Every day we look forward into our unknown future. At the same time we hold memories from our lived past. We look forward, we look back. Each can be valuable and of use to us in creating our future. I began this autobiographical blog entry nine months ago never dreaming how long it would take me to write this short chapter of my life!
In late September, Jeanne and I will fly to Athens, Greece with one stop in Atlanta, GA. From Athens we take the hour long flight down to Crete. This Mediterranean island is located at the crossroads of three continents. For the next two weeks, we will join eighteen other women on one of the Goddess Pilgrimages begun over two decades ago. This trip, sixty-five years later than the family camping trip I describe below, will likely be my last long distance trip. My stamina at seventy-seven differs from my thirteen year old self, but my enthusiasm and anticipation remain high, so who knows…
In this blog, I’m focusing on 1957 and the first of our many family trips. I write about both family and travel as a challenge, as an education. Both full of life long possibilities.
Every organism, including families, must grow and change as new circumstances arise. My own family of the 1950s adapted to a variety of new developments. In the mid-1950s the woman who raised my mother, her Aunt Duckie died. Duckie left her estate to Marie. She also trusted mother with the full responsibility for the care of Duckie’s disabled son, Noble. Marie had grown up with Noble who was a decade or so older than Marie. After Duckie’s death, Noble lived alone in their house on Miami Beach where mother grew up. This arrangement did not work out. Eventually my parents bought the house next to ours and moved Uncle Noble there. Caring for Noble became a new challenge for my parents.
With her inheritance my parents bought their first new car. That 1957 Chevrolet station wagon could seat nine passengers (though not comfortably). Our station wagon became our “magic carpet” allowing our family of six to take to the highway. That snazzy Townsman two-tone vehicle had a sleek aerodynamic looked which ended in pronounced tail fins–quite a contrast to the car in the first pictures above.
Chevrolet ad men dramatized the 1957 station wagons by claiming they were “born with a wanderlust – eager to go at the drop of a tailgate!” The ad below declared our vehicle to be “the beauty queen of all station wagons”.
That sleek look was enhanced by a variety of dramatic two tone color options rarely seen today. Of fifteen different options, Marie and Paul picked the station wagon with a base color of Sierra Gold with Adobe Beige accents. Outfitted with our powerful chariot, our family was headed for the open road. Family friends had recommended camping as a family-friendly, and less expensive, adventure. That first year my parents borrowed camping equipment and headed for the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee. The park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are a division of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain.
“All America is Your Playground” pitched other ads from this era. The previous year, 1956, “President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, establishing America’s 47,800-mile Interstate Highway System. As president during the Cold War era, Eisenhower advocated for an interstate highway system, believing it beneficial for military defense operations as well as for the nation’s economic growth.”1
Apparently my parents decided Lea was old enough for us to take long summer vacations. Lea was no longer “Baby Lea”. She “Graduated from Kindergarten” at five, and the next month she turned six. With our borrowed camping gear we six set off to see if, as a family, we’d like the experience of “roughing it”. Mother’s modest inheritance gave us the opportunity to travel and see the country.
Mid summer in 1957 we left the Miami area one early morning while it was still cool. It took at least seven hours to drive north on U.S. Highway 1, or Dixie Highway, to the Georgia State line. It took a total of ten driving hours to reach the Smoky Mountains–the cool haven we were seeking. It was the the middle of a hot summer.
Our fancy new car had no seat belts or air conditioning. Dad smoked Lucky Strikes and mother smoked Chesterfields. All of us breathed much second-hand smoke. That second hand smoke is now known to have similar adverse health effects as smoking. Usually dad drove and mother handled the maps and our prepacked lunches and snacks. For this trip, they now had their first and only credit card–for Texaco gas.
Dad took these photos sixty-five years ago on that first trip. Family friends, Lila and Bob Newbold, had encouraged us to try family camping. They met us in the Smokies that summer. For sleeping our family brought borrowed cots and “jungle hammocks”. A jungle hammock is a sturdy hammock equipped with a frame above to secure mosquito netting and a waterproof layer on top. See me climbing out of my cocoon of a hammock below.
