Cosby, Tennessee is a little town tucked between Newport and Gatlinburg in a valley that spans Cocke and Sevier counties at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With a population of around 5,000, Cosby can’t be called a bustling town but it sure does have a lot to offer when visiting Tennessee.
Being part of the Great Smoky Mountains, the area where Cosby is located was used primarily as hunting grounds for the Cherokee. The first European settlers arrived in the valley that is Cocke County around the 1780’s. The first to settle in the Cosby Creek Valley was Samuel Odell. Cocke County was also settled by John Gilliland near the mouth of the Pigeon River, Peter Fine, who established Fine’s Ferry in what, is now Newport and a small group of German immigrants from Pennsylvania who settled in what became known as the Dutch Bottoms area. The influx of settlers of course upset the Cherokee, who saw this as an encroachment on their prime hunting land. The Cherokee harassed the settlers and stole their livestock. Peter Fine’s brother, Vinet, was killed while chasing a band of Cherokee who was raiding their land. There were also reports of scalping during these attacks. To try to deter the Cherokee from attacking, William Whitson built a small for just south of where Cosby Creek empties into the Pigeon River. This fort turned into a small frontier outpost and though the Cherokee raids continued for a time, the Cosby area was mostly peaceful by the early 19th century.
The name of Cosby is a mystery though. There are two stories about how the little town got its name. One story claims the valley is named after a distiller and early trapper that came to the area by the name of Jonathan Cosby, sometimes spelled ‘Cozby’. The other story claims the creek and valley were named after Dr. James Cozby, who was a Revolutionary War veteran and a good friend of John Sevier, who may have made claims for land along the creek. The name Cosby appears as early as 1838 in church records.
Cocke County is like much of Eastern Tennessee in the fact that is was divided between Union and Confederate sides of the American Civil War. And like a lot of mountain communities at the time, Cosby was subject to raids throughout the War, especially from Confederate soldiers crossing over the mountains from North Carolina. Finally, at the mouth of Indian Camp Creek, a “home guard” camp was established to try to stave off these raids. Cosby slowly recovered from the effects of the war. They did benefit from the railroad stations that had been established at Newport and Big Creek in 1867 and the 1870’s. About 20 years later, a lumber mill was established near Hartford, right near the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
By 1900 most residents around the Cosby area were either farmers or worked in the lumber trade. They also added to their income by gathering ginseng, evergreens and mosses. And of course some distilled corn liquor, otherwise known as moonshine. Still, no matter what they did, religion was a large part of life and very important. Most church services were held once a month, in frame buildings. According to some who lived in the area in the 1920’s, the sermons were long and detailed. The preacher would paint detailed images of Heaven and Hell, with Hell being in the forefront and what can happen to those who don’t follow the Golden Rule. Most churches had no piano or organ so the congregation would sing without accompaniment.
Once the railroads were constructed, electricity arrived in the small towns around 1920. Cosby lagged behind though. The Baptist Church Organization established Cosby Academy in 1913 for Cosby’s children to get at least a sampling of instruction in academics. There was a one room school building that sat on stone pillars about four feet off the ground and was only about thirty by fifty feet, according to a resident who attended instruction there. It had a chalkboard that stretched across the back wall. With a pot-bellied stove in the center of the room, a water bucket with tin dipper, six erasers and a broom, the school supply list was complete.
When the Great Depression, many of the sawmills, including the Boice Hardwood Mill at Hartford, shut down, putting even more stress on the community. The farmers had trouble selling their crops and ended up turning to moonshine manufacturing. A lot of the mountain people survived thanks to their hunting skills to put food on the table. Some even ended up having squirrel for breakfast, the man of the house getting up before sunrise to provide for his family. Some of the effects of the Depression were eased when the Civilian Conservation Corps established a camp at what is now Cosby Creek Campground to construct trails for the newly created Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Also the TVA began construction on Douglas Dam on the other side of English Mountain, which put a lot of mountain folk to work.
All of Cosby wasn’t incorporated into the National Park like Cades Cove and the Sugarlands. Though many farmers were glad to sell their land to the government, some families were distraught and having to find a new place to live and a new way of life.
In the first half of the 20th century Cosby was known as ‘The Moonshine Capital of the World’. Some of the older folk remember that when they would travel and give their address as Cosby, they would always end up saying things like ‘yes, they make it there’ when asked about the ‘shine. The chief crop of the Smokies was corn but as more and more land was cleared, the soil grew poorer. So the farmers took to making moonshine and selling it on the side to make ends meet. The deep coves and thick forest was the perfect place for the moonshiners to hide their stills. With the beginning of prohibition, the demand for spirits and moonshine grew and though it was hard to get to the backwoods of the Smokies to get to the supply, Cosby was connected by good roads to Newport and Knoxville, giving it an advantage. Thanks to the demand that moonshiners in Cosby now enjoyed, the War began to cause a sugar shortage. So the farmers, aka moonshiners, took advantage of the government supplement of sugar which went to any farmer who kept beehives. Soon, beehives sprouted up around mountain cabins like weeds.
