It’s hard to explain the confluence of factors that turned Gatlinburg into a tourist town.
The natural beauty, of course, was part of it. The idyllic location that first drew settlers up from the sweltering South Carolina heat was rugged but beautiful and mercifully mild in the summer.
But, there are many beautiful places in the mountains. Why did Gatlinburg flourish?
Infrastructure played a part. Old trails through mountain passes became roads, then highways and finally interstates that connected millions of potential visitors to the region.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, of course, lured many. But even more than that, the build-up to the park created something of a national sensation.
The storytellers helped capture the fascination
Storytellers capitalized on the early 20th century public fascination with the remote, odd mountain people who clung to the old ways out of stubbornness and necessity.
It’s how folks like the Walker sisters became famous in the early days of the park. There was a National Geographic sort of fascination with the exotic and the strange.
While most people couldn’t travel to the more remote parts of the world to perform gawker tourism, the picturesque mountains and their “strange” people were readily accessible to much of the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest.
Finally, the locals embraced this influx of well-monied visitors who had the unfortunate tendency to treat them like exhibits in the zoo, but were willing to pay well for the honor.
The history and allure of authentic, mountain-made items
The practical nature of the mountain people served them well, and a “give the people what they want” attitude prevailed. Some made money serving corn-pone humor and playing the expected part.
Others discovered the visitors had a nearly insatiable appetite for authentic, mountain-made items.
Over the years things that had been utilitarian at best, and a time-killing hobby at worst, became coveted object d’art. And though people like the Walker sisters marveled at the demand, they were happy to sell the wares to the tourists who showed up at their front porch.
In the early days, these local artists would have been loath to consider themselves as such. Art is high falutin. It’s putting on airs. It’s for other people.
Making a chair or a basket or a broom, weaving a garment or a blanket. These are practical things. Necessary things.
Sure, you could make them pretty if you want to, but when the wind’s whistling through the wax paper on the window, you don’t give a darn if the blanket’s pretty. You want it warm.
Over the years, the term for these artists became craftspeople, though they’re more likely to use the two interchangeably today. They made their way from their porch steps to the streets of Gatlinburg where they set up shop to sell their wares.
What’s inside the Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community?
Today, the Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community consists of more than 100 shops featuring regionally made items spread over the 8 mile Loop Road. Reportedly, they make up the largest group of independent artisans in North America.
The wares range from traditional “art” like paintings and sculptures to candy, pottery, rugs, tapestries, leatherworks, jewelry and pottery. There are silversmiths, weavers, carvers and people who specialize in hand crafted dolls and potters as well.
Gatlinburg has become a haven for artists and craftsmen to sell their works, not to gawking tourists who have come to see the odd mountain peoples, but to true fans who appreciate the art, the artistry and the artist.
Because today we recognize that art comes in many forms, the loop also consists of eateries, bed and breakfast establishments and much more.
Touring the Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts loop
If you’re interested in such things, a day touring the 8-mile loop is worth your time. Many artists manage their shops, and you can learn more about the craft.
There is plenty of free parking and it is not far from downtown Gatlinburg. However, if you want to turn it into a truly Gatlinburg experience, park the car and ride the Yellow Trolley Route which will carry you to the charming galleries, eateries and shops all along the route. The community itself is open year round.
However, if you’re looking for the “Cliff Notes” version, you can always stop by the Made in Gatlinburg Shop located in the Gatlinburg Welcome Center which features only locally made products representing more than 60 businesses.
It’s the perfect place to find an authentic Gatlinburg souvenir to take home.
The Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts show
The Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community hosts several events and shows throughout the year that showcase true Appalachian artistry.
The shows feature photography, painting, carving, sculpting and more.
The shows are generally free to attend and are held at the Gatlinburg Convention Center. Check out our calendar of events page to stay up to date, or visit them directly on their website for more information.
Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Trail loop map
Over the course of the eight mile loop, there are more than 100 shops to explore.
Since there are so many good ones to explore, it can be a little overwhelming to know where to start. Here’s a few of our favorites to get you started:
5. A. Jann Peitso, ART!
Not only can you purchase Peisto’s colorful work, you can create your own experience where you reserve a time and take your own watercolor class. What’s a better souvenir than a work of art you created yourself?
4. Fowler’s Clay Works
Buy functional clay art and take home a piece of the Smokies. You can watch Mike and Cheryl Fowler make unique pieces or you can schedule a workshop and make your own art to take home.
Some artists work in clay. Others work in oils or watercolors. And some artists work in fudge. Come in and watch as members of the Wright family make confectionary delights on marble slabs right in front of you.
How many artists do you know who give out free samples?
2. Mohr Custom Knives
It’s well established that I love a good knife. Hand made by Rick and Tom Mohr, these knives are one of a kind, functional and made of recycled materials.
Want your own design? The Mohrs say if you can draw it, they can build it.
1. Smoky Mountain Dulcimers
My maternal grandmother came from a musical family. Nearly all of her brothers and sisters could play or sing. My great uncle Jim spent much of his life playing mandolin and singing bluegrass around the green hills of Southern Indiana.
As far back as I can remember, Nanny had a dulcimer that I was allowed to peck around on. The sound was soothing and appealing.
Music is part of the mountains and those old string dulcimers capture that sound better than just about any other instrument.
Have you explored the Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community? What are your favorite shops? Let us know in the comments!