Old timers recall Roosevelt’s trip to the Smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park staged a reenactment this week of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dedication of the newly created park nearly 70 years ago.

Roosevelt’s trip to the region in 1940 is still remembered by many. Throngs of people lined the main streets of Waynesville, Bryson City and Cherokee for a chance to see the heroic President roll by en route to Newfound Gap, where he would speak at a dedication ceremony for the new park.

“President Roosevelt was next to God,” said Henry Foy, who watched from the side of Main Street in Waynesville. “He was in the backseat and held up his hat and waved it out both sides.”

As is often the case with big milestones, anyone alive at the time seems to remember where they were when Roosevelt’s entourage drove through town.

“That was the biggest day of my life,” said J.C. Freeman, 81, who watched from the roadside in Bryson City. “He was in an open topped car. They roped the roads off. I was holding the rope as close as I could get. I thought that was one of the greatest things that could happen to a boy.”

Joyce Patton of Canton, just 7 years old at the time, was most excited at the prospect of seeing Roosevelt’s black Scottish Terrier pup named Fala.

“[Roosevelt] was waving with his cigarette in the holder. I saw right away that he didn’t have the dog,” Patton said, recalling her disappointment. Patton’s parents, who were park supporters, made the long car trip up to Newfound Gap to hear his speech. They were seated near the front, close enough to see Roosevelt getting out of his car into a wheelchair.

“At that time nobody knew he was paralyzed. They lined the ramp going up to the lectern with Secret Service and Park Rangers so most people couldn’t see him in the wheelchair,” Patton recounted.

While the park was officially created in 1934, Roosevelt’s dedication happened six years later on Sept. 2, 1940. By then, the Civilian Conservation Corps had carved trails, campgrounds and roads into the park, including the overlook at Newfound Gap. There Roosevelt stood with one foot in each state while delivering his speech in front of the newly finished Rockefeller Memorial, erected as an homage to the family that donated $5 million for the park’s creation.

Commodore Casada, 99, caught a ride up the mountain from Bryson City to witness the big event. Although like many, his interest was in seeing Roosevelt — not honoring a park he resented.

“I hadn’t accepted the park yet. It just always seemed to me like somebody was taking something that was mine,” said Casada, who grew up on land seized for the park. Although he added, “Now I’m glad we gave it.”

Roosevelt’s speech was laden with references to the brewing war in Europe, calling for the need to protect America’s great landscapes and natural history as well as the nation’s freedom.

The road to a cash settlement


Forney Creek Township wants a road leading from Bryson City to Deals Gap on the Tennessee state line. It is the height of the timber boom, and the road would improve access to Knoxville. The community took out bonds totaling $400,000 to pay for the road.


The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is officially created.


Forney Creek Township has yet to pay a single cent on the road bonds it took out nearly 20 years prior. With interest, the amount now came to $694,000. The county assumes the outstanding debt. It refinances the bond for $1.3 million, which also includes money for a new school.


President Roosevelt authorizes federal funding to build Fontana Dam on the Little Tennessee River. The hydropower is needed by Alcoa, which is producing sheets of aluminum for wartime airplanes. Tennessee Valley Authority begins land acquisition.


The federal government wrestles with what to do about 216 families living in a 44,000-acre territory that will be cut off when the lake floods the only road in or out of the area. With a war on, the government doesn’t have the money or time to build a new road above the high water mark. But leaving the people isolated on the far side of the lake isn’t an option either.


The 44,000 acres is added to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the people evacuated, along with those in the direct path of rising water. An agreement is signed between Swain County commissioners, the Governor of North Carolina, Tennessee Valley Authority and the Department of Interior that promises to build a new road — provided Congress appropriates the funds — along the north shore. Road is to be part of an “Around the Park” road network, to commence as soon after WWII as Congress appropriates funds.


Six landowners who didn’t want to give up their land in the North Shore area lose a lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority. They wanted to keep their land, since the government was supposedly rebuilding the road, and saw no need for it to be ceded to the park service.

They won twice in lower courts, but it was appealed to the Supreme Court, which denied the families’ claim.


Park service builds 0.9 mile of the promised road on the Fontana Dam side.


State of North Carolina constructs a road from Bryson City to the national park boundary, laying the groundwork for the park to pick up construction.


Congressman Roy A. Taylor secured $8 million for construction of the North Shore Road. Park service commences road construction where the state left off.


National Park Service issues a report stating “it appears to be in the public interest to seriously reconsider the plan” to build the road.


National Park Service proposes a trans-mountain road from Bryson City to Townsend, Tenn., in lieu of completing a road along the lake shore.


A public hearing is held in Bryson City that pits advocates of Wilderness Area designation for the park with locals who want their road.


Construction on the road stops after seven miles. The park service has used up the $8 million and is out of money. The prospects for more money seem slim due to environmental opposition.


Contingency from Swain County makes a trip to Raleigh to visit N.C. Attorney General Robert Morgan. They ask Morgan for the state’s help suing the federal government to resolve the 1943 Agreement. They learn they have no grounds for a lawsuit, due to a hold harmless clause in the agreement.


Swain County finally pays off the Forney Creek Road debt from the 1920s for a road that’s long since been flooded by the creation of Lake Fontana.


North Carolina Gov. James Holshouser attempts to craft a compromise to provide a cash settlement for Swain County in lieu of the road. At a later meeting in Washington, D.C., a Swain County attorney offers a starting figure of $25 million, but the National Park Service representative refuses to even negotiate and ends the meeting.


A public hearing is held in Bryson City, again on the issue of wilderness designation for the park.


Secretary of the Department of the Interior Cecil Andrus visits Swain County at the request of local leaders clamoring to get the score settled. They hire a bus and pile in with Andrus on a tour of the county, from Calf Pen Gap overlooking the lake to lunch at the Deep Creek pavilion in the park. After returning to Washington, Andrus appoints an ad hoc committee “to look into the controversies surrounding the agreement and recommend possible solutions.”

Nov. 28, 1980

Andrus writes a letter to the Swain County commissioners agreeing to help them secure a financial settlement of $9.5 million. The sum is based on the value of the road in 1940 at $1.3 million and compounded annually at 5 percent. His letter states: “Over the years others have proposed alternative solutions to resolving the conditions of the agreement but none have been successful. In as such as this controversy has existed for 37 years, it is now time to resolve this controversy.”


Congressman Lamar Gudger, D-Asheville, introduces a bill for a cash settlement of $11.1 million. The bill passes the House but never makes it to the Senate.


A group of Swain County residents files a lawsuit in federal court against all the signatories of the ’43 Agreement asking for road to be built or the lake to be lowered. Known as the Helen Vance lawsuit, it is struck down, appealed, and struck down again. The families appealed a third time to the Supreme Court, but the Court refused to hear the case.


