History of the Smoky Mountain Historical Society
Robert M. Beckwith
Looking at the history of the Smoky Mountain Historical Society is like looking at the Smoky Mountains themselves. The further out we look the more the haze of distance and time obscures the details of reality. It is from its Newsletters and Journals published since 1966 that the true history of the Smoky Mountain Historical Society comes into focus.
The Smoky Mountain Historical Society is a private, non-profit organization which was established on July 10, 1966, at an annual meeting of the National John Huskey Genealogical Society, organized in 1964, whose president in 1965 was Harkless Orlie Trentham (1892 – 1976). It has been said that when he became president his goal was to change its name to the Smoky Mountain Historical Society (SMHS). This was accomplished later in 1966 with the writing of a new Constitution and Bylaws.
The mission of the Society is to perpetuate the cultural and genealogical studies and histories of the Tennessee counties of Blount, Cocke and Sevier; to promote a sense of pride through our heritage and connections associated with the Great Smoky Mountain.
Reading from the SMHS Newsletters, published several times a year, one feels the sense of excitement among its members who share information, research family histories and undertake projects of everlasting historical value encompassing the three counties of Blount, Cocke and Sevier, which bordered the Great Smoky Mountain National Park on the Tennessee side.
Who the original members were is not certain but during the first few years new membership was published in the Newsletter. From July 1972 thru July 1973 twenty-five new members were welcomed. It was noted in the January 1974 Newsletter, the membership more than doubled since that of July 1972. The March 1976 the Newsletter listed for 1975 ninety-three members of which twenty-four were new. Thirty-seven of these members lived outside the three county area including fifteen outside the state of Tennessee.
This growth of membership was indicative of the success of the Society’s efforts to record and document the history of the people who grew up in, or just outside, the Great Smoky Mountains. On average the membership in recent years had been between 350 and 650 with members as far away as Alaska, California, and Washington State. At one time some 43 of the 50 states were represented among the membership.
New officers were elected to begin service commencing January 1975. They were: President: Olin Watson; Vice President, Jim Shular; Secretary, Mrs. Elizabeth Fox; Assistant Secretary, Miss Evolena Ownby; Treasurer, Miss Evolena Ownby; Historian, Mrs. Beulah Linn; Editor, Donald B. Reagan; Assistant Editor, Mrs. Cherel Henderson; Genealogist, Mrs. Cherel Henderson.
The early Newsletters, devoted to the preservation of history of the region and its pioneers, were compiled and edited by Ronald B. Reagan until March 1975 when Cherel Henderson assumed the position of editor followed by Florence Cope Bush and since 1994 Jim Shular.
Initially the Newsletters were single side 8 x 12 mimeographed pages stapled together and ranging from 9 to 20 pages of content. Beginning the 1977 year the Newsletter grew to double wide 8x12 folded and stapled at the spine. In addition the front cover presented a new masthead and featured a historical setting or picture of a noted pioneer.
In 1995 it was recognized that the Newsletter, published at least four times a year, had in reality become a Journal rather than just a publication of news. Thus its name was changed to Smoky Mountain Historical Society JOURNAL and NEWS LETTER. Basically the Journal itself contains the history of the SMHS. Should the reader let a little imagination prevail it is possible to envision the lives of the early pioneers who settled the area and contributed to the development of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the nation’s most visited.
Early on the Newsletter gave opportunity for the members to connect their genealogical roots. The first reference to seeking genealogical help was published in the January 1974 Newsletter and titled “Genealogy Corner”. Almost from the outset a goal was to research family histories. This was accomplished with the aid of a Queries section to which anyone could seek information or provide information about their ancestral heritage. Membership in the SMHS is not required to post a Query.
Commencing in 1978 the SMHS published it first book. A Piece of the Smokies was fifty seven pages of authentic photographs depicting the way of life in the Smokies in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
This was followed by, The Gentle Winds of Change, a history of Sevier County Tennessee, 1900-1920, authored by a group of SMHS members.
Additional publications over the years covered such projects as:
·Identify all the cemeteries in Sevier County and catalog the graves up to 1988.
·Research and publish five volumes of marriage records from 1856 to August 1987.
·Publish three volumes of funeral home records to cover the years of 1911 through 1999.
·Document the history and architecture of key Sevier County homes and structures.
In December 1976 the SMHS joined with the staff of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to annually present Festival of Christmas Past at the Sugarlands visitor center in the Park, a daylong celebration of the crafts and stories of the mountain folk at Christmas time.
From its inception in 1991 the SMHS has been a participant in the Wilderness Wildlife Week held each January in Pigeon Forge.
For several years the SMHS in the mid 90’s presented its various publications for sale at the October Rotary Crafts tent in Pigeon Forge Patriot Park.
With the coming of the year 2000 a few months away the SMHS Board of Directors considered how the Society might celebrate the historic transition from the 20th to the 21st Century. President Glenn Cardwell opened discussion as to the various projects that could be undertaken.
After thoughtful discussion, Director Ruth Ownby observed that it would be a fitting tribute to honor loved ones by chronicling the early events and lives of those still living, who were 80 years of age by January 1, 2000. As Cardwell stated, “As this century comes to a close the Society desires to chronicle the happenings of life as experienced by those born during 1920 or earlier in Blount, Cocke and Sevier counties. Thus shall be captured for posterity a collection of personal remembrances giving testimony to the joys, hardships, sorrows and successes while living and growing up in this smoky mountain country early in the twentieth century.” Thus the Society published the Memorial Edition, Remembrances of the Past.
During 1997 the SMHS expanded its reach by the addition of an Internet site contributed and managed by SMHS member David Beckwith from his home in Wheaton, Illinois. The SMHS address is smokykin.com/smhs. The site contains information about the various publications and how to order them including ordering back issues of the Journal. Also the queries listed in the various Journals are available.
The Society meets six times a year, with the January, March, July and November meetings being held in the community room of the Sevier County Courthouse Annex. The regular meetings which begin at 2 pm are always on the third Sunday in the month they occur. In place of regular meetings, picnics are held in May and September with the sites announced in local newspapers and when possible in the quarterly journal (and through email for those who have email connections). The program presented always deals with some aspect of the history of Eastern Tennessee and is followed by socializing with refreshments.
It is through these meetings that the members are able to have fellowship and find a common bond through which they work together to further the historical research of the three county area.
Originally the annual dues for membership were $5 which included the Journals published for that year. In addition many persons from others area of the country who are visiting or aware of the Journal can subscribe for the same $5 and thus automatically become members. Thus whether through subscription of the Journal or direct joining as a member they are both subscribers and members. As mentioned previously this has enabled the SMHS membership to expand throughout the country. Since its inception in 1966, increases in the SMHS subscription/membership dues over 44 years went from $5 to $15.
In preparing this History of the Smoky Mountain Historical Society it was the intention to place the names of all who have significantly contributed over the past 44 years, particularly the officers and authors of various publications. Like a “Who’s Who” of the SMHS. In reflecting about the members it was the conclusion that to try and do this would accidentally omit some who were very worthy of mention.
Many of the published stories and genealogical data have come from stories told or written and passed down from generation to generation and from family Bibles. They come from both members and non members alike, some of whom live in other states. Therefore one must commend all for their unselfish willingness to be of service and to volunteer whenever asked to help preserve and perpetuate an awareness of the history of the people who grew up in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains.