Photos courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains National Park Library—Sugarlands Visitor center
First family of the Park
“Telegram from David advising me park bill passed this morning 58 to 32. Wonderful achievement for you and Governor and all our committee. Tennessee will be very grateful some day.” — Telegram from W.P. Davis to Ann Davis, April 9, 1925
The establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was an extraordinarily complicated and difficult task. Tennessee and North Carolina each had their own heroes and heroines in the great task. In Tennessee, W.P. and Ann Davis of Knoxville were the primary progenitors of the park movement.
The story goes that Ann Davis got the idea of a national park in the Smoky Mountains during a vacation to Yellowstone National Park in the summer of 1923. Davis herself described it to Russell Hanlon in a letter she sent on June 24, 1952, long after the fact. Hanlon, who had served as manager of the Knoxville Automobile Club and Secretary of the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association in the days when the movement for a national park was just being initiated, requested the information from Davis on behalf of a journalist writing an article on the subject. Mrs. Davis wrote as follows:
On the train returning east I said to Mr. Davis “We have seen some beautiful country. Grand mountains but nothing more majestic than our own great Smokies. Why should there be national parks in the West and only one tiny one (Arcadia [sic] in Maine) in the east? Mr. Davis replied, “If that is the way you feel about it, I will see what I can do.”
Historians are hesitant to credit Mrs. Davis with being, literally, the first person to have the idea for a national park in the Smokies. At the time W.P. and Ann took their summer vacation in 1923, the federal government had already established 19 national parks (though some would be re-designated later). Four had been created in the previous four years. The director of the National Park Service at the time, Stephen T. Mather, already had recommended the southeastern section of the nation as a good location partly because, as Ann reasoned later, none then existed in the region and all save one was west of the Mississippi River. Surely Mrs. Davis wasn’t the only one in East Tennessee to have such an idea. And folks in North Carolina were themselves pushing at the time for a national park to be established in the Grandfather Mountain-Linville Gorge area. But before we address the “mother’s” role in this heroic tale, let’s first consider the “father.”
Regardless of whether or not Ann Davis had a truly original idea regarding the establishment of a national park in the Smoky Mountains, there is no doubt Mr. Davis took his wife’s perspective to heart and doggedly set about to make it happen.
W.P. Davis was an active force in the Knoxville business community in the 1920s. The general manager of the Knoxville Iron Co., a large manufacturing operation in the city, and a member of the city’s Chamber of Commerce board of directors and affiliated with other business-oriented organizations, Mr. Davis was in a good position to champion the idea of a Smoky Mountains national park. Nevertheless, according to Carlos C. Campbell ’s rendering of the story in Birth of a National Park in the Great Smoky Mountains, few Knoxvillians took the notion seriously in the first few months after he and Mrs. Davis’ returned from that fateful 1923 summer vacation. Undeterred, Mr. Davis presented the idea to Dr. Hubert Work, U.S. Secretary of the Interior soon after his return home. By the end of the year Davis had convinced members of the Knoxville Automobile Club to form the organization that would soon thereafter be named the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association. W.P. Davis was elected the group’s chairman and Campbell its secretary, a position that the latter would subsequently hold for 20 years.
“What W.P was about was seeing the statistics on the money that visitors brought to the regions around national parks,” notes Dan Pierce, professor and chair in the History Department at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and author of The Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat to National Park. “It was an economic development thing.”
Mr. Davis and the Knoxville contingent were not the only people to solicit Secretary Work for the establishment of a national park in their area, however, and Work created a committee to study some 30 areas in the Southern Appalachian region for their potential in this regard. The committee members decided to visit a select number of these Southern Appalachian locales, including the area around Grandfather Mountain and Linville Gorge. Before the decision was made to have a national park that spanned part of both states, Western North Carolina was Eastern Tennessee’s nearest rival for the coveted designation.
Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association Chairman W.P. Davis and others refused to let that be the final word, though. He, along with fellow Conservation Association member Col. David C. Chapman, issued another impassioned plea to the committee and managed to get a half-hearted invitation to come to Asheville to make their case in person when committee members visited there.
