In the northwest corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park you find a tiny treasure trove of Americana. The heritage carved by the early settlers of this Tennessee valley is preserved. Open your imagination to the traditions of the mountain people. Rustic log cabins still echo the whispers of Elizabethan English. The mills and barns recall a time when man and nature were bound in an ongoing ritual. Their churches still ring with hymns from the past. Drive, walk, or bike the eleven mile loop road to span a century in the lives of Cades Cove.
The historic buildings are only a part of the Cades Cove experience. Hiking the area is an adventure. You are almost certain to encounter a bear or deer. You may also spot some of some of the cove’s other wild residents, wild hogs, river otters, woodchucks, skunks, bobcat, raccoon, gray or red fox, and chipmunk also dwell here. Recently coyotes have moved into the Smokies and you may see one at dusk or dawn.
Cades Cove is not a museum in the sense of something built for that purpose. It is the preserved remnants of the culture that flourished there from 1820 until the park began acquired the land in 1934.
Before the 1820s, the lush valley was disturbed only by wandering bands of Cherokees. Their old trails crisscross the land, coming down from the mountains and arising on the other side. Remains of some trails still exist in the existing roads and trails. They hunted the bear, bison, elk and deer that roamed the valley’s lush forest and grasslands.
The earliest settlers came into the valley from Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. The Olivers built the oldest remaining structure in the cove. The settlers were religious people. Two of their earliest buildings were churches. The first Primitive Baptist Church was erected in 1827 and replaced in 1887 by the one you see today.
John Oliver and his wife, Lorena Frasier Oliver, lie in the cemetery behind the church along with many other early settlers. Another tombstone refers to a parishioner who was “murdered by North Carolina Rebels.” This reflects the strife within the church caused by the Civil War.
Like any community, Cades Cove had its share of misfortune and sad stories. In the 1880s, Matilda Shields Gregory’s husband abandoned her and their young son. Her brothers built her a tiny log cabin. The larger cabin in front adds to the story. Henry Whitehead, a widower with three daughters, courted and married Matilda. He built the larger home for them. It appears to be a frame house at first glance but closer investigation reveals four-inch-square sawed logs. There were once three such “transition” houses but this is the only one remaining. Notice the innovative brick chimney on the larger house. These two buildings represent the roughest and the finest of the log homes in the cove.
Sometimes the sorghum mill is operating. Another attraction about the mill area is the educational displays that offer a glimpse of what life was like in the 19th century for residents of these mountains.
Over two million people visit the cove each year. They are drawn by the overpowering natural beauty, the plentiful wildlife and a chance to step into another culture, another time. Cades Cove is the largest open-air, living-history museum in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. It is a fitting tribute to those rugged pioneers who carved a life out of what was then one of the most isolated and beautiful spots on earth.
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