Tennessee – Cades Cove: The Heart of the Smoky Mountains

Before we began spending time in East Tennessee, I thought of a cove as a place people went fishing or swimming, but here in the Smoky Mountains I’ve come to learn that coves can also be areas of land or valleys surrounded by mountains.  Cades Cove Loop Road takes visitors on the 11-mile, one-way, one-lane route around a place of natural beauty that was, for one hundred years, the home to a thriving community.

After entering Smoky Mountain National Park, there is much to see even on the drive before coming to the Loop Road.  The route runs along a brisk flowing stream with evergreen hemlock trees, deciduous trees and rhododendron grow up the steep slopes on each side of the road.  Ferns cling to rock walls and in many places the walls themselves weep from underground water sources that freeze into ice formations in the winter.  On clear days, it takes a long time for sun to get high enough in the sky to angle light down to the stream and the roadway in and out of the cove. 

Once we begin driving on Loop Road we still have a little distance before suddenly the steep hillsides recede and the 4,000 acre expanse of Cades Cove lays open before us in its breathtaking beauty.  We pull over and pause to enjoy the vista before us and the snow capped mountains in the distance.

The Cherokee Indians hunted in this area, and explorers and trappers passed through this densely forested land…but it was not until 1818 that John Oliver and his wife, Lurany, followed an Indian trail over the mountains into the cove to become the first permanent white settlers in what was then the country’s western frontier.  They felled trees, cleared land and built a cabin.  After spending her first winter in the cove, Lucretia said that she wasn’t going to stay unless she got a cow.  She must have been a hearty soul and deeply in love with John because after the cow arrived she did stay, raised seven children and welcomed others to join her family in taming this remote wilderness. 

Cades Cove is best visited in off seasons since during the summer and fall months the road is clogged and the remaining home sites are overrun with visitors.  But the cove is a wonderful place to come at any time of the year.  Each season brings out different phases in the natural beauty of the land.  After the leaves are gone in the fall, it is easier to get a real perspective on the layout and a good look at the historic context and how those early families lived through the different times of the year. 

Before going on, let me tell you that the Cades Cove you see today reflects what life was like in the earliest days, long before the establishment of the Smoky Mountain Park by the National Park Service.  The cove had become the home to over 120 families by the time it was annexed into the national park.  This area was filled with churches, schools, stores, grist mills, homes and farms…the land was cleared and farmed not just in the open flat area but on up the mountain sides.  It is hard to imagine this today since the trees have grown back over the years and reforested much of that land. 

Starting in the early 1900s, the Federal Government began acquiring private land to establish a park, in part as a response to the clear-cut lumbering operations that were decimating entire forests in North Carolina and other nearby areas. 

Early planning for the Smoky Mountain National Park did not include Cades Cove, but by the late 1920s things changed when east Tennessee business interests began to realize the bonus tourism would bring to Knoxville and its environs.  Once the Tennessee General Assembly passed their approval for funding to buy land the Park Commission had the power to purchase or seize properties by eminent domain.  Many of the families in Cades Cove were furious over this decision and the threat to their homes and livelihoods.  John W. Oliver (son of the first settler) even battled the loss of his family’s land in court several times and took the case it all the way up to the Tennessee Supreme Court.  In the end he lost.  He left his family home on Christmas Day in 1937, almost 120 years after his family crossed the mountains and settled in the state of Tennessee.

In planning the park, the decision had been made that it would reflect the natural wilderness of the Smoky Mountains with their different forests of trees, plants, wildflowers, birds, animals, reptiles and fish…so the cove was initially scheduled to be left to return to its natural forested state.  But conservationists advocated that the cove’s meadow remain and others advised that the primitive homes and barns be kept to represent the history of the early homesteaders’ lifestyle. 

Much of the work throughout the Smoky Mountain National Park was carried out by the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC).  The CCCs carved through walls of rock to create tunnels and they built roads, dams and retaining walls.  

In Cades Cove, they dismantled the more modern homes and farms, leaving this part of the park with a rich collection of log structures and early frame buildings.  The cove became a unique area where visitors could learn more about pioneer settlement and how their forbearers lived.  These days on a drive around the Loop Road, it is hard to imagine what it looked like in the early 1900s when the cove was a bustling farm community, but in the spring blooming daffodils mark home sites where farm houses stood. 

The CCCs also brought more of the outside world into the lives of cove residents.  Thousands of young men from cities and towns all across the country were suddenly living in camps in their midst.  Residents of the cove had not been totally isolated.  They had interacted with merchants and others in Maryville and Knoxville, but this influx of men brought different speech patterns, music and husbands “from away” for some young women (much to the chagrin of the local farm boys).  By early 1940 much of the work was complete and with the advent of WWII, the project was shut down.  Many of the CCC workers enlisted in military service as did many of the young men from the cove.

