This weekend, there was plenty of time for sightseeing, surrounding Saturday afternoon's wedding, and I made it to Cades Cove not once, but twice.
When President Roosevelt instituted the National Park System, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created out of vast forested, mountainous tracts of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, there were, not surprisingly, people settled in parts of this area.
The two settlements near Gatlinburg were Elkmont, a vacation haven for the rich and famous in the early decades of the 20th century, and Cades Cove, a farming settlement in a relatively level valley between mountain ridges. Initially, the government simply told these folks to leave; they'd be paid for the land, but they wouldn't be allowed to stay.
It was the wealthy denizens of Elkmont (and, I'd imagine, their lawyers) that apparently managed to change the situation for both settlements. They could sell their land and leave immediately, or accept less money for the land and be allowed to stay not only until they died, but until their last then-living male heir died or moved. Meantime, they could make no improvements to their land -- no significant new buildings or additions to existing houses -- and they'd have to abandon some of the farming traditions of the past hundred or more years, so as to make the park suitable for visitors.
We briefly went through Elkmont on Sunday; there's not much to see along the loop road, though most of the old houses have been left. Each bears a "US Property - No Trespassing" sign, but clearly some of them have been visited by vandals. Most are pretty run down or dilapidated, but a few of the houses still look like the nice vacation houses they once were. One was in use until not that long ago, its stubborn "last male heir" holding out as long as he could. Near the entrance to the Elkmont area, a hotel up on a hill once served more transient visitors to the area. We're told it was to be restored a couple of years ago, as part of the odd museum this community has become, but it hasn't happened yet.
Cades Cove was worth the 45-minute drive through the winding Tennessee mountain roads, not just once, but twice. Wade (the groom) and I drove out on Friday, and five of us took advantage of the free day yesterday to visit again. The first visit was in better weather, but I got to see more on Sunday, despite the on-again, off-again rain. The second time, I also had one of the 50-cent guidebooks available at the entrance to the loop road, which lent a fair bit more background information to our explorations.
Settled early in the 19th century, Cades Cove was never a prosperous farming community, but a life of persistence agriculture. The paragraphs in the booklet told of the arrival of the first mill for grinding corn, and the evolution of local millworks that eventually allowed for finer-ground cornmeal and even flour. The houses and barns in the Cove are all original structures, but clearly only representative of the buildings that must have stood there 70, 100, or 180 years ago. Yesterday, D.J. pointed out a barn a hundred yards or so from the road that had finished collapsing since her last visit, last year; then, it had been half collapsed. I wouldn't even have noticed the pile of rubble if she hadn't pointed to it.
Most of the private buildings are simple wood structures, notched log cabins or early frame buildings. The idea of nine people living in one of these small two-room houses seems silly, but I can believe it. All of the furnishings are gone; unlike places like Colonial Williamsburg or Sackett's Harbor, there's been no attempt to keep the buildings looking lived-in. It makes the homes seem a little roomier, but it's still hard to imagine the way the families would have been crammed in, the parents living on the ground floor with infants and female children, with the boys sleeping upstairs in what was usually just a loft, or little more.
There are outbuildings still adjoining the houses, mostly corn cribs or hog pens or simple cattle barns. A cantilever barn, built late in the settlement's history, with the second floor overhanging the first on all four sides, provides an example of architectural and engineering advancement, and suggests some prosperity.
The churches also offer some interesting history. Here, the furniture remains, with rows of pews, pulpits, and in one church, even a piano. The guidebook talks about how the congregation of the original Baptist church split when one group believed more in missionary work, and other splits surrounded differing opinions about the War Between the States. The real history is outside, though, in graveyards whose graves bear the same family names over and over. Many of the stones have been replaced quite recently, with much clearer names and dates than the originals, worn by weather, toppled, broken, or in some cases, missing.
At the Primitive Baptist Church graveyard, three tiny headstones in a column each bear carved lambs on top; the lambs were used to mark the graves of infants. These three all died the day they were born, or were stillborn. Only one of the three has a name. Like others nearby, the other two just say "Infant Son of..." or "Infant Daughter of...." Across the path from this trio, two stones side by side tell a sad story of the Gregory family from about 95 years ago. The first, for a daughter, shows she only lived about two months. The second, for a son, shows he was born less than ten months after his sister died, and then he, too, died within a few months. There are a couple of other Gregory headstones here, but no obvious indication whether this family had other children, or whether any of them survived past infancy.
The area is visited as a driving tour -- with cars driving around the loop road. There are pull-offs to let other cars get by, and parking areas for when you want to stop and take a closer look. (We did a fair amount of that on both visits.)
If you get the opportunity to visit Cades Cove, I highly recommend it. There's camping nearby, and of course an enormous number of hotel rooms in the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge areas, both about 40 minutes away.