Mr. Davis and other influential Knoxvillians put together a nine-person delegation to meet with the Southern Appalachian National Park Committee. The group’s presentation, including the striking photos taken by brothers Jim and Robin Thompson, convinced the committee members that the area around the nearly 6,600-foot elevation known as Mt. LeConte was worth a look. A hike was arranged and two members of the Washington committee made the trek. The result: this Tennessee portion of the Great Smoky Mountains would be considered for a new national park after all.
Eventually Mrs. Davis was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives where she worked to build support for a bill authorizing the state of Tennessee to purchase land for use as part of a national park. Mr. Davis was in regular contact with her. A long letter dated Jan. 28, 1925, lays out for her a fact-laden and well thought-out argument in favor of establishment of the state park in East Tennessee to ultimately become a national park and urges her to “… do all you can in your position as a member in the Legislature to back up Gov. Peay’s proposition to buy the Little River Lumber Company property for a state park.”
In the history of this decade-long effort to create a national park hereabouts, Col. David C. Chapman is usually referred to as the “father” of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But perhaps W.P. Davis deserves recognition as the true patriarch of the park. Mr. Davis, after all, was the indisputable original driving force in the birth of the movement in Tennessee. He was the initiator and first chairman of the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association in those first crucial couple of years. His group was clearly the most instrumental in initiating the nascent public movement on the East Tennessee side of what would eventually become a complementary two-state effort for the establishment of a national park in the Smoky Mountains region. And he was the one who convinced Chapman, an early skeptic, of the virtue of establishing a national park at Knoxville’s back door.
Perhaps part of the reason W.P. Davis hasn’t received quite the acclaim he might have is captured in a tribute article, written shortly after his untimely death in 1931 by a former Knoxville Journal managing editor. W.M. Clemens described Davis as “self-effacing to a fault” and wrote that because “… of his own insistence, his name seldom appeared in print in connection with the remarkable campaign that resulted in the adoption of hundreds of thousands of acres by the Federal Government as the Great Smokies [sic] National Park.”
“In the beginning it’s him,” Professor Pierce says of W.P. Davis. “He was going around to every business group in Knoxville and East Tennessee promoting this idea and he makes a convert of Chapman. W.P. Davis was the guy in the beginning, for sure.”
If the patriarchal lineage of Great Smoky Mountains Park is a bit hazy, the matrilineal connection is clear. Ann Davis not only gave her husband inspiration to pursue national park status in the Smoky Mountains, but more importantly she led the initial effort in the Tennessee Legislature that secured the state’s pivotal purchase of land for that purpose.
Ann was not very active in the initial stages of making her national park idea a reality, nor in politics in general. Indeed it was a shock to W.P. Davis, according to a later account by their daughter Barbara Davis Kesterson, when Mrs. Davis ran for an open seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1925. “Dad almost fainted when she decided to run,” recalled Kesterson, as quoted later in a Knoxville newspaper.
But run she did, and win she did. Remarkably, the soft-spoken Knoxville matron, who had just become a grandmother, was only the third woman to ever be elected to the Tennessee Legislature and the first female Republican ever to do so. Her election victory came only four years after the enactment of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that had made refusal of voting privileges based on gender illegal. Many have said she pursued the office for the sole purpose of furthering the state’s efforts to establish a national park, but she suggested otherwise in at least one newspaper report.
“I have never been interested in politics just for the sake of playing the political game but I have always been interested in women and their advancement along all lines,” she was quoted in a 1925 Knoxville newspaper. “… I saw in this a way to make an opening for the women of my section of Tennessee in state politics” and called for more women to be elected to the state legislature. Ann went on to state that she was “very much interested in getting the National park for this section and am for the University of Tennessee appropriation.”
