I did not realize how dark and small the old Oconaluftee Visitor Center at Great Smoky Mountains National Park was until I walked into the airy, spacious new one. The 6,300-square-foot visitor center and history museum, located two miles north of Cherokee, North Carolina, opened April 1 to the public.
The site has so many improvements to attract visitors who used to drive straight through, but it's the museum that will keep people in the building longer. The museum focuses on the rich cultural history of the Smokies and complements the museum at Sugarlands Visitor Center, located outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which highlights the natural resources and biodiversity of the park.
The exhibits start with the Early People - the Cherokees. An interactive exhibit shows how Cherokee used fire to burn some areas of the landscape to encourage chestnut- and acorn-producing trees.
European settlers came into the Smoky Mountains in the late 1790s. The exhibits emphasize that mountain farm families were not self-sufficient. They traded for coffee, salt, and cast iron skillets. Children might get a piece of candy if they brought an egg to the store.
A fascinating section, Homespun to Mail Run, explains how women provided clothing for their families. Early families spun cotton and wool into thread and yarn to weave into cloth for clothing. By the late 1800s, few families did their own spinning and weaving, but rather bought material to sew into clothing. Later, women might buy an item like a blouse, either in a store or through a catalog.
In the accompanying photo, the woman in green has spun her own cloth to make her dress. She wears generic shoes with no specific left or right foot. The shoes look like large slippers with a big rounded toe box. Individual shoes were replaced whenever they wore out; they were not bought in pairs. The woman in the back had bought material to make her black skirt. Her white blouse was store bought, to complement the outfit, probably her Sunday best.
No cultural history about the Smokies can be told without mentioning moonshine, or Corn in a jar. The exhibit shows a complete still and explains that until 1870s making whiskey was not taxed. Then the federal government put a tax on whiskey, but it was hard to enforce it in the mountains. Of course, without a tax, whiskey was cheaper to sell.
The Civil War introduced northerners to the rich forests of the Smokies. Large timber companies bought land in the region and started logging the forests. This led to a boom in the moonshine industry by creating lots of thirsty workers with money in their pockets.
Tourists visited the Smokies before it became a park in 1934 and stayed with locals. They arrived mostly by train to fish and enjoy the fresh mountain air. J. Ross Eakin, the first superintendent of the park, arrived in 1931.
Two years later the first Civilian Conservation Corps camp was established. Many men came from New York and New Jersey into the Smokies; the mountains and the isolation must have been a shock to their systems. They built trails, bridges, and the first Oconaluftee Visitor Center. A newsreel video made in the 1930s explains the contributions of the CCC "boys" in the booming voice so typical of narrators of the time.
More than 1,200 families had to leave their homes to make way for the park, some with sorrow, and others happy to have the cash in their pockets during the Depression. The stories end with the establishment of the park. The last panels at the museum concentrate on modern problems such as exotics, wild hogs, balsam wooly adelgid, climate change, and the need to protect the resources.
Surprisingly, there's nothing about the Tennessee Valley Authority and the flooding of the communities now under Fontana Lake. It was felt that this story is told quite well at the Fontana Dam Visitor Center, managed by the TVA.
The exhibits follow a loose timeline, going counter clockwise, but there's a lot of overlap. The center of the museum displays Mountain Voices, stories and quotes told directly by settlers. You can also listen to stories and anecdotes through handsets and read from the writings of Methodist Bishop Frances Ashbury, who traveled the mountains in the early 19th Century, and Horace Kephart, author of Our Southern Highlanders published in 1913.
Lynda Doucette, supervisory interpretive ranger on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, explains how the exhibits were created.
"We gathered interested parties such as the Eastern Band of Cherokees Indians, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, neighboring communities, and park staff. We asked, 'What are the stories that need to be told and how should they be told?' The overarching theme is that land use changes over time. How has the land shaped the people and how have people changed the land?"
Then Formations, an exhibition design and fabrication company, was hired to turn these stories into interactive exhibits for visitors.
But the new visitor center is more than the museum.
An orientation area concentrates on the practical side of visiting the park. How far is it to other destinations such as the Sugarlands Visitor Center on the Tennessee side and where do you get on the Blue Ridge Parkway? A wall holds a video screen with current road and weather conditions. Panel displays explain details of easy hikes and back roads that may be difficult to find.
The center has a fireplace without the fire. The exhibit explains that a fireplace is not an efficient source of energy.
The bookstore run by the Great Smoky Mountains Association is much larger than the old one and well laid out, attracting more visitors without crowding them.
The old Oconaluftee Visitor Center will not be torn down. The building was completed in 1941 by the CCC as a secondary administrative building. In 1948, it was opened as a temporary visitor center; its been temporary for more than 60 years. It will now return to its original purpose: office space for the park staff and meeting space for park functions.
Outside, a new path leads directly to the Mountain Farm Museum and the Oconaluftee River Trail without going back through the parking lot. A modern, 1,700-square-foot comfort station building is obvious and much more accessible than the old one. An information kiosk has basic information about the park. Most important, this is where backpackers register for backcountry permits. It also allows hikers to buy the one-dollar Smokies trail map at any time without going into the visitor center.
No tax dollars were used for this Visitor Center. The Great Smoky Mountains Association provided over three million dollars to finance the construction of the buildings. Friends of the Smokies spent more than $500,000 for the information and cultural resource exhibits.
"This shows the cooperation of the Friends and the Association and how well they work together," said Jim Hart, executive director of Friends of the Smokies.
The ribbon cutting for the official opening will be held on Friday April 15 at 11 A.M. The public is invited.