A hearing on dueling Senate bills is held in Bryson City. One bill would give Swain County a cash settlement of $9.5 million in lieu of the road. The other bill would build the road and give Swain $9.5 million to boot. County Commissioner Chairman James Coggins makes the following statement at the hearing: “We are weary of making agreements that are never honored by the federal government. It is my sincere desire that Congress will at last pass our long waited for settlement of the 1943 Agreement.”


Another hearing on the dueling Senate bills is held. County Commissioner Chairman James Coggins recycles the same speech as three years prior.


Senator Terry Sanford proposes a cash settlement of $16 million to Swain County. His bill also calls for designating 90 percent of park as wilderness.


Sen. Jesse Helms introduces legislation calling for construction of the road as well as cash payments to Swain County. The bill fails, as do efforts in 1993, 1995, and 1996.


Study puts cost of completing a road at between $136 and $150 million.

Summer, 2000

Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County is formed to advance the cause of a cash settlement. Ten people gather in the living room at Claude Douthit’s house. The group has 284 dues-paying members today.


Congressman Charles Taylor slips in $16 million for road construction during the conference committee of the federal budget.


The park service launches a lengthy and comprehensive environmental analysis of road construction, weighing it against a cash settlement. It would ultimately take five years and burn through $10 million of the money Taylor secured for road building.

Jan., 2003

Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County hire Crisp, Hughes and Evans accounting firm to come up with a figure for the monetary settlement. They arrive at $52 million, based on the cost of the road when it was flooded, with interest and adjusted for inflation.

Feb., 2003

Swain County commissioners vote 4-1 in favor of a cash settlement of $52 million. Bryson City aldermen adopt the same resolution.


North Carolina Governor Mike Easley, representing one of the original signatories to the ’43 Agreement, signs on in favor of a cash settlement.

March, 2007

A coalition of Senators and Congressmen from North Carolina and Tennessee sign a letter calling for a cash payoff to Swain County in lieu of building the road.

April, 2007

National Park Service announces its long-awaited decision in the lengthy environmental assessment. It comes down in favor of a cash settlement.

Dec., 2007

Congressman Heath Shuler from Western North Carolina, with the help of Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee, secure $6 million as a down payment on a cash settlement as part of the 2008 fiscal year budget. The funds have not yet been remitted to Swain County, however.


In preparation for a cash settlement, the N.C. General Assembly authorizes a trust fund that will safeguard the money on behalf of Swain County. The state will give the county the interest off the account annually, but the principal can’t be touched unless approved by two-thirds of voters in a countywide referendum.


Park reneges on dollar amount of $52 million and lowballs Swain County in negotiations. Advocates of a cash settlement feel double-crossed. Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson digs in on his position that $52 million is too much, while Swain leaders refuse to accept anything less. Negotiations remain in a stalemate.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park celebrates 75th anniversary. Swain County approaches its 67th year with an unsettled contract from the federal government.

Pointing kids toward a love of the park

Eric Sink, a teacher at Summit Charter School in Cashiers, N.C., looks forward to loading his fifth-graders up on a bus every year and heading into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the woods become the classroom and a park ranger takes over as teacher for the day. Sink wants his students to realize that where they live is special.

“Why do we study about the rainforest in South America when we have one right here in the Southern Appalachians?” Sink questioned.

The Parks as Classrooms fieldtrip for fifth-graders focuses on air quality at Clingmans Dome, where students visit a monitoring station that tests high-elevation ozone.

“We start with several lessons prior to even going, like what creates the pollution and what can we do to reduce the pollution,” Sink said. “They think a lot about things they can actually do, like the conservation of electricity.”

Since most of the pollution is from coal-fired power plants, they begin to think, “‘If I turn off my lights, I conserve electricity and that’s less coal that has to be burned,’” Sink said. Students also think about driving cars that use less gas, or even riding a bike or walking.

Once in the park, the students turn into scientists, conducting their own experiments to measure the effects of air pollution. They do pH tests of the soil to detect acid rain. They measure wind speed and talk about how it carries the pollution into the mountains.

Sink loves to see his students developing hypotheses, collecting data and performing studies.

“It really gets them to think more about it. We always do better when we are there than learning inside the classroom,” Sink said. “I think the great thing about it is they get that firsthand experimental learning.”

The fieldtrips are tailored for each grade level. Each is synced with the curriculum for that grade — even for kindergarten.

The state curriculum for kindergartners includes learning about animals and how they interact with their environment. A fieldtrip to the Oconaluftee River in the Smokies provides the perfect opportunity.

“We saw squirrels scurrying around gathering nuts. We saw groundhogs popping their heads up in the field. There is lots we are observing and watching in terms of animals,” said Lee Messer, a kindergarten teacher at Hazelwood Elementary in Haywood County, who takes her kids on the fieldtrip every year.

The park is rife with the chance to use observation skills, another big part of the kindergarten curriculum. They get clipboards and magnifying glasses to observe the world around them. Park rangers show them natural objects, like turtle shells and otter pelts, and ask the students to describe how they look, feel, smell and sound. To heighten the use of senses, students listen to recordings of animals and try to guess what animal it is.

Kindergartners are learning how to sort objects by category, and the rock pebbles along the Oconaluftee River prove fertile ground. Armed with nothing but two buckets, the students pick their own attributes — bumpy versus smooth, for example — and sort accordingly.

“Taking this fieldtrip brings everything you are talking about all year long to life,” Messer said. “It is an amazing, amazing fieldtrip. The children always come back talking about it.”

When the Park becomes a classroom: From real life science to a trip back in time, the Smokies provides fertile ground for learning

While most national parks serve as conduits for science, the Smokies is a window on history as well. Churches, schools, general stores, lumber camps, grist mills, farms and homes once filled the valleys and hollers that now constitute the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A program called Parks as Classrooms takes students back to those early days before the park was here, using the backdrop of the recreated farmstead of the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill, both near the park’s North Carolina entrance outside Cherokee. Their tour guide is often Jay Johnstone, a fun-loving park ranger who’s perfected the art of seeing the park through kids’ eyes.

“The main goal we’re trying to do is connect the kids to the past,” Johnstone said. “Connecting kids with history can be a challenge. History can be a very dull textbook.”

But in the Smokies, where culture and history have been preserved in buildings and artifacts, it comes to life, whether it’s through the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer or creaky floorboards of the old mill.

“Walking in the footsteps, that connects you,” Johnstone said. “It’s not a picture. It’s not two-dimensional. You’re immersed in it. You can’t help but imagine what life would have been like. How would my life be different? How would it be the same?”

