One of the most fascinating tidbits in the park, however, has nothing to do with the beauty or the changing leaves. It has to do with a family named Walker who called these mountains home in the 1800s and 1900s. When the government came knocking on their cabin door in the 1930s, with plans to create a national park that included their property, well, let's just say the Walkers weren't too keen on the idea.
Let me tell you a little tale about a dream, a cabin, and some mysterious sisters...
|John Walker, father of the Walker sisters|
During the Civil War, a young man named John Walker fought for the Union Army and was even captured and held prisoner. He survived, and after the war ended John married his sweetheart, Margaret Jane King, whose family came from Little Greenbrier, an area near present-day Gatlinburg, Tennessee. He purchased property from Margaret's father that already had a cabin on it, the original section built in the 1840s and the larger two-story section built by Mr. King in the 1850s. Being a very industrious man, John built a barn, corn crib, smokehouse, pig pen, apple barn, and blacksmith shop. A spring-house situated on a nearby creek kept dairy products such as milk and butter cool throughout the year, as well as provided storage room for pickled root vegetables. John was also a skilled carpenter and crafted ladderback chairs, looms, tools, and a small cotton gin. He planted orchards that included more than 20 kinds of apples, as well as peaches, cherries, and plums. Chickens, sheep, goats, and hogs were all raised on the farm.
In the midst of all this building and settling, Margaret gave birth to eleven children -- seven girls and four boys. All eleven children survived into adulthood, a feat not many families could boast back in those days. The boys grew up and left home, but only one sister--Sarah Caroline--married. The other six sisters remained unmarried "spinsters" and lived out their lives in their childhood mountain home.
|The seven Walker Sisters: Front L-R: Margaret, Louisa, Polly.|
Back L-R: Hettie, Martha, Nancy, & Caroline.
Photo: Jim Shelton, 1909
John Walker was 80 years old when he passed away in 1921. His six unmarried daughters, as well as his youngest son Giles, inherited the property. One of the sisters, Nancy, died ten years later, and Giles deeded his share over to his remaining sisters. For the next 43 years, the five Walker sisters would make a name for themselves in the community--and in the public's eye--as hardworking, if not odd, mountain women. Instead of looking to modern-day conveniences, they did all the farm work themselves, including tending livestock as well as a huge garden that provided their food for years. They raised sheep and washed, carded, spun, and wove the wool into clothing. Cotton and flax were also grown on the farm, and the sisters produced their own textiles using the cotton gin their father had built. Following in their mother Margaret's footsteps, the daughters also kept a herbal garden for mountain remedies, including horseradish, boneset, and peppermint for healing teas. Natural plants in the forests were collected, too. One of the sisters was quoted, saying, "Our land produces everything we need except sugar, soda, coffee, and salt."
|Martha and Hettie on the porch; Louisa churning butter|
Living in the national park, however, meant their daily practices of hunting and fishing, cutting wood, and grazing livestock were now prohibited. The sisters were forced to find a new lifestyle in order to survive. People from all over the country flocked to the park and visited what became known as "Five Sisters Cove". The Walkers welcomed the curious newcomers and saw them as an opportunity to sell handmade items such as children's toys, crocheted doilies, fried apple pies, and even Louisa's hand-written poems.The sisters were even featured in the Saturday Evening Post in April 1946, showcasing their mountain lifestyle to the rest of the country.
|The Walker Sisters Cabin (notice the stone steps are still there!)|
Over the next few years, the sisters began to die off. In 1951, with only two sisters remaining--Margaret, 80, and Louisa, 70-- they wrote a letter to the park superintendent asking that the "Visitors Welcome" sign be taken down. Margaret passed away in 1962 at the age of 92, and Louisa remained in the house alone until she died in July 1964.
Today, the homestead is a quiet place, tucked way back in the woods, a mile from the old Little Greenbrier school house that John Walker helped build in 1881. The old spring house greets you as you arrive, and I couldn't help but imagine all the butter, milk, and yummy garden goodies the sisters kept there over the years. John's corn crib is also still standing, and hubby and I were quite flummoxed over its design--no doors; only a small opening on the side to reach in and grab some corn that surely must have been loaded from a gap at the top of the far (covered) wall.
|John's corn crib|
|Old Little Greenbrier school house John helped build in 1881.|
The school house also housed a church, and a small fenced graveyard
is off to the left.
Your turn: Have you been to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park? What was your favorite part?
Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill, historical sagas set on a Texas cotton plantation before and after the Civil War. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection. Michelle and her husband of 31 years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at www.MichelleShocklee.com.
THE WIDOW OF ROSE HILL
Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself solely responsible for Rose Hill plantation. When Union troops arrive with a proclamation freeing the slaves, all seems lost. How can she run the plantation without slaves? In order to save her son’s inheritance she strikes a deal with the arrogant, albeit handsome, Colonel Maish. In exchange for use of her family’s property, the army will provide workers to bring in her cotton crop. But as her admiration for the colonel grows, a shocking secret is uncovered. Can she trust him with her heart and her young, fatherless son?