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Smoky Mountain Getaway

Gatlinburg and Pigeon forge, tn

Article by Emily Woods

Photography by Emily Woods

Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee have been one of my favorite getaway spots for years. I grew up in Knoxville, so only being an hour away we took advantage and went to the mountains often. People come from all over the world to see the attractions and the breathtaking mountains in East Tennessee. I have done it all from hiking, camping, Dollywood, bungee jumping, cabin rentals, girls weekends, family trips, and more. You could come up here 100 times and always do something new. For now, here are a few of my favorite spots.

Anakeesta is a beautiful escape right up a ski lift ride in Gatlinburg. You have no idea what breathtaking views and fun await you at the top. I have been coming to Anakeesta since it opened and the additions keep coming and are always amazing! My family and I love coming up to spend several hours playing, mining for rocks, riding the rail runner (the only single-rail mountain coaster of its kind in the United States), playing in the treehouse adventure playgrounds, and eating dinner with a view! The most recent addition is the AnaVista Tower. AnaVista Tower is downtown Gatlinburg’s highest point! With 360⁰ views of the Smokies and the only one of its kind in the world. You climb 78 steps to a large observation platform atop AnaVista Tower. From the top deck scenic views as far as Kentucky will surround you. Interpretive signs identify mountain ranges and peaks all around you. This is definitely a place you need to see to believe. Pictures just don’t do it justice. If I could only choose one thing to do while visiting Gatlinburg it be would Anakeesta.

Our favorite place to stay while in the Pigeon Forge - Gatlinburg area is hands down Margarittaville Pigeon Forge at The Island. Margarittaville is a fun, family friendly hotel. We absolutely love the rooftop pool, especially at night with the beautiful ferris wheel all lit up and you can look over and see the dancing water show every half hour. No matter where your room is located you get an amazing view. Last time we were here we chose a river view, we loved the peaceful view. On our latest stay we chose a village view so we could look out on the island. The island surrounding Margarittaville has so much to offer and it’s all right here in walking distance. We like to get an unlimited ride pass for all of the rides. Our favorite attraction is the ropes course, my girls love to zip line and at the end you can get hooked up and bungee off the top. The island also has plenty of restaurants to choose from. You will also find lots of fun shops, candy stores and more. The island is currently expanding with more fun coming in the Spring of 2021.

Favorite Restaurant- Shop combo:

The Old Mill Restaurant, cafe, distillery, pottery shop, and more.

I was blown away with everything here. I’m not sure how I grew up in East Tennessee without ever going here before. Not only are the food and scenery fabulous, but the history is amazing. Jimmy, who has worked here for over 20 years was nice enough to give me a tour and tell me some fascinating information.

The Old Mill’s story began nearly two centuries ago when local farmers with sacks of grain traveled to the newly built gristmill along the Little Pigeon River. Those trips to the mill resulted in meal and flour for cooking, and they also were opportunities to socialize and build community. In time, our town of Pigeon Forge was born.

Today, the Old Mill is one of the oldest continually operating gristmills in the country and one of the most photographed mills in America. We invite you to look through our unique history.

The cycle of grains that was a vital part of Appalachian life for generations continues today at The Old Mill. They still grind corn into cornmeal and grits the old-fashioned way, between massive stones powered by the rushing current of the Little Pigeon River, just as the mill’s founders did in the 1830s.

They bake some of that cornmeal into muffins (these are heavenly), sell some to customers, and send some to their distillery. And that’s not all – grain leftovers (called “spent mash”) from the whiskey-making process are sent to their baker, who makes breads and dog biscuits from them.

It’s an ancient, sustainable cycle that is gaining renewed popularity today.

I absolutely love history and this timeline is too good not to share! I love knowing the history of places, and this is pretty amazing. Seeing the mill in person was an honor.

Timeline:

1786 - A westward-moving settler, Mordecai Lewis, leaves Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and settles in East Tennessee. John Sevier, the first governor of Tennessee, encouraged Virginians such as Lewis to come to this area following the Revolutionary War. In 1794, he was appointed Coroner of Sevier County as well as a Justice of the Peace.

1807 - Lewis makes his home along what we now know as the Little Pigeon River after receiving a land grant from Governor Blount, where he acquired a total of 151 acres along the river. His grandson would later build and operate the first gristmill.

1817 - Issac Love, the son-in-law of Mordecai Lewis, inherits the land after Lewis’s death and builds an iron forge along the west branch of the river. It was a logical setting for a forge. Iron ore was found in the hills, timber could be burned to create charcoal to fuel the fires, and the river was a source of unending power for the large hammer. Seeing the glow from distant hills and ridges, locals would say “The fires of hell could not burn brighter or hotter.”

1830- Issac Love’s son, William, and brothers build the Lewis Mill, named after their grandfather, to grind corn. Their craftsmanship included materials such as Tulip poplar (now the state tree of Tennessee), heart of pine, and hemlock, which is naturally impervious to decay.