Johnstone, who is raising three kids of his own in Waynesville, knows just how to get through to them. As the students play hot potato with a bean bag of corn kernels and thread buttons on strings to make whirly-wigs, he asks them to think about their toys today compared to back then.

“We live in an age where more is better. Christmas isn’t good unless presents are piled to the ceiling,” Johnstone tells the kids.

The kids are particularly taken with an old black-and-white photo of students gathered on the steps of a one-room clapboard schoolhouse from the days before the Smokies became a national park. They press closer to Johnstone, awed by the faces of children their own age, staring back at them from another time but not another place, from right here where they stand today — only a century ago.

The students imagined a school where water was fetched in pails, where older boys chopped wood to feed the stove, where school only lasted six months so to not interrupt harvest and planting, and where some went to school barefoot.

Johnstone broke the spell by asking the students to whistle up their horses, the favored mode of transportation to get from one activity to the next during the field trip.

“Here they come!” Johnstone said, reaching out to grab his imaginary horse. “Now one hand on the saddle, throw your leg over and hi-yah, off we go!”

Johnstone took off down the trail with students galloping after him. When Johnstone finally stopped, breathless students encircled him to hear their next assignment: scavenger hunt through the forest in the days before supermarkets. Suddenly, birch tree twigs doubled as toothbrushes. Dried moss served as Band-aids. Sassafras roots made tea. While a novelty for today’s kids, Johnstone explained it was about necessity back then.

Students protested vehemently when asked why they couldn’t have learned all this back home in their classroom. “It is cooler to just see it for yourself,” said Cecelia Tucker, a second-grader at Clyde Elementary in Haywood County.

The fieldtrips are far from a play day. They are synched with the curriculum for each grade level, augmenting what the students are already learning that year.


Learning in action

Parks as Classrooms offers students in middle school a chance to become real scientists. Keith Roden, the principal at Waynesville Middle School, was impressed by what he saw when tagging along with a class of sixth-graders to the Applachian Highlands Science Learning Center in the Haywood County section of the Smokies last fall. As the students probed the woods for insects and put them under a microscope, they quickly fell into friendly competition over who caught the most and whose bugs were cutest.

“They are learning here just like they do in the classroom, but fieldtrips like these stick in their minds. They make an impression. It’s something they can relate to,” Roden said.

Students scrambled to take turns with the insect sucker, a long tube with a bulbous rubber tip akin to a turkey baster, while the rest sifted through leaf litter like they were panning for gold. Before long, they developed a bond with their insects, concerned whether the critters would be turned loose after the microscope session and whether the suctioning injured them.

The creepy crawlies brought the otherwise boring subject of soil to life for the students.

“You really don’t notice all the things in dirt like bugs, but when you take the time to notice them it is really cool,” said Sam Dickson, a sixth-grader at Waynesville Middle School.

The insect exercise was coupled with a battery of soil tests to measure chemical and physical attributes of the soil.

“If you take the fieldtrip the right way, you really see nature and science in a different way,” said Jacob Estrada, also a Waynesville sixth-grader. “Something that you just ignore but when you take the time to explore it, you really see it is the source of life.”

Teachers draw on the exercises in the park all year long, said Park Ranger Susan Sachs, the education coordinator for the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center, a park outpost at Purchase Knob near Maggie Valley.

“The teachers will say ‘Remember when we were in the park and we took pH of the soil?’” Sachs said. “It makes it real for them.”

Students get satisfaction from doing real science, not just duplicating prefab experiments out of a textbook. Whether it’s counting insects at Purchase Knob or measuring wind speed at Clingmans Dome, the students’ results are entered in an online data base. Students can compare their results to those of other classes previous years. It gives them a sense of their contribution to science. Sachs said rangers track changes in the environment based on students’ findings. Called “citizen science,” it’s one of the hallmarks of Parks as Classrooms.

“It makes it more fun and exciting when you are out there doing it,” said Tiffany Dennis. “You are out in nature, so it feels like a real scientist.”

More than 15,000 school children come face-to-face with the wonder of the park every year through Parks as Classrooms.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was one of the first in the nation to launch Parks as Classrooms. The idea arose in 1991, pushed by the National Park Foundation during the 75th anniversary of the National Park Service. The Smokies was selected as a pilot park and set about developing a program that was intrinsic to the Smokies but could provide a model for others.

While successful, the pressure of standardized testing in schools has made it harder for teachers to justify fieldtrips.

“A lot of people feel they need to be in the classroom to teach what is ultimately going to be tested,” said Karen Ballentine, education chief for the park.

That’s where Parks as Classrooms has an edge over other field trips, however.

“I think it helps them academically and puts things in context in terms of real world learning,” Ballentine said. “We can demonstrate to a principal that the time away from the classroom actually enhances their learning and does not detract from it.”

Fieldtrips build knowledge from one year to the next, designed with a natural progression for the lucky students who get to go each year. It also helps build a love for the park.

“As they move along they hopefully start to care about the parks and want to give back at that point,” Ballentine said.


A larger mission

While it is not fueled by a conscious ulterior motive, Parks as Classrooms is helping to cultivate that next generation of park supporters.

“Over time, the return on the investment is you end up with adults who are the community’s decision makers with that positive experience with the park in their background,” said George Ivey, former director of development for Friends of the Smokies. “The program resonates with some of our key supporters who also really value kids who understand conservation issues.”

Another fringe benefit to the park is forging a deeper bond with surrounding communities.

“For so many years the park was seen as a burden to local communities,” Ivey said. “Because it was formed out of private land, people had to sacrifice to create the park and did not always see the benefit. These education programs are one of the key ways attitudes have changed.”

Kids who venture to the park for a fieldtrip serve as an unsuspecting ambassador for the park when talking to their families at the dinner table that night.

“It opens their eyes to parks and open spaces,” Ballentine said. “Many of them bring their families back and take them to some of the sights they have seen, whether it is Purchase Knob or Deep Creek or Clingmans Dome.”

When Waynesville middle school Principal Keith Roden tagged along on a field trip to Purchase Knob last year, he picked up on an important value in Parks as Classrooms.

“It’s just good for them to get out and enjoy nature and hopefully want to protect it. A lot of them don’t have parents who take them out hiking and camping,” Roden said.

The Smokies is a conduit for engaging kids with the outdoors and healing the disconnect recently coined “nature deficit disorder.”

Park Ranger Jay Johnstone said nature deficit disorder is not as striking in rural areas as urban. Here, many kids have gardens in their yard, trees to climb and creeks within reach. Nonetheless, he is shocked by the number of kids who haven’t ventured into the Smokies before.

One take-home message rangers impart is that the park belongs to everyone. During a pop quiz at the end of Johnstone’s Mingus Mill fieldtrip, he asked “True or false: you own the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.” Their answer was a resounding “no.”

