The Walker Sisters Place and the women who lived within, surviving off of the land, selling trinkets to tourists
In the Great Smoky Mountains, history is often found in the hollers, in the lingering crannies found in the shadow of giant mountain ridges. It’s in these historic places that the great passage of time, which in our everyday lives is a mundane accounting until the hours, weeks, months and years, shakes off the dust of decades and opens windows, wormholes really, that help us understand that the seeming distance of the ages isn’t as far away as we thought. These places serve as links in a chain connecting points that draw together seemingly distant eras. Consider the Walker family cabin in the Smoky Mountains, built in the early 1840s.
IN THIS ARTICLE
Subscribe to our newsletter for area news, coupons and discounts
Meet the Walker family
The five Walker sisters lived in their family cabin inside the national park long before their story went viral, before Jonas Salk cured polio, and before most homes had TVs. It was a time when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a relatively recent creation. The sisters were of Primitive Baptist faith.
The Walker sister story starts shortly after the Civil War with “Hairy” John Walker. He was the oldest of the 15 children of Eliza and Thomas Walker. John was released from a Confederate prison and granted a release from the Union Army. He returned to Little Greenbrier Cove and made good on his engagement to Margaret Jane King. The family moved into the cabin owned and occupied by John’s mother-in-law.
It is this cabin, slightly expanded through the decades, which housed his daughters through the turn of the century, through two World Wars, the passing of their parents and the formation of a national park. They raised livestock such as chickens, sheep, goats and hogs on the farm. The homestead had a corn crib, a pig pen, a barn and a springhouse. Walker’s daughters, who’d become famous in large part due to an article in the “Saturday Evening Post”, lived in that cabin until 1964, more than 120 years after it was built. The cabin stands today, protected as part of the park that the Walker sisters – as they became known – fought so hard against.
Who were the Walker sisters?
John and Margaret Walker had 11 children, five boys and six girls. All of the boys eventually married and moved away, as did the sixth daughter, Sarah Caroline. The five remaining daughters – led by the oldest, named after her mother, Margaret Jane – became spinsters. They lived the majority of their life at the family homestead. In this period, most mountain women married young and began their own families. The Walker sisters, however, did not. Both Martha and Polly were engaged at different times but both men passed in accidents. Neither sister ever married. According to the National Park Service (NPS), the eldest, Margaret Jane, never courted any man. She chose spinsterhood early in life and it is believed her influence, through “reasoning and ridicule”, weighed heavily on her sisters.
Before the battle against the Federal Government and the formation of the park, the Walker sisters’ primary occupation was securing an adequate food supply. Corn was the staple of their diet but was supplemented by a wide variety of vegetables and fruit. The sisters were all trained herb doctors. They raised a healthy herb garden. They used the herbs for medicine and to serve meals that were far less bland than the typical fare served at a mountain family’s table. The Walker sisters spent their lives working and worshipping. They worked in food gathering and preserving, making clothes, and working the fields and gardens. Joseph S. Hall, in his book “Smoky Mountain Folks and Their Lore” described some of their remedies – which frankly contain a disturbing amount of kerosene and lamp oil for those referred to as an “herb doctor”.
The battle over living in the park
By the time the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was chartered by Congress in 1934, the oldest Walker sister, Margaret, was 63 years old. They pushed back against the idea of losing the family land and way of life. The park was inevitable and a deal was eventually struck. After lengthy negotiations, the land was purchased for $4,750. The right to stay on the land for the duration of the lives of the five sisters was included in the deal. The park opened in 1940 and the sisters became oddities, a tourist attraction like Cades Cove or the Chimney Rocks. They were living museum exhibits.
In April of 1947, the Saturday Evening Post wrote about the sisters living on their “island of self-sufficiency.” However, living in the national park changed their way of life. Hunting, fishing and cutting wood were now prohibited within the national park boundaries. With hunting outlawed, the sisters had to deal with bears stealing crops and foxes and hawks eating chickens. After they became part of the park, they had to adopt a new way of life. Visitors would flock to the park and visit what became known as “Five Sisters Cove”. According to the NPS, The Walkers saw this as an opportunity to sell tourists handmade items like children’s toys, crocheted doilies, fried apple pies and poems.
The sisters become a living tourist attraction
It’s difficult to explain the mountain people of East Tennessee to outsiders. If you don’t know people who were raised in the mountains, it’s hard to understand the character traits that developed. You see the stereotypes – which many of the mountain people, including the Walker sisters, were willing to play up for the tourist crowd. However, you don’t see the cold pragmatism, the strong-willed, self-reliance that rewards thriftiness, resourcefulness and an undying work ethic.
When visitors and tourists came to their mountain home after the creation of the national park, the Walkers may have been happy to welcome guests to their home, pose and sell trinkets. But don’t think for a second there was not a clear calculation done before they allowed that foolishness. And honestly, while the tourists came to Wears Valley and back to the cabin in the woods to get a look at the sisters clinging to their hillbilly ways, like gawking at animals in a zoo, I imagine it was the Walker sisters who got the better show. The mountain folks weren’t like those who clung to the old ways in other parts of the country.
The Walker sisters were not like the Amish, who eschewed modern technology on religious grounds. Still, they certainly lived primitive lives by more modern standards. There were a lot of communities in the mountains in places like Hancock County where people continued to live without power or running water even as late as the 60s or 70s. The Walker sisters were not cut off from the outside world. They traveled a bit. Still, their connection to the family homestead and their mountain traditions proved stronger than any lure of the larger world.
What was the Walker sisters’ cabin like?
The interior of the house is described as “organized confusion” by the NPS. It sounds decidedly more confusing than organized. The walls were decorated with newspapers and magazines and adorned with anything that the family deemed worthy. Items included calendars, letters and note boxes made from cardboard boxes. They also had lanterns, family pictures, decorative clocks, dried food and bags of seeds. Anything that could be hung on a nail could be found on their interior walls.
These items also sometimes served as insulation. The rafters of all three rooms were studded with nails or wooden pegs which supported items beyond description. There were even walking sticks, crutches, kitchen utensils and baskets that hung from the ceilings of all the rooms. Every available inch of space was used for something. The “big house” contained six beds, a sewing machine and several chairs along with smaller pieces of furniture. The kitchen was equally as crowded, with a table and benches, two stoves, a meal and flour bin and other smaller items.
The Walker sisters loved flowers. The grounds around the cabin were carpeted with all manner of flowering shrubs and plants. Roses, lilac, snowball bushes and hydrangeas were just a few of the varieties of flowers on the grounds.
What happened to the Walker sisters?
Nancy was the first of the five Walker sisters who stayed home to pass in 1931 at the age of 51. Hettie passed away in 1947 and Martha in 1951. When only Margaret and Louisa Walker were left, they requested to remove the “visitors welcome” sign. According to the NPS, they said they were too “old and tired” to get work done and also greet visitors. Margaret, the oldest, lived until 1962. The poet, Louise, passed in 1964. But their legacy and stamp on the national park they once called home, remains eternal.
Have you been to the Walker family cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Let us know in the comments.