The Appalachian Mountains of North America are one of the oldest mountain ranges on the planet. Zoom in to Eastern Tennessee, and you’ll find a particularly stunning subrange called the Great Smoky Mountains. Blanketed in their signature blue fog and teeming in diverse wildlife, these graceful peaks became the setting for a rich and uniquely Appalachian history. Of all the fascinating Pigeon Forge attractions, these historical sites have a particularly intriguing story to tell about the cultural and social evolution of the Smokies. Let’s see about the must-see historical spots in the great smoky mountains.
Inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserves the historical artifacts, structures, stories and natural resources of this neck of the Appalachians. At the Collections Preservation Center in Townsend, you can browse archival photographs, maps of the region, textiles, artifacts and even genealogical information. For a more hands-on approach to seeing history in person, the park also maintains these hiking trails leading to notable historic structures.
The valley of Cades Cove contains an abundance of wildlife, such as white-tailed deer, black bears, wild turkeys, coyotes, skunks and more. As such, the Cherokee natives frequently hunted the area, and colonial Europeans chose to settle in this valley in the early 1800s. You can still see the remains of their 18th- and 19th-century churches, still-functional grist mills, barns and log houses on the Cades Cove Loop. The 11-mile, one-way circle is both drive-able and hike-able and intersects with many other hiking trails. Make sure to snag a self-guided tour booklet at the entrance to learn more about the pioneers of Cades Cove.
Noah “Bud” Ogle Place
The year is 1879. Noah “Bud” Ogle is building a 400-acre farmstead in White Oak Flats, a.k.a. Gatlinburg. He plans to construct his home in the rare “saddle-bag” style of architecture, in which two houses are joined at the chimney. To say the property is stunning would be an understatement. Beyond the cabin are two sparkling streams, pastures, cornfields and a tub mill. A common tool among Smoky Mountain settlers, the tub mill harnesses the energy of the LeConte Creek to grind corn into meal, establishing it as a common gathering place for the Ogle family and their neighbors. Fast forward to the present day. A quick 0.8-mile round-trip hike gets you to the Ogle Place, where the barn, tub mill and homestead still stand as a vestige of frontier life.
The Old Mill
During the colonial era of the 18th and 19th centuries, water mills were crucial to survival in the Smokies. If you could grind your corn and grain into flour, you could make bread and other foods to feed your family. As a result, mills became a social gathering place for Smoky Mountain farmers. Resting on the Little Pigeon River, the Old Mill played a significant role in the birth of the town of Pigeon Forge.
It’s worth taking your time to visit the entire property. At the Old Mill General Store, you can take home a nice souvenir of cornmeal, grits, flour or pancake mix — all ground on-site at the still fully operational Old Mill. The store also sells homemade fruit butters, jams, jellies, sauces, mixes, crafts and likely whatever else you’d need to recreate an authentic Appalachian dish. Hop on over to the Old Forge Distillery for another classic part of the Tennessee lifestyle. Their diverse offering of moonshine, bourbon whiskey, cream liqueur, muscadine gin and other liquors are made using local ingredients and 200-year-old recipes. If you’re looking to have a genuine Smoky Mountain experience, it doesn’t get more authentic than staying at a woodland cabin or cottage with Old Mill Lodging or dining out at the Old Mill Farmhouse Kitchen.
For thousands of years, this mountainous corner of the world was home to the Cherokee, a subset of the Iroquois and one of the most powerful and technologically advanced Native American tribes in the southeast. As a matriarchy consisting of seven clans and a profound knowledge of the land and its natural resources, their society and culture were, needless to say, quite different from that of the early European colonists. By the time gold was discovered in Cherokee territory in the 1830s, white Americans forced the tribe to relocate to Oklahoma during a tragic event known as the Trail of Tears.
Just an hour’s drive from Gatlinburg, the town of Cherokee offers several ways to engage in Native American history. An homage to the resilient spirit of the Cherokee, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian paints a picture of the 13,000-year Cherokee history through interactive displays, animated video, artwork, photographs, and even Cherokee language courses. At the Oconoluftee Indian Village, you’ll feel like you traveled back in time as a local cultural expert guides you through authentic Cherokee dwellings, sacred spaces, and work sites. Villagers crafting canoes, baskets, pottery, and beadwork, plus demonstrations of traditional dances and a Cherokee blowgun, make history come to life before your eyes.
The Historic Gatlinburg Inn
After selling his land in Sugarlands to the National Park Service, which was on track to establishing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Rel Maples, Sr. built a structure currently recognized as the oldest lodge in Gatlinburg. The 1937 Historic Gatlinburg Inn wasn’t always a hotel, however. First, it was used as the chamber of commerce, then as the local newspaper, Gatlinburg’s first bank and first dentistry office, and finally for the City of Gatlinburg’s offices. By the time it returned to being used as a lodging space, the Historic Gatlinburg Inn had become a quintessential landmark that had contributed to the growth and development of the town.
Throughout the decades, the inn has welcomed famous artists, presidents, filmmakers, actors and celebrities of all kinds. But don’t be mistaken; the historic hotel is indeed open to the average traveler, too. Newly renovated with fresh carpeting, Serta Perfect Sleeper beds, flat-screen televisions, modern amenities, WiFi and an outdoor pool, the Historic Gatlinburg Inn is both a fascinating and comfortable place to stay on the Parkway.
The historical sites of the Great Smoky Mountains preserve our past so that we might gain a bit of insight into our most meaningful stories and our humbling origins. Throughout the centuries, these beloved woodland-fleeced giants have seen it all: from the sorrowful downfall of the advanced Cherokee civilization to the arrival of white colonists in the 1700s to the development of scattered communities into charming mountain towns. In present times, visitors come from all over the world to those towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg to learn about the history of one of the most beautiful places on Earth.