Smoky Mountain memories

Celebration of 75 years is time to think back on life and majesty of the Smokies

Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, welcomes another day at sunrise on Aug. 27. The park is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Photo by Adam Brimer

Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, welcomes another day at sunrise on Aug. 27. The park is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe blesses the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in rededication ceremonies on Wednesday at Newfound Gap. At right is Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson.

Photo by Adam Brimer

Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe blesses the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in rededication ceremonies on Wednesday at Newfound Gap. At right is Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson.

Bobby Conley remembers rumbling over the mountain in the back of a pickup truck the first time he came to Newfound Gap for the dedication of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Wednesday, he did it again, but this time it was not in the bed of a truck, and it was with three generations of his descendants.

Conley, 81, was able to sit with the VIPs in a special section during the program that featured speech-giving politicians and a song or two from the Smoky Mountains’ sweetheart, Dolly Parton, came to her Tennessee mountain home for the event.

With Conley on Wednesday were his daughter, Teresa Buchanan, his granddaughter, Crystal Conley, and his great-granddaughter, Brooke Sanders, who is 2.

The whole thing was a little too much for Brooke, who took off her movie-star sunglasses even before the program began and settled down for a nap on her grandma’s shoulder.

Bobby Conley said he came to the site when President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park all those years ago with an aunt and uncle who managed to hold their marriage together even though she was a Democrat and he was a Republican.

Conley remembers seeing FDR carried up the stairs “and that was the first time we knew he couldn’t walk.”

Gaylon Wilson said he, too, was at the 1940 FDR dedication, and so was his wife, Bobbye, though they did not know each other then.

They met in 1943 - Dec. 28, Gaylon remembers the day - more than three years after Roosevelt’s speech, and now they have been married more than six decades.

Bobbye Wilson’s mother was the secretary to W.B. Townsend, who founded the Little River Railroad and Lumber Co., which had logged much of what is now the national park. A town in Tuckaleechee Cove now bears the man’s name.

The 81-year-old woman can recall riding the No. 2147 engine that now stands outside the Little River Railroad and Lumber Co. Museum, on which her uncle, Woody Dew, served as engineer.

Gaylon Wilson’s parents brought him to Newfound Gap because “Dad thought FDR hung the moon. He would have come if he had had to come through fire” to get there.

Janis Cunningham, wife of Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham, says she has a special affinity for the park, not just because she married a man whose ancestors lived in Cades Cove, but because her father, Tom Kleppe, served as Secretary of the Interior during President Gerald Ford’s administration.

In that capacity, he oversaw all national parks.

Janis Cunningham said her father, a horse fancier like the Cunninghams, used to come to East Tennessee to visit, and the three would go on rides in the park - with a Secret Service agent tagging along.

The Kleppe family was from Bismarck, N.D., and Tom Kleppe was a congressman who was later selected to head the Small Business Administration by President Richard Nixon.

Ruth Davis and her sister, Kay McMahan, grew up in Cades Cove, having lived in a house near the Dan Lawson cabin.

As a matter of fact, both lived there until they married, Davis at 19 in 1965 and McMahan at 21 in 1971.

Davis remembers it as being “peaceful, isolated.”

McMahan said she was always gratified when school started in the fall because it meant their hard work harvesting hay from the fields and honey from their bees was over.

They went to the old Townsend High School, which no longer exists.

Ron Hicks is not a native of East Tennessee, but he was on hand Wednesday conducting the combined bands of Gatlinburg-Pittman and Swain County, N.C., high schools.

Following the young peoples’ precision performance, he said his wife had moved to the area when a child, and he has been here since 1974.

Hicks said he had gone over the significance of the day with his young musicians, telling them they will be telling their children how they played music at Newfound Gap when the park’s 75th anniversary was celebrated.

“Some of the kids may not realize (the significance) until afterwards,” he said, “until they get older.”

Iva Ownby, 86, says she has lived all over the area, including in communities known as Cherokee Orchard and Henry Branch, which are now within the park’s boundaries.

She said she was in Sevierville when Roosevelt came to the park dedication, and she remembers standing on the sidewalk watching the president riding through town in an open car, tipping his hat.

Ownby is a descendant of the Ogle family, one of the oldest families in the area. She was accompanied Wednesday by her niece, Pamela Rodgers.

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