Women and Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Lessons from the National Park Service Centennial

Our latest DXE contributor is Courtney Lix, author of No Place for the Weary Kind: Women of the Smokies, a celebration of the ways women have influenced the culture of the Tennessee and North Carolina mountain region.

Let’s talk about Appalachia, and mountain women. What comes to mind—maybe a stoop-shouldered mother surrounded by children, churning butter on a porch? So much has been written about women in Appalachia that falls into caricature—often portrayed as strong and independent, or uneducated, ignorant, and vulnerable.  The reality, of course, is much more complicated, as is their contribution to the complex economics from farming to coal mining that stretch along the mountain chain from Georgia to Maine.

The section of Appalachia I’m most familiar with lies along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina— over half a million acres preserved as Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  On the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the National Park Service, it’s fitting to reflect the influences women have had on the Smokies, the most visited national park in the country—and how the creation of the national park shaped so many lives, as well. Three women highlight the different influences in an interesting way: wealthy Anne Davis, who started the movement to establish a national park; small town girl Hattie Ogle who took advantage of changing economics to become a millionaire; and Karen Wade, the first woman superintendent of the Smokies, who took the helm in 1994 and expanded the park’s economic prospects and community outreach.

Anne Davis, who started the movement to establish a national park

While there’s no question that the mountains are something spectacular—geologically, biologically, scenically—early park boosters were also very aware of the economic impact from tourism.  The impetus for the successful national park movement in the Smokies was a simple question, asked by a woman, in 1923. On a train returning from a visit to Yellowstone, Anne Davis wondered aloud to her husband why there couldn’t be a national park in the mountains so close to their home in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Davises were prominent members of Knoxville’s business community, which they lobbied hard to support the national park idea. In 1924, Anne even ran for a state legislator position and won—becoming the first Republican and only the third woman to serve in the Tennessee House of Representatives.  She introduced the successful bill that allocated funds for the initial purchase of lands that would become the national park.

The Smokies had been moving rapidly through several different kinds of economies. As late as the turn of the 20th century, many mountain communities still existed in a barter economy—trading butter and eggs for sugar and coffee; a mill would accept a portion of ground cornmeal in exchange for grinding a farmer’s harvest. While we might consider this primitive, it placed nearly equal value to the work women and men provided—women were the ones who tended henhouses and gardens, churned the butter, and were an integral part of an effective, efficient functioning farm.

By the 1910s and 1920s, however, advances in rail and timbering technology meant the virgin forests of the Smokies were ripe for harvest. Timber companies paid their workers in cash, introducing money into the economy, devaluing women’s farming contributions. Timbering jobs also paid better than farming, so many men eagerly accepted dangerous, seasonal employment. This untethered families from their farmland, and further reduced many women’s economic contributions to family welfare.  Some women were able to run boarding houses cooking and cleaning for paying (male) lodgers, which reinforced traditional gender roles.

By the time the national park movement was gaining momentum, acres of mountainside had already been logged. Timber barons certainly didn’t welcome the conservation movement, but they weren’t blind to the diminishing resource they were harvesting.  Gradually, tourism-fueled jobs began to replace logging as the dominant industry.

In Gatlinburg, a sleepy farming town in the mountains, young Hattie Ogle started making a name for herself as a businesswoman running her father’s store. In 1912, she was 14 and fully in charge of negotiating payment for the bearskins that hunters would bring in from their expeditions. She watched shrewdly as they spent the money she’d just given them on coffee and sugar in the store. When the national park was established and tourism seemed to be taking off, she was in her 30s. She opened a couple of local craft stores and built a motel (The Bearskin Motel) on one of her family’s cow fields. By the time she died in 2002, her property empire—stores, hotels, motels, and more, all catering to tourists— was worth millions.

Hattie insisted that running her businesses was also a civic act, taking great pride in the economic growth of Gatlinburg—in the 50s and 60s, after she’d swept the sidewalk around the Bearskin, she’d just keep going, sweeping along the entire mile-long parkway through town. Hattie never forgot the economic boon the national park had brought her, and was a generous donor to local NPS work—particularly important to a national park that has no income from entrance fees, unlike many Western parks.

Karen Wade, the first woman superintendent of the Smokies, who took the helm in 1994 and expanded the park’s economic prospects and community outreach

When Karen Wade accepted the position as superintendent of the Smokies in 1994, she quickly realized the park was nevertheless in bad financial shape due to the tough combination of chronic underfunding from the federal government and skyrocketing visitation. Unlike nearly all of her predecessors, Karen’s background wasn’t natural resources—it was business.  Her five years of leadership in the Smokies were marked by several main initiatives: working with surrounding communities and leaders to invigorate a Friends group to support the national park financially; strengthened relationships with schools—from elementary through university levels, based on a firm conviction that national parks should contribute to research and education; and finally, to expand the park’s role in science and research. Karen was instrumental in setting up the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, intended to record and catalog every species of critter in the national park boundaries, from slime molds to bears.  The key to all of these undertakings was to make the Smokies invaluable to myriad stakeholders, and to ask them to contribute something to maintaining the national park.

From turning ideas into reality like Anne Davis did; to capitalizing on changing times and opportunities like Hattie Ogle; or setting a visionary agenda for the future like Karen Wade—this microcosm of Appalachia offers a fascinating history lesson and glimpse into the often overlooked contributions of women to a flourishing economy on a local, national, and global scale.

Courtney’s book, No Place for the Weary Kind: Women of the Smokies, can be purchased on the Great Smoky Mountains Official Park Store website.

From legendary hiker Margaret Stevenson to famed singer/songwriter Dolly Parton, what do these 19 remarkable Smoky Mountain women have in common? Tenacity. Perseverance. And an ironwood-like toughness in the face of adversity. Besides these qualities, all had (or have) a deep love for the Great Smoky Mountains. Featured women include Karen Wade, Gracie McNichol, Wilma Dykeman, Hattie O. McGiffin, Mary E. Caldwell, and more. 

#SmokyMountains #AppalachianMountains #SmokyMountainwomen #Appalachianwomen #WomenoftheSmokies #CourtneyLix

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