Margaret Brown, The Wild East: A Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000).
This weekend, I finished reading Margaret Brown’s, The Wild East, an environmental history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I am sort of embarrassed that this book has been off my radar until my dissertation proposal defense back in April. Several people have mentioned it to me since then and my guilt for not reading it steadily mounted.
Reading this book was definitely a humbling experience. Brown masterfully described the pre-park landscape and subsequent development of the national park all the way until the late-1990s. (She published this work in 2000). She talked about how park boosters and planners manufactured a wilderness out of an area that had been heavily occupied. They appropriated ideas from western national parks about what they thought a national park should be as they crafted the first eastern national park. For example, the popularity of horseback riding concessions in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is drawn from favorite visitor attractions at national parks in the west.
My chest grew tense when I first picked up the volume fearing that Brown had already accomplished what I am hoping to explore in my dissertation on Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Those feelings of self-doubt began to subside when I reminded myself that a) Brown worked on this project for ten years, and b) she’s an environmental historian. I have been working on my Cumberland Gap research nowhere near as long. Also, I am not an environmental historian, and I am not trying to write an environmental history. I am, however, trying to weave the environmental story with changing ideas of social reform and historic preservation at Cumberland Gap. My story of Great Smoky Mountains would be a good bit different that Brown’s.
Brown’s work is an excellent point of comparison for Cumberland Gap, though. Park boosters in the Tri-State area were looking at the Great Smoky Mountains as a model for developing Cumberland Gap. However, they saw both the scenic and historical value of the area, which set it apart from its predecessor. Similarly, the states widely used condemnation to acquire parklands, although Cumberland Gap did not displace nearly as many people as those communities entirely removed from the Great Smoky Mountains.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the first park to undergo public wilderness hearings after the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Brown described the tensions between park administrators, environmental advocates, and local boosters. Similar to Cumberland Gap, environmental advocates felt that the NPS fell way short in protecting wilderness areas in the park, while park boosters opposed any limitations in park development that might have an adverse impact on the the burgeoning tourism industry. Brown probed the idea of “wilderness” during this debate as I do at Cumberland Gap, since both parks had long histories of human occupation. I also noted with interest her story about the public’s desires to keep the balds from becoming wilderness in the 1960s and 1970s. The balds are an interesting landscape that resulted from farmers grazing livestock high on the ridgetops . The park biologist at the time recommended designating these landscapes as historic, but instead they were managed as “experimental research zones.” Similar to Hensley settlement at Cumberland Gap, Great Smoky Mountains park managers struggled to reconcile historic landscapes with wilderness values.
However, Brown omits the creation of two Job Corps centers at the park during this same period, even though she spends nearly a chapter talking about the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The NPS and Office of Economic Opportunity approved centers at Tremont near Cades Cove and Oconaluftee near the Eastern Band of Cherokee. I would think that the Oconaluftee Job Corps Center would be an important part of the relationship between the park and the Cherokee, especially since that center is one of three in national parks still operating today.
I like Brown’s argument about how park boosters and planners incorporated ideas of the west while manufacturing this eastern wilderness. I think it raises some interesting points, but I fear it does a disservice when considering how this park contributes to Appalachian regional identity. For example, she interprets the management of Cades Cove as contributing to this western image. “ In its own way, the scenic frontier created on the loop road complemented western trail riding in Cataloochee, the ski resort in Gatlinsburg, and the Wild West show in Cherokee” (208). To me, Cades Cove indicates how park planners conceived of, manufactured, and sold the idea of Appalachia to tourists, by removing the residents; razing the more modern buildings of the park and keeping the log cabins; keeping the fields open as meadowland; and building an auto tour loop around the community.
To this point, I have not noticed a “wild west” theme with the development of Cumberland Gap, but it is something I will consider moving forward in my research.
Despite my quibblings, this is a great park history. It is a perfect example of how a park history, when done well, is useful to many audiences. Historians, scientists, administrators, and visitors can all find something to connect to here. I can truly appreciate this as I struggle through my own research and writing.