Photo courtesy of the Blue Ridge Parkway • Travis Bumgardner photo illustration
Of all the factors that led to the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, postcards that depicted the beauty and grandeur of the Southern Appalachians may be the most overlooked.
Now a new book, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Postcard History) by Adam H. Alfrey, explores this early phenomenon. Alfrey made his way through thousands of postcards in order to narrow it down to the 200 in the book. At first he remained intent on reading each of the short messages on the back of the cards, but found a similar refrain echoing over and over again.
“Everyone wants to come here, they love the mountains, they love the people and you should too,” said Alfrey.
Alfrey, the operations manager and curator of exhibitions for the East Tennessee History Center, found that these mailbox mementos opened a window on local history. According to Alfrey’s research, the GSMNP came into existence thanks to hardworking grassroots movements, tourism—and the messages inscribed on little cards sent by post.
Photographers’ pictures, taken as part of the push to chronicle the region’s beauty and foster the creation of the GSMNP, were later featured on these postcards that tourists sent off to friends and family, highlighting great places visited on vacation. “Seventy to eighty percent of all images came from the same four photographers,” Alfrey says. “Their styles became very distinct, but many of them were not credited. Postcard makers were interested primarily in the images themselves and what it takes to sell them. In the case of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the images were sold twice—first used to sell the idea of the park, and then turned around and used again as postcards.”
In one particular case, Alfrey discovered the exact same image twice, five years apart. “One going to Congress, the other going to tourists,” he said. “Postcards were explicitly designed to promote tourism.”
The postcards were effective propaganda, with East Tennessee in particular becoming a favored destination. In the case of the Smokies, vacationers shared message after message depicting Southern hospitality, relaxation, and more on the backside of alluring photos and illustrations.
“Most of the correspondence was the typical ‘loving it here wish you were here,’” Alfrey said. “Many people were talking about how great it was to be in this area, what they were seeing in the park, where they were staying, what they were eating, etc.”
Historians value postcards’ role in depicting the landscape of years gone by. Entire books are dedicated to viewing them and the portrait they paint of society. They preserve towns and landscapes at a particular moment in their progress. This type of communication has a colorful history. Begun in Europe during the mid-1800s these innovative mailings found their way to America shortly after. For 20 years, from 1873 to 1898, the U.S. Postal Service made postcards exclusively. The US. Postal Service would not accept “souvenir cards” in the system until Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act. Regulations continued to evolve for the next several years, including where messages could be written, mandating a white border to save ink during wartimes, and even how the term “postcard” could be used. The development of the American roadway system, the creation of national landmarks, parks, and pop culture were all artfully depicted and mailed around the world.
Visitors to the Smokies region had expectations of hillbillies mixed into the landscape, tribal dances and feathers at Cherokee, and moonshine stills hidden in caves. Early postcards spread these images of Southern Appalachian culture around the country. Partly because those stereotypes were so highly propagated, attractions highlighting these images started popping up from enterprising communities.
But visitors also wrote home remarking on the hospitality of the mountain people as often as they marveled over the splendor of the mountain views. Most everyone had the same stories, Alfrey found. While doing his research, he did come across one piece from a private collector that proved to be a mystery. “It read, ‘Sally, I received your letter of last week. No, I will never do you as wrong as you have done me. Sarah.’”
This cryptic message was sent from Gatlinburg to Newport. “I tried and tried to figure out the story here, but couldn’t. I figure it’s probably one of the 3Ms—men, money, or moonshine,” Alfrey said.
Since the idea of creating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was so closely tied to the promise of tourism, the fact that people loved their time here was good news. Alfrey writes in his book, “By the 1920s, the promise of a regional tourist boom was being used as a selling point for the establishment of a new national park. That was an important development. For the first time, Americans—and especially, East Tennesseans and Western North Carolinians—were thinking of national parks as an enterprise or ... as a means to ‘profit by them.’” Profit in this sense did not mean financial profit, rather that many sojourners stayed on permanently because of the physical and emotional health benefits they found here.
