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Time Travel: Hiking Historical Homesteads in the Smokies

A unique route linking historic homesteads yields an exciting Smokies adventure for hikers and history buffs alike.

Bryant and I leave Cosby Campground on a sunny morning last April, only to stop within the first 15 minutes of our hike. We’re standing in front of evidence of his family’s farm–four squat walls made of moss-covered stones that formed the foundation of the apple house. Poking around knee-high blackberry briers, Bryant tells me how Elbert would travel as far away as Knoxville (60 miles distant) to sell early June apples, and points out where cattle grazed and bees produced honey.

On May 14, 1926, President Coolidge signed a bill allowing the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Almost immediately, a park commission began a push to purchase 427,000 acres from timber companies and private landowners. Glennie and Elbert reluctantly sold their land in 1928 for $10,000 (the equivalent of $686 per acre today), and were one of a few families granted a lifetime estate, allowing them to work their homestead within the park boundary. This sounds like a good deal until you realize that regulations forbade park inholders from clearing timber, hunting, and doing other things necessary to keep a farm functioning.

The Carvers continued to farm, even after Elbert was stricken with typhoid fever. As he lay dying, he told his wife to keep on. “Stay in the mountains as long as you can,” he counseled. “That’s where your best living will be.”

“Glennie stayed as long as she could,” Bryant says. But In 1940, after a seven-year-long struggle, she left.

While Glennie went quietly, others did not. Pierce writes that some settlers protested by setting destructive fires within the park. Most probably felt like Russell Whitehead, the last surviving person to have owned property in Cades Cove. At a “Tennessee Homecoming” celebration in 1986, writes Pierce, Governor Lamar Alexander introduced Whitehead (then 98), who “stood, pointed his finger at Alexander, and in four words revealed the depth of hurt and bitterness felt by many residents of the Smokies: ‘You stole my land!’”

With the Carver story weighing on my mind, I leave Cosby Campground and ascend the Snake Den Ridge Trail, a thigh-sizzling path that climbs more than 3,000 feet over four miles. On one switchback, a rhododendron hallway transforms the trail into a garden of deep-green hedges with snowy blossoms the size of softballs. Beyond it, I find a secluded ravine and set up my first night’s camp next to Otter Creek.

Continuing down the Maddron Bald Trail the next morning, I enter Albright Grove, one of the park’s oldest forests. Even on a sunny day, the Grove is shadowy, as massive tulip trees and magnolias–one measuring 25 feet around–tower like great wood columns in a cathedral. By the 1920s, timber companies had wiped out two-thirds of the area’s trees, with the bulk of destruction occurring in the western half of park. Today, though, the entire forest has mostly rebounded.

From the Maddron Bald Trail, I connect to the Old Settlers Trail and head west, following a decrepit road system that once connected a string of farms, dozens of families, and a 500-person town complete with a mercantile, hotel, churches, and a school. According to interpretive ranger Glenn Cardwell, it was also the place to buy moonshine.

On day three, Cardwell, who’s been making sense of park history for 34 years, meets me where the Old Settlers Trail empties into Greenbrier Cove. I’m thrilled to discover that he descends from the most notorious family of moonshiners in Greenbrier. “Corn was a staple crop,” Cardwell explains. “My family ate it, made bread out of it, used it for 101 things.” During Prohibition, corn whisky could fetch $2 a gallon (today’s rate: $32).

Cardwell’s family had eked out a living from the early 1800s, but sold out in 1929. “They didn’t understand how to bargain,” he says. “My aunt and uncle took their money and put it in the bank. But before they could rebuild, Black Monday wiped them out. They had to start all over–with six kids.”

As we walk, Cardwell explains that when groups such as the Southern Appalachian National Park Committee were pitching the Smokies as a park, they paid little attention to preserving communities. After all, settlements like Greenbrier weren’t the type of attraction that would lure people here. Rather, park planners focused on highlighting the mountain grandeur. Inspiration for the park’s creation came from jaw-dropping views from lofty peaks, like Mt. LeConte, my next stop on the Smokies homestead tour and the park’s third highest summit at 6,593 feet.

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