“Guess what? You’re all wrong,” Johnstone said. “This is your park. You own the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and 390 more.”

An eye for mountains: An Ansel Adams of the Smokies, George Masa was one of the greatest photographers of his era. So why have so many people never heard of him?

By Michael Beadle

There’s a view on the way up to Clingmans Dome, an overlook where a maze of finger-like ridges unfurl at your feet and spread across the landscape before tumbling into the Oconaluftee River Valley below. Surveying this vast, unspoiled wilderness, photographer Don McGowan likes to think George Masa once stood here taking photos nearly a century ago.

McGowan can’t help but wonder whether the views of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that he enjoys today are largely the result of Masa’s tireless efforts to capture the subtle beauty and awe-inspiring vistas that many take for granted.

“I think he felt a kinship with these mountains,” McGowan said of Masa. “To see through his eyes is always an inspiration to me.”

Masa, who once helped scout the course of the Appalachian Trail through North Carolina and recorded peaks and distances in the Great Smokies, earned his very own spot on the Tennessee side of the park with the naming of Masa Knob in 1961. While the self-taught, Japanese-born photographer earned a great reputation for his endurance as a hiker promoting the idea of preserving mountain land for posterity, he died in 1933 before the Great Smokies became a park. Grieving over the death of his good friend Horace Kephart, plunged into debt during the Great Depression, and suffering from influenza, Masa died in 1933 in the Buncombe County Sanatorium in Asheville. Hundreds of his photos fell into obscurity, many unidentified, lost or stored away by private collectors. Even his grave at Riverside Cemetery in Asheville (the resting place of famous writers Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry) was unmarked. Today much of Masa’s work remains largely unknown beyond the Southern Appalachian region.

But that’s about to change.

A new Ken Burns documentary called “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” is set to air on UNC-TV the week of Sept. 27 and features the work of George Masa and the role he played with friend and writer Horace Kephart in making the park a reality. The 12-hour, six-part film by the award-winning and famous Burns may finally give Masa’s legacy the attention he so rightfully deserves, according to Paul Bonesteel, an Asheville-based filmmaker who collaborated with Burns on the “National Parks” documentary.

Bonesteel directed a Masa documentary of his own in 2003, “The Mystery of George Masa,” that fueled a resurgence in learning more about Masa’s work and found a home on PBS stations nationwide. Thanks to the added clout from Burns, Bonesteel’s documentary on Masa will be made available to PBS stations for the next three years.

“A lot more people will be hearing the story of George Masa because of that,” Bonesteel said.

Recent magazine articles, art exhibits, lectures and historical essays have given more people a chance to get to know George Masa, though his younger years before coming to Asheville are still shrouded in mystery. Why did he leave Japan? Why did he not discuss his past with friends and close business associates? How did he die penniless and in obscurity when he once counted the Vanderbilts as clients of his photography business?

Bonesteel learned of the man dubbed “the Ansel Adams of the Appalachian Mountains” through a biographical article written by William A. Hurt Jr. in the book May We All Remember Well: A Journey of the History & Culture of Western North Carolina, published in 1997. Intrigued by what he read, Bonesteel contacted Hurt, who said he felt like he’d only scratched the surface of this enigmatic figure. After a few years of researching Masa’s life, poring over letters and photographs from various university archives and private collections, Bonesteel found a fascinating story of a man who was leading the environmentalist charge long before the hippies of the 1960s.

“He was a curious and mysterious fellow,” Bonesteel said. “There are mysteries that we won’t ever be able to answer. And people like mysteries.”


Masa’s background

Masa was certainly not the first to photograph the majestic peaks and scenic vistas of the Great Smoky Mountains, but in the early 1900s, no one had taken on such a monumental task of measuring, mapping and photographing as many of these mountains with the passion and skill as Masa.

Based on the limited information about his early years, there’s not much to tell. He was born in Japan in 1881. His birth name was Masahara Iizuka. Late 19th century Japan was in a state of social and political upheaval. The long-running shogun government system which had isolated the country from Westernized culture finally opened up, bringing a flood of European and American traders into the country.

The Japanese ban on emigration had also been lifted, and tens of thousands of Japanese left their homeland for work in America, many going to Hawaii to toil in the sugar plantations, while others relocated to California, which saw an explosion of population and business after its gold rush.

Iizuka ended up in Asheville in 1915 as part of a traveling group of Austrian students. Together, they would go on mountain hiking excursions, and Iizuka fell in love with the region. When it was time for the Austrian group to leave, Iizuka stayed behind and found work as a valet at the Grove Park Inn. Fred Seely, the manager of the Grove Park Inn who also organized Biltmore Industries, hired the young Japanese newcomer as a woodcarver.

Iizuka, like many foreign-born immigrants with hard-to-pronounce names, decided to Anglicize his name, keeping part of his original moniker. And so he became George Masa.

Masa got his start in photography by developing film for hotel guests. By the 1920s, Masa developed his own business as a photographer, taking portraits and working as a freelance photojournalist for Asheville newspapers and news services. His photography studios went through various names and partners, but he soon became well known locally as a landscape photographer, and his work found its way into magazines, newspapers and chamber of commerce brochures.


The Kephart connection

Historians are not clear exactly when Masa befriended the outdoor travel writer Horace Kephart, but the two found a mutual passion in hiking through the mountains and for creating what would become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. George Ellison, a writer based in Bryson City, N.C., who has researched and lectured extensively on Masa and Kephart, notes that the two had a lot in common. Both were wiry men who loved the outdoors, and the park gave them a mutual goal to save the mountains they loved so much. They hiked and camped together, and Masa’s photographs would often accompany Kephart’s articles.

“They were quite a formidable team,” Ellison said.

When Kephart died in a car accident in 1931, Masa was devastated, and before Masa died two years later, he asked to be buried along side of his friend. Though that wish was not granted, and neither lived to see the official creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they were among an elite few to have place names in their honor. Today, Masa Knob stands next to Mt. Kephart, two peaks for two kindred spirits.

While many of Masa’s photographs remain lost or undiscovered, Bonesteel believes that a large body of his work has been made available to give us plenty of insights into his artistry. Masa, sporting his signature bandana and home-made bicycle wheel odometer that he used to measure distances along trails and up to the tops of mountains, is pictured alongside fellow hikers and curious tourists.

There are various stories of this painstaking perfectionist hiking miles into the woods and waiting for hours to get the clouds and the lighting just right before taking his photos. Masa lugged heavy camera equipment into the wilderness and when he pitched a tent, he might store the camera and equipment under shelter as he slept outside. Sometimes friends and fellow hikers would help him carry the equipment up and over mountains.

