Summer is near and that means we are knee deep in festival season here in Northeast Tennessee.
Many of these events feature the natural beauty of the Appalachian Highlands and the rich heritage of the Scots/Irish who first settled the region.
Growing up in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, I remember what a thrill is was to head to the mountains for day trip or a short family vacation. It was a refreshing break from the sultry summer days treading the brown clay of Catawba and Lincoln counties of my boyhood.
These trips yielded many plastic beads, feathered headdresses and toy tomahawks from the roadside attractions in and around Cherokee. Hard candies, taffy and chocolates were also trophies brought home from our expeditions.
I recall marveling at the gravitational wonderment at Mystery Hill in Blowing Rock. I was disappointed a few years later when my high school science teacher ruined the experience by blurting out (spoiler alert) it was just an optical illusion.
We sometimes ventured farther west, giving a young boy the type of exhilaration that only an explorer like Daniel Boone could relate to. One such trip landed us deep in the Smoky Mountains at a place that folks today will know as Dollywood.
Then it was Silver Dollar City and by my family’s accounting, it was dollar-for-dollar the best value for a theme park in the world. Blacksmith shops, craft exhibits and breath-taking rides all for half the cost of Disney World and with no long waits.
I remember we enjoyed the Spinning Bucket, even though my younger brother (who was prone to motion sickness) lost his Cotton Candy.
A lot of these attractions and theme parks were detailed in book I recall making its way into our newsroom more than a decade ago.
“The land of the Smokies: Great Mountain Memories,” by Tim Hollis fondly recalled the days when a visit to places such as Santa Land, Silver Dollar City and Land of Oz was a magical journey into the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.
Some of these attractions might be considered quaint and a bit cheesy by today’s standards. Even so, I recall the excitement I felt as a little boy peering into the castle of the sleeping giant at Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock, N.C.
(This so-called giant was really a large mannequin whose recorded snores sounded very real to the ears of a 6-year-old.)
I also remember playing miniature golf in Pigeon Forge, ducking during the gunfight on the streets of Ghost Town in the Sky in Maggie Valley, N.C., and finally being able to “see” Rock City in Chattanooga.
In his book, Hollis traced the development and eventual demise of many of the mountain tourist attractions that we baby boomers enjoyed in our youth. He also explains how enticing TV ads geared to children made venues like Tweetsie and Ghost Town favorite destinations for many families.
I wonder how many who are reading this remember Fred Kirby, the singing cowboy and longtime keeper of the peace in Tweetsie Town? His weekly TV show on WBTV in Charlotte (“Fred Kirby’s Little Rascals”) made Tweetsie Railroad the beloved theme park it remains today.
Some of the wonderful attractions detailed in “The Land of the Smokies” no longer exist. Others have changed greatly with the times.
Hollis also devoted several chapters in his book to the natural wonders of the Smokies, such as Grandfather Mountain, where generations of children enjoyed crossing the mile-high swinging bridge and spending time with Mildred the Bear and her cubs.
Sadly, Hollis writes that when Mildred was found dead of old age in 1993, what was left of the glory days of the Southern Appalachian tourist industry died with her.
Here in Tennessee, places like Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Lookout Mountain continue to draw visitors from all over the world. Today, many of the tourists come to enjoy the natural beauty of the mountains and streams.
There also is something to be said of hospitality of the people of the region.
“… at the end of the day, the Land of the Smokies really does not seem to require any advertising at all,” Hollis writes at the close of his book. “After all, it has been building a reputation and good will for at least a century — even longer in some spots.”
And the welcome mat is still out.