Cades Cove is a national treasure, a jewel of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but Rex Caughron doesn’t bother much with going anymore.
“Very seldom do I go through the Cove,” he said. “It don’t look like Cades Cove to me.”
In another life, Cades Cove – or at least a hefty piece of it – would have been Caughron’s birthright.
The son of Kermit and Lois Caughron, Rex is a fifth generation descendant of the Shields that first settled the area, carved out a life among the mountains’ natural beauty.
Now, as the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in 1934 approaches, Rex probably knows the land, the hills and valleys, the knobs and balds and trails, the creeks and the butts as well as anyone living.
Rex’s dad Kermit was born in the cove in May of 1912. He grew up there, went to church and school and learned who he was gonna be in life alone in the high mountains. As a young man, Kermit spent his summers herding cattle and sheep up along the North Carolina border, earning $1 a head for the season, working up where the Appalachian trail runs now.
“Whenever he came up, it wasn’t a park. They could rabbit hunt and there wasn’t deer or bear,” Rex said. “The deer didn’t show up until the late ’50s.”
In a 1975 interview, Kermit explained the bear were a danger to livestock.
“Used to, when one got in, why we come down here, and we’d get up a crew of hunters, you know, and dogs and go back up there and kill it,” Kermit said. “There wasn’t any open season or closed season. Why, one killed a cow, why, a calf, why, we killed a bear, then had a feast.”
The cattle could graze up in the mountains, in part, because each fall the mountain people would set fires to beat back the brush and make way for the grasses to grow fresh and new in the spring. Now the forest has taken those lands back for itself.
“They burn it. I can remember them burning those big brush fires up there,” Rex said. “I don’t guess they’ll see that again. They’re gonna let nature take its course.”
Unlike the folks over in Elkmont who got life leases to live on their homestead when the government came and bought the land – whether it was for sale or not – the people of Cades Cove were told to move.
Kermit’s father sold and moved the family to a farm in Maryville.
So Kermit left his beloved mountains for a time – four years to be exact – but Lois told the Daily Times in 2007 that Kermit was never satisfied with life off of the mountain.
“Kermit worked a day or two at ALCOA, then put in a 10-day notice. He’d stay with some of his cousins in Alcoa and then come home on weekends, but he’d rather farm as work out there.”
Lois, by the way, made it known in the same article she’d just as soon stayed where there was electricity, plumbing and a heat pump.
“I never wanted to go back to Cades Cove,” she said.
Still Kermit negotiated his return. And he and Lois moved back the year they got married.
Kermit had a five year lease on the old homeplace. He raised cattle in the cove and Kermit became known as the “bee man” thanks to the hives he kept, selling fresh honey for a dollar a jar from a stand near his home based entirely on the honor system.
In a way, the Caughrons served as living museum exhibits with the caveat that they met the conditions of the lease. The park service always had a 90-day out clause on the five-year lease. If the park service decided it was time for the Caughrons to leave, they’d have 3 months to resettle their lives.
“We done what the park service wanted,” Rex said. “We kept the pastures mowed and put up the hay and tried to keep the cattle away from the loop road.”
Kermit and Lois were back living in the Cove when Rex joined the family, though he was born at an old doctor’s house in Walland, which is a ways up the road toward Maryville.
Rex was a member of the next to last generation to be raised in the Cove. As Rex obtained his own five-year renewable lease for a home over near the ranger’s station, his daughters would have the honor of being the cove’s last generation.
Over the decades, Rex served witness to the rippling effects of the national park’s creation, which both preserved a national treasure and erased his daddy’s way of life.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes,” he said. “When I started school, there were 27 in my class. When I graduated, in 1962, there were only three.”
That ride to school was something of an ordeal.
“That bus driver lived on past the old mill,” Rex said. “He hauled us out in the morning before light and dropped us back off after 7 at night. It was a long day.”
And it was a longer day while they were building the bridge at the Townsend Wye. The forced detour took the bus along Rich Mountain Road.
“Those awful old school buses didn’t have no power,” he explained. “It rode second gear about all the way over. I didn’t enjoy that ride across Rich Mountain.”
Over the years, Rex came to know the roads into and out of the park about as well as he knew the land itself.
“I know the road forward and backward out of the Cove,” he said. “I can lay down in the back seat of a car, I can tell you exactly where I’m at on the road.”