Author and outdoors photographer Bill Lea said he admires Masa not only for his creative eye for putting the viewer right in the middle of a wilderness setting but also for his work ethic and his willingness to trek great distances with little provision for himself in his quest to find the best photos.

“In fact,” Lea explained, “many people felt he died young due to the disregard he had for his own welfare and subsequent exposure to the elements in his great desire to capture those perfect images.”

In addition to enduring long hikes and inclement weather through rough terrain, Masa most likely had prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals used in film developing that may have given him respiratory illnesses. He suffered from bouts of tuberculosis and ultimately succumbed to influenza.

And not everyone was keen on Masa.

Bonesteel found evidence in letters that Fred Seely, who once hired Masa as a woodcarver at Biltmore Industries, secretly reported on Masa to the federal government. At a time when immigrants and outsiders were viewed suspiciously, Masa’s meticulous record-keeping and documentation of his photographs may have raised some red flags, but Seely soon called off the dogs when there was no substantive evidence that Masa was doing anything un-American. From Bonesteel’s research, he found some subtle forms of prejudice, but more often than not local residents were accepting of Masa and his work and were attracted to the novelty of a talented Japanese photographer in their midst.

“He did a lot of work to capture the grandness of the mountains,” Bonesteel explained. And even in his more commercial work of buildings and architecture, the quality is still there.


True scope unknown

While Masa has been compared to Ansel Adams, whose photography popularized the Rocky Mountains and the beauty of the western U.S., Bonesteel argues that the two had very different intentions. Adams saw himself as an artist and had his work shown in galleries. Masa never had an exhibition in a gallery during his lifetime and made a living by selling postcards, portraits and tourist shots.

Bonesteel speculates that there may be hundreds, even thousands of Masa photographs still out there waiting to be seen. A Buncombe County listing of Masa’s possessions at his death suggest the possibility of thousands of negatives. Today, there are several sizeable archives of Masa’s work found at Pack Memorial Library in downtown Asheville, as well as the University of North Carolina at Asheville and Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

George Frizzell, head of special collections at Western Carolina’s library, helps to preserve Masa’s photos by storing them in Mylar sleeves to keep the natural oils in fingers from damaging them. Given the latest digital photography techniques and computer scanners, Frizzell hopes that more of Masa’s photos can be stored indefinitely and shown to wider audiences via the Internet.

Since Bonesteel’s film came out in 2003, he has been contacted by a family that once kept Masa as a guest at their boarding house in Asheville. Descendents of the family who knew Masa claim to have letters Masa received from Japan. Masa still owed this family about $1,200 at the time of his death, but they kept his letters because of the beauty of the Japanese characters on paper. If these letters could be acquired and translated, they might shed some light as to whether Masa was still in contact with Japanese family and friends and what his relationship was with them. But so far, Bonesteel hasn’t been able to procure those letters.

“I don’t rule out the possibility that something may come out of that,” he said. “There’s work yet to do. The answers may be out there.”

Hard-to-get taxonomists could make or break ATBI’s future

As the inventory of every living species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park trudges into its tenth year, it turns out the biggest hunt so far isn’t for obscure slime molds or nocturnal flies — it’s for taxonomists to do the counting.

“In the beginning we cast a wide net: all these things need to be researched and if you want to do that, come,” said Todd Witcher, the director of Discover Life in America. “Now the park is wanting to look at things that are understudied. There are cases where there just is nobody to do it.”

Witcher’s pitch to lure hard-to-get taxonomists — beyond simply being part of the world’s premier species inventory — includes the thrill of finding and naming a new species.

“The idea of discovering a new species is intriguing,” Witcher said. “That’s why they are in science or taxonomy.”

As more national parks and preserves follow in the footsteps of the Smokies and launch their own all-species inventories, the global shortage of taxonomists is becoming even more apparent. The competition for experts in an already strained field makes it unclear how or when the Smokies’ All-Taxa Biological Inventory will eventually conclude.

“When it comes to getting taxonomists in a field where there are no experts, it’s hard to predict how long some of that will take,” Witcher said.

Life in the richest place on earth

When Jim Lowe strikes out on his twice-monthly foray to check insect traps in the Smokies, he never knows just what is in store.

Lowe runs various and sundry traps — tiny cups sunk in the ground, large mesh nets draped from poles and funnels dangling in the tree canopy. As a volunteer for the All Taxa Biological Inventory, Lowe ambushes moths, spiders, millipedes, bees, flies, beetles and the whole array of insects in the name of science.

During his collection rounds, he often wonders, “Is this a new species?” It is usually months, or even years, until he knows the answer, after taxonomists get their hands on the specimens and cull through them.

But to Lowe, the ATBI is more than the thrill of the hunt, more than a laundry list of new species or bragging rights as the most diverse park.

“We are asking the fundamental question: what do each of these things do? What is their role in the ecosystem?” said Lowe, who lives outside Robbinsville. “The Smokies is a most extraordinary place. There is so much diversity.”

The quest to document every life form in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has rallied researchers from across the globe, inspired by this last frontier of exploration. While cavers probed the park’s limestone depths, climbers harnessed ropes to explore life in the vast canopy of old-growth trees. Teams outfitted in wetsuits and snorkels peered under rocks in the ancient river beds, while others combed the dank underside of logs for mysterious breeds of fungus.

The undertaking is the first of its kind in the world. Ten years and counting, the ATBI still has long way to go. The Smokies is a bastion of biodiversity and ferreting out the estimated 60,000 species hasn’t been easy.

“Some of it’s under the ground, some of it’s on top of the tree canopy, some if it’s out at night when we’re not around,” said Paul Super, a research coordinator for the Smokies who is stationed at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center in Haywood County, N.C.

Some species are so specialized they appear only when the right conditions align, perhaps every 20 years or more. Super has been waiting for years for a good winter snow pack to reveal rare slime mold species that only emerge under the right spring thaw conditions.

While discovering new species is exhilarating in its own right, it’s not the driver behind the ATBI, Super said.

“We have been charged with protecting this 550,000-acre black box, to take care of all the resources that are in it and make sure they will survive centuries into the future while allowing people to visit and enjoy the park,” Super said “We want to open the black box and see what’s in it so we can protect its biological diversity with a foundation of science and understanding.”

While the ATBI has earned the Smokies bragging rights as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, Park Ranger Keith Langdon says the ATBI is much more than a ledger of species.

“How could it make us be more intelligent stewards of the park forever?” asked Langdon, chief of inventory and monitoring in the park.

Until the ATBI, the park had only a vague idea of what birds lived where, but now they have maps of breeding grounds for different species and the niche microclimates they inhabit, Langdon said.

