In the Land of Blue Smoke
75 Years On, Echoes of a National Park's Appalachian Past Can Still Be Heard

By Sue Kovach Shuman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it's easy to get lost in the past. The nation's most-visited national park has nearly 80 historic buildings scattered throughout its 800 square miles, evidence that until the 1930s children attended school there while their parents coaxed corn from the hardscrabble soil of the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Then the federal government decided to step in and create a park to protect the area, untouched by the last ice age and straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Today, wildlife outnumbers people. And visitors, some 9 million to 10 million a year, can hike and enjoy nature. They can also walk into mountain cabins and churches and family cemeteries left behind by those not-so-long-ago residents, many of whom didn't move willingly.

Raymond Caldwell, 85, of Waynesville, N.C., lived in the Cataloochee area, in the southeast section of the park, until age 15. He says the government paid his family $4,000 to leave the 160-acre farm they'd owned for a century. When they moved, he says, "I drove a team of horses with a wagon and farm implements hanging off it. My 8-year-old brother was with me."

Caldwell says he liked living in the mountains, but it wasn't easy. "It was pretty rough terrain. We were just getting by," he says in a phone interview. He remembers grinding corn at a water-powered gristmill. His family, with eight children, grew corn and raised cattle for beef.

Visiting Caldwell House, his family's homestead, a few weeks ago, I touched torn Sears, Roebuck catalogue pages that still paper an upstairs bedroom. The house is frame, and a five-panel front door and wood paneling elsewhere hint that this once was a fine place. Caldwell says his father was bitter about leaving, but some families were poor and needed the money. Even before the Great Depression, they struggled. After it hit, some were destitute. Many had worked for logging companies that owned large tracts of land but had ravaged it, polluting streams and driving elk and other animals from their habitats.

The Depression helped give birth to the park. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps provided jobs for thousands of young men who planted trees, cleared brush for trails and built the park headquarters, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and log bridges that span streams.

This year, the park -- the heart of the area that the nearby Cherokee Indians called Shakaney, or "Land of Blue Smoke," for the mist that shrouds its peaks and floats over its valleys -- celebrates its 75th anniversary June 13-15. Programs, exhibits and music performances will celebrate the park's Southern heritage, and a Sept. 2 rededication is planned at the CCC monument at Newfound Gap, 5,046 feet above sea level, where FDR dedicated it. Ground will be broken for a cultural museum to complement the natural history one.

Entertainer Dolly Parton, the official anniversary ambassador, will be there. She has, she says, the Smokies in her bones.

There's a reason: She may live in Nashville now and maintain homes in Los Angeles and New York, but she grew up poor in a hollow near Locust Ridge, about seven miles from the park, in Sevierville, Tenn., where a bronze Dolly statue graces the courthouse lawn.

"I bought the old homestead [in 1987]," she says in a phone interview, "as a retreat, for family reunions . . . a place away from prying eyes." She clarifies: "It is hard times. A lot of my relatives are having hard times. I think people are more frightened" about the economy. Dollywood, her Smokies-theme amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., employs 2,500 people in peak season.

When Parton is in Locust Ridge, she relaxes and cooks: "I'm famous for my chicken and dumplings." She says she prefers Cracker Barrel cuisine and home cooking such as you find at Dollywood. The recipe for Granny Ogle's Ham 'n' Beans, served there with corn bread, comes from her friend Judy Ogle's family. (Ogle roots are everywhere in the Smokies: I found handmade Ogle brooms and stayed in an Ogle-owned hotel.)

Parton says she visits the national park several times a year to rejuvenate. "My husband, Carl, and I love to travel in our RV. . . . We just drive through, find a spot to picnic. . . . I just love the water, the streams, just to sit on a rock." There doesn't have to be a reason to go, she says.

* * *

I'd seen the Smokies in October, when 130 species of trees created a riot of color. Now, flowers are blooming. During the 59th annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, from Wednesday through April 26, there might be dogwood below 3,000 feet and painted trillium at 6,600 feet.

"April is a marvelous time to be here," says Kent Cave, curator for the park's interpretive exhibits.

You don't have to take a pilgrimage to see flowers; a flora guide ($1 at Sugarlands Visitor Center) works fine for non-experts.

In February's last days, greenery was abundant at lower elevations, and I counted only 17 people along the Rainbow Falls trail. At Newfound Gap, I stood alone where FDR did, remembering that pennies from schoolchildren -- and the Rockefeller family's $5 million -- helped buy 6,000-some pieces of land to create the park.

Places left behind by former residents are best seen sans crowds. On the park's west side, on an 11-mile loop, are the abandoned buildings of Cades Cove. Stick your fingers into the mud-mortar chimney on John Oliver's cabin, built in 1820. The log walls contain no nails. Touch the mud chinking between the logs, there to keep out the cold. My guidebook showed photos of boys getting baptized in a stream near one of three churches for the 125 families who lived here.

But that was long ago. The road dips and narrows, and, past Dan Lawson's place, built in 1856, it is deeply rutted. I hoped our car wouldn't get a flat -- or worse. At dusk, our only company was white-tailed deer and coyotes.

Don't even attempt to see Cataloochee, the abandoned community where Raymond Caldwell lived as a boy, at dusk. The best way in (and out) is by a 10-mile mountain-hugging road with 180-degree curves. My husband honked the horn so much, to warn other vehicles, we woke up the elk herd that "guards" Cataloochee. A bull with four-foot-wide antlers stood and scared the heck out of me when I wandered up the porch at Palmer House. I remembered reading that males "sometimes perceive people as challengers and may charge." My husband was calculating the distance to the car, but the elk apparently decided we were harmless. (Nonetheless, the buck kept its eyes on me later when I used the outhouse nearby. As I closed the door, the lawyer-toilet scene from "Jurassic Park" flashed through my mind.)

In an exhibit at Palmer House, a photo shows a man having his teeth pulled on the porch. In a room with a fireplace, four layers of fancy wallpaper hang in shreds. In Palmer Chapel nearby, a tattered Bible rests on a pulpit. On a pumpkin-colored pew, I tilted; the church floor slopes. Atop a hill is a cemetery; I thought about the sweating brows of those who carried coffins uphill.

In Beech Grove School, we sat at desks of children who are now in their 80s and looked at graffiti and the remnants of an incomprehensible equation on a scarred chalkboard. It was so quiet, I could hear an elk bellowing outside and a stream flowing.

I understood why Caldwell says he left the park, but it never left him. "I try to go every chance I get," he says. "I just feel good when I go."

* * *

After World War II, national parks became known as cheap vacation destinations, so communities around the Smokies are hoping their park's anniversary will draw business during this recession.

Gatlinburg, Tenn., the park's northern gateway, has 13 chapels and calls itself "the wedding capital of the South." But Dan Saffelder, owner of two chapels and past president of the local Wedding Chapel Association, says business is slow: "There are fewer weddings, and cheaper ones."

In town, hillbilly-theme crafts mingle with fudge and T-shirt shops, a wax museum, even a Ripley's aquarium where sharks swim overhead. It feels like a beach town without the beach. Trolleys make getting around easy, but they don't go far into the park. This summer there will be free entertainment, with actors on street corners, for example, depicting events about the park's creation.

And the park's ghosts will be watching from a respectful distance, removed from the land they once worked but forever a part of it.

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