The Fight for Cades Cove and the People Who Refused to Leave

guests walking around john oliver place in cades cove

Today, Cades Cove attracts millions of visitors every year who come to see the homesteads of early settlers like John Oliver, whose descendents fought to remain in the Cove by suing the government for rights to their land (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

It turns out, not everyone was thrilled when the land became government property

When touring Cades Cove today, we see one of nature’s true holy places. The verdant valley with its fields and streams, is surrounded by the high mountains. It’s a place of wonder and we rejoice that our forebearers nearly 100 years ago sought to preserve for us. But, as someone who went to school with members of the last family to live in the Cove, I can tell you there’s more to this story. Before the park, the Cove was a larger community of people than you’d think by looking at the few frontier buildings left. I can tell you that while many were glad to take the government’s buyout and strike out for someplace less remote, many fought to stay.

While the National Park has proven to be a boon for the region – and the country as a whole, it came at a price for the people who’d settled there. For an outsider on a tour of Cades Cove, it may seem like a paradise. But before it was protected for future generations, it was a living, breathing and often complicated community with its own way of life. A way that was lost when the Park came in.

Nancy Ann Oliver (3rd from left, backrow), John W. Oliver (beside Nancy Ann), Willie Oliver (2nd from right, back row), William Howell Oliver (John W. Oliver's father, seated, front row), Elizabeth Jane Oliver (John W. Oliver's mother. Seated, front row), Gregory Oliver (babe in arms, front row)
The Oliver Family were among the first settlers in Cades Cove in the early 1800s. Pictured: Nancy Ann Oliver (3rd from left, back), John W. Oliver (beside Nancy Ann), Willie Oliver (2nd from right, back row), William Howell Oliver (John W. Oliver’s father, seated, front row), Elizabeth Jane Oliver (John W. Oliver’s mother. Seated, front row), Gregory Oliver (babe in arms, front row) (public domain)

Cades Cove Before the Government Took It

John Oliver was the first European-descended settler in what became known as Cades Cove in 1819. He, his wife and young child survived thanks in large part to the native peoples for whom the Cove was a hunting ground. He was followed by other settlers who cleared lands for farming, and built log homes, barns and more. This era is chiefly preserved in the park though the churches that serve as a reminder that Cades Cove became a larger community.

The early settlers planted orchards and grew corn in the Coves’ fertile lands. Within 30 years of Oliver’s arrival, the population neared 700 people thanks to large families like the Shields. Frederick Shields, one of the early residents of the Cove fathered 16 children, 13 of which lived to adulthood. In addition to the churches, the community had schools, houses and even a post office, grist mill and general store.

A few years ago, I spoke with Rex Caughron, whose dad Kermit was the Cove’s last resident. Rex was raised in the cove, as were his daughters. He told me a little about what life was like in the Smokies in the early 1900s before the park. Kermit was born in the Cove in 1912. As a young man, he’d spend summers up in the high mountains near the Carolina border, herding livestock up near where you’d find the Appalachian Trail today. The Cove back then, was quite different.

“Whenever he came up, it wasn’t a park. They could rabbit hunt and there wasn’t deer or bears, Rex said. “The deer didn’t show up until the late 50s.” While they didn’t have deer, in a 1975 interview, Kermit explained bears could be 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.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt at the smoky mountains national park dedication ceremony in 1940
Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on September 2, 1940, “for the permanent enjoyment of the people.” (photo from NPS.gov)

Why Did They Build The Park?

But the Smokies – the natural wonder of the mountains – were endangered. Loggers were causing havoc, taking forests at unsustainable rates. Don’t forget that the Sinks waterfalls were created in part when loggers tried to break up a jam on the Little River. They used so much dynamite, they changed the course of the river forever.

In addition, monied people were buying up land and creating getaways for the rich and influential. The push for the creation of the park began picking up steam in the 1920s though writers and naturalists like Horace Kephart who had started the push years earlier.

In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill to establish the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Tennessee and North Carolina donated 300,000 acres and a fund was created to raise funds to buy the rest of the land from the people living on it. John D. Rockefeller donated half – $5 million – of the money raised to buy private lands.

The walker family portrait
The Walker sisters were among the last to leave the Cove. Some of them even lived in the Cove long after it became the National Park (public domain)

How Some Residents Fought Back

Some were happy to take the money and strike out for a new life. Others? Not so much.
For instance, a sign was placed at the entrance to the Cove warning Col. Chapman, president of the Great Smoky Mountain Preservation Association, not to get any closer to the Cove than Knoxville.

“Col. Chapman, you and host are notified. Let the Cove people alone. Get out. Get gone. 40 mile limit.”

John Oliver’s descendant John W. Oliver sued several times to keep from having to sell his land. Of course, most eventually sold. A dedicated few, however, like the Walker sisters, negotiated a lower price selling price in exchange for the right to live on the land for the rest of their lives.

Kermit tried to leave. He took the sale and moved to Maryville, even trying to work at Alcoa. But he felt hemmed in. Much to the chagrin of his wife, Lois, Kermit negotiated his return to the Cove and spent the rest of his life living there under a series of five-year leases. He became known as the bee man, selling honey in the park for $1 a jar on the honor system.

Rex was raised in the park during the transition. He had a front-row seat for the changes.
“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.” Later, Rex was able to get his five-year lease and raised his daughters there, working the land and raising livestock. They were the last generation raised in the park.

“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.”

cades cove loop road
Today, Cades Cove is one of the most popular destinations in the Park (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Cades Cove Today

Today, Cades Cove is one of the most popular destinations in the park. Its natural beauty and preserved history make it a wonderful place for hiking, fishing, exploring and more. It’s a great picnic spot and there’s a campground just outside the Cove. The preserved buildings and homesteads provide an insight into what life was like in the 1800s but not so much when Kermit or Rex lived there. It’s a perfect spot for wildlife viewing or to just go enjoy the peace of nature – provided the other tourists don’t get too wild.

You can find it from the Townsend entrance to the National Park by turning right at the Townsend Wye. It is accessible from Gatlinburg by taking Little River Gorge Road through the Wye onto Laurel Creek Road. You can’t miss it.

Cades Cove is one of the premier destinations in the Smokies. It’s beautiful, full of wildlife and history. Despite the hardships that would have come with life in the Cove, it’s easy to see why families fought to stay. Beyond legacy, it’s simply one of the most beautiful places on Earth and would be something akin to paradise if you value mountain peace and beauty and don’t mind hard work or modern comforts.

Are you planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains? Be sure to check out our coupons page for area promos.

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