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The Rich, Bountiful History of Cades Cove

Posted by on May 24, 2017

History of Cades Cove

Cades Cove has been part of history far longer than anyone can remember.  For centuries, Cherokee Indians and others hunted in Cades Cove, though there aren’t nearly as many signs of their life as there are of the white settlers who followed the Indians to the Cove.  The rich history of their life there is abundant: buildings, roads, apple trees, fences, daffodils, and footpaths.  Cades Cove acts as a museum, preserving some of the material culture of those who lived there.

The eleven mile Cades Cove loop follows many of the paths set by the old wagon roads that have formed many small streams.  Along this trail, you can see the abundant wildlife: deer, wild turkey, and even groundhogs in the summer.  When you’re taking a walk through Caves Cove, take the time to go carefully and observantly.  Immerse yourself in another time and place; a place vastly different from how we live our lives today.  See the sights, hear the sounds, feel the rocky paths rise and fall under your feet. Let yourself get carried into another world: see the Cove as the old-timers did; solving problems with your hands and mind, relishing in common sense, and becoming part of the land in which they lived.

John P Cable Grist mill in Cades CoveEarly Settlement

In 1819, settlers entered Cades Cove legally after an Indian treaty transferred the land to the State of Tennessee. Year after year, they funneled into the gaps, driven either by their pasts, or simply looking to their futures. They spilled over the grounds, and up to the slopes.  Most of them traced their way down the migration route from Virginia into East Tennessee (what we now know as Interstate 81). Tuckaleechee was the last supply point before the settlers leaped in Cades Cove. A few years later, the pioneers began moving directly over the mountains from North Carolina, equipped with personal belongings, tools, and the skills of an Old World Culture, enriched with what they’d learned from the Indians.

From the beginning of their settlement in Cades Cove, the people did not simply enter and disappear from the world.  They kept up communications through newspapers, mail service, circuit riding preachers, and their trading trips to Tuckaleechee, Maryville, and Knoxville. They participated in wars. They attended church and school, and even college if they could afford it. A resident physician was there most of the time from the 1830s on. 

In 1896 there were telephones in several cabins in Cades Cove.

The Rural Lifestyle

Like many of the rural lifestyles in Eastern America in the nineteenth century, household work and labor was divided up based on age and gender.  Men were the ones who built log cabins in Cades Cove,  and produced food, fuel, and raw materials for many things such as clothing.  Women cooked, cleaned, kept house, and processed things the husband produced.  Children and the elderly were the ones who took care of the smaller details when and where they could. It was not unusual for ten to twelve people to live under one roof, splitting responsibilities and making sure everyone was taken care of in the Cades Cove lodging. Homes were essentially self-contained economic units.  Community was an important part of life for the settlers.  It served as extension of the household by marriage, custom, and necessity, providing a partnership of households.  The community was viewed as democratic: there were very few instants of wealthy or poverty, with no defined social classes.  Family gatherings, work, and funerals were a community affair.  Law enforcement was a simple, personal thing: Justice of the Peace acted on common sense, based on common law.

When Cades Cove was initially purchased from the Indians, settlers did not just wander in, amazed by the beauty of the land with the intention of settling there. The land was owned by speculators who purchased it from the state.  Settlers bought it from them, allowing them to make money off the rich and beautiful land.  Because of this, Cades Cove was a typical rural land with a collection of people who were more interested in their own desires than that of a common purpose.  Families chose land that was both available and affordable, allowing the Cove to grow without a fixed plan.

The Way of Life for Settlers

The buildings of Cades Cove tell us a vibrant story, if we only listen to them. They reflect the needs, skills, and wealth of the owners who once lived in these log cabins of Cades Cove.  Today, we are spoiled: our homes hold all the necessities, such as refridgerators, stoves, pantries, bedrooms, and garages.  We build our homes out of any material, in any style. The original Cades Coves historic cabins were much different.  There were entire buildings dedicated for one purpose.  There were smokehouses and corn cribs that stood in the way of starvation. The springhouse kept food cold.  The kitchen often served as its own building, and there were barns that sheltered livestock from the sharp winter weather.

The location of these historic log cabins is very important.  The houses face west, allowing the southern shoulder to prevail against the winter winds and the summer heat.  There are many cabins that look as though they were built in a hurry, and there are many cabins where it is clear that more time and effort was spent on them.  Can you tell the difference?  There are so many little things that paint a story: peg holes on the porch show that a weaver lived there. Smoke from thousands of fires still mark the kitchen walls.  Run your fingertips across the smooth mud chinking that provides rough textures to the logs.  In the chimneys, you’ll see where the bees have made a home.  In the winter, the springs are so cold that you could crack your teeth.