Methodists and Baptists were the predominant religious groups in the area and Cades Cove Methodist Church is one of the three remaining churches.  It was first built as a simple log structure and this newer church was constructed in 1902.  It took 115 days to complete, earning the builder $115.  The building has two front doors.  Methodists did not follow the practice of separate doors for men and women, but since that was a feature on the set of plans the builder used the church ended up with an extra door.   

The Visitors Center is about half way around Loop Road and is located at the site of the John Cable Grist Mill, which was constructed in 1868.  The mill’s overshot wheel is powered by water that has been diverted from Mill Creek and Forge Creek.  Both corn and wheat were ground on the hand-cut grinding stones. Corn was the most prevalent crop since it was used to feed the livestock and was central to the human diet as well…not to mention its use in whiskey production. 

In the fall the crop was picked and stored until the cobs could be shucked by hand, bagged and taken to the mill where the corn would be ground to different degrees, depending on its intended use.  In one form or another corn was part of every meal from cornmeal mush and grits to hominy and cornbread.  The toll for grinding was one gallon of ground grain for every bushel.  Saturday was usually the day when people went to the mill.  The expression “milling around” comes from folk gathered at the mill waiting for their turn.  It was a chance to see friends and catch up on the news.  The children would play and in the heat of the summer, they could swim or fish in the mill pond.

Across from the grist mill is a different type of grinder and a molasses still.  Most families would raise some sorghum, and in the late fall they would harvest the crop and strip the leaves.  The stalks would be individually fed into a press that had a mule or horse hitched to a long shaft.  The animal would tread in a steady circle, creating the power for the grinder.  The juice that was extracted would be boiled in large vats.  While the juice was cooking it was stirred and the impurities were removed.  Finally, when the water was boiled off and the sugar cooked to perfection, the syrup would be ready for use.  It takes about ten gallons of juice to make one gallon of molasses so you can see what a slow cooking process this is…but what a tasty treat on a piece of cornbread or griddle cakes.

In the background of the grinder photo is the Becky Cable House and a collection of other structures that the Park Service has moved here to show different types of buildings that were in common use in the 1800s.  The house was originally located on Forge Creek Road and was used as a general store.  In 1887, Rebecca Cable (1844-1940) and her brother Dan bought the structure and made it their home. 

Aunt Becky, as she was known by all, never married.  The story is told that her father abruptly moved his family to the cove to end Becky’s romance with a young suitor.  She never forgave her father.  When her brother died at an early age, leaving behind a sick wife and a house full of children, Becky took on full responsibility for raising the children and ran the farm of six hundred acres.  

She spun, wove, knit, tended her garden and handled the other necessary domestic chores.  In addition she chopped wood and “worked in the field like a man” (Voices of Cades Cove Part 7 interview.)  Becky seldom to never wore shoes.  Once the threat of snow was over in the spring, she (in her bare feet) would herd her cattle up the mountain to graze for the summer.  At times she took in boarders, ran a small general store and operated her father’s mill.  The house never had plumbing and was heated only by the fireplaces.  All the family meals were cooked in the fireplace and on the cooking stove. 

Aunt Becky was a much loved and respected figure in Cades Cove and the Park Service allowed her to live in her home until her death in 1940.

In 1932, Aunt Becky donated land for a school just down the road from the Cable Cemetery and she also provided a team of horses to help with the construction work.  The one-room Cable School was built and it was the last one to close after the Park Service took over.  The school was heated with a big wood stove and the students carried drinking water to the building from a nearby home.  The CCCs cut and provided wood to heat the schools and churches in the cove.  At some point a cook stove was moved into one corner of the school and a local woman came and cooked a lunch for the students every day. 

Once the school was closed, the students attended classes in Townsend.  Initially there was no bus service and Rufus Coada would drive some of them over in his 1939 Chevy.  There was always a bunch of spectators waiting in the schoolyard to see the seven teenagers and six younger children piling out of that car in the morning.  At times, if Rufus had taken a load of cattle to Knoxville for sale the ride home from school would be in the back of his cattle truck.  Eventually, a bus was acquired and Rufus became the school bus driver (Voices of Cades Cove Vol. 7).

The Park Service moved several other buildings into the area around the Visitors Center, the Cable Grist Mill and Aunt Becky’s house, including a cantilever barn with pens and wings, a smoke house, a blacksmith shop, and a corn crib with a hinged roof that allowed corn to be thrown in over the top of the walls.

Further down Loop Road, the Dan Lawson Place is a most unusual structure in that it is made of smooth sawed logs and has a brick fireplace; the bricks were handmade of clay from a nearby hillside on the property.  The isolated room on the front porch is a “stranger’s room.”  Hospitality was the custom in the cove and when families put up strangers for the night, the stranger’s room, with its separate entrance, meant that the front door of the house could be latched from the inside for security.   

