History of Gatlinburg - Photo by Brandon Shea

Gatlinburg: The History of a Smoky Mountains Paradise

Did you know that Gatlinburg was once called the “land of paradise?”  And it’s not just because it’s the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Taking a look around when you come here for your Smoky Mountains getaway, you might share that same sentiment with William Ogle, who (along with his strong-willed family) could be credited with establishing the town you see today.

Before Ogle discovered his new home, Cherokee and Europeans had migrated here for centuries for the plentiful hunting and game.

13139217393 15e7504cee z

The founding family of Gatlinburg

Ogle was a 19th-century South Carolinian who wished to bring his large family of seven children to the remote beautiful valley with the imposing mountains, numerous creeks, and abundant forests. Chopping and notching the logs to construct their cabin, he then returned home to bring them to eastern Tennessee.

Sadly, Ogle wouldn’t live to see his dream realized, because he likely contracted malaria and died shortly thereafter. But his widow Martha Jane, as a way to honor her husband’s wishes, still moved the entire clan to the Smokies foothills. The group included her daughter and son-in-law and her brother’s family, as well as all the kids.

They established a settlement called White Oak Flats, named after the trees that blanketed the landscape. Thanks to land grants given by the North Carolina state government, Revolutionary War veterans moved to the new community.

In the years following their move, the family also began what would become a permanent legacy. Noah Ogle established the first mercantile in town in 1850, which was then taken over by his descendants for the next three generations. E.E. Ogle and Company, which was torn down in the 1970s, sold pretty much everything, expanding every so often to accommodate it all. At one time, it even housed the local post office – until a man for whom the town is named camp on the scene.

The notorious Mr. Gatlin

Radford Gatlin, a preacher with a colorful personality, moved into White Oak Flats in 1854 and constructed the community’s second general store as well the new post office.  This gave Gatlin the reason to change the town’s name to Gatlinburg.

But he didn’t do much to ingratiate himself into his new surroundings.  In fact, the Ogles didn’t like him much, probably for taking business away from them.  Gatlin also established his own branch of the Baptist church, which drew people away from the White Oak Flats Baptist Church, the first house of worship in the area.

Perhaps the biggest offense that Gatlin committed was being a vocal supporter of the Confederacy during the Civil War.  Even with Tennessee seceding with other Southern states from the U.S., most people in Gatlinburg were pro-Union.  Eventually, the townspeople asked him to leave the area sometime in the early 1860s, probably because he was causing a lot of trouble and discord.

For someone who stayed a relatively short time here, Radford Gatlin will forever be remembered with the town’s name, controversy or not.

The heritage and art center of the Smoky Mountains

Formal education still wasn’t common in the early 20th century in Gatlinburg.  That changed when members of the Phi Beta Phi fraternity worked to bring public education to the area, especially to the underprivileged, in 1912.

Along with teaching academic skills, the schools helped citizens rediscover their rich Appalachian heritage.  Folk art, handicrafts, and local music became areas of study for the community.  Soon afterward, the community established the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, which continues to offer classes, workshops, residencies, conferences, and other programs to carry on this tradition.

You can also see evidence of Gatlinburg’s tradition with the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, the blocks-long downtown loop that features artisans of all kinds, year-round.

Photo of Gatlinburg TN by Derek via Flickr.

Similar Posts