A Townsend landmark is closing and in its place will be a new initiative planners hope will reduce pollution in the park and help educate visitors about the culture, environment and people of Cades Cove.
The Hillbilly Hillton has been sold to a group of investors who are working with the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center to create a new transportation system for touring the park. Beginning this summer, two 19-passenger Education Touring Vehicles will operate out of a depot on the property, which will have a 61-vehicle gravel parking lot. More ETV’s could be added, depending on the response.
“The whole idea is this is a win-win,” said Bob Patterson, executive director for the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center. “We’re helping the Park because we’re trying to get cars off the road, and we’re able to get their mission out there of educating the public.”
Patterson said the investors bought the 3.1 acres, and the center will use about one-third of the land for the depot and parking lot. Using gravel instead of asphalt will be better for the environment because if they decide to move around the property, they just have to let the gravel go down into the ground, and the grass will grow over it, he said.
The depot won’t be a conventional brick or wood-frame home. Wilma Maples of Gatlinburg is donating her family’s log home to serve as the depot. “As we speak, we’re taking down a log home in the mountains above Gatlinburg, and that will serve as the depot. What better place, to have a home act as a depot,” Patterson said. “It’s very small, 20 foot by 22 feet. It will serve as the depot and be A.D.A. compliant.”
The center director said there is also a log home that is part of the Hillbilly Hillton property. It serves as an office and has restrooms. “We’re going to renovate the restrooms and turn them into A.D.A. compliant restrooms,” he said.
Patterson said plans are to initially only use one of the Hillbilly Hillton cabins and leave the rest alone. “They’ve been there over 60 years,” he said. “They might tell a story of their own. We’re only taking one and leaving the rest where they are. We’re also looking at not removing any trees to where all we do is grade the area and place the house where it’s sitting in-between trees.”
Because the property owners are working on site, the project planners can’t start renovations and demolition until June. “Right now what we’re doing is we’re getting everything ready. The log home will be put on our property, then we have to grade everything,” he said. “Once we get the green light, we go right to work.”
The funding to buy the vehicles is coming from a private benefactor - Randy Boyd of Townsend. “He’s supporting this himself,” Patterson said.
Maples also is serious about her commitment to the project. “Not only is she donating her log home, but she is paying to have it moved,” Patterson said. “What we’re trying to do is teach respect for the park, and that can be done in a lot of different ways.”
Riders, who will pay a still undetermined fee for the tour, can be taught about the people who lived in the park, their culture and values while riding through the park or Cades Cove. The drivers would be scheduled to go into the park at times when there are routinely fewer vehicles, Patterson said.
“During heavy tourist months, we want to do tours of the cove at other times such as mornings or evenings. We could do other programs using these vehicles in the park,” he said. “We could take a group up to Laurel Falls and have a guide with us. There’s no reason we couldn’t to go to Tremont and talk about the lumber industry. We will have the ability to do different types of programs.”
Patterson said the non-profit group National Park Conservation Association, a watchdog for the National Park Service, approached the center about the project.
The association wanted the center to do the ETV project in Cades Cove with the goal of getting vehicles off the road and helping reduce emissions. “It wasn’t to make it mandatory. It was to start a project that would hopefully be welcomed and that could benefit the public,” Patterson said.
Patterson said the trial could be short-lived if it’s not supported by people who opt to drive in the cove.
“Realistically, Mr. Boyd is the private benefactor. Unless we get funding or a grant, the Heritage Center cannot afford to offset the program from its budget. The Heritage Center is not paying for this.”
Dr. Barry VanWinkle is doing research along with the park for the tour itself.
“Some of the things we’re dealing with are that we want to make sure we have plenty of information because the driver will act as the guide,” Patterson said. “We want to make sure they have enough information so if they get caught in a traffic jam, the driver isn’t just sitting there.”