Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

Going Back in Time

Thursday July 5, 2018                                                                            Most Recent Posts:
Great Smoky Mountains National Park                                                    Change of Plans
Tennessee                                                                                              Last Post from Shenandoah

IMG_6036For my first hike in the Smokies, I decided to do something relatively easy.  On our way to the visitor center from the campground on Monday, just before a wonderful one lane bridge, we had passed a gated road that had a hiking sign.  On the way back from the VC David pulled over and I got out to read it.  Seems this is the trail to the Greenbrier School and further on to the Walker Homestead. 

This morning at 7am I was the first car in the parking lot of the picnic area adjacent to the Little River.  I crossed the bridge and started up the trail which starts as a road. 

It didn’t take long for it to turn into a true trail, rocky rooty and in places strewn with fallen petals of the Rhododendron that line the way.IMG_6048



A leaning one log bridge gives me pause before I cross it.


I cross another one log bridge as I come up behind the school house.

The building which appears to have been creosoted it is so dark.


As I walk around to the front door I see that the buiilding, as most mountain log buildings, sits on piles of rock as its foundation.  Here there is not a full foundation just stacks of rocks at intervals.  It looks very precarious to me.  But I go inside anyway.  

I have to use my flash since despite the 4 windows it is very dark inside.  How did the students see anything in here I wonder?  Coal oil lamps?  I also don’t see a chimney or roof exit for any sort of stove.   Maybe school was held only when there would be no need for heat although I read in park information that due to the need for labor on the farms, mountain children only went to school for two to three months in the winter so I have no idea how they kept warm unless the building once had a chimney that was not restored.

The rows of benches are all the same except for one much shorter half bench in the front.  There are no “desks”.  Apparently you use the flat top of the bench in front of you.


I try out the little bench and it fits just fine.  Since there is no where to set your books, I wonder if this is for the “difficult” students.  That might fit me too of course.

Interestingly, the school overlooks the cemetery.  From the doorway I look out and see it going up a hillside.  I guess they didn’t want to use precious flat ground for burying people.   I suspect the cemetery is here because the building was used as aPrimitive Baptist Church on Sundays until 1925.


If you are unable to hike up the 6/10ths of a mile, there is a drivable road up to the school house which has a small parking area.  The information sign is located there.  It tells me the structure was built in 1882.  The last classes were held in 1935 when the park took over the land. IMG_6088

The photographs show that the students had no desks, only benches and that the age of students was quite broad.  Several of the children were from the Walker family which lived a mile above the school house. 

In the 1909 picture, one of persons in the back row is the teacher, the others are pupils.  The youngest Walker son, Giles Daniel, is second from the left in the back row.  Sister Hettie is second from the right.  As I said, a broad age range in students.


Mountain graveyards both here and in Shenandoah are so sad because many of the headstones are for children.  Several of them are from the Walker family.


So many Walker children.   These seem to be the children of John Henry Walker the fourth of eleven Walker children.  More on them later.                        



One last look back as I take the trail up to the Walker Home 

As many of you know, I was in Shenandoah Natioinal park just prior to coming to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Both parks were vying, during the Great Depression, to be the second park east of the Mississippi as were other localities. Both locations were chosen if the states could provide the land. Both states did that by buying out the current residents or condemning their land and taking it. Finally, there is a great exhibit in the Big Meadows Visitor Center in Shenandoah telling the truth of this but as yet I found nothing telling the true story here in the Smokies.

That said, there appear to have been many more of the mountain people’s homes saved and restored in GSMNP than in Shenandoah where a lot of them were dismantled or even set fire to in order to prevent the people from returning.. I hope to discover the real story of GSMNP while I’m here.

The Walker Family Farm is probably the most famous set of buildings remaining in this park because of the 5 sisters who fought for and received life time tenancy from the park.

Their father, John, a Civil War veteran, and mother Margaret raised all 11 of their children to adulthood, which at that time was extremely unusual, on this farm.

I hike on . . . .

Rhododendron again line the trail beside the babbling brook.  What a wonderful walk to school for the Walker children.  Earlier in the spring there must have been wild azalea, mountain Laurel and many wildflowers as well.