Since moonshine was beginning to be the number one ‘crop’ in the Cosby area, it soon led to a cat and mouse game between law enforcement and moonshiners. ‘Shiners would warn one another about the revenuers by setting off dynamite. At other times the locals would follow the revenue agent’s car, tailgating them along the winding mountain roads. Outsiders were watched carefully, in case they were connected to the law. Though the moonshine stills were well hidden in the mountains, they couldn’t hide the smoke that rose from the fires or the odor of corn mash fermenting. Being hidden was the secret to being successful so every precaution was taken to conceal the location of the stills. But eventually, competition between moonshiners led to informing on each other just to get the competition’s still shut down, which of course led to violence between rival families. When prohibition was lifted, the market for moonshine lagged. The counties were no longer dry and liquor was readily available. Even though it’s not as common any more, Cosby still has the notoriety of a moonshine mecca.
Cosby’s economy is fueled by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Foothills Parkway. It’s a peaceful, little country town, not like its counterpart city of Newport. Most of the income of Cosby residents comes from tourism, especially from visitors of the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge areas. Cosby has multiple motels, rental cabins and country restaurants for visitors to enjoy while there.
Cosby is also known as ‘Where Mountains Reign and Rivers Roar’. Cosby is just 40 minutes from Gatlinburg, TN and is a hidden gem in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Every spring and fall Cosby celebrates all that this little country town has to offer. The festival is called “On Cosby”. For all of those who like local Smoky Mountain crafts and local authors, you can lose track of your day going booth to booth and checking out all the wares for sale during the festival. But “On Cosby” isn’t just for crafters. You’ll find local politicians and nonprofit groups set up to discuss issues that you may be interested in. And don’t forget about the local culinary offerings where you can get a taste for the mountains. Besides being a wonderful local festival, it’s all set against the backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains.
On Cosby is the festival to attend in this area. There are normally over 50 vendors each year and there are both traditional mountain crafts along with some things that may surprise you and are new to most folks. Booths will still be loaded with quilts, bears and log cabin décor that are best sellers. You’ll also find hillbilly wine glasses and paintings on old barn siding, both favorites. The craftsmen at On Cosby are extremely talented and it shows in the detail and work they put into their wares. Things you may see as trash and toss out become wondrously creative things in the hands of one of these imaginative crafters. It is true that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. There’s even been local authors attending, selling signed copies of their books that are related to the Great Smoky Mountains.
Since it is a small town festival, all of the locals usually make an appearance, including politicians and charities. Located normally in the back booths you can shake hands with the politicians, listen to the non-profit groups promoting their agencies, and even find Girl Scouts selling cookies and cupcakes, which are always great to have handy for a snack. You might even find the folks who work for the Appalachian Bear Rescue and learn about what they do for the bears in the region. The whole time people are talking about the issues, gaining signatures for petitions and recruiting volunteers for their cause, people are eating and entertainment continues going on.
And when speaking of entertainment, the main stage is directly in the center of the festival. Over the three days the festival runs you’ll hear more bluegrass and gospel played on this stage than anywhere else. The bands always draw a good sized crowd and people are quick to cheer on their favorite singer or band.
Also, since Cosby is favored as the moonshine capitol of the Smokies, do stop at the moonshine exhibit and learn about how the title came to be and also learn about distilling moonshine.
The front row of the festival is usually lined with food tents and booths, the delicious aromas from the vendors overcoming you as you enter the festival, enticing you to taste and enjoy all they have to offer. You can pick up a snack or even a full meal if you like. Walk through the booths and tents to see just what makes your mouth water, some of them with smoke and delicious aromas wafting from them. You can find the buttery fragrance of popcorn, the sugary scent of cotton candy and the sound of children vying for a place in line to get some homemade ice cream. You’ll also smell BBQ awesome enough to make your mouth water and you won’t be able to help yourself from buying just a bite or two or three.
On Cosby is a great festival, to be enjoyed by all where you can sit and relax or dance to the bluegrass. Bring the family and the kids and have a great time.
But the festival is not all Cosby has to offer. You’ll find restaurants and sights to see along with local craftsmen to visit. Be sure to visit this hidden gem in the Great Smoky Mountains.