East Tennessee: Ghosts of the Spirit of Resistance
by Daniel Smith
ONE OF the privileges of living in the great state of Tennessee is the overarching reverence for history and for our founding stock. With that spirit in mind, every year I make a point to take a trip out to Cades Cove to put my hands on the roughly hewn logs that sheltered our mountain ancestors.
For those of you who have not been able to take the 11-mile drive through the Cades Cove loop, I hope this article doesn’t dissuade you from going. Experiencing these historic buildings and the atmosphere that surrounds them is, on the right day of the week and time of day, a transcendent experience. I wanted it to be so when I visited last week. However, I made the mistake of going on a Saturday afternoon.
The road leading into the Cove is a few miles of curving pavement through a serene wilderness. The lush green of the trees filters a soft light from the mid-day sun, and the sound of the tumbling water below follows you all the way into the Cove. With about a mile to go, you drive through a short tunnel in which it is customary to honk your horn while passing under. Finally, you make it to the entrance of the Cove. The hills open up to reveal a majestic valley, the mountains around softly rolling into hills and falling into a pasture where horses are grazed.
This valley was once home for several hundred hardscrabble people. They lived, prayed, died, and were buried in the shadow of those mountains that protected them from the rapidly changing world around them. The War Between the States played out in typical East Tennessee fashion with residents taking both sides and fighting viciously. After the war, the Cove took a long time to recover, and was just beginning to rebound in population when the menace of the National Park Service reared its head. In 1927, a plan was announced that all the land in Cades Cove would be bought in forced sales through eminent domain, and the mountain people evicted. They put up a bitter resistance, but ultimately were removed from, or abandoned, their homes.
Today, the Cove hosts thousands of cars every day, and in those cars are every manner of featherless biped that four wheels can carry. I chose a particularly busy day, and traffic was bumper-to-bumper down the one lane road. Throngs of humanity crowded down the trails to see the cabins and churches that once were the cradle of our folk. A dizzying array of people from any corner of the globe can be seen on that loop, a sight that the forefathers of that community could not have possibly fathomed. It’s all the park rangers can do to keep up with the litter, clamp down on the vandalism, and put up the happy face of the federal government for all to see.
As I got to the last third of the loop and was flipped the bird by a swarthy woman wearing a hijab, I started to wonder: What right do they have to my home? These mountains were bought and paid for with the blood and toil of hard men who believed that their descendants could have a fruitful life here, based on their sacrifice. Now, their work is on display as a cheap novelty for every Guatemalan and Chinaman who can drive. At the visitor’s center you can buy a coffee mug with a black bear on it and then head on out to Pigeon Forge to fill your belly and laugh at the hillbilly caricatures. What did we get out of this deal? The Federals told us that they were taking the mountains to protect them from us, and instead of the strip mining that we allowed to happen, they are strip mining our culture for a quick buck. The trees may have recovered, but our souls may not. As I leave the Cove, I only have one thought on my mind. It’s the words formerly posted at the entrance to the Cove by the people as they fought bitterly for their right to exist:
YOU AND HOAST ARE NOTFY, LET THE COVE PEOPL ALONE. GET OUT. GET GONE. 40 M. LIMIT.
We have no right to criticize their lack of literary polish when we should be admiring their spirit of courage and resistance as they fought the host of agents and lawyers that were invading and stealing their only homes. This host, ultimately from Washington DC of course, operated mainly from nests in Knoxville, 40 miles away — the meaning of the “40 mile limit” these people vainly sought as a limitation on the power of the interlopers.
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