I cross the stream on a one log bridge


More lovely rhododendron just coning into bloom, attracting pollinators.  Too fast for my camera, they are a blur.

The buds are beautiful.


After hiking up for a mile, I can see the Walker place just above me as I come to another one log bridge..  I must have discarded that picture because I can’t find it now. 

Coming up from below I pass the spring house. 

The spring house appears to be built over a spring as was the usual situation..


But looking inside I see no running water, only the stones placed along the edges which would have had milk, butter, cheese placed on them to keep cool from the water below.  But springs dry up so I suppose that happened here.

IMG_6169Six Walker women lived their entire lives in the two room farmhouse built and modified by their father in the 1860’s.

The Walker Cabin is an L-shaped log cabin, with a porch filling out the gap in the "L" to make a rectangle. The cabin's kitchen, which is believed to have been built by Brice McFalls in the 1840s and modified by their father, consists of one story measuring 18 feet by 27 feet, and has a door leading to the porch and a door to the larger half of the cabin.

The larger cabin, built by Wiley King in the 1850s, consists of one-and-one-half stories measuring 20 feet by 22 feet.  Remember six women lived in that space. 

Both cabins are built of
hewn logs with half-dovetail notching, and contain sawn board floors. Both have gabled, cedar shingled roofs, and both have stone-and-mud chimneys.

The original property included the two room house, a barn, corn crib, smoke house, pig pen, apple barn, blacksmith shop, small tub mill and spring house. All the buildings were made from giant tulip poplar trees, “caulked” with Carolina clay mud and rock.   Only three of the buildings remain, the house, the spring house and the corn crib.

As I can see from the back of the house and later from inside, the park service needs to do some work on the shingle roof.



The five boys left home and married, of the seven girls, only Caroline married. The other six remained at home with their father and inherited the farm upon his death at age 80 in 1921. One of the sisters, Nancy died 10 years later and the remaining five, Margaret, Polly, Martha, Louisa and Hettie, clothed and fed themselves, raised livestock and maintained their mountain home for the next 40 years.

Even though they fought for and were able to able to stay on their land, the park brought restrictions. They could not hunt, fish, cut wood or graze livestock. So they began selling handmade products to visitors who came to see their home, apple pies, crochet doilies, children’s toys and even Louisa’s poems.

Inside, I pose by the door for a height comparison.  I’m 5’ and maybe 1/2” tall.


A couple of the windows in the house had panes but the rest did not.  There were few windows period.  But the views are wonderful.



The big tulip poplar trees from which these floor boards were made were nearly all taken by the frantic logging in the early 20th century.  My size 6.5 shoe shows how wide they were.


IMG_6199Later pictures in this post, taken from the National Park archieves given by the Walker family, show the sisters in their home.  This is how I found it.

The sisters lived their lives the way they had always done with hand tools, wood fire cooking spinning, weaving and no outhouse.

Polly died in 1946 and Hettie the next year. When Martha died in 1951, the two remaining Walker Sisters now in their 80’s asked the park service to take down the “Visitors Welcome” sign on the path to their house as they felt they could no longer do their chores and entertain with only two of them. Margaret died in 1962 at the age of 92. Louisa lived in the house until she died in 1964.

I had the house to myself on this day at this time and wondered what the Walker sisters would think of its condition nearly 50 years after the last sister died.   I know they would be happy to know it is still here.

Mountain familiies often used flour paste to put newspapers and magazine pages on their walls for insullation.  You can see the remnents next to me as I climb up to the “second story” of the house.

A closer view but so worn that no dates were visible.

Upstairs in what would have been the bedroom when the children were younger, I can see light through the ceiling.  Further proof that the Park Service needs to get busy here before all the rain creates dry rot and damages the building.   But since this park charges no entry fees and our current administration is attempting to shrink the budgets and sizes of our parks and monuments, I wonder what will happen.  Again, I ask you, please write your congressmen and women about your support for our parks and desire for their budgets to be increased.  What better to do with our tax dollars except perhaps universal health coverage.

As I sit on their porch with my feet on their steps, this entire story reminds me of my grandmother Cecilia and her sisters Cora and Carrie. They wore the same clothing including the bonnets for working in the sun. I wish I could have met these strong and determined Walker women who took on the park and won.  I could listen to their stories for hours.  They refused to hand over their farm to the government and preserved their way of life.