Todd Witcher, the executive director of Discover Life in America, doesn’t discount the value of sheer knowledge: science for science’s sake.

“People are interested in what’s out there. Anytime you go on a hike, people want to know, ‘What is that? What is this? What’s behind that rock?’” Witcher said. “Sometimes it doesn’t go any further than putting a name to something.”

But the study of individual species is a key to unlocking the secrets of the ecosystem as a whole.

“An ecosystem is made up of all these things that are interdependent. The big stuff wouldn’t be there without the small stuff,” Witcher said. “In general, we are trying to find out what the small stuff is and how it connects to all those bigger things.”

Life on earth hinges on thousands of “cryptic yet important” microorganisms, according to Peter White, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and board member of Discover Life in America.

The ATBI is going a long way to detect those critical links, like the slime mold that decomposes fallen logs and leaves, creating fertile soil for acorns to sprout. The oak from that acorn will one day become a winter den for a black bear giving birth to cubs — all on the backs of the microscopic slime mold that until now no one knew existed.


A worthy cause

At Discover Life in America, Witcher’s job is to convince the public — and people handing out grants — that the ATBI has value beyond an interesting counting exercise. Discover Life in America is the non-profit established to coordinate the operation, from training volunteers to the all-important fundraising.

When pitching the ATBI, the allure of pharmaceutical discoveries or DNA breakthroughs rise to the top. For example, the Smokies has garnered repute for its slime molds, bestowed with the charming title of “Slime Mold Capital of the World.” While slime molds have all sorts of important roles — an anchor at the bottom of the food chain that higher life depends on — medical researchers have latched on to a particular slime mold species from the Smokies as holding a cure for Alzheimer’s.

The ATBI has provided a platform for scientists to collude with the other top experts in their field, such as a fly blitz held a couple of years ago.

“There were 25 brilliant scientist from all over the world to study flies,” Witcher said, ticking off countries like Israel, Ukraine, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea and Peru.

They collected flies and studied specimens by day, and took turns putting on mini-presentations at night. Man’s understanding of the natural world was better off at week’s end than at the beginning.

Even flies have a vital function. They are the top pollinator after bees, and in maggot form they play a vital role in decomposition of dead animals and plants.

The ATBI has captured the imagination of scientists worldwide. More than 700 researchers from 20 countries have flocked to the Smokies to be a part of the ATBI. What started as a scrappy undertaking, even a pipedream, has become the largest sustained natural history inventory in the world.

“Assisted by volunteers and with only a shoestring budget, they have built it into a major enterprise of biological research,” according to famous Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson.

The ATBI has not only enchanted scientists, but it has dropped school children into the woods as first-hand explorers.

“Children are innately curious about the living world and are closer to the ground than we are — and more ready to turn over rocks and logs,” White said.

School children from surrounding communities on fieldtrips in the park have been enlisted in the hunt for everything from moths to salamanders.


Life on a string

One of the scariest tasks staring down the Smokies is protecting species found nowhere else on earth. Known as endemic species, these hyperlocal life forms carved out a niche on the planet so specific that if they disappear from the park, they disappear forever.

“The national park’s mission is to protect what exists in the park,” Witcher said. “If you don’t know what’s there, you don’t know what is disappearing.”

And the threats are daunting.

“There’s air pollution. There’s global warming. There is acid rain. There is urban development jutting right up next to the park. There is overuse, loving our park to death. There are also invasive exotic species,” Witcher said.

So, the ATBI is providing a crucial baseline to measure future changes against, the very diversity of the Smokies serving as a giant canary in the coal mine.

“Ecosystems and species provide for an early warning system for the health of the biosphere and the human habitat,” White said.

The Smokies’ biodiversity is partly due to its array of unique habitats: a combination of warm valleys and frosty peaks, moist rich coves and dry southern slopes, creating hundreds of microclimates and ecosystems. Each niche teems with its own thriving species.

The peak biodiversity is found in mid-range elevations, where the lower and higher altitude species overlap. That’s something the park didn’t realize prior to the ATBI, Langdon said.

The Smokies’ high-elevation ridges host numerous species otherwise found in more northern climes. Isolated from the rest of their species since the last Ice Age, these northern vagabonds trapped on high-elevation islands in the Smokies can evolve on their own track and end up genetically different from their northern cousin.

One such peripheral population marked a major milestone in the ATBI — the 5,000th species discovered in the Park that was not previously known to dwell here.

The Velvet Leaf Blueberry was found during an inventory field day at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob in Haywood County. The thigh-high shrub was first encountered in the Park a few years earlier, but eluded botanists until it was found blooming during an ATBI field day.

Not every species uncovered by the ATBI is cause to celebrate. Take another find from Purchase Knob, a small round beetle found feeding on St. John’s Wort by two volunteers, retired entomologist Dr. Charles Stains and his wife.

Their unfortunate find was the “Klamath Weed Beetle,” an invasive species from Europe and Northern Africa, adding to the depressingly long list of exotics undermining the native ecosystem. Another exotic species unearthed during the inventory is the Chinese jumping worm. It aggressively devours organic matter before it can be synthesized by the soil, severely compromising the nutrient composition.

The worm was likely released inadvertently by fishermen who had purchased the worms from bait shops. Thanks to the ATBI, the species was detected before becoming widespread in the Park and can hopefully be stopped.


How it all began

When the Smokies launched the ATBI in 1998, it was the first of its kind in the world. Despite the many parks and preserves now emulating the research, the Smokies remains at the forefront.

Along the way, the Smokies benefited from a little blind luck. In the early 1990s, a famous and pre-eminent tropical ecologist, Dr. Dan Janzen, began rallying scientists to join him in an inventory of life in Costa Rica. Janzen urged ecologists to take note of the critical crossroads facing the planet today: that we’re losing life faster than we can catalog it.

Janzen raised millions for his project and entrusted it to an agency created to spearhead the Costa Rica project. But it barely got off the ground before the agency recanted, pitching other uses for the money than just the species inventory.

Janzen was furious. He terminated the project, leaving the hordes of scientists geared up for the undertaking not only disappointed but wondering what to do next.

From his corner of the Smokies, biologist Keith Langdon watched the rise and fall of Janzen’s great tropical inventory. Langdon and his fellow park rangers had long held the notion that life here in the Smokies was just as rich — and fragile — as the famed rainforests.

“We, too, are losing things faster than we can catalog it,” Langdon said.

Langdon occasionally finagled small pots of money for tailored inventory work, like the number of crayfish in a particular stream or the trees preferred for breeding by a single endangered bat.

“It would have taken us about 150 years at that rate to finish the inventory of the park,” Langdon said.