Another interesting feature at the Larson place is the “bee gums.”  Pieces of blackgum tree logs were hollowed out and used as bee hives.  Blackgum logs don’t split and can be used for years.  Many in the cove raised bees and sold jars of honey at roadside stands to park visitors in the summer.  This shed cover gives some protection from the hot sun and weather elements.

William “Fighting Billy” Tipton was a Revolutionary War veteran who was able to secure several land grants and become an early speculator, selling off acreage at a profit to others for creation of farms in the cove. 

My favorite barn in the cove is the double-cantilever structure on “Fighting Billy’s” Place.  The open center in the barn allows wagons to drive through and unload hay, grain or other supplies, and it has two pens for animals.  The generous overhang makes excellent protection for animals or equipment. 

Look closely at the interesting hewn and shaped logs, the use of tree branch crotches and wooden pegs to hold the ladder in place.  Nicely finished hand-hewn pointed staves were used in the wall-mounted hay bin.  Many of these structures have interesting and creative artistry in their construction.

As we are leaving the cove we see yet another white-tail deer that appears to be accustomed to cars and cameras.  Deer and turkeys are common sights especially in the early morning and late afternoon twilight (the Loop Road is open from dawn to dusk).  The wildlife is easy to spot because all traffic comes to a stop as eager tourists grab their cameras and jump out of their vehicles to take pictures.  Black bear, coyotes and other animals are here too but require much more luck or patience to see. 

The cove also has many hiking trails including a five-mile round trip hike to Abrams Falls.  One of the most popular trails leads up to Gregory Bald where visitors have a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains.  Usually in mid-June, a profusion of wild azalea blooms color the mountain slopes.

The “balds,” as they have come to be known, are treeless mountain tops where cattle, sheep, horses and mules were brought to graze on the nutritious natural grass.  Like Aunt Becky, many people moved their herds up to the mountain tops in the spring.  Timing was essential because a late snow storm could wipe out whole herds, as had happened one year in April when a two-day snowstorm buried a thousand head of cattle and they were frozen and starved in place. 

Herders built cabins on the tops of the balds and kept an eye on the herds in the summer.  They put out salt for them from time to time and sounded a horn that could be heard for miles around, which summoned the animals to the salt lick.  At the highest elevations, sheep grazed.  The herders and their dogs kept the animals from ranging too far and kept their guns handy to stave off panthers and other animals that preyed especially on stragglers and the young. 

The herders would grow gardens and offered hospitality to hunters who came by in the summer and early fall months.  Usually herders would stay on the bald most of the week and come down on Saturday to see their family, work a bit on their own land, go to church and head back up on Sunday afternoon to resume watching over the communal herds and flocks.

Hogs also roamed among the chestnut trees that grew on the sides of the mountains.  They fattened themselves up over the summer months and especially in the fall when they fed on the ripe chestnuts.  In the Fall before they were rounded up for slaughter or to be taken to the market.  The pork meat would be smoked, stored and used to feed families all winter.  Before the blight killed almost all of the American Chestnut trees Cades Cove residents would gather bags of chestnuts and sell them to eager buyers in Maryville and Knoxville.  Nothing went to waste in the cove. 

As one of the former residents recounts, when the Cable School was to be torn down, one of her family members volunteered to take on the task so they could reuse the lumber.  Everything was saved: doors, windows, boards, and the youngest children in the family straightened the pulled nails for reuse by pounding them with a stone.  

As you can tell from my recounting of this drive, Cades Cove is a most unique place.  The sheer natural beauty of it would be enough to make it worth a visit, but when that is combine with the stories of the lives of the people who settled this place it becomes firmly lodged in your heart.  For anyone interested in learning more about the history of Cades Cove and the families who settled and farmed the area, there is an excellent documentary video series, Voices of Cades Cove.  The nine-part series begins with the geology and the earliest settlers and takes viewers around the Loop Road, introducing them to different families and their lives through the hundred years that the cove was home to these people.  These former residents share their own family’s stories, homes, historic photos and artifacts in a way that brings the vitality of Cades Cove to life.  I hope that through my words and photos that I have been able to share my love of this special place. 

8 thoughts on “Tennessee – Cades Cove: The Heart of the Smoky Mountains

  1. Toni, Most interesting and educational blog!!! I am thankful for History preserved to
    remind us how our Great Country was built by our brave strong ancestors. Thank You Mom


  2. Beautiful job Toni! Cades Cove is my favorite place and you described it perfectly! Can’t wait to read more of your beautiful memories Linda

    Sent from Xfinity Connect App


  3. Haven’t visited The Cove in years. This puts it back on the list. It never gets old driving the loop. Thanks for the refresher.


  4. Shirley and I have visited the Cove several years ago when we were traveling. Thanks for the history, it brought back lots of memories.


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