Their campaign worked. By the 1950s, more than 2 million people visited the Smokies annually. Alfrey highlights one such visitor, a woman named Edna, “Who on Sunday, June 4, 1950, sent a postcard of the iconic 6,593-foot Mount Le Conte from Gatlinburg, Tenn., to Saint Paul, Minn. On the back she wrote, ‘Heavenly days!! Beauty beyond words to express in this ... Smoky Nat’l Park .... Begin the 1,000 mile trip home tomorrow.” Like the one Edna chose for her friends, early postcards of the Great Smoky Mountains often capitalized on the range’s scenic grandeur.”
As people came looking for the stereotypes highlighted on some of those early postcards, entire tourist industries popped up, giving them what they wanted while simultaneously feeding into the stereotype of gun-toting hillbillies.
“All of the parks out west were set aside for preservation purposes,” explains Alfrey. “But over time people were drawn here for tourism, and these resort communities grew up around the park. A lot of scholars think—and I agree with them—that one of the biggest factors that kept the movement going here was the promise of that tourism boom.”
It was much easier to preserve parklands out West in areas such as Yellowstone. “But getting park land in this area was a different story,” states the National Park Service in recalling how the Smokies came to be. “The land that became Great Smokies National Park was owned by hundreds of small farmers and a handful of large timber and paper companies. The farmers did not want to leave their family homesteads, nor did the large corporations want to abandon huge forests of timber, many miles of railroad track, extensive systems of logging equipment, and whole villages of employee housing.”
Alfrey notes that, “When the National Park Service began working the land that would become Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the early 1930s, it was estimated that fewer than 200,000 tourists made their way into the mountains. By 1940, the year President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his September 2 speech dedicating the park ‘to the free people of America,’ that number had grown exponentially to 1,247,019. By 1950, Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitation exceeded two million.”
Many early postcards featured roads because the highway movement was such a big development. Walter M. Cline, a photographer from Chattanooga, often included roads in his images. “Cline wanted to include pictures of the roads so that people traveling from other parts of the country could see that the mountains were easily accessible and that we had roads,” Alfrey said.
“In 1968, National Geographic dubbed the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as ‘drive-in nature,’ observing only six percent of visitors leave their cards and take to the trails,” Alfrey says. And it is still that way. Not only is the GSMNP the most visited park in the country, it is also the most polluted park because of all the car traffic. Even today, many motorists would rather enjoy the only the splendor of the park visible from inside their cars.
The Asheville Postcard Company
In 1907 postal regulations began allowing what is known as divided back postcards. This small change actually served as a boom to the postcard industry. Capitalizing on this movement at the ground floor was the Asheville Postcard and Pennant Company, later known as just Asheville Postcard Company. Lamar Campbell Le Compte Sr. founded this company at the age of 21 in 1910. His line of postcards launched with 190 different picture styles. Card No. 1 is a view of Andrews Geyser near Old Fort, which served as a major landmark on the Southern Railway.
Le Compte not only had the entrepreneurial vision behind the Asheville Postcard Company, he also served as the company’s salesman, traveling the area by train to sell his cards to the same places we expect to buy them now—drug stores, souvenir shops, five-and-tens, bookstores and gift shops. Shortly before his death in 1977, the Asheville Times published an article entitled “Campbell Le Compte’s Cards Offer Twinge of Nostalgia.” The inventory for his company was estimated to be in the millions.
Asheville’s newspaper, then known as The Asheville Times, published a short article about the Asheville Postcard Company. Entitled “Post Cards are Made Locally” it ran on Aug. 24, 1936. Below are excerpts from that article:
“The Asheville Post Card Company ... began in a modest way by publishing around fifty different views of Asheville and Western North Carolina .... During this time, quite a few million cards have been sold to dealers. The sale of these cards has aided materially in bringing tourists and visitors to the ‘Land of Sky.’ Many hundreds of people are brought here annually because of receiving an appealing post card view, such as a beautiful mountain scene, a picture of an attractive resort, or a view of the gorgeous rhododendron ....
“Many special orders are received for view cards. Cards gotten out by the Asheville Post Card Company are so attractive that they create interest and admiration wherever they are seen. So much so, that recently orders have been secured from many states in the Union and even foreign places. Several orders and inquiries recently received from points outside the U.S.A. include several places in Canada, Alaska, Cuba, Bahama Islands and a few days ago an order was received from Calcutta, India .... Folders are salable also and aid, too, in promoting the beauties of our mountain scenery and as in post cards, a good assortment helps the sale of those. Asheville Post Card Company carries in stock continually over a dozen different folders of this section.”