Smokemont was our base camp for that trip. Mother packed several cast iron skillets which worked well over open fires. We also had a small camp stove for quick meals like eggs and bacon before setting out for our day. You can see us on our rented horses and later exploring the rushing creeks where we delighted in “rock hopping”.
Despite all the posted warnings, we were stupid tourists approaching the bears who were looking for handouts. That “photo-op” could have turned to tragedy. Today’s park regulations about protecting the bears from human stupidity are strictly enforced and can include fines. Below are three of Dad’s photos from 1957.
One of my favorite parts of these trips involved visiting homes from another era. Seeing the farmstead setup gave me a sense of what the people created and focused on. By studying the buildings I tried to picture their daily lives. From spinning wheels to quilting rails stored below the ceiling, to split rail fences, to seeing the inside of a smokehouse, I learned about an earlier time period.
We did not learn much about the original inhabitants of the area. The Cherokee, the original residents of the Smoky Mountains, were ignored by historians in those years. I’ll share the basic history of the Cherokee living in the Smokies:
“The Smokemont area was first occupied by Cherokee, who believed the Oconaluftee River was sacred. The tribe roamed the Great Smokies, but archeological findings confirm a large, permanent village existed in Oconaluftee. It is believed the settlement was destroyed in 1776 during the American Revolution”2
*When the first white settlers reached the Great Smoky Mountains in the late 1700s they found themselves in the land of the Cherokee Indians. The tribe, one of the most culturally advanced on the continent, had permanent towns, cultivated croplands, sophisticated political systems, and extensive networks of trails. Most of the Cherokee were forcibly removed in the 1830s to Oklahoma in a tragic episode known as the “trail of Tears. The few who remained are the ancestors of the Cherokees living near the park today.”3
Another distortion of historical reality became evident when I found these pictures my dad took on the day our family visited nearby Fontana Dam. Built in the early 1940s, the immense dam project was unlike anything our family had ever seen! At 480 feet high, Fontana is the tallest dam in the Eastern United States. The structure is overwhelming and the noise of the rushing water is fearsome.
At the time in 1957, we were led to believe that the dam was a “wonder” as it brought electricity to the mountain communities. The truth is more complicated. This gigantic dam on the Little Tennessee River in the eastern part of North Carolina “was built to generate electricity to bolster America’s chances of winning World War II. In order to develop atomic weapons, the Federal Government needed a source of energy to power the top-secret Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Out of that need the Fontana Dam, Fontana Lake, and Fontana Village were born.”4
This true history reminds me of the mixed consequences in 1980s of the seizure of land to create the Buffalo National River here in Arkansas. Many families and communities suffered when their land was seized to create the park. The seizure of land first from the Cherokee peoples, then for Smoky Mountain National Park, and later for the Buffalo National River brings up important questions with complex answers.
As a girl growing up in the 1950s, we were not encouraged to openly ask these questions. To create the future we want, we have to ask “who, what, why and where and when” about nearly everything. That first long vacation in 1957 with my family bonded us with each other. Traveling long distances and encountering new surroundings tested each of us in different ways. That lived experience and the shared adventure into a wider world enriched my life.
For those of you who are interested in learning more details I uncovered about the early inhabitants of the Smoky Mountains, in particular, the Cherokee living along the Oconaluftee River in the vast Chestnut forest, see the notes below. I’m starting this postscript section with continued discussion of the building of Fontana Dam.
“The building of Fontana was not without sacrifice and controversy. Almost 70,000 acres of land were taken through the federal government’s power of eminent domain to support the project. 1,300 families were relocated– some elderly, some widows with children, and many that had never lived anywhere else. Hundreds of homesites, dozens of small communities, and more than 20 cemeteries were rendered inaccessible or flooded by the new lake.
