SMHC Diamond Anniversary- 75 Years
Compiled by Anna Marie Stefanick, Club Historian
While few of us can boast of celebrating a 75th wedding anniversary, and many of us aspire to mark the occasion of our 75th birthday with a wonderful hike in our beloved mountains, all of the members of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club can be jubilant in commemorating our Diamond Anniversary in 1999. In retrospect, our club has aged gracefully and with wisdom. Several talented members pooled their resources to render this synopsis of club history to distinguish the occasion.
In 1923, the Willis P. Davis’s, motivated by their visits to Western National Parks, began to promote the idea of establishing a National Park in the Great Smoky Mountains. As a result, the Great Smoky Mountain Conservation Association formed. During the same year, the YMCA in Gatlinburg procured some land for a Boy’s Camp. The site is now home of the Twin Island Motel. George Barber and others initiated an adult hiking program through the YMCA organization, while promoting the idea of a National Park.
On October 19/20, 1924, George and his brother Charlie, led a trip to Mt. Le Conte for the purpose of discussing the proposed park and to interest others in hiking. About twenty folks climbed via Cherokee Orchard and Mill Creek. As a result of their experience, they met with the Chamber of Commerce on October 27, 1924, to formally organize the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. The first official club hike was led by Dutch Roth to Le Conte on December 6, 1924, and was attended by eight hikers.
The first membership list was compiled in 1925 and included sixty names. Their goal was to hike once a month. Miss Louise Smith won the contest to design the club emblem which still serves us today, with the addition of the AT marker. In 1926, the club began scheduling hikes by number, with thirty-three designated trails. Unfortunately, we don’t have documentation of which trails were counted. Louise’s emblem design was also used on the trail signs, surrounded by an arrowhead outline. Souvenir hunters pilfered these almost as fast as they were set into place.
From the beginning, the club’s goals were to encourage visitors to explore the beauty of the Smokies and to protect its natural surroundings. The first membership dues were $3.00 and all reputable white people (a historical note, all restrictions for joining based on race or social class were removed in 1946) were invited to join. Applications were reviewed by a committee for recommendation before acceptance.
Plans for a club house in the Greenbrier area were announced and through the efforts of the Barber brothers and others, the structure was completed in 1935 under the scrutiny of Professor Henry R. Duncan. The hike leader bore the title, "Captain of the Day". Hikes typically started at a car rental agency on Church Street and backpacks were equipped with all necessities including candle lanterns.
In 1927, the hiking program grew from a leaflet style to the first handbook format. Two hikes per month were scheduled plus "special hikes" lasting longer than a weekend. In 1928, the first documentation of "switch key" hikes was advertised. The Appalachian Trail movement took on their first project to open trail between Indian Gap and Guyot. Club members sent information to help the USGS in developing a new map for the region.
By 1930, some hikes ended at a farm in Dutch Valley, where tall trees, bonfires, and toasted marshmallows were the order of the day. As road access continued to improve, the first one day hikes were offered.
In order to raise money to host the 5th Appalachian Trail conference in Gatlinburg in June, 1931, SMHC promoted parties and square dances. These remained popular for many years. The first Superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was also club member, Major Ross Eakin.
Harvey Broome, along with seven others, hiked the entire length of the AT through the National Park before all the trails were completed in 1932. It took them nine days (see photo). In 1933, Harvey suggested recognition be given to hikers who completed 1,000 miles in the Smokes and a photo contest was also authorized. In 1934, Tom DeWine hosted the first "Fish Fry and Social" and continued this tradition until his death in 1970.
Our organization incorporated to protect individuals from damage suits after a legal battle over copyright infringement which was settled favorably to the club in 1937. A charter was written and membership requirements were rewritten to include persons of good character, sixteen years of age, and with board approval.
The first color slides show was in April, 1940. During the years surrounding World War II, quarterly newsletters were sent to thirty-three members serving in the Armed Forces. Fontana Dam was built. More than two hundred gathered to celebrate the club’s 20th Anniversary on October 21, 1944; meanwhile, the cabin and the AT began to fall into disrepair.
In 1947, SMHC hosted an "Opportunity Hike" on February 29th led by single gals. Henry Duncan led the best attended hike that year on October 27th. He bribed attendees with Black Angus steaks during the cookout that followed.