Starting a fresh life here was mostly the same for everyone.  The east end of the Cove was settled first, as it was higher and drier than the swampy lower end.  Giant trees were cleared, crops were planted, and eventually the trees were rolled into piles and burnt. Orchards and other permanent fields were planted on the new ground. Farmers reserved the flat lands for corn, wheat, oats, and rye. Homes were built on the central basin, and pastures and woodlots were on the slopes. Fruits and vegetables such as apples, peaches, peas, and potatoes were soften substituted with wild greens and berries.  Meat was plentiful; cattle crazed in the summer high above Cades Cove while the deer, bears, wild turkeys, and domesticated hogs ranged the woods.

Initially round logs were scored along their length with a felling axe, then hewn with a broad axe.  The notched corners had no use for pegs or nails, as gravity worked to lock them together.  Chinks were filled with mud to seal out rain and wind.  Stone chimneys were laid in mud, and windows and doors were usually small, so they could converse heat. Split wood things covered many of the roofs.  The materials to build this house were growing and laying all around, ready for someone to pick them up.  If you had to build a shelter, could you duplicate the original Cades Cove historic cabins?

In 1850, the population peaked at 685.  With the new states opening up in the west, many families abandoned the area in search of more fertile frontiers. By 1860, only 269 people remained. Slowly, those numbers rose again to just around 500. This was before the park was established in the 1920s.

The Churches of Cades Cove

The primitive Baptist Church was established in 1827 and served their needs for over sixty years.  During the Civil War, turmoil shut the church down, proving that Cades Cove was not completely immune from outside influences.  The official word from the time period states:  ‘We, the Primitive Baptist Church in Blount County in Cades Cove, do show the public why we have not kept up our church meeting. It was on account of the Rebellion and we was the Union people and the Rebels was too strong here in Cades Cove.  Our preacher was obligated to leave sometimes, and thank God we once more can meet.’

The Methodist Church was organized in the 1820s with services held in a log cabin in Cades Cove until 1902.  There were not as many Methodists in the area as Baptists, and they often depended on a circuit riding preacher.  Another church, Hopewell Methodist, is marked only by a cemetery today.  For many years, J.D. McCampbell worked as a preacher for this church after building in 115 days for $115!  The church was another example of the differences between genders: men entered through the right door, and the women and children entered through the left.

Another church, the Missionary Baptist Church, formed in Cades Cove in 1839 by members of the Primitive Baptist Church, who were dismissed because they favored missionary work.  This was something that Baptists everywhere had to deal with throughout the entire nation.

The Prominent Roads of Cades Cove

The North-South lane crosses Cades Cove, and was part of a family-to-family road system that was created around the 1840s. It serves as a short cut back to the campground or even out of the Cove itself. The Olivers bought land in the Cove in 1826 and their Cades Cove lodging  remained in the family until the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created. This home is typical of many found on eastern frontier.

Hyatt Lane is a road that crosses the Cove and joined the Cades Cove Road (now known as the Rich Mountain Road).  It serves as a direct route out of the Cove from the south for those going to Tuckaleechee and Maryville.  It can be used as a shortcut out of the Cove.  Cades Cove Road was an Indian trail that served as the first route into the Cove for many settlers. It served for nearly one hundred years as the main road to Tuckaleeechee. The state built the present road in 1920.  It is twelve miles long, and leads to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The view is phenomenal, giving you glimpses of the entirety of Cades Cove.

Another road built from a trail is Copper Road Trail, built into a wagon trail by Joe Cooper. It was built to Maryville in the 1830s.   Today it is a ten-mile foot trail near the Foothills Parkway.   If you look closely, you can still see the ruts and groves of even more roads throughout the Cove.

The Cades Cove Visitor Center and Sights to See

The Cades Cove Visitor Center is open daily during the summer and fall: usually from around the middle of April all throughout October.  The visitor center has it’s own rich history:  it was constructed in 1972 and unlike many of the Cades Cove cabins, it is not a historical structure.  However, there are employees there that will provide information on the wonders of Cades Cove and assist in emergencies. Their exhibits include references to the rural life in the mountains around 1900.  You can see interpretive literature, post cards, films, maps, and more.

Blacksmith Shop:

Iron was very important to the pioneers’ way of life.  The blacksmith, master of this ore, was an important figure in most communities.  His hammer created many tools essential to the settlers’ lives: axes, adzes, drawknives, bolts and bits, chains and hooks, the bull tongue plow, and the wagon tire.  He also repaired the bits of pieces damaged by the environment. 