I reluctantly leave and head back down their mountain along the beautiful path they must have walked thousands of times.



The following pictures are from the Smoky Mountain National Park archieves.  Some were published in the book The Walker Sisters of Little Greenbrier by Rose Houk.  I do not know the dates of all of the pictures.

Louisa at the churn, Martha and Hettie behind her on the porchWalker 1 

Hettie, Martha and Louisa ginning cotton. 1936


Outside their life long cabin home.


Inside with sister Hettie in the foreground.


Martha Walker working at the loom age 91.

The Walker Sisters Held Out to Keep Their Way of Life

This is my favorite picture, two sisters hoe the field.  My Aunt Carrie would never go out in the sunshine without her bonnet and made me several of them.  One of which was really a help to me in the unrelenting sun of Texas and Arizona.  I still have it with me.  I may need it again.


The remaining 4 Walker sisters after Polly’s death in 1946
from a 1946 Saturday Evening Post Article

walker sisters

Winter time activities.  Martha cards the wool.  Margaret stands by the spinning wheel.


I am glad to have learned and passed on the story of these determined women who in a time when men controlled everything managed to live their lives exactly as the wished.


  1. That is some interesting history, Sherry, and your willingness to write about it and share it is commendable.

  2. What a beautiful and interesting hike. Certainly no "high school" kids went to that school by the look of the door. The Rhododendrons are beyond beautiful. It looks like someone laid out a path of them for you to walk on.

  3. A peaceful sort of place, drawn deep out of the past.

    I wonder how many left-handed students back in the day were getting rapped knuckles for trying to use left hands in school.

  4. Wonderful post...you made it come to life again!! What amazing women they were and having been there, I could visualize what life must have been like. When we hiked to the house, we also had it all to ourselves...such a treasure...yet so few get to see it.

  5. My mother and her cousin used flour paste to glue pictures from magazines and the Sears and Roebuck catalogue on their Blue Ridge Mountains log house's walls. It served as double duty - insulation and decoration! The Walkers remind me of my great aunts Polly and Lily - two sisters who were born on the Blue Ridge and moved off as adults with their husbands when the park was built. They both wore those same bonnets when outside working in their gardens. Thanks for this tour and the reminders. I visited the Smoky Mountains when I was in 9th grade. Has it changed much?

  6. Thanks for writing about these interesting and tough women Sherry.

  7. Very interesting post. I always wonder how life back then would have been. Lots of hardships, but life was done with purpose.

  8. I think I would've fallen in the water if I had tried to walk over one of those one log bridges! The views are so pretty. Amazing that the Walker women stayed and lived in the cabin and lived as long as they did. From seeing their pictures, I don't think one would want to mess with them! They look pretty serious although most pictures from that era the people have the same serious expression. Glad you had a fun day!

  9. What a great story! The Walker sisters were obviously strong women. So interesting that all except one remained together all of their lives, living in the same little cabin where they were born. They must have gotten along well! The little schoolhouse is so interesting, too.
    It would be challenging to have students of such wildly varying ages to teach. We taught our birding program at Spencer Spit this morning and had 30 people from age 5 to age 70, so I kind of understand!. :-))

  10. I can't begin to imagine all the work it took to build that cabin in the first place, all done by hand. Yet it has withstood the test of time, hopefully that roof gets fixed quickly or its end will come way too soon.

  11. The petal strewn path looks like it's ready for a wedding - so pretty!

    Thank you for taking the time to share the wonderful history of these strong women! What a hard, simple and rewarding life they had. Amazing that they made room for that huge loom in that tiny cabin!!

  12. What a hard life.... thank you for sharing their remarkable story.

  13. Amazing women! One wonders if they just took the difficulty of their lives as normal, or did they feel put upon. We are so spoiled today!

    Virtual hugs,


  14. Love the flower petal confetti. I just can't imagine you being a troublesome student. But what a place, no heat. Your story of the Walker women is quite impressive. They are truly grand examples of the power of women standing together. You really are quite the storyteller.

  15. So interesting...an amazing history! Neat to see the pictures now. What hard workers they were...nothing like how we are today. I remember those Aunt Carrie bonnets :)


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