In addition to compensating displaced property owners, the federal government offered a $400,000 payment to the State of North Carolina and a promise to local residents to construct a road giving them access to the cemeteries containing their loved ones.” That road was never built despite the commitment of the federal authorities.5
Learning all these inter-related stories still intrigues me. Read about how logging destroyed the vast Chestnut forest:
Logging transforms the Smokey mountains in the early 1900s
The agricultural pattern of life in the Great Smoky Mountains changed with the arrival of lumbering in the early 1900s. Within 20 years, the largely self-sufficient economy of the [European immigrant] people here was almost entirely replaced by dependence on manufactured items, store bought food, and cash. Logging boom towns sprang up overnight at sites that still bear their names: Elkmont, Smokemont, Proctor, Tremont.
Loggers were rapidly cutting the great primeval forests that remained on these mountains. Unless the course of events could be quickly changed, there would be little left of the region’s special character and wilderness resources.6
The American Chestnut tree thrived, “in the cool, moist, temperate rain forest of the Smoky Mountains. “Trees grew 12′ or more in diameter, and over 100′ tall. The incredible mast production of the chestnut was the primary food for all wildlife and game species – bear, deer, elk, squirrel, the huge flocks of turkey, and was a key food for Passenger Pigeons. In some areas it made up almost 100% of the forest.
Chestnut became an important food source in the fall for the early European settlers and was a key food source for the game they harvested. American chestnuts are small, but have a rich, nutty flavor. Wild trees were tended like orchards and having a grove was a valuable asset on your land. In the mountains, where the chestnut covered mile after mile of forest, the nuts were gathered by families who traded with the stores for goods. The stores then shipped the nuts into the cities. There were not many things in the mountains besides moonshine to sell for cash, and chestnuts were an important part of the mountain economy every fall. 7
In 1904, a bark fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) was accidentally introduced from China into New York City that killed off virtually the entire population of American Chestnuts from Maine to Georgia. This Chestnut Blight was easily the greatest ecological disaster in American history, though it is almost forgotten today. Over 30 million acres of chestnut forest were killed in 40 years. Much of this loss occurred during the Great Depression, so the impact on both the mountain people that ate chestnuts, and the game that depended on it in the fall was devastating.
“Intervention came when Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934. The forest—at least the 20% that remained uncut within park boundaries—was saved.
More than 1,200 land-owners had to leave their land once the park was established. They left behind many farm buildings, mills, schools, and churches. Over 70 of these structures have since been preserved so that Great Smoky Mountains National Park now contains the largest collection of historic log buildings in the East.”8
Today the park is choked with visitors.
Now you often need an online reservation to visit the favored sites in the park! Here is an example:
“Laurel Falls Trail is one of the most visited trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with over 375,000 visitors in 2020 and parking is limited. Laurel Falls is 80-feet high and named for the mountain laurel which grows along the trail and near the falls. Parking at Laurel Falls trailhead parking area requires a ticket from September 7th through October 3rd, 2021.”9
Brief history of the Eastern Cherokee, that is, those who escaped the federal government’s “Trail of Tears” forced removal in 1830 under President Andrew Jackson.
“The Cherokee living along the Oconaluftee River in the Great Smokey Mountains were the most conservative and isolated from European–American settlements. They rejected the reforms of the Cherokee Nation. When the Cherokee government ceded all territory east of the Little Tennessee River to North Carolina in 1819, they withdrew from the Nation.
William Holland Thomas, a white store owner and state legislator from Jackson County, North Carolina, helped over 600 Cherokee from Qualla Town obtain North Carolina citizenship, which exempted them from forced removal. Over 400 Cherokee either hid from Federal troops in the remote Snowbird Mountains, under the leadership of Tsali (ᏣᎵ), or belonged to the former Valley Towns area around the Cheoah River who negotiated with the state government to stay in North Carolina.
An additional 400 Cherokee stayed on reserves in Southeast Tennessee, North Georgia, and Northeast Alabama, as citizens of their respective states. They were mostly mixed-race and Cherokee women married to white men. Together, these groups were the ancestors of the federally recognized Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and some of the state-recognized tribes in surrounding states.”10