So Langdon called the fuming Janzen and pitched the idea of deploying an inventory in the Smokies instead. Janzen was in, but they couldn’t do it without support from the world’s scientists. Unsure if those who’d previously signed on for Costa Rica would invest in the Smokies, Janzen agreed to hold an informal talk in the park to gauge interest.

“We had 120 scientists show up,” Langdon recalled. “He’d gotten the taxonomists all excited. They were looking forward to showing what they could do if they all joined together.”

Langdon still needed a green light from national park bureaucrats, so the lobbying began. In a fitting move, the deputy director of the park service flew down from D.C. on Earth Day (April 20) of 1998.

“He said ‘Yup, let’s do this. We want to try this out and the Smokies will be our pilot. We aren’t going to give you any money, but you can do it,’” Langdon recalled.

Then began the tough job of logistics. Who would run it, where would money come from, where should scientists start counting?

“We knew it was a big deal, a big commitment and a lot of work,” Langdon said. “It’s a big park, it’s diverse and difficult to get around. We knew it wouldn’t be easy.”

The park looked to Friends of the Smokies for help. The Friends agreed to help launch the project, but ultimately planned to spin off a separate non-profit tasked solely with managing the ATBI. Together with the Great Smoky Mountains Association, Friends of the Smokies co-sponsored the creation of Discover Life in America to get the ball rolling.


Trial and error

Now the brass tacks could begin. But the logistics of just how to do this thing proved difficult. In fact, 10 years into the project, Langdon is still sorting out the best approach.

When people hear about the ATBI, they envision a chain of scientists sweeping quadrants of the park, crawling along the ground with a magnifying glass in hand, perhaps a crew leader bellowing through a megaphone for all the critters out there to please stand still for a head count.

But in fact, there will still be vast sections of the park never touched by scientists when the books are eventually closed on the ATBI. Instead, the park will pick sampling sites that theoretically represent every habitat niche.

The past decade has focused on just 11 plots subjected to intensive sampling. A rotating door of experts on spiders, moths, ants, slime molds, fungi, and birds took their turn trapping and tagging at the targeted plots. Teams of volunteers were critical in the sampling, from checking insect traps, wielding nets or toting clipboards for the scientists.

The plots had to be checked and rechecked every two weeks all year long, since many species emerge during certain seasons, whether it is a short-lived wildflower or a bat showing up to nest. For example, the synchronous fireflies, famous for their choreographed light show and found few places other than the Smokies, are only active for a 10-day window. The “when and where” of species is a critical part of the ATBI data.

“If somebody came to me and gave me a list of all the species, it wouldn’t help me. I need to know where they are at, their abundance, the seasonality of it, which ones are rare to keep track of and which ones are common, and something about their ecological role,” Langdon said.

That initial strategy — intensive sampling at 11 sites — wasn’t perfect, however. For starters, the parade of bio blitzes and life quests raked in an unmanageable volume of organisms still queued up waiting for a taxonomist to inspect them, Langdon said. The backlog could take years to clear out, specimens languishing in storerooms for want of scientists to sort them.

Plus, the 11 sites weren’t representative enough of the park’s numerous microhabitats, Langdon’s realized.

“We just missed it with 11 sites,” Langdon said.

Enter the next phase of the ATBI: far more sites, but far less intensive. The park mapped out 150 sampling sites for quick hits, comparatively, by tactical teams. The new strategy will likely define the next decade of the ATBI.


In the Smokies’ footsteps

National parks and private preserves all over the world are tackling similar inventories. Exactly how many isn’t known, but there were nine that cropped up at other national parks in 2008 alone. Top that off with some at state parks, private nature preserves and parks around the world, and there are likely a couple of dozen.

“A lot of people initially said ‘You can’t do that, it is too much,’” Langdon said. “I think we have shown you can make some great strides wading into that. There are a lot of parks following in our footsteps.”

For a national park embarking on a species inventory, their first step is usually calling Todd Witcher at Discover Life in America for advice.

“We are helping the other ATBIs learn from our mistakes and learn from our knowledge,” Witcher said. “We want to share that information even though there will probably be a little competition.”

That competition — whether for grant money or luring researchers — has contributed to a slowdown of the Smokies own ATBI.

Witcher’s top bit of advice: the drudgery of data management. A laundry list of species isn’t useful unless they can be mapped, charted, sorted and searched with computer programs.

“We are still dealing with our backlogged data,” Witcher said.

Discover Life in America is more than an ATBI facilitator. Witcher sees the nonprofit as a scientific arm of the park, coordinating science and research on a host of levels. Discover Life has an annual budget of about $120,000, varying with grants. The nonprofit recruits and coordinates volunteers, raises awareness for science in the park, manages teams of researchers cycling through the project, stores the data and generally makes the ATBI possible.

Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association provide the core of Discover Life in America’s budget.


The road ahead

The ATBI will likely continue in some form for decades to come, although it will taper off in intensity. A decision no one relishes is when to declare mission accomplished.

“If we get to 90 percent, is that enough?” Witcher asked. “The last 10 percent is probably really, really rare and hard to find, so do you want to spend a lot of money on something that is going to take a lot of effort and be really difficult to complete?”

But getting to 90 percent is still a long way off. So far, 16,000 species have been identified. Scientists believe the park holds as many as 60,000.

As Phil Francis, a long-time assistant superintendent of the park once remarked, “How many species are there in the Smokies? It reminds me of the question we used to get at Mammoth Cave National Park: How many miles of unexplored cave are there?”

Another challenge is keeping the public excited about yet another slime mold or millipede.

“About half of all the species in the park are believed to be insects and other invertebrates,” Langdon said. Lichen and plants take up another good chunk of the pie. That leaves perhaps just 1 percent for the birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians and mammals that most capture the public’s interest — or at least until now. The ATBI has moved the public’s image of the Smokies beyond the bears and elk and trout.

“The project draws people from the human scale to see the hidden, unknown, and obscure, but often beautiful, intricate, and ecologically important species of natural ecosystems,” White said. “It shows parks as oases, storehouses, and protectors of biological diversity.”

Volunteers keep the Smokies ticking

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts more volunteers than nearly any other park. Last year, 2,780 volunteers logged a total of 117,537 man-hours. They wielded Pulaskis on trails, handed out maps at visitor centers, donned historic costumes for heritage days, scooped ashes out of campfire rings and promoted ethical wildlife viewing during peak elk times in Cataloochee.

Some volunteers turn their commitment to the park into a full-time endeavor, like Jim Lowe of Robbinsville. The Smokies hit a home run when Lowe sought out the area in his retirement. With a Ph.D from Yale in entomology and botany, and a forest service career that centered around plants and bugs, Lowe not only has hours and passion to spare but a real knowledge of science.

