Just because a place where thousands of people love to vacation has a vibe your family isn’t so sure about, go anyway because behind-the-obvious experiences can open surprising pleasures. This tale of Sevierville, Tennessee proves the point.
Dolly Parton’s hometown is easy to find in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains but I wasn’t so sure how I’d enjoy Sevierville.
Booking three nights in this tourist-loving town in sight of the National Park I wondered if Sevierville might also have another kind of charm beyond the fabled Dollywood, and I found the evidence.
Easy to Meet Long-Time Sevierville Residents
Drop the notion the only people you’ll encounter in Sevierville are other travelers or workers in resorts, shops and restaurants. Head to the Robert A. Tino Gallery for conversations with a savvy couple happy to be living their whole life in the landscapes of East Tennessee.
Their kids are off to college and Mary John and Robert Tino are forever finding ways to help people draw closer to this land. He’s been painting the vistas since he was 12.
“I can paint Sevier County until I die,” Tino says, “and never capture all the colors.” Look at his oils and watercolors and then ask for directions to go to the spot he preserved and experience the beauty again.
That depth of engagement is what I found repeatedly in my behind-the-obvious Sevierville journey.
The first weekend in October of any year is the time to go to the Tino family farm named Sunset View. That’s Smoky Mountain Homecoming and they’re helping preserve storytelling, traditional art forms and the foods of the region: chicken and dumplings, pinto beans and cornbread,and apple fritters.
Connect to History in Specific Ways in Sevierville, Tennessee
Get up close to a recurring theme in Sevierville and neighboring Pigeon Forge: family stories of leaving their mountain homes when the national park was established. 2016 will be the Park’s centennial year.
Mary John’s relatives were among them so her stories are authentic; the house her grandparents bought in 1940 is the art gallery today and features exquisite architectural shapes and woodwork by Lewis Buckner.
Find details about his work in the East Tennessee History Center in Knoxville and find his intricate mantle, corner cupboard, entry table and bookcase in the Tino gallery.
Buckner was a slave who — once free — carried his tools on his back and lived on the site of his detailed woodworking projects. After the Tinos show you their house, you’ll be in the know the next Lewis Buckner house you see.
Leave Dolly’s parkway for the covered bridge
Since it’s the only authentic, original covered bridge still standing in Sevier County, veer off the busy parkway connecting Sevierville attractions and walk through the 1875 Harrisburg Bridge. Won’t take long unless you want to muse awhile about bridge builder Elbert Stephenson or the Umbarger brothers who swapped their farm in Virginia with a family named McNutt and married Sevierville sisters.
Severville has a county historian named Carroll McMahan so the back stories of the people and their history can be found, and tidbits of personal facts and structural detail can come to life on a walking tour.
I kind of liked standing in front of the “House of Tomorrow,” so designated in 1939 during the World’s Fair and now the residence of the granddaughter of those first owners, Dwight and Kate Wade.
Ask about the psychic at Wheatlands Plantation
Tour the 4,600-acre Wheatlands Plantation, dating back to 1825 and enjoy tours of the fully furnished Federal-style home hearing lively stories of the early residents.
Don’t stop at that history, however. Prepare intentionally to understand how likely a spirit encounter can be.
Today’s owners are believers, armed with facts and respect for the spirits who visit.
John Greer Burns III says the main plantation home is built over an enormous geode, perhaps second only to the world’s largest that is in Put-in-Bay, Ohio.To Burns and his partner Richard Parker that means two side portals exist near a staircase and under the couch where spirits are documented to have visited.
The extent of their research, personal experiences, photo library and professional paranormal colleagues suggest to me that signing up for the combo tour is the right thing to do: $17 for the history and paranormal guided visit or $12 for history only. Visit Wheatlands Plantation any Thursday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Find some moonshine
Legal sipping of ‘shine is easy to do at Thunder Road Distillery where Tennessee law allows a maximum tasting of two and-a-half ounces. In tiny cups, that’s 11 different sips. You buy five gallons.
Dwight Bearden has been making corn whiskey, as he calls it, for 53 years and you’re likely to find him tending the copper still at Thunder Road.
Craft cocktail moonshine recipes are provided on business cards and citrus-infused gin is available too, as well as rum and vodka distilled here.
Plenty of reasons for non-drinkers to visit Thunder Road Distillery because the entertaining history wall holds funny quotes from famous people, like this from, Ben Franklin: “In whiskey there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom and in water there is bacteria.” And the distillery traces the facts from 1640 and the first distilling in the nation.
Moonshine making remnants are visible underground in Forbidden Caverns, part of the one-hour walking tour among impressive limestone formations, past a clear gurgling stream and well displayed with LED lighting.
With 50 steps down and nine up, the path is rugged for visitors with mobility and breathing issues.
Moonshiners had to descend a natural tunnel 150-feet down, and back up after a night of making their brew. 1919 through 1943 were the years.
A Century of Beans
Beans have been a staple in Sevier County even longer and the museum outlining that history is lively, interactive, informative and right next door to a café featuring farm-fresh foods as well as Bush’s canned beans.
I like veggie plates but four kinds of beans with my cornbread seemed a bit much so I opted for a pimiento cheese sandwich with pinto bean pecan pie for dessert.
Then I weighed myself in the museum and learned my weight in beans: 117,504.
Silly stuff like that is professionally interspersed with handsome photography and also history panels about the Bush family in business in Sevierville since 1908. The video is like a factory tour.
Actually their mailing address is Dandridge and their community is Chestnut Hill but Sevierville likes to claim them.
Knives and Airplanes
One million knives are more than I could comprehend roaming the massive Smoky Mountain Knife Works. 110,000 square feet to be precise.
Extraordinary experience for me since the only knives I’ve ever owned are in the kitchen. Could have bought some of those as well as medieval fantasy swords or knives with exquisitely carved handles, simple penknives or antiques from the last century.
Need a curved blade khukuri from Nepal? Available here. I fretted as I marveled at the vast collections about why so many people need to own so many knives. Perhaps I don’t know enough hunters or tactical weapon specialists.
My recommendation? Allow several hours because this is an education. Another Sevierville vast space is the Tennessee Museum of Aviation which calls itself a warbird collection.Pilots and veterans would relate personally here and I wished for some during my visit so I could eavesdrop on their memories.
Instead, I plugged in where I had a fit: the helicopter like people I know flew in Vietnam and World War II fighter bomber where I could peer into the tight-fit seats and muse about the men in my parents’ generation.On a lighter note, I recalled my fun as a traveler taking a ride in a bi-plane in central Florida, so looking at the one in this museum brought back happy memories.
Full disclosure regarding my Sevierville research—Dollywood is actually next door in Pigeon Forge but Dolly’s sculpture fills a prominent place in front of the courthouse in her hometown downtown.
She’s perched on a rock hauled specifically for this purpose from the Smoky Mountains.
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