Cantilever Barn:

One of the common things to see in Cades Coves are the large barns.  They held both transient and resident livestock that was essential to the settlers’ survival.  The loft of the Cantilever Barn held many tons of hay and fodder.  The large overhang protected many animals and farm equipment.  Cantilever construction (counterweighted overhanging beams) was a commonly used speciality in East Tennessee, though it was initially found in Europe, centuries beforehand.  Support posts have been added to provide extra safety to guests of the Cades Cove visitor center.

Mill Race and Dam:

There is a path the leads past a ditch full of water to the mill dam.  John Cable linked Forge and Mill Creeks with a diversion canal to make sure his mill had adequate water. He impounded the water with a long and lumber dam.  This way, the water will leave the pond through a water gate, run through the earth, and into the wooden flume.  The flume then dumps it onto the waterwheel to provide power for the mill.

John Cable Mill:

Corn was an essential part of life for the pioneers. It is a native American plant, and it’s grain, stalks, and foliage served as food for both men and animals.  Corn is a vegetable that grows with minimal attention, and in rough conditions.  It was used for many foods, including bread, mush, grits, hominy.  Sometimes, it was even used to create a potent beverage!

In the Smokies, tub mills were all the rage, but could only grind around a bushel of corn a day.  Since it had to be ground into meal, this was quite the inconvenience.  So when the need and environment were in the right conditions, a large mill powered by the waterwheel was built and became an important aspect of the community.  It could grind much more corn than the tub mill.

Typically millers were also farmers, and John Cable was no exception to this rule.  His mill was not the first in Cades Cove: by 1870  the population was large enough to support many of these large mills.  A large bell acted as a call to the miller to might be in the orchards or fields. It was mounted atop a pole in the mill. Jim Cable, John’s son, operated the mill well into the twentieth century. The millstones, some of the gears, and the main framing of the structure are all original. Other portions have been replaced and fixed a few times.


Cades Coves people follow the traditions of most mountain people and ate mostly pork. Bear, deer, and turkey were always welcome and appreciated, but difficult to preserve for long periods of times. Pork became ham, bacon, jowl, sausage, and other foods.  It was kept in the meat house.  It could be smoked over ra slow fire, or cured with salt and spices.

Gregg-Cable House:

Leason Gregg built the first framed house in Cades Cove in 1879.  It served as a store, boarding house, and private resident.  Becky Cable, John P.’s daughter, eventually bought the house and lived it until she died in 1940.  She helped manage the store, helped farm the land, and cared for the orphaned children of her brother.  Old store records show a large array of seedstock: beans, peas, cabbages, turnips, beets, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, and more.   Bird houses near the garden brought in creatures that controlled insects.

The framed house is a dwelling most people aspired to have. When they were able to build them, old Cades Cove log cabins were turned into barns and storage buildings.  By the twentieth century, framed houses finally outnumbered the log cabins in Cades Cove.  However, since they were relatively new in the 1930s, the park did not preserve them.

The yarn and gardens were fenced to keep domestic animals and rodents out of the flowers, herbs and spices, and medicinal plants. The yard was routinely scraped of grass so as to give children a place to play where they didn’t have to worry about snakes or lawn mowers. 

In the chimney corner of the Gregg-Cable house  is an ash hopper.  Wood ashes from the stove and fireplace were stored until they were dry enough for soap making.  Waster poured through the ashes leaved out of the lye, which was then boiled into animal fat.  Cooled and cut into squares, it would clean most things.

Corn Crib:

Corn cribs were necessities on every mountain farms.  The entire year’s supply of corn was brought in from the field and put into the crib through a high hatch above the wagon.  Smaller portions came through the little front door.  Still on the cob and in the shuck, it would air dry enough to be ground into meal, chicken feed, and food for the livestock.  Corn cribs were mostly long and narrow with spaces between the logs left open.  This would provide air circulation and enhance the drying. Some, but not all, cribs had plunder sheds: a place to protect tools and vehicles from harsh weather.


Farms often had more than one barn, especially if more than one generation of family lived there.  The drive-through design of this specific barn provided a place for farm equipment and livestock. Milk cows and draft animals lived in the stalls so as to be close when they were needed.

Sorghum Mill:

Honey was a a popular sweetener, but sorghum molasses was also quite common.  The can stalks, after being stripped of their leaves, were fed into the horse-drawn mill.  This squeezed the juice out, which was then boiled into molasses over the nearby furnace.  The sorghum mill is an interest contract to Cable Mill.  The farmer had two energy sources: water power and animal power.  One was strong but stationary.  The other was moveable but somewhat weak.  Both served will into this century.

