Upland Chronicles: Louis Jones left his mark on Gatlinburg

Feb. 08, 2014 @ 11:22 PM

Louis E. Jones was a gifted painter who devoted three decades to capturing the unique beauty of the Smoky Mountains in water colors, oils, etchings and photographs.

Jones was a native of Pennsylvania and lived in Woodstock, N.Y., before moving to Gatlinburg in the late 1920s. The precise date is unknown, but presumably he moved to Gatlinburg after attending a work-related function in Knoxville in the mid-1920s, where he learned about the proposed national park.

He was a shrewd businessman and must have recognized the area’s tremendous growth potential and wanted to capitalize on it. Or perhaps, like so many others, he was smitten with the incredible beauty. Whatever his motivation, Louis Jones has the distinction of being the first artist to reside permanently in Gatlinburg and earn a living from his craft.

In 1933, Jones designed and built the Cliff Dwellers Shop, perched on a hill overlooking Gatlinburg’s main street. A postcard proclaimed that it was built into the solid rocks in the heart of the Smokies. Crafted of wood and stone, it featured gabled roofs, exposed beams, decorative moldings, and balconies – similar to buildings Jones was familiar with in Woodstock, particularly those at Byrdcliffe Arts Colony.

The main level of Cliff Dwellers served as a gallery and gift shop. Louis and his wife Emma lived on the second floor. A sign hanging outside the shop beckoned to passersby: Free Exhibition, Smoky Mountain Paintings. Over the years, his paintings were sold to countless tourists from all 48 states.

Along with his numerous paintings and etchings, Jones produced a series of at least 40 photographic postcards of the Smoky Mountain area, titled Great Smoky Mountain Series.

Glenn Cardwell, who characterized Jones as a quiet man, wrote in a Smoky Mountain Historical Society newsletter that one day in 1928 Jones went to the Sugarlands, near the present park headquarters, where he painted for several hours. According to Cardwell, Jones had been trying to paint “what he felt in his soul,” and had resolved that if he couldn’t capture his emotions on canvas he would take it as a sign to go back to the city and be a pianist – a comment that seems to indicate Jones may have been an accomplished musician.

When Jones returned home after painting most of the day, he called excitedly to his wife, “Miss Emma, I’ve done it!” Finally, he had captured on canvas the exquisite beauty, indeed the spirit, of the Smoky Mountains. He referred to that painting as his masterpiece and never offered it for sale. It should stay in the mountains, Jones had declared, and it did. The painting was bequeathed to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Jones was Lutheran but attended the fledgling First United Methodist Church in Gatlinburg. For several years the church had searched for a permanent home while holding services in unconventional places such as an abandoned print shop and the Sip and Bite Restaurant. With the growing popularity of the national park, property owners were contemplating future land values and were therefore reluctant to sell. By the early 1940s, church leaders despaired of ever finding a suitable and affordable building location.

Louis and Emma Jones were an answer to prayer. After church one Sunday, Jones invited Pastor Lon Moneyhun to “come see him soon.” Moneyhun visited the next day, and Jones walked him up the hill, gestured toward the wooded acreage behind Cliff Dwellers and said, “If this piece of land could be used for a church, I’ll give you a deed for it. My wife and I have a home, but the church doesn’t.”

With additional property from Mrs. Steve (Pearl) Whaley, the church broke ground in September 1945. Jones was chairman and treasurer of the building fund, but was also intimately involved with every aspect of construction, even down to directing the fabrication of the light fixtures. A focal point of the church is a stained-glass window commissioned by Louis and Emma in 1950 as a golden wedding anniversary gift to each other. Posthumously, the church’s educational building was named the Louis E. Jones Building.

The depth of Jones’ character was revealed on March 25, 1945, when he and Emma joined the church and presented a deed for property on which the First United Methodist Church would be built. He said, “If we don’t leave the world a little better off than when we found it, we have failed.”

Jones, the son of Ransford and Emily Coleman Jones, was born in Rushville, Pa., in 1878. In 1890 the family moved to Williamsport, about 75 miles southwest. In 1900, when he was 22 and employed as a freight handler, he married Emma Bucher. Later, while working as a railway mail clerk, he took advantage of one of the train’s daily layovers to study at Bucknell University. He also worked as a transfer clerk for the railway mail service stationed at various times in Harrisburg, Erie, Williamsport and Philadelphia; he furthered his studies at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.

In the early 1900s, Louis and Emma moved to Woodstock, N.Y., so that he could study at the Art Students League under noted artists Birge Harrison and John Carlson. There Jones built a cottage and allocated one room for an art and gift shop. As the business flourished, the couple moved elsewhere and used the entire cottage for their Little Art Shop. Jones subsequently owned a camera shop, then the Jones Art Shop where he produced and sold his work, primarily photographic postcards.

Despite his talent for creating landscape paintings, his livelihood came from the photographs he converted into postcards. He was a prolific photographer and recorded an untold number of images in and around Woodstock. His New York postcard collections are known as the Beautiful Series – Kingston, Woodstock, Catskill Mountains, and Hudson Valley.

Jones retired at age 77 in 1955. By that time Cliff Dwellers had become a Gatlinburg landmark. Loyal employees Louise Headrick and Maxine Donahue purchased the shop and continued to operate it for many years. The historic building was sold in the late 1990s and faced an unimaginable fate.

When another local artist, Jim Gray, and his son Chris learned the building was facing demolition, they purchased it, had it dismantled, then moved—in four separate sections which took five weeks—to the Arts and Crafts Community east of Gatlinburg. The Grays later sold Cliff Dwellers and it became a cooperative art gallery. Today, Cliff Dwellers is wearing its age gracefully and continues in the tradition Jones began eight decades ago.

Jones’ work has been featured at the Museum of East Tennessee History in Knoxville on various occasions, including the museum’s 2009 exhibition Mountain Splendor: Arts and Artists of the Great Smoky Mountains 1850-1950. Jones’ paintings and etchings are occasionally sold at auction. Case Antiques in Knoxville holds the record for a Jones painting: $12,500 for a large, untitled Tennessee mountain landscape sold in 2007. His New York and Tennessee series postcards are highly sought after by collectors. His work is typically signed L.E. Jones or simply LEJ.

Louis Jones died on July 18, 1958. His altruistic spirit lives on in various ways, including a number of scholarships he endowed. Emma continued to live at Cliff Dwellers, with owners Headrick and Donahue seeing to her needs, even driving her to the Jones’ winter home in Sarasota, Fla. Emma died at age 92 on Sept. 2, 1970. The couple had no children. They are buried in Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport, Pa.

Jo Harris is a Sevier County native residing in Jonesborough, Tenn.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments, contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or ron@ronraderproperties.com.