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Originally published Sunday, June 14, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Nature and the ghosts of a hardscrabble past

In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, celebrating 75 years this year, it's easy to get lost in the past, as one of the nation's most-visited national parks has nearly 80 historic buildings scattered throughout its 800 square miles, evidence that until the 1930s children of poor Appalachian families attended school there.

The Washington Post

If You Go

Great Smokies

Park activities

Three visitor centers (Sugarlands, Oconaluftee and Cades Cove) are open daily except Christmas Day. A free brochure has a map with highlights; $1 auto-tour and hiking guides are available. More at www.nps.gov/grsm.

Lodging

Two of 10 park campgrounds are open all year. Four take reservations now through Oct. 31; others are first come, first served. Fees are $14-$23 per night. Call 877-444-6777; www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/

For a list of surrounding communities with accommodations, from cabins to hotels, see www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/lodging.htm.

Lodging is plentiful in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

Dolly Parton country

In Pigeon Forge (800-251-9100, www.mypigeonforge.com; www.pigeonforgechamber.com), tourist magnets line U.S. Route 321/441 for miles. This is Dolly Parton country. Dollywood (800-365-5996, www.dollywood.com), a 125-acre Smokies-theme amusement park, opened Parton's musical, "Sha-Kon-O-Hey," about the national park last month.

More information

For Tennessee, www.tnvacation.com. For North Carolina, www.visitnc.com.

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In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it's easy to get lost in the past. One of the nation's most-visited national parks has nearly 80 historic buildings scattered throughout its 800 square miles, evidence that until the 1930s children attended school there while their parents coaxed corn from the hardscrabble soil of the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Then the federal government decided to step in and create a park to protect the area, untouched by the last ice age and straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Today, wildlife outnumbers people. And visitors, some 9 million to 10 million a year, can hike and enjoy nature. They can also walk into mountain cabins and churches and family cemeteries left behind by those not-so-long-ago residents, many of whom didn't move willingly.

Raymond Caldwell, 85, of Waynesville, N.C., lived in the Cataloochee area, in the southeast section of the park, until age 15. He says the government paid his family $4,000 to leave the 160-acre farm they'd owned for a century. When they moved, he says, "I drove a team of horses with a wagon and farm implements hanging off it. My 8-year-old brother was with me."

Caldwell says he liked living in the mountains, but it wasn't easy. "It was pretty rough terrain. We were just getting by," he says in a phone interview. He remembers grinding corn at a water-powered gristmill. His family, with eight children, grew corn and raised cattle for beef.

Visiting Caldwell House, his family's homestead, recently, I touched torn Sears Roebuck catalog pages that still paper an upstairs bedroom. Caldwell says his father was bitter about leaving, but some families were poor and needed the money. Even before the Great Depression, they struggled. After it hit, some were destitute. Many had worked for logging companies that owned large tracts of land but had ravaged it, polluting streams and driving elk and other animals from their habitats.

The Depression helped give birth to the park. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps provided jobs for thousands of young men who planted trees, cleared brush for trails and built the park headquarters, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and log bridges that span streams.

This year, the park — the heart of the area that the nearby Cherokee Indians called Shakaney, or "Land of Blue Smoke," for the mist that shrouds its peaks and floats over its valleys — celebrates its 75th anniversary this weekend, and a Sept. 2 rededication is planned at the CCC monument at Newfound Gap, 5,046 feet above sea level, where FDR dedicated it. Ground will be broken for a cultural museum to complement the natural history one.

Entertainer Dolly Parton, the official anniversary ambassador, will be at the celebrations. She has, she says, the Smokies in her bones.

There's a reason: She may live in Nashville now and maintain homes in Los Angeles and New York, but she grew up poor in a hollow near Locust Ridge, about seven miles from the park, in Sevierville, Tenn., where a bronze Dolly statue graces the courthouse lawn.

"I bought the old homestead [in 1987]," she says in a phone interview, "as a retreat, for family reunions ... Dollywood, her Smokies-theme amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., employs 2,500 people in peak season.

Old places

Places left behind by former residents are best seen sans crowds. On the park's west side, on an 11-mile loop, are the abandoned buildings of Cades Cove. Stick your fingers into the mud-mortar chimney on John Oliver's cabin, built in 1820. The log walls contain no nails. Touch the mud chinking between the logs, there to keep out the cold. My guidebook showed photos of boys getting baptized in a stream near one of three churches for the 125 families who lived here.

But that was long ago. The road dips and narrows, and, past Dan Lawson's place, built in 1856, it is deeply rutted. I hoped our car wouldn't get a flat — or worse. At dusk, our only company was white-tailed deer and coyotes.

To see Cataloochee, the abandoned community where Raymond Caldwell lived as a boy, visitors must drive a 10-mile mountain-hugging road with 180-degree curves.

My husband honked the horn so much, to warn other vehicles, we woke up the elk herd that "guards" Cataloochee. A bull with four-foot-wide antlers stood and scared the heck out of me when I wandered up the porch at Palmer House. My husband was calculating the distance to the car, but the elk apparently decided we were harmless.

In an exhibit at Palmer House, a photo shows a man having his teeth pulled on the porch. In a room with a fireplace, four layers of fancy wallpaper hang in shreds. In Palmer Chapel nearby, a tattered Bible rests on a pulpit.

In Beech Grove School, we sat at desks of children who are now in their 80s. It was so quiet, I could hear an elk bellowing outside and a stream flowing.

I understood why Caldwell says he left the park, but it never left him. "I try to go every chance I get," he says. "I just feel good when I go."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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