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Elkmont Region
Great Smoky Mountains, Sevier County, Tennessee

Tucked away in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee lies Elkmont, formerly a pioneer Appalachian community, then a temporary logging town, and finally, a resort community. 

The first known permanent residents of what is now known as Elkmont settled here in 1840. The small community that developed was known simply as “Little River”, and, like the majority of Appalachian communities, residents developed a subsistence agriculture economy; most residents grew corn and apples, and kept bees for honey. Multiple gristmills (for grinding grain into flour) popped up along the the creek, Jakes Creek, that ran through the area. Unfortunately, only two structures from the pioneer era of Elkmont remain standing. 

In the 1880s, a Knoxville businessman by the name of John L. English began a small-scale logging project along Jakes Creek but his venture folded in 1900, likely due to a disastrous flooding of the creek in 1899. In 1901, Colonel Wilson B. Townsend purchased 86,000 acres of land along Little River and established the Little River Lumber Company. In 1926, Townsend sold most of the tract of land he purchased to the newly formed Great Smoky Mountains Park Commission, although he’d been given permission to continue logging for most of the next decade. The company ultimately ceased operations in 1939 and by then had produced 750 million board feet (1.8 million m³) of lumber.

In the logging company’s early days, Townsend allowed fishermen and hunters to use the Little River railroad to access the deep, game-rich forests of the Smokies. As the valley was stripped of most of its valuable timber, Townsend began advertising the area as a mountain getaway. In 1910, an affluent group of Knoxville gaming enthusiasts formed the Appalachian Club, built the Appalachian Clubhouse to use as a lodge, and many clubmembers began building cottages, making the club a getaway for Knoxville’s elite. Membership was difficult to obtain, so many rejected Knoxville residents purchased the Wonderland Hotel site in 1919.

Eventually, the U.S. government agreed to establish a national park in the area if the states of Tennessee and North Carolina purchased the land; this process was completed in 1926. Lifetime leases on the Wonderland Hotel and rustic cottages expired in 1992 and ownership reverted to the National Park Service. The park’s general management plan of 1982 called for all remaining structures to be removed to allow nature to reclaim the affected areas. However, in 1994, the Wonderland Hotel and many surrounding cottages were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, giving them a “special status.” 

Sadly, in 2005, the Wonderland Hotel collapsed due to a structural failure. Parts of the hotel deemed to have historical value were removed and the rest cleared, leaving only the annex and a chimney fall (pictured above). In 2009, the National Park Service announced plans to restore the Appalachian Clubhouse and many cabins in the area. The remaining structures are to be carefully documented then removed. 

[Image stills courtesy of Jordan Liles]

White Livered Widders
(from AppalachianHistory.net and Project MUSE)

In the Southern Appalachians, and particularly among the older generation, it might be heard of someone that they are white-livered. Though this phrase is now quite rare, it was once well-known and provides an interesting look at folk medicine in Appalachian history. 

White-livered means having an abnormally high sex drive that incapacitates or kills a spouse by draining them of their vitality through incessant sex. One of the earliest mentions of this comes from a Vance Randolph study: “When a lively, buxom, good-looking woman loses several husbands by death, it is often said that her inordinate passion has ‘killed ‘em off,’ and she is referred to as a white-livered widder (or widow).” Usually the phrase was only a figure of speech, but it was sometimes believed that a “high nature” created white spots on the liver, and that if one were to marry three times, their liver would automatically turn white. Some believed that being white-livered correlated with having bad blood, which was a euphemism for syphilis, and transferred the fatal disease to the sexual deviants’ victims. 

The phrase was mostly applied to women, leading some to believe that its popularity died off when people realized that women can have sexual appetites without being ill.

Documentaries on Appalachia

Appalachia and the media have a very strained relationship, and with good reason. Representations of Appalachia haven’t changed for the last 50 years, except perhaps to get worse. Even documentaries on the area that are meant to provide a great deal of verisimilitude often fail and leave the area worse than they found it. For better or worse, however, they educate. Here’s a list of some of the more popular and easily accessible titles, from earliest to latest:

