Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center: One More Reason to “Visit the Peaceful Side of the Smokies”
By Nancy Williams
In the peaceful gateway community of Townsend, TN, sits a museum like none other, its existence the result of a road-widening project through Tuckaleechee Cove on Highway 321. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires any road project be preceded by an archeological survey. During the survey for this particular project, archeologists began uncovering pieces of history – tens of thousands of artifacts left behind over thousands of years, as it turned out, by civilizations that once called the Smoky Mountains “home.”
The artifacts became property of the state of Tennessee and were destined to become part of the University of Tennessee archives. Due to the work of a handful of local residents who wanted to see their own history shared closer to home, an idea began to take shape and grew into a community-wide effort to build a museum near the original site of the findings.
Following five years of planning, fundraising, construction, and collection, Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center officially opened its doors in 2006. Since that time, the Heritage Center has hosted 175,000 visitors, 45,000 of whom were children on organized school tours and the remainder casual visitors – local and from other states and countries.
“It’s important that our youth and adult visitors have the opportunity to know where they came from and to be able to look through a time window into mountain life in other eras,” said Heritage Center Director Bob Patterson.
The Heritage Center consists of a 17,000 square foot, two-story main building that houses two galleries, a 100-seat indoor auditorium, two classrooms, a gift shop, and offices. Outside are 12 historic outbuildings – all but two are authentic structures from Blount and surrounding counties that were carefully taken down and re-constructed on the Center’s six acres. One of the most visible parts of the Center is the 500-seat covered outdoor amphitheater and stage, the setting for warm-weather concerts and other events.
Behind the main building is the historic village – a sawmill, set-off house, wheelwright shop, big cantilever barn, grainery, chapel, Montvale Station, Cardwell Cabin, small cantilever barn, smokehouse, outhouse, and underground still with a shed built directly above it. Of all the historic structures, Cardwell Cabin seems to be the most popular with visitors.
“This is the type of structure where people lived their lives moment to moment,” Patterson said. “It’s something visitors can identify with – being at home.”
Inside the main building, visitors can trace the history of Tuckaleechee Cove, beginning with those Native Americans from 5,000 years back through the Pre-Cherokee and Cherokee eras and the Euro-American period. Tools, ceremonial masks, housing, cooking utensils, plants, furniture, medicine, and more are featured, along with interactive videos on such topics as Cherokee games and pottery making.
Docent-led school tours are common at the Center, as are its special events that include everything from traveling exhibits – like the Kephart/Broome exhibit currently in the Proffitt Gallery or the model of the Titanic now on display in the main gallery – to summer and fall concerts, woodcarver and fiber arts festivals, storytelling, book signings, photography workshops, and an old-fashioned country fair that celebrates homemade products, agriculture, and family fun.
The Center is also the base for Cades Cove Heritage Tours, a guided bus tour of the nearby national park’s most popular destination. These tours run on a regular basis during the busiest seasons and provide the opportunity to enjoy the views and wildlife of Cades Cove and to learn its human history.
The Heritage Center is run and maintained by five full-time and four part-time staff and a host of volunteers. In 2011, volunteer help at the Center accounted for over 12,000 hours, or the equivalent of six full-time staff positions!
Located on Scenic Highway 73 just past Townsend’s one traffic light, Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center is Blount County’s only year-round attraction. General admission is free with annual membership, $6 for adults, and $4 for senior adults and students. Group rates are also available. Many of the Center’s facilities are available for rentals for meetings, reunions, workshops, receptions, and weddings.
For more information, visit www.gsmheritagecenter.org or call 865.448.0044.
Each month contributors from the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance (ETPA) write an article for Everything Knoxville celebrating the rich heritage of our region. ETPA is a regional historic preservation membership-based organization that serves Anderson, Blount, Campbell, Claiborne, Cocke, Grainger, Hamblen, Jefferson, Knox, Loudon, Monroe, Morgan, Roane, Scott, Sevier, and Union counties. Preservation field services in this region are provided by Knox Heritage and are assisted by a Partners in the Field grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. For more information and to get involved, visit www.knoxheritage.org or www.etpaonline.org.