We spent much of our first full day in the Smokies visiting Cades Cove, an isolated valley that was home to generations of settlers prior to the formation of the national park. Its well-preserved structures and scenic views make it a popular destination, evidenced by the fact that we joined a long line of slow-moving, bumper-to-bumper traffic. We’re certain those pioneers would be surprised to see so many people traveling through their little valley to take selfies and imagine their hardscrabble life.
Named after a Cherokee chief, Cades Cove was originally home to a Cherokee hunting camp. The first Euro-American settlers arrived there in 1818, led by John Oliver and his wife, Lucretia. The Olivers spent their first winters in the abandoned Cherokee huts, but within a few years, they had established a small farm. The cabin they built in 1822 still stands sentinel at the valley’s entrance. Descendants of the Olivers occupied the home until the mid-1930s, when they were forced out by the Park Commission overseeing the development of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Initially, the valley was forested, but a hundred years of farming and logging left it a vast meadow. Today, the National Park Service maintains several buildings that represent pioneer life in the 19th century, including the Oliver homestead and several other primitive cabins, a few churches, some barns and a grist mill.
Of particular interest was the grist mill, constructed in 1868 by John Cable. A series of elaborate channels were constructed along Mill Creek and Forge Creek to divert enough water to power the mill’s wheel. Nearby is a large house, constructed in 1879, that was used as a general store before being purchased by John Cable’s daughter, Rebecca, for her home. To give visitors a better sense of community life, the Park Service moved several other buildings from elsewhere in the cove to the mill site, including a barn, a carriage house, a chicken coop, a molasses still, a sorghum press, and a blacksmith shop.
Eventually, we made our way back to base camp, where we met a newly wedded couple from Florida and enjoyed a crackling campfire under a starlit sky.
We learned a few lessons worth sharing:
- Driving through Gatlinburg to get into the park is a necessary evil. Brace yourself.
- If you come upon a vehicle stopped in the middle of the road, it’s likely the result of a bear sighting. Get your camera ready.
- Driving through Gatlinburg to get back to base camp is a necessary evil. Brace yourself.