In 1959, SMHC celebrated its 35th Anniversary on October 31st in the Parish Hall of Church Street Methodist Church. All of the ex-Presidents attended and a history of the club was presented called, "Once Upon a Mountain". Skits were staged and 197 people attended the jubilee.
The first woman club president, Jessie Dempster, took office in 1961. In 1962, the Knoxville News-Sentinel promoted summer hikes with SMHC leadership and 250 plus showed up to hike to Abrams Falls. The 1964 handbook printed Paul Adams’ "The Basin Spring Camp" which was the story of the start of the LeConte Lodge beginning in 1925.
The mountain began to claim accident victims. An unsuccessful search for a downed aircraft which disappeared February 12, 1968, ended one month later when the plane was inadvertently spotted by air on Mount Chapman. In the same year, Club members, along with many other volunteers, searched frantically and with futility for a seven year old, Dennis Martin, who disappeared from the Spence Field area.
Ray Payne headed the club in 1971 and members began compiling a fifty year history. A celebration was scheduled at the cabin on April 20th to include stew and lots of square dancing. The largest dinner meeting for the Installation of New Officers was attended by 240 people at the Mtn. View Hotel in Gatlinburg on Nov. 30, 1974, when members and former members came from nine states to celebrate 50th anniversary.
A tragic event occurred on July 15, 1979. The Club hiked to Cove Mountain from Little Greenbrier. A quarter mile from its termination, Tom Duncan suffered a heart attack and died on the trail between the Walker Sisters Homestead and the Little Greenbrier School. Tom was an avid tennis player and the veteran club member who prepared and distributed our Golden Anniversary History Book covering 1924-74.
In 1986, Halley’s Comet streaked across the skies and on March 15, Carol Coffey led 28 members and guests to Bob Stratton Bald to witness the incredible event! Good elevation and no city lights would undoubtedly assure the hearty hikers a great view. As things turned out, those hikers who were not DRIVEN off the mountain by an unexpected hail storm, were left to "enjoy" fog, mud, cold, rain, and clouds at 5 A.M. which of course occluded views of the Comet. Paul Threlkeld recommends historians take note of this event and definitely repeat it next time Halley’s Comet comes around! That same year, SMHC offered "Perambulation Hikes". These were "walk around" hikes centered on a special interest; for example, history, animals, flowers, birds, and photography. These short day hikes patterned our current "easy hikes".
Both the Ridgerunner and Caretaker programs were begun to help improve the experience of hiking on the AT in the GSMNP. Increasingly heavy use of the 70 miles of AT in the park resulted in unacceptable sanitation in the vicinity of the 13 shelters. The AT Advisory Committee, formed by Park Supt. Pope in 1988, included the AT Conference and the SMHC. They decided to reinstall privies at high-use shelters provided that personnel engaged by the SMHC and ATC would service and manage them. These same personnel would educate AT users in all phases of low impact use of the backcountry. As a result, in 1989, an experiment was made with a caretaker on 8 weekends at the Icewater Spring shelter. In 1990, our club hired the first Ridgerunner, Alan Householder, a former "thru-hiker", to patrol the AT in season providing supervision of these stressed facilities. The RRs patrolled alternate halves of the 70 miles of AT in the Park each week. Funds for the RR program were provided by the GSM Natural History Association, the ATC, and the SMHC. Morgan Briggs joined Alan for 5 weeks in the Autumn of 1992. Both men are SMHC members. Improved conditions became apparent with the presence of these personnel in the backcountry who also assisted in emergencies. A grant of $5,000 from the NPS Challenge Cost Share Program was received and an increase in funding from the NHA allowed us to employ four RRs in 1993. They were Rob Burns, Trudy Whitney, Dennis Fulcher, and Morgan Briggs. Since 1995, the RR season has extended to include 34 weeks, from early March through October. Morgan served through 1997 and Charles Chandler took over in 1998.
The Ridgerunner also coordinates the Caretaker Program in cooperation with VIP Coordinator Babette Collavo. For twelve weeks, between May and September, volunteers from all over the country, two weeks at a time, help teach "Leave No Trace" ethics to visitors and perform light trail maintenance. They also keep their home shelter clean as well two others closest to them. The four shelters used for the Caretaker Program are Peck’s Corner, Ice Water Springs, Silers Bald, and Russell Field. Training orientations are provided every two weeks to some 20+ volunteers throughout the summer. Caretakers come from all walks of life and ages - retired professionals, business men and women on vacation, college students, and couples. No doubt it is the small stipend of $8.00 a day that attracts them! This well earned remuneration is funded by the SMHC through the AT Conference. The Ridgerunner salaried position and Caretaker program are funded through Friends of the Smokies and the Natural History Association, with the National Park Service providing in-kind services.
