There is a place in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near our home that we frequent all through the year. Summer is a beautiful time to visit, but the park is overrun by vacationers through the season which seems to take some of the mystique out of the place. My favorite time to visit is at dusk on a fall or early winter evening when all the tourists are hunkered down in their riverside motel rooms and backwoods cabins and we have the place to ourselves. Technically, the area closes at sundown, but we hang around a little later, braving the wild bears and other mountain critters of the wilderness area, though we have yet to encounter one close up. It’s just our little family and the bats that come swooping out of the darkening sky as well as any lingering haunts that may occupy the restored structures that make up the homestead farm. The Park Service has gathered these original buildings to create this site so visitors can get a feel for what life in the Smoky Mountains was like until the government came through and bulldozed other intact farms such as this one, forcing the occupants to take their families and relocate to other areas.
“My Mountain Home” By Louisa Susan Walker
There is an old weather bettion house
That stands near a wood
With an orchard near by it
For almost one hundred years it has stood
It was my home in infency
It sheltered me in youth
When I tell you I love it
I tell you the truth
I have a love/hate relationship with the park for this reason. I love that there are old growth forests that have been preserved in this oasis of land that’s just a speck on the surface of the Earth. I love the handful of historical buildings that have been salvaged, made of long gone American chestnut trees that were killed in the early 20th century by a blight that almost succeeded in wiping out the entire species. I love the effort the park is putting into saving the Hemlock trees that are dying before our eyes as a result of the devastating effects of the woolly adelgid infestation that has spread across the entire east coast and beyond. I nearly weep when I am lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a herd of elk that have been reintroduced to the park. Glimpses of wolves, foxes, deer, and even little chipmunks are tiny bits of treasure that I can mentally catalog from various trips into the park.
When I visit surrounding area I am convinced that those who fought for the park’s creation, Horace Kephart, George Masa, and even President Calvin Coolidge and the Rockefellars, knew what they were doing when they worked to obtain this piece of land with the intention of setting it aside for preservation. The nearby towns and cities that are flooded with shops and attractions, the forests literally stopping at the edge of developed roads, would have long ago crept into the what is now a preserve. I am certain that my beautiful park would have been desecrated in the same way if the government hadn’t stepped in to prevent such development and deforestation by establishing a national park.
“When I first came to the Smokies, the whole region was one of superb forest primeval….Not long ago I went to that same place again. It was wrecked, ruined, desecrated, turned into a thousand rubbish heaps, utterly vile and mean.”- Horace Kephart
The bittersweet irony is that the government confiscated the farms and land from the homesteaders who had turned coves and hollows into thriving unique communities that had survived beyond the age of the Industrial Revolution in the same manner in which invading settlers had snatched these lands from the Cherokee and forced them to move to reservations. By means of force, persuasion and dishonest tactics, the families were eventually removed and their homes and farms demolished in the name of preservation. Trees and undergrowth were allowed to take over the empty lots and dilapidated buildings, all that was left of these homesteader’s hard fought existence once the park was created.
When the boundaries had been set and the area cleared, a handful of old timber structures were salvaged and some relocated to areas such as the visitor center that became the Mountain Farm Museum, but the majority of the houses, which were frame at the time of the takeover, were demolished as most of the homes in the country at the time were of the same construction, the park developers seeing no historical value in such “modern” buildings.
I can hike to waterfalls through forests that appear to be filled with old trees that are really second and third growth stands. I can take my family to old mills that were used to grind the grains that the local homesteaders used a hundred years ago and walk through the houses, barns, and other outbuildings that have been hewn from enormous hard wood trees all because of the establishment of the park. I know for a fact by reading of the wasteful practice of clear cutting that was prevalent at the time that the first advocates of the park’s creation began their fight to save the area, that the mountains, so beautiful and awe-inspiring, would be covered with vacation resorts and getaway homes if they hadn’t been preserved and, for the most part, I glory in the fact that it was saved. It’s so hard, however, to imagine the families that lived in these buildings working their fingers to the bone for a future that was not to be.
“While I roasted coffee, at intervals I would run out the door to cool from the heat of the oven, and throw my head back to better feel the cool breeze from the south, the delicious lazy caressing breeze, laden with fragrant aroma of the roasting coffee. And as twilight faded, and the stars came out and the moon showed an orange glow through the tree tops, I would forget the tasks of the day, the long day in the field, I would forget my bruised and briar-torn feet and the discomfort of a sweaty grimy body burned by the sun. I would forget that the rattler’s fangs had missed me just by a hair’s breadth. I would forget that life was ever difficult or hard here in this place, this my world was so filled with beauty that nothing else mattered.” Ella Costner
I put together this pancake recipe with these homesteaders in mind who nearly survived off of the corn and sorghum they grew, the hogs they raised, and the chestnuts, berries, and herbs they foraged for in the surrounding forests.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup self-rising corn meal
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 eggs beaten well
2 T melted butter
4 cups buttermilk
Sift together the dry ingredients. Whisk together the milk and eggs. Briskly whisk in the melted butter. Add the wet ingredients to the dry all at once, folding until combined.
Cook on a hot, buttered griddle until bubbles form in the edges and center. Flip and cook on the reverse side.
Note: In relation to the GSMNP, the native chestnut trees may have been lost, but I have recently learned that a new blight resistant strain produced from the native chestnut is successfully being propagated and will be reintroduced and predator beetles are being breed that attack the adelgid that is responsible for the destruction of our native hemlocks.