Whether it was one issue or many that enticed Ann to run for office, she certainly was instrumental in introducing a bill early in the 1925 session that would authorize the state of Tennessee’s purchase of the first parcel of land for the park—a 76,507-acre tract held by Little River Lumber Co. near the Little River Gorge. The U.S. government had by then made it clear that if a national park was to be established it would cover ground in both Tennessee and North Carolina and that both states would need to secure deeds for 150,000 contiguous acres. This first bill aimed at beginning to meet that requirement encountered stiff opposition in the Legislature. It passed in the Senate but failed in the House. Gov. Peay, as determined as Mr. and Mrs. Davis to make the park happen, reintroduced the bill the very next day with the stipulation that Knoxville pay one-third the cost of the land purchase. The governor signed it into law on April 10, 1925, using a quill pen he then presented to Rep. Ann Davis.
Ann would by choice serve only one two-year term in the Tennessee General Assembly. “She took this very active political role and then she disappeared back into the woodwork,” noted historian Pierce. “She did what she set out to do and then that was it.”
Davis’ daughter, Barbara Davis Kesterson, would later observe that her mother “… was never anything but a housewife until the park thing came up and once she got what she wanted that was what she was again.”
Returning to Knoxville after her brief, but meaningful, political career she ended up moving to Gatlinburg, Tenn. to be closer to her beloved mountains after her husband died in 1931. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially authorized on June 15, 1934. Davis continued to be active in civic life but never again ran for public office. She died in 1957 at the age of 81. The then named Great Smoky Mountains National Park was averaging more than 3 million visitors a year at the time of her death.
It had taken more than a decade and the extraordinary efforts of thousands of people in Tennessee and North Carolina to make Mrs. Davis’ good idea a reality. Few, if any, had been more instrumental in giving the park a fighting chance early on than Ann and W.P Davis, the first family of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Honoring a legacy
- Mount Davis is named for Willis P. Davis. The 5,020-foot peak is located between Silers Bald and Thunderhead Mountain near Townsend, Tenn.
- Davis Ridge is named after Ann Davis (Mrs. W.P. Davis) and runs between Silers Bald and Thunderhead Mountain, rising 4,409 feet.
Portraying the “Mother” of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Robin Goddard of Maryville looks and sounds quite convincing in her portrayal of the park’s historic mother figure Ann Davis. She is dressed in period garb—a handsome skirt of modest length and cut, dark dress jacket, white blouse clasped at the top button with a decorative brooch, long string of pearls hanging down from her neck, her ears adorned with simple, tasteful pearl earrings, all topped off by a bowed dress hat. Her genuine, if refined, Southern Appalachian accent and speech patterns complete the illusion.
It’s no wonder this 65-year-old retired school teacher slips so easily into the persona of the late Mrs. W.P. Davis. Goddard was born and raised in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains and she is well versed in the matriarch’s life and times. She conducted extensive research into Ann Davis at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s library at Sugarlands Visitor Center and the Calvin M. McClung Collection at the East Tennessee History Center in Knoxville when beginning to portray her as part of a lesson plan for the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont Environmental Center.
“We do a lesson for boys and girls there called “Walker Valley Living History” and [I, as] Ann Davis sometimes conducts it, or if I’m not able to do it we’ll get a guy to do it as Willis P. Davis. The children go back in time and interview characters along the West Prong Trail. Ann Davis is in charge of a survey.”
Goddard slips into her Ann Davis narrative from the Tremont program:
“Willis taught me that no idea that’s a good idea should ever be left undone, and that if you feel strongly about an idea then you need to follow through on it,” she says. “He and I felt many times that this idea of a national park might fail and that all our efforts would be in vain but we persevered and finally we received the support that was needed for this to become the most visited park in the nation. I’d like to share some obstacles that we encountered in the development of this park.”
Her tale goes on to describe the difficulties of establishing the park and the important events that took place in the Smokies through the 1920s up until 1934 when it became a national park.
Goddard, now in her 20th year as a volunteer with Great Smoky Mountains National Park, also occasionally does her Ann Davis portrayal for various civic groups and others in the area.
“She was extremely reserved. She was very focused on what she wanted to do and I admire her greatly because if it hadn’t been for her and her vision, we would not have a national park here today. And her husband, luckily, was very supportive of everything she wanted to do. She’s considered the mother of Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the tremendous influence she had on the establishment of the park, particularly for introducing the bill in the Tennessee Legislature as a member of the House of Representatives.”