Living History: Cades Cove Under Threat


Edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park burning near Gatlinburg, TN

As I write this on Wednesday, November 30, 2016, one of my favorite places on earth is burning out of control. It was the family vacation spot of my childhood and holds a special place in my heart. My beloved Appalachians and Great Smoky Mountains are burning in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia. It breaks my heart that parts of Gatlinburg, TN are burning to the ground. In addition, the most visited park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has been damaged and its contribution to living history, Cades Cove, is in danger.


This Gatlinburg business did not survive.


Cades Cove in the fall.

This is how the National Park Service describes the 11-mile Cades Cove loop through the park.

Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smokies. It offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park. Large numbers of white-tailed deer are frequently seen, and sightings of black bear, coyote, ground hog, turkey, raccoon, skunk, and other animals are also possible.
The valley has a rich history. For hundreds of years Cherokee Indians hunted in Cades Cove but archeologists have found no evidence of major settlements. The first Europeans settled in the cove sometime between 1818 and 1821. By 1830 the population of the area had already swelled to 271. Cades Cove offers the widest variety of historic buildings of any area in the national park.
Scattered along the loop road are three churches, a working grist mill, barns, log houses, and many other faithfully restored eighteenth and nineteenth century structures.
Before Europeans settled in the valley, Cherokees Indians traveled through the valley to hunt the abundant deer, elk, bison and bears.
The first European settlers arrived in the Cove in the early 1820s. They quickly built log homes, barns, corncribs, smokehouses and cleared land for farming. The land was rich and fertile and provided the settlers with abundant crops, such as corn.

By 1850, the population in the valley had reached 685 as new families moved to the Cove and numerous children were born into the families already settled there. It was not uncommon for a household to have ten to twelve children. As the population grew, more community buildings were needed. A Baptist and Methodist church were established in the 1820s. Schoolhouses were built a little later, so at first the schoolchildren met in farm houses where the school teachers were boarding.

It was common for neighbors to assist one another and they often made social events out of corn husking, molasses making and gathering chestnuts during the autumn months. Courtships that started at social events often led to marriage. Many family farms had a “weaner cabin” – a cabin the son would bring his bride to live in the early days of their marriage. The “weaner cabin” was far enough away from his family for privacy and independence but close enough to help and be helped.

When the states of Tennessee and North Carolina begin to purchase land for the creation of the national park, the first large piece of land purchased in 1927 included most of the land in the mountains north of Cades Cove. A few families welcomed the state’s effort to buy land for the park; they willingly sold their land and moved out of the Cove. However, some families did resist the effort. One resident, John W. Oliver went to court several times before he finally lost.

Some residents signed life-leases that allowed them to live on their land for the rest of their life. People who agreed to a life lease were given less money for their land and were required to live by the rules set by the National Park Service, such as restrictions on hunting, trapping and timber cutting. As residents left the cove and the community dispersed, there was no longer a need for facilities and services. The last school in Cades Cove closed in 1944 and the post office closed in 1947.[1]

The gallery below shows what once was and what we stand to lose if these fires continue.

Clockwise from top left: Becky Cable House, Becky Cable spinning on her porch, two photos of Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church, cover of A Cades Cove Childhood, 1930’s CCC camp, Le Quire family 1929, women shucking corn, grist mill prior to 1937 restoration, Jim Mccauley Cabins.




Featured below are the Cable house and cane mill, the Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church, and working grist mill as they look today in their restored condition. The other photos are of various scenes in the Cove.


Wednesday, November 30: Heavy rain is forecast for the area. It is hoped the storms will drown the fires before we lose the park and Cades Cove.

Thursday, December 1 Update: Rains helped, but danger is still high. NBC article and video HERE.

Update Friday, Dec. 2: The fires seem to be under control as of this writing and more rain is on the way. It is hoped the drought that produced the conditions ripe for wildfire is broken.

As of December 10, much of Gatlinburg  has been opened to traffic. Several devastated areas remain closed. Two teenagers have been charged with setting the fire that killed 14, injured 175, and caused millions of dollars in damage. The park and Cades Cove were saved from destruction.

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Top of Chimney Top Trail with burned out mountaintops in background.

Update August, 2017: From an overlook on the Gatlinburg Bypass, we have a 360 view of the fire’s destruction. Where once stood a mighty forest on surrounding mountaintops, nothing but burned out stumps remain. But nature in her way, is coming back even stronger than before. It can be seen in the lush greenness of ground cover, wildflowers,   native shrubs, and infant trees. The forest will return, as is nature’s way. What will become of the burned out shells of formerly expensive chalets, lodges, and cabins is another story that only time can tell.


  1., Accessed November 30, 2016.