Upland Chronicles: Charlie Conner lived a colorful life

Jun. 06, 2014 @ 04:05 PM

As a prelude to a centennial celebration planned for October, members of Pigeon Forge First Baptist Church have been collecting and sharing stories about ministers and laymen who have contributed to the growth of the church and community.

One individual who faithfully attended the church from the time he moved to Pigeon Forge in 1937 until his death in 1969 was Charlie Conner. Known throughout the region as the man for whom the famous Appalachian Trail landmark Charlie’s Bunion was named, Conner also left his mark on Pigeon Forge.

Born Nov. 17, 1891, in Swain County, N.C., Charlie was one of nine children of Dock F. Conner and Margaret York Conner. All nine children were born in the big log house built beside the Oconaluftee River before the Civil War. His mother died there when Charlie was 4.

The Conner homeplace was a 300-acre farm that stretched up and down the banks of the Oconaluftee River across from the mouth of Collins Creek, about two miles from the present day Smokemont Campground. Charlie’s grandfather, Rev. William Henry Conner, bought the farm from the Collins family before the Civil War.

Charlie’s father was a cattle trader. He often drove his cattle on the hoof from the higher elevations of the Smokies, down the Indian Gap wagon road, through Gatlinburg, on down the crude path beside the Little Pigeon River to Pigeon Forge. Dock camped there many nights, resting for the two-day push to the livestock market in Knoxville. Since Charlie was the youngest son, from an early age, he was in charge of keeping the herds of free-ranging cattle out of sections where the bears were known to prey on the livestock.

On Christmas Day 1912, Charlie married Ella Jane Beck. The Becks also were a pioneer family in the Oconaluftee valley. A nearby mountain, Beck’s Bald, was named for them. Six of their seven children, Ruth, Janette, Gladys, Charles Henry, Lucille, and Wanda, were born in North Carolina, while Charlie was working as a mountain guide. The youngest, Doug, was born after Charlie and Ella moved to Pigeon Forge.

Charlie had his own meat market at Smokemont, supplying beef to a lumber company and loading it on logging trains bound for the highland camps, where lumberjacks lived.

In 1929, a cloudburst dumped torrential rains on the Smokies, washing away the scaled soil from the western flank of the Sawteeth, leaving it with its rocky appearance. A few days after the cloudburst, Charlie led a group that included the famous author Horace Kephart and photographer George Masa.

When they reached the barren west flank of Sawteeth, the group saw a large boulder-like protrusion just below the summit on the other-wise sheer northern face. Charlie removed his shoe, revealing a badly swollen foot. Upon seeing this, Kephart was said to have remarked, “I’m going to get this put on the map for you.”

Another, slightly different story, is told by Paul M. Fink in his book “That’s Why They Call It… the Names and Lore of the Great Smokies,” in which he wrote that one of the group, upon looking at the bare rock pinnacle, and knowing of Conner’s affliction, exclaimed, “Well, that sticks out like Charlie’s Bunion.”

At Kephart’s suggestion, the United States Geological Survey officially gave it the name Charlie’s Bunion shortly thereafter. The mountain rising above Charlie’s Bunion to the west was named for Kephart himself.

In 1926, Charlie’s father, Dock, was finally able to buy a 115-acre farm in which he had often camped, on the south end of Pigeon Forge. With money earned from the sale of cattle, he paid $17,000 for the place.

After the Oconaluftee farm was acquisitioned for the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Conner family started moving to Tennessee. In 1937, Charlie and Ella moved with their family to Pigeon Forge and built a home near the river. Dock moved in with them and lived the last 11 years of his life there.

While Charlie farmed and worked for the Bureau of Public Roads, Ella kept the home fires burning. She told her children and grandchildren stories about earlier days at Oconaluftee. One such story was about how she worried about Charlie when he was on a mountaineering expedition, and the only way she knew if he was all right was to read the Asheville newspaper. The paper reported updates delivered by a homing pigeon.

Having grown up in the mist of game hunters, Ella possessed culinary skills that she had learned as a young girl. “She could cook anything they killed and brought to her, and make it taste good,” said her granddaughter Barbara Catlett. “She was the glue that held the family together.”

Charlie and Ella shared 56 years together. After moving to Pigeon Forge they finished raising their family. The Conner family had been one of the stalwart families in the Oconaluftee Baptist Church before moving their membership to Pigeon Forge.

In the later years of his life, Charlie was frequently interviewed by newspaper and magazine writers about how Charlie’s Bunion got its name. While the story was fascinating, they often missed an opportunity to question the man about other fascinating facets of his life.

Charlie Conner died Oct. 27, 1969, at age 77. In the eulogy delivered at his funeral, Rev. William W. Cope remarked, “A thousand years from now, even if he were not remembered as a devoted husband, a loving father, a trusted friend, a consecrated Christian, his name will be spoken by the teeming masses who will come to stand in awe before the majesty of the mountains.”

Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County historian. Contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or cmcmahan@scoc.org.