  • The Forgotten Frontier (1931) about the Frontier Nursing Service, a group of nurses on horseback who traveled through the mountains, founded by Mary Breckenridge in 1925.
  • Holy Ghost People (1967) looks at the Pentecostal Christians of Scrabble Creek, West Virginia and their traditions of snake handling and speaking in tongues. Watch here.
  • Before the Mountain was Moved (1969) focuses on the inhabitants of Raleigh County, West Virginia as they fight against Mountain Top Removal and fight for environmental protection. Watch here.
  • The Darlene Chronicles/Visiting with Darlene (1970-94) started as a look at poverty in rural Pennsylvania and quickly turned into a sad and disparaging look at an Appalachian family through the eyes of housewife Darlene and her daily struggles. This one paints an ugly picture and can be rather hard to watch, here. 
  • It Ain’t City Music (1973) films the National Country Music Contest in Warrenton, Virginia and hears from people reminiscing on their rural homes and the hard times they’ve endured. Watch here.
  • Buffalo Creek Flood (1975) shows the disaster and irresponsibility of the Pittston Company when a coal waste dam collapsed in southern West Virginia, killing 125 and leaving 4000 homeless.
  • Harlan County, USA (1976) follows the Brookside Strike of the coal miners (and families) working for Duke Power Company in southeastern Kentucky. This documentary explores the issues of workers’ rights and the union in coal country. Watch here.
  • The Heartland Series (1984) is a series documentary from Tennessee focusing on different aspects of Appalachian life and culture, including the land, the history, the struggles and the trades of the mountain folk.
  • A Singing Stream: A Black Family Chronicle (1986) traces the history of the Landis family of Granville County, North Carolina, through family reunions, gospel concerts, and the word of mouth from 86-year-old Bertha Landis. Watch here
  • Mine War on Blackberry Creek (1986) documents the UMWA strike against Massey Energy, one of the largest coal corporations in America, and their CEO Don Blankenship. Watch here
  • Dancing Outlaw (1991) tells the story of the now infamous Jesco White of Boone County, West Virginia, the eponymous Dancing Outlaw. Jesco’s story and his colorful family are the focus of this documentary and its followup “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia” (2009). Watch Dancing Outlaw here. 
  • American Hollow (1999) depicts a stark look at the Bowling family of Hazard, Kentucky, an impoverished family that has lived in the same hollow for seven generations. Watch here
  • Seven Sisters: A Kentucky Portrait (2000) follows the lives of seven girls in a coming of age story about leaving their family farm and the bonds that hold them together.
  • Stranger With A Camera (2000) is a fascinating documentary that looks at the murder of filmmaker Hugh O’Connor in Letcher County, Kentucky while he was shooting a piece on Appalachia during Johnson’s War on Poverty. It addresses questions of how Appalachia is represented versus how it is viewed by its own people. Watch here. 
  • Sludge (2005) chronicles the Martin County Sludge Spill accident that occurred when coal sludge broke through an underground mine and into the Tug Fork River.
  • Heaven Come Down (2006) is another documentary that looks at Appalachian sects of Pentecostal Christians.
  • Country Boys (2006) follows the life of two teenage boys from David, Kentucky and their struggles against poverty in a rural area from 1999 to 2002. The boys face individual family and educational issues.
  • Mountaintop Removal (2007) looks at strip mining in West Virginia and how it has affected local communities.
  • Burning the Future: Coal in America (2008) also focuses on the environmental effects of Mountain Top Removal, such as disfigured mountain ranges, extinct or endangered species from the deforestation, and pollution.
  • Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie (2008) is the story of Dallas and Wayne and their journey as Bigfoot Researchers. It’s an American Dream story of a passion in Portsmouth, Ohio, an impoverished Appalachian town, that is equal parts sad, delightful, heartbreaking and heartwarming. Watch here
  • Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People (2009) is a 4 part PBS documentary that focuses on the role of Appalachia in the nation since its beginning.
  • Blowing Up Mountains: Destroying the Environment for Coal (2010), a VICE piece, examines how and why massive corporations choose to extract coal by creating environmental ruin instead of going underground. Watch here
  • The Last Mountain (2011) again fights against strip mining, looking at the environmental and health impact. This documentary and the book it derives from (Crimes Against Nature, Kennedy) proposes a wind farm for clean energy in place of deforestation and mining. Watch here.
  • Oxyana (2013) is a portrait of the once thriving small town of Oceana, West Virginia, which has fallen hard and fast due to the spread of the Appalachian Oxycontin epidemic. Rent to watch here.
  • Overburden (coming soon) follows the life of a coal miner’s brother and an environmentalist grandmother in their attempts to take down the coal company in the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 in 2010. Check out this teaser.

There are plenty more special reports, TV shows, exposé films, and degrading travel-channel sorts out there, and I know there are some actual documentaries I’ve forgotten, so if there is anything you think should be included in this let me know.