July 18, 2014 – This area is pretty close to where I’ve been camping at Tremont Outdoor Resort, but it took me a while to finally get around to exploring it as much as it deserves. It turned out to be one of those days for which I will be eternally grateful!
I had passed by the Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area dozens of times, but I was always on the way to or from someplace else and never had time to stop. I was glad I finally made this a destination because it wound up being one of my favorite days in the Smokies.
Metcalf Bottoms is part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (about 11 miles from Gatlinburg) and provides a fairly large picnic area with many tables, each equipped with grills and several restroom facilities and drinking water is provided. You can picnic by the river or among the shade of huge trees and there is a large pavilion that can be rented that can accommodate up to 70 people.
But the main attraction for me was the historic buildings within the complex. The Little Greenbrier School was built in 1882 and also was used for church services by a local Primitive Baptist congregation, who established the adjacent cemetery. Nearly half of the graves here are for children.
The last classes in the 20 x 30 foot building were held in 1936. Just getting here was quite the task sometimes for the local children of all ages, some having to walk up to nine miles, and school was sometimes cancelled for weeks at a time due to snow.
John Walker, father of the Walker Sisters whose cabin we’ll see soon, helped build the school. In researching the school, I came across an account in GoSmokies that talks about John Walker’s ghost still hanging around the schoolhouse. A reader tells a story about one of John’s friends when he was riding a horse with his little girl on the trail by the schoolhouse near dark in the pouring rain. A branch fell and knocked the little girl off, killing her. John was so upset that he swore it would never happen again. People say John’s spirit shows up when little girls might be in danger of bears or it’s raining.
It was a clear day and there were people around the school and several cars in the lot, so I figured the trail would be populated as usual, but I was okay with that since I had seen reports of some park trails being closed recently due to aggressive bear activity.
So I wasn’t particularly concerned about spooks or bears, but it turned out I only came across one man coming back down the trail and after greeting, he said, “You’re getting a late start, aren’t you?” But at 4:00, I knew I had plenty of daylight left for such a short trip and I prefer the later, softer lighting anyway.
From the parking lot, it’s an easy 1.1 miles of lush greenness, fern forests and some rhododendron were still blooming in places. I didn’t linger much on the way to the cabin because I wanted to be sure I had plenty of time there.
By the time you get to this path off the main trail, you’re only .1 mile from the cabin.
I made myself at home, exploring inside and peeked up in the loft area, although I’m always a little nervous on ladders and this one was pretty steep, so I wasn’t about to lug my camera and tripod up there for a picture.
Side view shows how short the doors are.
View from the yard showing the cabin and corn crib. The original 166 acres used to have a barn and several other outbuildings, including a blacksmith shop and small tub mill, but only the cabin, spring-house and corn crib survive.
From the rear you can see how few and tiny the windows were to better keep the bad weather from encroaching inside.
The surrounding grounds were like a fairytale forest and I also found this beautiful blooming cluster nearby.
It’s impossible to describe the sense of peace and tranquility I found here. I sat on the porch and tried to imagine what life was like for the Walker Sisters then. To my spoiled modern mind, as wonderfully peaceful and beautiful the surroundings, life then would have been too difficult and primitive for me, being used to modern conveniences as I am now. Yet I still felt so intimately connected with this land and the incredible beauty surrounding me. It was like I was breathing in sync with the trees and the birds were singing just for me. I felt totally welcome with a sense of belonging and no hint of threat whatsoever, even though I was totally alone.
In reading more about the Walker Sisters, I’ve thought maybe I can relate to their strict sense of independence – to their ability to go it on their own and do things for themselves that especially in those times were considered best left to the menfolk.
John Walker and his wife, Margaret, moved onto the homestead in 1870. The original cabin had been built in the 1840s by another settler, and John reassembled and expanded it.
I was in awe of their mother, especially after reading on this NPS Historical Data page that she bore 11 children, all of whom reached maturity, a rarity in those days. She was a midwife and known as an “herb doctor” and her husband boasted that in his life he had spent a total of fifty cents for the services of a medical doctor.
Picture above from the NPS Historic Structures Report. John Walker and six of the Walker Sisters about 1918.
In 1909, with the other children having married and moved away, John deeded the land to five of his daughters and his youngest son, who deeded his share to the sisters. Most mountain women married early in life, so it was very unusual that six of the seven sisters never married. As reported in this KnoxNews article, “Six Unmarried ‘Smoky Mountain Women’ Persevered in Homestead” –
“To be fair, two of the sisters did indeed find some boyfriends and were engaged. Unfortunately, fate intervened and the men were killed in logging accidents. They knew their lifestyle was different, but their main concern was just living their life. They were just quintessential mountain women. They represented that self-reliance of Smoky Mountain people.”
From NPS Illustrations, the picture above shows the interior in 1936. Note the walls covered with newspaper for insulation. The cabin never had electricity or plumbing.
From this Saturday Evening Post article, “How Five Sisters Kept the Old Ways Alive” – I enjoyed reading great anecdotes and quotes from the sisters and the author like,
“Why, they reason, should anyone want to worry about changes and improvements when the ground is so fertile, one of their two cows is always fresh, their spring flows freely, and heavy forests around them provide all the fuel they need? A sympathetic visitor can find no answer.”
But change was bound to come for the sisters, and even though they refused to sell when the national park was being formed and they held out as long as they possibly could, their lifestyle was changed forever. Finally, in late 1940, they were faced with a condemnation suit and accepted $4,750 for their land with the provision that they could remain and use the land during the rest of their lives, a concession that wasn’t usually made. I thought it was interesting to read a report from the 1930s Great Smoky Mountains Park Commission stating,
“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.”
They still remained self sufficient and made the most of their new situation by welcoming tourists and selling their homemade wares. But by 1953, the two sisters still living (aged 70 and 82) wrote the park Superintendent requesting that the sign from the road be taken down because “we can’t receive so many visitors…we are not able to do our work.”
The last sister died in 1964, but I know they’d still recognize their beloved home despite all the changing times, and I’m thrilled that I was able to learn a little more about them and visit them in spirit.
I really took my time on the hike back expressing profound gratitude for serendipitous days like this – I had no idea the magic that was in store for me just from one simple little hike into history!
Where Is It?
For Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area: From Gatlinburg, past the Sugarlands Visitors Center, take Little River Road to the right. This road can also be accessed from Townsend Scenic Hwy. 73 by turning left at the “Y” and getting on Little River Road toward Gatlinburg. Look for the Metcalf Bottoms sign to turn into the complex.
For Little Greenbrier School: Once in Metcalf Bottoms, cross the bridge which takes you onto Lyons Springs Road. Go about 1.5 miles and look for the sign for the road to Little Greenbrier. Lyons Springs Road can also be accessed from Wears Valley Road (U.S. 321/TN Route 73) if you’re traveling between Pigeon Forge and Townsend.
The road to the school is a 1.4 mile, two-way gravel road that’s a bit bumpy at times and extremely narrow, so pay attention to the sign and go really slow since it’s sometimes hard to see oncoming traffic due to the twists and turns and there are few spots large enough for two cars to pass each other.
To avoid this drive, you can hike about .6 mile to the school from Metcalf Bottoms along a nice path.
For Walker Sisters Cabin: After parking at the school, look for the trail to the left with a gate in front. That walking trail is about 1.1 miles to reach the cabin.
However you get there, don’t miss this!