In some places, history lives in the great cities. It lives in the magnificent achievements of man, great cathedrals, towering skyscrapers, engineering marvels like pyramids and aqueducts.
In the Great Smoky Mountains, history is in the hollers, in the lingering crannies found in the shadow of giant mountain ridges.
History resides near where people found clean water running through the wilderness and decided that was where they’d stay.
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 Sisters Place, built in the early 1840s.
The Walker sisters cabin in the Little Greenbrier community
The log cabin, which still stands in the Little Greenbrier community, not far from Wears Valley, serves as a concrete illustration that the distant past isn’t as far gone as it seems.
The mountain ways, the war, the formation of the park all seem so long ago, until you remember that for most of us, the Walker Sisters lived in the time of our parents or grandparents.
That only one generation of their family spanned from the Civil War to the Kennedy Assassination.
That their father was born in the administration of Martin Van Buren, less than 20 years after founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day.
The Walker Sisters – five women of Primitive Baptist faith living in their family cabin inside the national park – went viral before Jonas Salk cured polio, before most homes had TVs and at a time when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a relatively recent creation.
The Walker Sister story starts shortly after the Civil War when ‘Hairy’ John Walker, the oldest of the 15 children of Eliza and Thomas Walker, was released from a Confederate prison and granted a release from the Union Army.
He returned to Little Greenbrier and made good on his engagement to Margaret Jane King, eventually moving his family into the cabin owned and occupied by his 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 deaths of their parents and the formation of a national park.
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.
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 and 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 died in accidents and neither sister married.
According to the National Park Service (NPS), the eldest, Margaret Jane, never courted with any man, having chosen spinsterhood early in life and it is believed her influence, through “reasoning and ridicule,” weighed heavily on her sisters.
It’s difficult to explain the mountain people of East Tennessee to outsiders – which most of us who live in East Tennessee are. If you don’t know people who were raised up in the mountains, in the distant rural communities, 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 – but you don’t see the cold pragmatism, the strong-willed, self-reliance that rewards thriftiness, resourcefulness and an undying work ethic.
They 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 you can be assured the sisters came out ahead in any such transaction.
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 really 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.
They were not like the Amish, who eschew modern technology on religious grounds, but 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 travelled a bit, but their connection to the family homestead and their mountain traditions proved stronger than any lure of the larger world.
“A mountain farm is, by its very nature, not overly productive, but the Walkers suffered no serious privation,” according to the NPS.
“It is doubtful that they ever went hungry. Practically all essential commodities were produced on the farm. Luxuries were scarce, but were usually considered useless or sinful. The house was well built and, though crowded at times, was a fine home for John Walker’s family.”
What was the cabin like where the Walker sisters lived?
The interior of the house is described as “organized confusion” by the NPS, but it sounds decidedly more confusing than organized.
“The walls were papered with newspapers and magazines, and adorned with anything that might strike the family’s fancy,” the park service writes.
“Calendars, especially Cardui calendars; letter and note boxes made from cardboard boxes; lanterns; pictures, family, religious, or simply decorative; clocks; dried food; bags of seeds … or simply anything that could be hung on a nail were usually found on the 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.
Bags of seeds, any kind of dried food, clothing, guns, walking sticks or crutches, kitchen utensils, magazines and baskets were a few of the staggering number of items that hung from the ceilings of all the rooms.
Every available inch of space was used for something.
“The bottom room of the ‘big house’ contained six beds, one a trundle bed; at least two chests; a sewing machine; and several chairs along with other smaller pieces of furniture … The kitchen was equally crowded, containing a table with benches and chairs; two stoves; cupboard; meal and flour bin made from a hollow gum log … other smaller items,” according to the NPS.
The Walker Sisters loved flowers and 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 up to 100 varieties of flowers on the grounds.
What did the Walker sisters do?
Before the battle against the Federal Government and the formation of the park made them faces, 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, who were all trained “herb doctors,” raised a healthy herb garden that they used for medicine and to serve meals that were far less bland than the typical fare served at a mountain family’s table.
Leisure was relatively rare, outside of church gatherings.
“Pa never held with parties and such frivolities,” Margaret told The Saturday Evening Post, “and so we never went to many.”
The post reported they’d attended a few” apple peelin’s” and a “corn buskin'” or two, but even these gatherings were frowned upon by their parents.
Instead, the Walker Sisters spent their lives working and worshipping. They worked in food gathering and preserving, in making clothes, 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.”
What happened to the land when the national park was chartered?
By the time the Great Smoky Mountain 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.
After much negotiating, their land was bought for $4,750 and the right to stay on the land for the duration of the lives of the five sisters.
“These old women are ‘rooted to the soil.’ We have always understood they were to be permitted to spend the rest of their lives on their property … If they were ejected from the park we should be subject to severe criticism, and in my opinion, justly so,” wrote Superintendent Ross Eakin to the director of the NPS in 1939.
Louisa Walker, who later made money for the family selling her poems to tourists, wrote about the family home and the fight with the park service:
My Mountain Home
There is an old weather bettion house
That stands near a wood
With an orchared near by it
For all most one hundred years it has stood
It was my home in infency
It sheltered me in youth
When I tell you I love it
I tell you the truth
For years it has sheltered
By day and night
From the summer sun’s heat
And the cold winter blight.
But now the park commesser
Comes all dressed up so gay
Saying this old house of yours
We must now take away
They coax they wheedle
They fret they bark
Saying we have to have this place
For a National park
For us poor mountain people
They dont have a care
But must a home for
The wolf the lion and the bear
But many of us have a title
That is sure and will hold
To the City of peace
Where the streets are pure gold
There no lion in its fury
Those pathes ever trod
It is the home of the soul
In the presence of God
When we reach the portles
Of glory so fair
The Wolf cannot enter
Neather the lion or bear
And no park Commissioner
Will ever dar
To desturbe or molest
Or take our home from us there.
Provided by the National Park Service
How do you get to the Walker sisters cabin?
The park, of course, was inevitable and the deal was struck. 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.”
With hunting outlawed in the park, the sisters were battling bears stealing crops and foxes and hawks stealing chickens.
The sisters made the best of life as famous relics. Maybe they even enjoyed it a little.
Nancy was the first of the five Walker Sisters who stayed home to die, passing in 1931 at the age of 51. Hettie died in 1947 and Martha in 1951. Margaret, the oldest, lived to 1962 and the poet Louise died in 1964, the last year the Walker homestead was lived in.
Today, you can visit the Walker Sisters cabin by hiking the Little Brier Gap Trail, which has a trail head not far from Metcalf Bottoms on Little Greenbrier Road.
It’s a 2.6 mile hike and is rated as relatively easy.