Tales of Tremont

Roy Oliver pens his memories of his mountain playground

Roy Oliver will sign and sell his book at Townsend Days at the Townsend Heritage Festival at the Townsend Visitors Center.

Photo by Leslie Karnowski

Roy Oliver will sign and sell his book at Townsend Days at the Townsend Heritage Festival at the Townsend Visitors Center.

Roy Oliver knows something about time.

The living-room walls in his Maryville home are covered with cuckoo clocks and nostalgic family photographs. But it’s what’s in his head -- and now on the page -- that confirms Oliver’s grasp of the sands through the hourglass.

Oliver, 81, has gathered his recollections into “The Last Man From Tremont: A Memoir of My Boyhood in the Great Smoky Mountains.” He will sell and sign copies of his book Friday and Saturday at the Townsend Heritage Festival at the Townsend Visitors Center. (People also can contact him at 865-984-3466 to buy a book.)

Oliver writes about life in the Great Smoky Mountains before Congress chartered the national park in 1934, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially dedicated it in 1940. It took him about a year to complete the book.

“I can still remember it just like it was yesterday, how it was up there,” he says. “There’s one thing that’s still there that was there when we were -- that’s that water spigot that comes out of the mountain.

“It’s a pipe that runs out of some rocks there. That’s good water. That’s where we got our drinking water.”

Born at Little Greenbrier, Oliver moved with his family to the Tremont camp owned by the Little River Railroad and Lumber Co. when he was 2, and his father, Cary C. Oliver, went to work as a timber cutter. The Olivers were the last family to leave Tremont after plans for the park put a stop to lumber operations.

“They started logging up there in 1926,” he says. “The last load of logs went out of there in December 1938, and the last log that they sawed at the sawmill in Townsend was June 1939.”

Oliver, who’ll turn 82 in December, was 10 when his family was forced to leave.

“I didn’t like it one bit,” he says. “I didn’t want to move. I loved it up there. I’d get up there and play on the mountains, run into bears, panthers, wild boars, snakes.

“It didn’t bother me one bit. I just played on the mountain.”

Oliver never worried about the animals he might encounter.

“I would steal Dad’s gun when I was little,” he says. “If they got too close to me, I’d shoot, scare ‘em off. That shotgun, it kicked me down.”

Today, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. But when Oliver was a boy, he thought of the natural splendor around him as his personal playground.

“I roamed the mountains when I was just a little ol’ bitty tot,” he says. “I swang from one treetop to another one.

“The mountain was right in front of us, and the river was right behind us. And I was either up on the mountains or in the river. I could swim like a fish at 4 years old.”

Oliver was the fourth of seven children. First child Robert Wesley died soon after birth. Oliver grew up with older sisters Margie and Edith and younger siblings Gladys, Junior and Donald.

The Tremont settlement boasted about 1,000 residents and included dwellings, a school, a store, a doctor’s office, a hydroelectric plant and the Tremont Hotel.

The Olivers lived in a “set-off house,” made like a boxcar with sections 10 feet wide and 12 feet long set end to end.

“It’d depend on how big the family was how many sections you got,” he says. “We had three sections. One was the kitchen, one was a living room and one was a bedroom.”

When a raging fire threatened Tremont homes, the family had to stay at the hotel for three days.

“We had a mattress to sleep on, running water,” says Oliver, noting that he was used to a straw mattress and trips to the spigot.

He says he enjoyed his no-frills boyhood.

“Kids today get automobiles,” he says. “All I had was an old wooden wagon I made up there with wooden wheels. I’d take it with me when I was on the mountains.

“A lot of kids today couldn’t go through what we did.”

Oliver’s father worked six days a week and didn’t rest on the seventh. He was the pastor at three or four churches, preaching at each on alternate Sundays.

“My mother (Ida Stinnett Oliver) made me go with him because she said I was too mean, that she couldn’t keep up with me,” says Oliver.

After leaving Tremont, the family moved to Knoxville and then to Townsend. At 17, Oliver went into the U.S. Army during World War II and was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, for two years. When he returned, he finished his education at Knoxville Business College. He became a building contractor but also followed in his father’s footsteps.

“I turned out to be a minister,” he says. “I pastored four churches (in Maryville) and had three radio broadcasts.”

He retired in 1993 after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

“After cancer got me, that knocked me back, and I haven’t done much since,” he says.

Oliver and his wife of 64 years, Emma, have five children, 12 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. He volunteers at the Little River Railroad and Lumber Co. Museum and the Townsend Visitors Center. He works as a guide on bus tours.

“I can tell where every house was, although you drive up through there, and it just looks like a wilderness,” he says.

More than 70 years later, he’s at peace with the decision that kicked him out of his paradise and created a national park.

“It’s free, and anybody can go,” he says. “It’s for all people. They can go in there and look, camp, walk around. There’s still a lot of people that go up there to Tremont.”

“The mountains, that’s God’s wonderful works, his handiwork. To me, that is a treasure God gave us.”

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