Even though he doesn’t go back into the loop, he still rides that road to visit friends at the campground and he still carries his deep affection for the Cove.
“It’s where I made a living, where I raised four girls,” he said. “How quiet it was at night, and the stars that’s another thing that stood out to me, you didn’t have no street lights, didn’t have no people,”
But as deep as his affection for the place is, Rex isn’t prone to waxing poetic. His life in the cove was a working, practical thing. His favorite memory isn’t a creek, a hike or the scenery.
Asked about his biggest memories of life in the cove, his answers are pragmatic.
“The biggest thing I can remember is working,” he said. “I started driving a tractor before I went to grade school. That was a big thing for me. I enjoyed it. The only thing I didn’t get to do, I didn’t have nobody to play with other than my two sisters, that was the biggest disadvantage. That and if you wanted to go to town and get anything it was 35 minutes.”
It seems tourists would have been a bigger nuisance to the Caughrons but Rex said the only time the gawkers were much of an issue was when it was time to put up hay and the tractors needed to use the loop road.
“Tourists didn’t bother us except in hay time on the loop. They wasn’t in no hurry but we were,” he said. “If you were stopped working on the fence, they would stop and talk occasionally.”
Sometimes the tourist would prove a source of amusement.
“The funniest thing, we were working right past dad’s house on the fence, a lady came around the curve and saw a bunch of vultures. She started shouting ‘Look at the turkeys,’ and she drove into a culvert,” he said. “We helped her out but her calling a vulture a turkey, that was funny to us.”
Of course, before the loop road was paved, it caused trouble for more than just the tourists. Rex told of a time when his dad was younger and there was just an old primitive rock road. The mail carrier John W. Oliver – who later sued the government in a failed attempt to keep his land – got stuck trying to get the mail truck over a large hill.
Kermit said he heard the mailman – who was also a Baptist preacher – calling him for help. Kermit pushed the mail up the hill, only to fail to make the top and watch it come back down. After three attempts, Oliver told Caughron to go fetch the team and pull him over the hill.
Once the team was attached and pulled the preacher over the hill, Oliver reached in his pocket and got Kermit a dime for his effort.
“Dad told him. ‘I believe you need it more than I do,’” Rex laughed.
Oliver more than evened the score, however. Oliver was the one who brought rainbow trout fingerlings and put them in Abrams Creek. Kermit pulled his share of 20-inch trout out of the cold mountain stream over the years.
“Dad enjoyed fishing more than hunting,” Rex said, noting fishing became a much drier endeavor once they learned to put carpet on the soles of their shoes to keep from sliding off the slippery rocks and into the creek. “You could fish all summer and he enjoyed that.”
And living in the mountains wasn’t all work. Caughron said they’d hike up to Abrams Falls.
“Another hike I liked was into Sugar Cove, above Mill Creek. Becky Cable had an orchard up there before my time,” he said. “I enjoyed that hike. It wasn’t a strenuous hike, but you wouldn’t run into nobody.”
Though his dad spent a lot of time at Gregory Bald herding cattle as a young man, Rex said he never much liked that hike himself.
“I only made it to Gregory three times in my life,” he said. “It wasn’t that hard of a walk, but I didn’t enjoy going to Gregory Bald.”
He said those who visit the Cove would do well to get off the paved path.
“There’s a lot of good views,” he said, “if you get down off the loop road, if you get down by the creek.”
His favorite view, though, is right at the entrance to the cove, a place he calls Horseshoe Mountain.
“Look to the left, look right over the stables and you can see it,” he said. “It looks like a horseshoe. They don’t call it a horseshoe, though. They call it Mollies Butt.”
“I like to stand there and just look.”
Kermit died in April of 1999. He was the last resident of Cades Cove. The evidence of most of Kermit’s existence has been erased from the Cove.
The cattle, a staple of Cove visits of my youth, are gone. So is Kermit’s house, which he built in 1952 with materials salvaged from the old Cable School which themselves had been salvaged from the earlier Laurel Springs school.
Some of the older building on the property, the smoke house, the original cabin remain but park officials wanted to take the Cove back to its earlier roots, more like the world of Kermit’s parents and their parents than his own.
Marking the spot where Kermit and Lois lived now is an old apple tree and a handful of lilies that bloom in the spring.
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