In 1991, Lou Murray urged the board to sanction a joint committee from the SMHC and the Smoky Mountain Trail Riders to work together for the good of the trails in the National Park. This liaison directorate fostered better mutual efforts at analyzing the needs of the park led by committee members Phyllis Henry, Lou Murray, Leroy Fox, and David Scanlon. Among their combined efforts was the composition, printing, and distribution of a brochure suggesting proper trail ethics for hikers and horsemen. In 1996, representatives from the horse community in North Carolina and the Smoky Mountain Trail Riders penned a Memorandum of Understanding whereby riders committed themselves to help maintain the 35 miles of trail open to horse traffic on the AT.
In 1992, Phyllis Henry served in a volunteer capacity as coordinator of the GSMNP Adopt-A-Trail program, helping TN Assistant Chief Ranger Don Utterback and Ranger Keny Slay to keep tabs on the volunteers looking after the trails. Phyllis spent endless hours both on the trail and on the computer logging in data. SMHC membership fully supported this park program from its inception including past presidents Leroy Fox, Paul Threlkeld, and Bill Smith. After the early retirement of Ranger Utterback in 1995, A Parkwide VIP Coordinator position was created and Park employee Babette Collavo accepted the assignment, within the Ranger Activities division. Babette began recruitment efforts for volunteers and in 1997, a total of 7,206 of the Park’s 67,649 VIP hours were contributed by the Adopt-A-Trail membership. Since its inception, AAT has evolved from a patrol-type function to skilled maintenance activities. Volunteers in this program report on trail conditions directly to the Park Service, and work to improve safety conditions for hikers and horsemen by installing waterbars and turnpikes and removing blowdowns and weeds.
In 1992, SMHC built its first shelter on the AT at Brown Fork Gap in the Nantahala National Forest. Under the leadership of trail manager, Alan Duff, the project steadily spiraled to completion in the spring of 1994. While enthusiasts nailed shingles on the roof in place to prepare the structure for occupancy, a privy was installed and finishing touches continued throughout that summer.
For many years those who had hiked all of the marked trails in the GSMNP sought some type of recognition for their accomplishment. In 1995, Lou Murray designed a patch and a certificate and launched a spin-off club from SMHC membership, dubbed the 900 Miler Association. Her son, Andy, at age 14, became the association’s youngest member and the oldest member, Tom Little, walked Andy’s last trail with him to Porter’s Creek in 1995. In September, 1998, the young organization boasted 36 members, at least half of whom are SMHC members as well. Lou coined the term "wannabees" for folks attempting to achieve this distinction.
In the fall of 1997, Bill Kerr, Dick Ketelle, and Philip Royer initiated a repair and renovation scheme to improve the Appalachian Trail shelters in the GSMNP. On December 15, 1997, this small but talented group hiked through snow and wind on a reconnaissance mission to the Davenport Gap shelter. Its failing condition was striking. Philip, an architect, used his backpacking experiences to redesign a comfortable, functional structure for the site. Suggestions to add space for seating, gear storage, cooking, tack storage, and to let in natural light were debated and approved. Through cooperative and evaluative efforts with Park Service representative David Panebaker, and the assistance of Custom-Bilt Metals and Simpson Strong Tie, Bill Kerr led the first work crew in April, 1998 to do some roof raising. Under occasional adverse weather conditions, the construction crew worked throughout the month to complete the renovation including a clerestory window in the roof. Although bad weather persisted, Carolyn Ebel arranged a celebration for the crews on treacherously slick trails churned up by the many trips to transport materials by riders from horse clubs which help to maintain this part of the AT. Judging by the comments appearing regularly in the trail log, the remodeled shelter is a hit with the hikers. It has been dubbed the "Smokies Sheraton" and now rivals its sister-shelter, the "Fontana Hilton" located 70 miles outside the park, in popularity. This renovation project was not intended to be a prototype to be repeated throughout the park; rather, it was a proving ground for the start of a "kit of parts", as Philip terms it, that can form the basis for shelters elsewhere. Peck’s Corner shelter is slated next for repairs. It presents a challenge in terms of planning and transport of materials and workers since it is in the heart of the park. Birch Spring shelter rehabilitation or relocation is now in the early planning stage. The Club would most welcome your talents and expertise in making these projects a reality. Please volunteer your services to help with these long term renovation goals to repair the shelters along the AT in the GSMNP.
