Upland Chronicles: Joel Whaley left his mark in the Smokies
Throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, evidence of houses and farms can be found. One of the most heavily populated areas was the Sugarlands community. In addition to private residences, the community contained churches, schools, and stores.
Between Huskey Gap Trail and Sugarland Creek on the west side of Newfound Gap Road (Highway 441) is a tract of land where there are several remnants of a large farm. House foundations, crumbling chimneys, a garden area, which is a huge square with stacked rocks, remain on the old farmstead.
Curious hikers can’t help but wonder who lived there. The short answer is Joel Whaley. While numerous families lived on the property over the years, research proves that they were all somehow connected to Joel Whaley.
Joel owned hundreds of acres in the Sugarlands, most of it on the west side of the river and much of it along Sugarland Mountain. This is a mountain range with the Sugarlands on the east side the Elkmont and Little River Communities on the west.
Born May 23, 1850, Joseph L. “Joel” Whaley was one of 15 children of John H. “Bullhead” Whaley and Mourning Ownby Whaley. His father had seven additional children with his second wife, Mary Ownby Whaley. Bullhead Whaley received his nickname to distinguish him from others named John Whaley. In fact, Bullhead Mountain was named in his honor.
Joel was too young to serve in the Civil War. He was only 11 when the conflict began. However, a couple of his older brothers served in the Union Army. Wesley O. Whaley enlisted in Company E, 2nd East Tennessee Cavalry. He was promoted to corporal. Wesley was hospitalized in Murfreesboro where he died on March 26, 1863.
Another brother, John Brabson Whaley was killed in action on September 5, 1864. According to family oral tradition he was trying to rescue a federal soldier at Fort Harry, an earthen fort built by the infamous Thomas Legion located a short distance from what is now the Chimney picnic area.
Twenty-four years younger, Stephen “Uncle Steve” Whaley, who built the Riverside Hotel in Gatlinburg, was one of Joel’s younger brothers. Steve was one of the seven children of Bullhead and Mary Whaley.
On Nov. 25, 1868 Joel Whaley, 18, married Margaret “Peggy” Huskey, 17. Peggy was a daughter of James Wesley Huskey and Anna Ogle Huskey. Joel and Peggy were parents of five children: May Louvisha, Armintha, Leander ‘Mack,” Lucretia, and Marshall. Sadly, Armintha died at age 21. She is buried in the Forks of the River Cemetery, next to Park Headquarters
Joel signed his name “J.L. Whaley” on several deeds. It is believed that the letter “L” was a part of his name instead of a full middle name. He was known throughout the Sugarlands community as a good provider and was well-liked. He and his brother-in-law Isaac Huskey bought, sold, and traded land in the vicinity of their adjoining farms, hence the name Huskey’s Gap.
The first home in which Joel and Peggy lived was destroyed by fire. Joel and his family were away in North Carolina, where he was working when their home burned. The neighbors suspected a youngster smoking tobacco accidentally caused the fire. The place was on the south side of Sugarlands Branch Road, where he rebuilt a fine home on the remaining foundation.
In addition to their house, Joel and Peggy had a springhouse, a tub mill, essential farm buildings such as corn cribs, and rental houses. At one time the house where THE rock garden was located was rented by Joel’s son-in-law and daughter, William and Louvisha Parton. Their first nine children were born there, and William Parton operated a blacksmith shop on the property.
By the time the government began acquiring property for the establishment of the national park, Joel and Peggy Whaley had already moved to the fertile farmlands in Bradley County, where numerous other members of the Whaley clan had relocated.
William and Louvisha remained in the Sugarlands and lived on a farm they had purchased from Isaac Huskey in 1912. In 1925, Parton bought 125 acres from Joel for $1,350.00. They joined the Whaleys in Bradley County when the government purchased their land.
Joel and Peggy lived the last decade of their lives in Bradley County. She died on Feb. 10, 1931, one month before her 80th birthday, and he died Nov. 30, 1933, at age 83. They are buried in Macedonia Baptist Church Cemetery, Bradley County.
The biodiversity of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is unparalleled to any place of equal size on earth. Few places with such natural beauty and resources contain as many human history stories such as the life and times of Joel Whaley and his family who called the Sugarlands home.
Carroll McMahan is the Special Projects Facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County Historian.
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; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email firstname.lastname@example.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email email@example.com.