THERE WERE FIVE of them: Hettie, Louisa, Margaret, Martha and Polly - five spinster sisters who lived life simply and practically in their yellow-poplar log house in Little Greenbriar Cove.
They lived in a house built by their grandfather at the same time Abe Lincoln was practicing law in Illinois. And they lived the lifestyle of their ancestors well into the 20th century. Meals were cooked in the large, central fireplace. Winter days were spent around that same fire - often with five spinning wheels going. Sheep were tended, a garden planted - and only one thing seemed to give them any consternation: a stubborn mule that refused to work."A Tennessee mule has got to be handled special," one of them once said, "and none of us can cuss."
In 1934 when their land was sold to the government to become part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Walker sisters were granted special permission to live out their lives in the Cove. They stayed, gathering firewood from the mountain, tending their sheep and spinning their wool. In fact, wool from their sheep was spun into yarn and knit into socks and sent to nephews serving in World War II. "We don't aim for any of our folks to have cold feet, no matter where they are," Hettie had said.
When the last of the Walker sisters died, two things were left behind: the sturdy log house in Little Greenbriar Cove and a reminder that the story of the Smokies is told not only by the mountains but also by the people.
THE MOUNTAIN PART of the story began some 500 million years ago when these rocky formations were molded and folded during something called the Appalachian Revolution. They are among the oldest mountains on Earth - worn down ever so slowly through the centuries. And they have provided a dramatic background for the human dramas played out in their shadow.
The people story can be divided into then and now. Back then, the first people to happen by were the Cherokees. They were the ones who first noticed that the mist hangs low and the clouds caress the old, old peaks. "The place of blue smoke," the Cherokees called it.
The first white settlers came to the Smoky Mountains in the early 1820s. It was not a place given to large towns, but rather to scattered cabins in small, open areas called "balds." Eventually, families were scratching out a living at Parsons Bald, Andrews Bald, Gregory Bald and other areas primarily in the broad valley known as Cades Cove. The culture that developed had a distinct flavor - centered around the process of providing a living, the social interaction found in a little church down the road, and the exuberance of spontaneous mountain music.
Unlike the National Parks of the West, that could be set aside before the population had much of an impact, the Smokies had to be taken back from the settlers - and from the encroaching timber and mining companies that threatened to change their character forever.
Established in 1934, the park includes 500,000 acres of hardwood and evergreen forests, as well as the log cabins, barns and churches of Cades Cove - a unique blending of man and nature.
ALTHOUGH PEOPLE no longer live in the cove, much of their legacy can still be found in and around the nearby areas of Tennessee's Blount County. Those in the know call this "the peaceful side of the Smokies." If you want frenzied excitement along with your visit to the park, they say, go to Gatlinburg. If you need to entertain the kids, there's always Dollywood at Pigeon Forge. But if you want to simply soak in the flavor and the atmosphere, then Townsend, seven miles north of Cades Cove, is the gateway city to choose.
And here you will find not only the accessibility of the Great Smokies but also some of the modern folks that give the place a distinct flavor.
Take artist Lee Roberson, a product of these mountains, a descendant of both Cades Cove pioneers and Cherokee Indians. As a boy, his family was so poor that his mother had to cut up brown paper grocery bags so he could have drawing paper. Today, as he paints the hazy mountain panoramas or aging pioneer structures he is famous for, he knows each Limited Edition print has been sold before the paint is dry.
Roberson is known as the "artist laureate" of the Smokies; his work was selected to officially represent the Great Smoky Mountains in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the park in 1984.
Today, Roberson has carved out a peaceful niche on land adjoining the park. With an artist's eye, he has created a serene mountain setting, with three hand-built log buildings as the focal point, and plans for another one are on the drawing board.
In many respects, he lives the simple, mountain way. "Here I have the four elements that sustain life," he said: "food, shelter, water and tourism." (His studio/home attracts about 25,000 visitors each year.)
Elsee Burrell spells out the heritage of the Smokies the old-fashioned way - with a spelling bee. Each Tuesday during the summer (and at other times by special request), the 86-year-old retired school supervisor dons a period dress to teach a class at the Old Greenbriar School inside the park.
Miss Elsee uses the Webster Blue Back Speller to take visitors through their lesson and shares a few lessons of her own on the history of the area.
Echoes of earlier days resound in and around the old school; voices of children playing Redbird and Robin, Flying Dutchman or Cat and Mouse in the schoolyard.
Initials of these early students are carved in the desks and walls of the school. Eileen Lawson was there in 1925; Jenny and Ray some years later.
Out back is a little cemetery, filled with a large percentage of infant graves, each touching in its own way. Earl Walker, for example, lived for three months in 1933; he was, as his gravestone notes, "Budded on Earth to Bloom in Heaven."
