller Memorial, erected as an homage to the family that donated $5 million for the park’s creation.
Commodore Casada, 99, caught a ride up the mountain from Bryson City to witness the big event. Although like many, his interest was in seeing Roosevelt — not honoring a park he resented.
“I hadn’t accepted the park yet. It just always seemed to me like somebody was taking something that was mine,” said Casada, who grew up on land seized for the park. Although he added, “Now I’m glad we gave it.”
Roosevelt’s speech was laden with references to the brewing war in Europe, calling for the need to protect America’s great landscapes and natural history as well as the nation’s freedom.
Great Smokies become instant recipe for tourists
The mountains of Western North Carolina were no stranger to tourism prior to the park’s creation. Trains loaded with wealthy tourists from Charleston, Atlanta and beyond pulled into the stations in Bryson City and Waynesville daily. Many spent their entire summers in the mountains to escape the Southern heat.
But the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park catapulted the region into a new era of tourism: one centered on the burgeoning automobile.
Initially automobile trips into the Smokies became a lucrative business for those capitalizing on the throngs of summer tourists arriving by train, said Henry Foy, whose mother operated the Herren House in Waynesville.
“We would be in the dining room at dinner and the owner of a taxi company would come down and tell people he was organizing a daytrip to the Smokies if they were interested,” Foy recalled.
As owning cars became commonplace following WWII, the Smokies offered an unrivaled auto touring adventure. Nowhere was the impact of tourism more prevelant than in Cherokee, the final gateway to the park from North Carolina. Traffic would often back up for miles as it inched along Cherokee’s main drag toward the park entrance.
“It was bumper to bumper to bumper for miles,” recalled Bill Gibson, who lived in Bryson City but worked as a short-order cook at a foodstand in Cherokee as a teenager. “I had never been anywhere, so I didn’t relate to where these people were coming from or going back to other than what I saw in a geography book in school. These folks weren’t alien Martians, but I can recall seeing a Florida plate, and it was unusual enough to be something to be proud of.”
License plate spotting was apparently a popular pastime for the region’s youth.
“We played this silly game where we tried to see the most exotic license plate,” said Gary Carden, who whiled away the summer afternoons along the roadside in Cherokee with other children. As they watched the tourists go by in their Henry Js and Studebakers in the 1950s, without fail a carload of tourists would make hand motions like a teepee, prompting the children to mock the silly gestures after the car had passed. Even thought the Cherokee never lived in teepees, historical accuracy was lost on the tourists who held their own notions of what Indians should look like. So the Cherokee soon lined the road with fake teepees, donned headdresses and posed in photos for money.
“With all these people coming through our front yard they said ‘Let’s sell them something.’ They had to pretend to be something they weren’t in order to stimulate the economy,” Carden said. “What they got was a strange new economy based on tourism that was only good for six months. Then you were out of work for six months when the tourist left.”
Bryson City capitalized on the influx of tourists as well. Luke Hyde, 69, remembers the droves that would funnel through the Calhoun House, a large inn in the middle of downtown, where his mother worked as a cook. Hyde would often carry the tourists’ bags in, and remembers the first time someone tipped him a dime. Hyde was confused, and handed it back to the man.
Meanwhile, Leonard Winchester spent his teenage years pumping gas for tourists at his dad’s rural store and roadside motel outside Byrson City.
“There was a dramatic difference in business in the summer,” Winchester said.
Winchester liked the chance to see people from all over the country coming past his doorstep. One tourist from out West had a carload of timberwolf pups and gave one to Winchester. But not all the memories are fond ones.
“Some of them were on the obnoxious side. They were pushy,” Winchester said. “They had stereotypes about this region. They pretty much looked down on us as hicks.”
JC Freeman, 81, of Swain County, also had the feeling that outsiders were here as much to gawk at the local people as they were at the mountains.
“The biggest thing they were hunting for is somebody they could make fun of,” Freeman said, recalling loads of tourists on Packard busses. “They wanted to see old Snuffy Smith and L’il Abner and they did their best to show it to them.”
An unfortunate object of affection
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has long been synonymous with black bears. From the first automobile tourists to today’s long-distance backpackers, catching a glimpse of the the iconic animal is the ultimate Smokies’ experience.
Of course, it was much easier to see one in the park’s early days when tourists regularly fed the bears without fear of reprisal. While it’s illegal to feed wildlife now, it was once an accepted practice, ensuring tourists could get a good, long look.
There was no such thing as bear-proof trash cans, so campgrounds and picnic areas became the bears’ main stomping grounds, giving rise to a host of problematic encounters. Some bears even broke into vehicles to get food left inside.
“They were always trying to catch a bear that was mischevious and getting into trouble,” said Teresa Pennington, who spent lots of time in the park during her childhood years in Asheville. “They would have big traps set up with a piece of meat inside and the gate would fall behind them. They would take them out of the park and release them, but three or four weeks later they were back again. They even had names for them.”
Many of the tourist shops in Cherokee would put bears in a cage and charge tourists to see them, spawning a black market for live bears. Trying to catch a bear was not just a source of money but entertainment for the kids, recalled Gary Carden of Sylva.
“You would pull up at Smokemont and raise the trunk lid and throw a pound of bacon in the back and then go hide. When the bear came in there to get the bacon you slammed the lid and drove off. Sometimes the bear tore that car all to pieces. You would drive around half the night and if nobody wanted the bear you had to go back to the park and let it out,” Carden said.