1841 - William Love is appointed postmaster, and the first post office is located inside the mill. The community “Pigeon Forge” was born, named by Love after the passenger pigeons that would roost in the trees along the river during their southern migration and his father’s iron forge.

1858 - The Mason jar is invented and with its metal screw on lid transforms the way the home cook can store and preserve food. The jars are easy to use and reusable. They become a favorite with the local moonshiners, too!

1859 - John Sevier Trotter becomes the second owner of the mill and iron forge and adds a saw mill to his operation. He mills the lumber for a new, narrow covered bridge known as Trotter’s Ford that crosses the Little Pigeon River by the mill. Seven bridges would be built throughout the county.

1861 - The Civil War begins. Tennessee is the last state to secede from the Union. East Tennessee, in particular, was split between the Union and Confederacy. The mill owner, John Trotter, was a Unionist, and on the second floor of his mill, he sets up secret knitting looms to produce clothing for Union soldiers based in the Gatlinburg area. There was also a makeshift hospital on the third floor. The Old Mill is listed on the Civil War Trail of Tennessee.

1875 - Mother Nature in the form of a flash flood damages the mill by washing the water wheel down river and destroys Trotter’s bridge. The community responds by building a new steel bridge in its place.

 1889 - The mill adds a water turbine to turn the stones and provide more power because of increased production. Roller mills are added to grind wheat into flour.

1915 - The Pigeon Forge Milling Company, as it is now called, grinds wheat into Silver Star, Dixie Bell, and Lily of the Valley flour. They continue to grind cornmeal.

1920 - Mother Nature wins again when another flood takes the water wheel again and destroys the steel bridge built in 1875. The next replacement is a one-lane concrete bridge. The bridge was later widened in the 1960s.

1921 - Let there be light! Through Pigeon Forge Power & Light, the mill begins producing electricity for the community. Not until 1933 did electricity flow to Pigeon Forge from the city of Sevierville.

1929 - The Great Depression affects businesses nationwide. The mill falls into the hands of the Bank of Sevierville and 6 months later is bought by Fred Stout in 1933. The Stout family would be the longest owners of the mill, for 62 years, passing it on to their daughter, Kathy Stout Simmons.

1940 - President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicates the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Newfound Gap, the mountain pass located in the center of the park and the name of the road that runs through the park today in both Tennessee and North Carolina. Tourism really starts to take off for the Great Smoky Mountains.

1946 - Douglas Ferguson notices how the local red clay of this area makes strong, beautiful pottery. He begins Pigeon Forge Pottery in a tobacco barn and eventually moves it to a studio next to his home, the site of our Pottery House Cafe today. Ferguson becomes an acclaimed American potter.

1952 - It’s official! The Old Mill takes on its name. Tourism begins to flourish in Pigeon Forge, and the city widens the parkway to make way for more automobile traffic.

1961 - Pigeon Forge incorporates as a municipality. The Rebel Railroad tourist attraction opens. It would later become Dollywood.

1975 - On June 10, the Old Mill is recognized for its importance to the community and its place in American history by being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

1977 - Only after 147 years of use, the Old Mill’s original grinding stones need replacing. They certainly were a good purchase back in 1830!

1985 - Dollywood, named after Sevier’s County’s famous country superstar Dolly Parton, opens in the place of the Rebel Railroad. Dollywood is now Tennessee’s most visited paid attraction. ( I will write all about Dollywood another day - I have been going since I can remember and it is one of our family favorites)

1993 - Three families - the Blantons, Frizzells, and Berriers - build the Cornflour Restaurant next to the Old Mill. Named because they were using the products ground at the Old Mill, the restaurant’s mission was to bring families together, feed them well, and invite them to return.

1995 - The Stouts decide to retire and offers to sell The Old Mill to the Blantons & Frizzells. The Cornflour Restaurant name is changed to the Old Mill Restaurant.

1999 - Acclaimed potter Douglas Ferguson dies, but his spirit lives on as the Old Mill creates Pigeon River Pottery in Ferguson’s studio and workplace.

 2003 - Transformed the Ferguson’s home into a restaurant, known today as The Pottery House Cafe & Grille. We begin serving on pottery made next door in our studio and bake fresh breads daily with grains from our grist mill across the street.

 2014 - The Old Forge Distillery opens, continuing the old-time whiskey-making tradition of the Scots-Irish settlers who once lived here. Grain for the award-winning distillery comes from the Old Mill, and the spent grain goes to our bakery across the street.

2014 - The Society of American Travel Writers honors the Old Mill with a Phoenix Award for conservation and preservation.

2018 - The Old Mill Restaurant celebrates its 25th year of hot biscuits, homemade pecan pie, fried chicken, and many happy customers who become a part of the Old Mill family.

I will definitely share more to share about this area, as it is one of our favorite and most frequently visited places.

Have fun in the mountains,

Emily

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