Randy Shields is another native son that shares his love of the area with visitors. Shields, a former professor of biology at Maryville College, is considered by many to be the foremost authority on Cades Cove. He comes by that knowlege naturally; he was born in the cove in 1913.
Shields has also served as a ranger/naturalist in the park and is the author of "The Cades Cove Story."
"I can still remember when I was a lad growing up in the cove," he says, "how my grandmother would stare off into space for what seemed to be hours from her rocking chair on the porch. `What are you doing Grandma?' `Ah, just settin' here soakin' in the mountains.'
"Even amidst the chores of subsistence, there was time to appreciate the aesthetics of the mountains."
A lot of that soakin' is still going on. The Great Smoky Mountains is a park for all seasons. In the spring, the dogwood gives the mountains a pinkish cast. In the summer, the azaleas, rhododendrons and mountain laurel bloom. Fall foilage is a spectacular show of red, orange and yellow. And winter's snow provides a soft and silent blanket.
Wildlife abounds: birds, wild boar, woodchuck, bear. Deer graze in the meadows of Cades Cove; red wolves and river otters have been re-introduced into the park in an effort to preserve the species.
There is plenty to see, and there is also plenty for people to do: hiking, camping, backpacking, fishing, cross-country skiing, biking and horseback riding.
And so it goes: people and mountains, mountains and people. The two are inseparable in the Great Smoky Mountains - linked in history and blended for the modern visitor.
Ten of the top attractions on this side of the Smokies
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most-visited national park in the U.S., is the main draw to this part of the country. But it is not the only thing worth seeing on the "peaceful side of the Smokies." Here are 10 other things to see and do:
1. Tuckaleechee Caverns. Advertised as the "greatest sight under the Smokies," the caverns feature spectacular calcium carbonate formations millions of years old. A mile-long walkway through the caverns takes you past stalagmites, stalagtites, flowstone and drapery formations.
2. Sam Houston Schoolhouse. Built in 1794, the one-room log schoolhouse stands where it was first constructed just outside Maryville. Sam Houston taught here in 1812, at age 18, before moving on to fame and fortune in Texas. He charged $8 per pupil for the term that began after corn planting in the spring and ended with harvest and cold weather in the fall.
3. The Thompson-Brown House. The two-story house represents a style of building typical of the first quarter of the 19th century in Tennessee. It was built with hewn pine logs and chinked with animal hair plaster. Today it houses the Blount County Visitors Center.
4. Museum of Appalachia. Located at Norris, north of Knoxville, the outdoor museum, established by educator/writer John Rice Irwin, features an authentic, complete replica of pioneer Appalachian life. The museum village is a working Tennessee mountain farm with more than 25 log structures. There are more than 200,000 frontier and early country relics on display.
5. Smoky Mountain Passion Play. One of three outdoor passion plays presented in this country, this one celebrated its 18th session in 1990. Alternating with it is "Damascus Road," now in its 12th year. The plays are presented in an amphitheater ringed about by the Great Smoky Mountains and run through the summer, with the passion play presented on weekends through October.
6. Dogwood Mall. If crafts are your thing, you won't want to miss this shopping opportunity. Works of 30 of the area's artists/craftsmen are available: such things as antique quilts, basketry, dried arrangements, dulcimers, fabric crafts, folk dolls, leather work, pine furniture, Tennessee Gourd Heads, stained glass, Victorian wreaths, weaving, wood carvings, wood calendars and more.
7. Lee Roberson's studio. Roberson, considered the artist laureate of the Smokies, lives in a hand-built log cabin nestled in Walnut Cove, which adjoins the national park. Chickens, farm implements and seasonal trappings of country life decorate the yard. Inside the studio are paintings and prints that capture a feel for life in the area.
8. Townsend bicycle trail. The 2.7-mile bicycle train on the right-of-way of U.S. 321 through Townsend is the first such bike trail in Tennessee on a highway right-of-way. Rental bikes are available in Townsend. The trail is also ideal for walking.
9. Tubing on Little River. A popular summer activity is tubing on the Little River, just outside the entrance to the park. There are a few bumps and splashes to keep things interesting, but nothing too wild. Rental tubes are available in Townsend.
10. Horseback riding. Horses are available at the Davy Crockett Stables in Townsend or at the Cades Cove Riding Stables inside the park, which also offers hayrides about the Loop Road and carriage rides.
For people who want to combine the convenience of air travel with the accessibility of driving around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TNT Holidays is offering a fly/drive package to Knoxville, Tenn. Included in the package are airfare on Delta Air Lines, car rental, admission to Dollywood and accommodations in either Gatlinburg or Knoxville. (There is no admission fee to the park.)
McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville is 25 miles from the Townsend entrance to the park.
For more information, contact Mary Gandy at TNT Holidays, 1-800-669-2141.