Because we live so close to the Great Smoky Mountains, we’re able to visit basically whenever we want. So, when it comes time for the Gullion family to go on vacation, we go elsewhere, frequently Florida.
My grandparents retired to the Gulf Coast years ago and as such, it’s been a favorite vacation destination for years.
I love to get off the interstate and ride the old highways in Florida, catching glimpses of how Florida tourism used to be.
My family enjoys the tiny mom and pop motels with fading neon paint jobs and giant bright blue outdoor pools that look like an offering to the gods of chlorine.
I love the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee and any old tourist attraction that offers the feeling of travelling back in time to when the family car was a giant, shiny thing with wings and all the men wore fedoras.
The idyllic and idealized version before Florida tourism became too profitable to be left to anyone but giant corporations.
The same is true for Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge
That fact of life permeates Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge now, too.
The profits are too big. Real estate is too valuable. The truly weird and unique attractions have been pushed out in favor of more professionally managed and run operations.
On the one hand, it’s good.
The attractions we have today are by and large better than the past. They are more analytically developed, focus-grouped and designed to provide maximum entertainment for your tourism dollar.
In other words, a guy with some Parkway real estate and a devotion to an obscure sheriff immortalized in a 70s B-movie can’t set up shop in Pigeon Forge and make a living for a decade or more by promising a glimpse of Buford T. Pusser’s death car.
Mom and pop shops, a taste of the old days
When I first started coming to Pigeon Forge, many of the smaller mom and pop shops and attractions were on their way out.
But I remember Carbo’s Smoky Mountain Police Museum and its fascination with Pusser, an axe-handle wielding sheriff from West Tennessee who survived multiple assassination attempts while battling an outfit called the Dixie Mafia.
I also recall the Elvis Museum, which struck me as out of place until they built a quarter of the Titanic and a museum dedicated to Alcatraz in Pigeon Forge. In comparison, the six-hour drive along I-40 to Graceland makes the Elvis Museum positively local in retrospect.
But let’s say you want a taste of the old days, when the attractions in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge were a little less sanitized, a little less homogenous.
Where can you go? Here’s our list:
4. Lily’s TV Items
A few years ago, one of my favorite writers, Rembert Browne had a series about exploring America. This was back in the days when media companies had budgets to pay for things.
Browne, who is from Atlanta and is no stranger to the South, had plans to go to Dollywood.
He was diverted, however, by the As Seen on TV store, which at the time was in the old Kmart building caddy corner to the Sevier County Courthouse, if memory serves.
I personally couldn’t understand the fascination.
As Seen on TV has been big business in one form or another in East Tennessee for as long as I can remember.
But for Browne it was the distilled essence of East Tennessee kitsch.
Lily’s TV Items is the descendent of that store spiritually.
Located near Cherokee Trading Post on Winfield Dunn Parkway, it’s a decent spot to go if you want a brand of East Tennessee tourism that is getting harder to find.
It’s also great if you want to get a “souvenir” your friends or family will remember.
Lily’s sells the Flippity Fish Cat Toy, the Battery Daddy organizer and the Circular Rolling Knife cutting device in addition to all manner of miscellaneous gadgets.
As an East Tennessean, this isn’t the kind of nostalgia I’m interested in but apparently, there’s quite a bit of hipster appeal.
3. Cooter’s Place
Friends, we’re going on a bit of a journey. Lock in.
Back in the late 70s to mid 80s, there was a show called “Dukes of Hazzard”.
The show chiefly featured the adventures of Bo and Luke Duke, moonshiners who outran and outwitted the local inept constabulary in a souped-up 1969 orange Dodge Charger.
For boys of a certain age, I was four when it came out, this show was high art.
There were lunch boxes and merch and toys – I had a “motorized” General Lee you could rev up and do tricks with.
It was cool and, in retrospect, extremely regrettable.
However, among the colorful cast of characters in the fictional Hazard County was Cooter – the tow truck driver who frequently helped get the Dukes out of the clutches of the powerful, corrupt County Commissioner Boss Hogg.
Cooter was played by Ben Jones, who had a series of supporting roles in classics like “Smokey and the Bandit” and “The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars.”
Cooter, however, was his biggest role.
And after the show closed in 1985, Jones set his sights on Congress, failing in a 1986 bid but winning a Georgia congressional seat in 1988 and again in 1990.
After redistricting took his seat, the Yellow Dog Southern Democrat ran against Newt Gingrich and lost. However, his ethics complaints against Gingrich ultimately led to Newt’s resignation from Congress.
Eventually, Cooter set up shop at a little place right at the entrance of the strip in Gatlinburg where he – at least outwardly – appeared to enjoy success for several years before leaving for a less high-profile spot.
Today Cooter’s has three locations, one in a strip mall on Wears Valley Road in Pigeon Forge, one in Nashville and one in Luray, Virginia.
The Pigeon Forge location offers free admission to the museum, where you can buy classic items such as an “I Heart Cooter” commemorative license plate.
There are also appearances from other Dukes of Hazzard alums like Rick Hurst, who played Deputy Cletus.
2. Smoky Mountain Cat House
You want weird old tourist attractions? Well, look no further.
The Smoky Mountain Cat House is located in a charming house off the beaten path on Old Mill Street in Pigeon Forge.
It is a throwback to a time when businesses could get weird and when the majority of people would get the cat house pun.
Anyway, this store is dedicated to all things cat. There are even live cats running around the store while you shop.
And frankly, I respect it.
“Established in 1985, by Cheryl and Phil Anderson as a warm and welcoming place for ‘cat people’ as well as the curious shopper visiting the Smokies.”
“The Cat House is a place to relax, where you can be yourself and show off your favorite cat pictures or share a story with like-minded cat lovers,” the website says.
There are cat toys, cat-themed socks and bracelets. Honestly, it’s too much for me to process. I want to make a Jellicle Ball joke, but I’m too overwhelmed.
Let’s just say this would be a great place to make some cat-themed vacation memories.
1. The Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum
We’ve written before about this strange little place on Brookside Village Way in Gatlinburg. The museum began when an archeologist named Andrea and her family went on a quest for a working pepper mill.
That eventually turned into something of a treasure hunt with family members seeking out interesting and unique mills and shakers.
Fast forward 35 years or so and now there’s a collection of more than 20,000 pairs of shakers.
The $3 admission goes towards any purchase of a Salt and Pepper Shaker from the gift shop.
What’s your favorite mom and pop attraction in the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge area? Let us know in the comments!