Lowe found his true niche as a volunteer with the All Taxa Biological Inventory. During the height of ATBI insect collections, the 77-year-old Lowe made twice-monthly treks to Purchase Knob for three years to check insect traps.

To catch crawling insects, Lowe used a pitfall trap: a plastic jar sunk in the ground. Any bugs stumbling along would fall in and drown in a dose of propylene glycol, poisonous only to insects.

For flying critters, Lowe draped a large mesh net over a pole, called a malaise trap. When insects collide with the mesh, they have a naturally tendency to fly upwards looking for a way past the obstacle. But at the apex of the net, the insects found themselves face to face with a bottle of ethyl alcohol.

Since black bears would lap up the ethyl alcohol if given the chance, an electric fence was strung around the whole contraption.

After three years, the Park finally put the breaks on the intensive collection after running out of storage space for the insects.

“Literally thousands,” Lowe said.

Lowe wasn’t the only one making the weekly rounds to check traps. Similar stations were set up at 10 other sites in the park. Lowe frequently pinchhit for volunteers manning the other locations.

“Between that and my trail maintenance, I never hike recreationally any more,” Lowe said.

As an on-call volunteer, Lowe often gets the chance to rub elbows with the troop of researchers funneling through the Smokies on ATBI quests. Lowe has a boat on Fontana Lake and is often tapped to give researchers a lift across the water to the wild and remote North Shore area of the Park. One week it might be ornithologists snaring birds in mist nets, and scientists tracing water mites the next.

Lowe sometimes serves as a backcountry guide for what he calls the “intellectual types” with less than savvy outdoor skills.

The ATBI has overshadowed any semblance of retirement Lowe had to his name.

“It’s a long standing love of the park and wanting to contribute to the knowledge of it,” Lowe said. “At the risk of sounding sappy, I am just devoted to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has been a great part of my life.”

Great Smokies become instant recipe for tourists

The mountains of Western North Carolina were no stranger to tourism prior to the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which today rakes in 9 million visitors and is by far the most visited national park in the country.

Trains loaded with wealthy tourists from Charleston, Atlanta and beyond pulled into the stations in Bryson City and Waynesville daily. Many spent their entire summers in the mountains to escape the Southern heat.

But the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park catapulted the region into a new era of tourism: one centered on the burgeoning automobile.

Initially automobile trips into the Smokies became a lucrative business for those capitalizing on the throngs of summer tourists arriving by train, said Henry Foy, whose mother operated the Herren House in Waynesville.

“We would be in the dining room at dinner and the owner of a taxi company would come down and tell people he was organizing a daytrip to the Smokies if they were interested,” Foy recalled.

As owning cars became commonplace following WWII, the Smokies offered an unrivaled auto touring adventure. Nowhere was the impact of tourism more prevelant than in Cherokee, the final gateway to the park from North Carolina. Traffic would often back up for miles as it inched along Cherokee’s main drag toward the park entrance.

“It was bumper to bumper to bumper for miles,” recalled Bill Gibson, who lived in Bryson City but worked as a short-order cook at a foodstand in Cherokee as a teenager. “I had never been anywhere, so I didn’t relate to where these people were coming from or going back to other than what I saw in a geography book in school. These folks weren’t alien Martians, but I can recall seeing a Florida plate, and it was unusual enough to be something to be proud of.”

License plate spotting was apparently a popular pastime for the region’s youth.

“We played this silly game where we tried to see the most exotic license plate,” said Gary Carden, who whiled away the summer afternoons along the roadside in Cherokee with other children. As they watched the tourists go by in their Henry Js and Studebakers in the 1950s, without fail a carload of tourists would make hand motions like a teepee, prompting the children to mock the silly gestures after the car had passed. Even thought the Cherokee never lived in teepees, historical accuracy was lost on the tourists who held their own notions of what Indians should look like. So the Cherokee soon lined the road with fake teepees, donned headdresses and posed in photos for money.

“With all these people coming through our front yard they said ‘Let’s sell them something.’ They had to pretend to be something they weren’t in order to stimulate the economy,” Carden said. “What they got was a strange new economy based on tourism that was only good for six months. Then you were out of work for six months when the tourist left.”

Bryson City capitalized on the influx of tourists as well. Luke Hyde, 69, remembers the droves that would funnel through the Calhoun House, a large inn in the middle of downtown, where his mother worked as a cook. Hyde would often carry the tourists’ bags in, and remembers the first time someone tipped him a dime. Hyde was confused, and handed it back to the man.

Meanwhile, Leonard Winchester spent his teenage years pumping gas for tourists at his dad’s rural store and roadside motel outside Byrson City.

“There was a dramatic difference in business in the summer,” Winchester said.

Winchester liked the chance to see people from all over the country coming past his doorstep. One tourist from out West had a carload of timberwolf pups and gave one to Winchester. But not all the memories are fond ones.

“Some of them were on the obnoxious side. They were pushy,” Winchester said. “They had stereotypes about this region. They pretty much looked down on us as hicks.”

JC Freeman, 81, of Swain County, also had the feeling that outsiders were here as much to gawk at the local people as they were at the mountains.

“The biggest thing they were hunting for is somebody they could make fun of,” Freeman said, recalling loads of tourists on Packard busses. “They wanted to see old Snuffy Smith and L’il Abner and they did their best to show it to them.”

An unfortunate object of affection

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has long been synonymous with black bears. From the first automobile tourists to today’s long-distance backpackers, catching a glimpse of the the iconic animal is the ultimate Smokies’ experience.

Of course, it was much easier to see one in the park’s early days when tourists regularly fed the bears without fear of reprisal. While it’s illegal to feed wildlife now, it was once an accepted practice, ensuring tourists could get a good, long look.

There was no such thing as bear-proof trash cans, so campgrounds and picnic areas became the bears’ main stomping grounds, giving rise to a host of problematic encounters. Some bears even broke into vehicles to get food left inside.

“They were always trying to catch a bear that was mischevious and getting into trouble,” said Teresa Pennington, who spent lots of time in the park during her childhood years in Asheville. “They would have big traps set up with a piece of meat inside and the gate would fall behind them. They would take them out of the park and release them, but three or four weeks later they were back again. They even had names for them.”

Many of the tourist shops in Cherokee would put bears in a cage and charge tourists to see them, spawning a black market for live bears. Trying to catch a bear was not just a source of money but entertainment for the kids, recalled Gary Carden of Sylva.

“You would pull up at Smokemont and raise the trunk lid and throw a pound of bacon in the back and then go hide. When the bear came in there to get the bacon you slammed the lid and drove off. Sometimes the bear tore that car all to pieces. You would drive around half the night and if nobody wanted the bear you had to go back to the park and let it out,” Carden said

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