More Places to Visit

Henry Whitehead Home:

The ultimate Cades Cove log cabin was built in 1898.  From laws sawn square at a nearby mill, a tight-fitting crib was built with very little spaces left to chink. The corners are nearly perfect.  Most of the interior log faces, ceiling joints, and boards were dressed with a hand plane.  How much work went into creating this smoothness?  The wall facing the wind was weatherboarded to keep out harsh weather and to perceive the little chinking. A brick chimney, rare for the Smoky Mountains, was made out of bric molded and fired on the property.  This is considered a transition house: a beautiful blend of log work and sawmill technology.

In contrast, the older cabin was built almost entirely with a felling axe under intense need.  Rough-hewn logs with jagged ends, and the rubble stone chimney show the most hasty kind of construction.  This pair of historical log cabins showcase both the roughest and finest of the log structures in the Smoky Mountains.

Dan Lawson Place:

Most sources agree that Dan Lawson built his house in 1856 on land he bought from his father in law, Peter Cable.  The older man shared in the work, as he was known to have been a great carpenter. Lawson expanded the home from time to time as he acquired additional properties. At one point, he even owned a solid strip of land from the state line on the ridge behind the house, across the center of the Cove, to the top of the mountains in front.

Some of the best blade work in the Park can be seen in this house.  The inside faces of the logs were hewn smooth was an adze, and the ceiling joints were dressed and beaded with a planer.  Chinks are beveled poplar boards, and filled outside with brick y and clay.

The brick chimney is most unusual for the time and place.  A hole was dug into a nearby clay bank and filled somewhat with water. T he mixture worked to proper consistency and a hoe or padded, then placed into molds to dry.  The bricks were then stacked and fired. After cooling, they were ready to use. 

The small outbuildings of the Dan Lawson’s place were the family pantry.  The closest one to the house is a granary, and the other one served as a smokehouse.  Granaries were usually quite rare, as not much was grown here.

Tipton Place:

Hamp Timpton built his house a few years after the Civl war.  In 1878, James McCaulley lived there until he built his own house.  The Maryville Index cheered his arrival on Cades Cove, as he was a blacksmith.  They believed his ironworking skills would supply a great want of the community.  This explains why the blacksmith shop is in the hollow beside the house.

The long shed on the opposite side of the house is either an apiary or bee gum stand.  Honey was common, and also used as a money crop for several farmers.  The apiary sheltered the hives from the weather but not from bears.  The smokehouse in the front year held the winter’s supply of meat, and the woodshed provided a sheltered place for firewood.  There is also a double pen corn crib that has a driveway through the center.  Behind the corn crib stands an imitation cantilever barn. It was built in 1968, similar to the original.

Your Journey Almost Ended

Taking a tour during the Cades Cove hours with the visitor center is more than just a simple get away.  It’s an adventure to remember for the rest of your life.  You’ll see the finest collection of log homes in the country, and many of the tools and trappings of an organic, fresh society.  They tell you a lot about the people who lived there, but not all.

You might not have noticed much evidence of extraneous finery, for this was a society of limited supply and minimal waste.  However, aesthetics were not that uncommon or under appreciated.  Men found beauty in well-shaped axe handles, whereas women poured their art into quilts and coverlets.  These things were necessities, but the beauty they put into it was all their own choice.  Design and function melded together as they put their hearts into their crafts.

Cades Cove has always been filled with a sense of community.  For over a century, life in the Cove proceeded at a walk rather than a run.  This allowed the time to truly appreciate the world the pioneers lived in.  Cowbells in the pasture, the almost-silent matter of a horse drawn mowing machine, the sharp winds, and the beautiful sunsets.  Knowing and caring about your neighbor was a part of that life.  Deaths in communities brought people together quickly.  One man might make the coffin, another might line it with cloth, while more dug the grave. Working together allowed people to be put to rest in less than twenty-four hours.

A house raising was another common effort by the community.  One person could hardly lift and lay logs alone.  When all materials were ready, neighbors put everything together to create a building properly and quickly.  These and other qualities of our ancestral society cannot be put on display.  They can only be understood through supreme contemplation.  We leave this little cabin to your imagination.  Rebuild it, refurnish it, and repopulate it in your own mind, and let it speak to you, however it will.

If you missed something in the tour, take Sparks Lane to start at the beginning.  You won’t regret it.

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