SMHC has gradually increased its responsibility for maintaining the Appalachian Trail from Wesser, North Carolina to Davenport Gap. This increase paralleled the realization by the Park and Forest Services management that their federal funding was becoming more and more inadequate for the needed trail maintenance. As they learned to handle the liability and management concerns, their acceptance of volunteer help grew and grew. Before 1979, painting blazes and weeding in the National Forest one or two days per year was the total extent of our efforts. Volunteer work in the Park started with installing or restoring blazes, and reporting trail conditions. Now, complete responsibility for total trail maintenance rests with our Club.
The First Annual Appalachian Trail Work Day was held in June, 1997, in conjunction with the celebration of National Trails Day. Over 100 volunteers participated, led by SMHC membership. Many have become regulars in the ranks of AT maintainers. This event, coordinated by the AT committee as led by Phyllis Henry, and the Friends of the GSMNP, has won two national awards so far for outstanding safety and improvement efforts on the Appalachian Trail. In 1997 and 1998, SMHC was recognized nationally by the "Trails for Tomorrow Program" sponsored by the American Hiking Society. Besides a $500 cash award and $1500 worth of outdoor products, a club representative attended the Awards Banquet and Outdoor Retail Show in Salt Lake City. Business partners were Dupont Cordura Nylon, Backpacker Magazine, Vasque, and Therlo. The National Trails Day event in 1997 raised $1500 which was used to rehabilitate the shelter at Davenport Gap; in 1998, the $2400 profit financed the Caretaker Program. Volunteers from all over the country man the Rocky Top Crew and work exclusively on our section of the AT in the National Park. They have most recently relocated 1.5 miles of trail at Ekaneetlee Gap. The Konnarock Crew also boasts national membership and works on all sections of the AT. In 1998, they completed maintenance on 1.5 miles between Spence and Russell Fields. This program was financed with memorial donations from the Bucky Sliger Memorial Fund.
In 1997, the actuality of the World Wide Web came crashing onto the club’s agenda. With the establishment of easy accessibility, computer literate members cooperated to launch a site. Dick Bowers recruited Pat Bolz to design a website in October, 1997. Testing on the site began in December and with board approval, it was installed on the Internet in August, 1998. Charlie Klabunde began posting an abridged version of the newsletter in March of the same year. Still under development at this writing, the web page is now being posted on Internet search engines.. We can maintain discussion groups, conduct business, handle e-mail, and have videos, audio, or pictures. In 1998, the club historian utilized the site as a repository for historical data with this synopsis of SMHC Diamond Anniversary account. The anticipated growth of the website in the future hinges on the advocacy of the membership and leadership, and especially on those who are willing to author works and contribute.
Since its inception, SMHC has debated controversial environmental issues. The basis for our support or opposition has generally been to lessen the impact on the backcountry in order to avoid the destruction of the fragile alpine environment. We opposed the proposed building of a second transmountain road through the Smokies. We supported the removal of Mt. LeConte Lodge and the Appalachian Trail shelters. We supported the abandonment of the one-way Parsons Branch road. We joined with other groups in urging abandonment of the summer cottages at Elkmont. Over the years, we’ve lost some battles and won others. The effort continues in 1999 to lessen the impact of overuse of the wilderness. The Conservation Committee leads the way in these controversial activities, and is still working diligently to have the GSMNP officially designated a wilderness area.
Membership files were in a house fire in the 1950's, but the following list was reconstructed with good intentions and was first retyped in 1992-93.
Presidents Serving SMHC
The plans for this synopsis originated when Jim Lyle donated his collection of handbooks to the club historian in July, 1998. Among the relics carefully housed in a "Timberland" shoebox was the a copy of the "Golden Anniversary" special edition and the rest is well ... just "history". Many thanks to the following contributors: VIP Coordinator Babette Collavo, Leroy Fox, Lou Murray, Philip Royer, Anna Marie Stefanick, and Paul Threlkeld. Acknowledgments to Phyllis Henry, and the handbook committee for their assistance with review.