Upland Chronicles: Avent Cabin saved by historical register status

Feb. 25, 2013 @ 12:25 AM

In anticipation of the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Mayna Avent placed a log book on a desk so visitors could record their memories. Realizing the days in which the family could stay there were numbered, relatives, friends and other visitors began leaving their thoughts.

The log is now over 300 pages long and filled with interesting entries from all over the world. Surprising entries such as one written in Japanese and then translated into English:

“It is raining as if to wash away the dirt of the entire world … {but} how luxurious it is to dine with the light of the lanterns.”

Another note from a couple of Appalachian Trail hikers thanked the owners and included $3 as payment for cutting the screen to get inside to escape a terrible storm one New Year’s Eve.

Acclaimed poet Paul Ramsey wrote a poem in the log titled “Drifted Morning”:

Fog on the ridge becomes mist

In the near trees decades arrange,

Silverberry, hemlock, and oak,

Sleep as entry foregained.

The log is a testament to the enjoyment experienced by the hundreds of visitors to the Avent Cabin located a short hike of about a mile and a half south of the remains of Elkmont.

Although it has been known as the Avent Cabin since Frank and Mayna Avent purchased the rustic log structure in 1918, the building is rich in history dating back to the mid 1800s.

Humphrey Ownby built the house out of hand hewn oak, chestnut and poplar logs cut from trees on the property. The cabin was occupied by Ownby and his family until 1914, when Sam Cook bought it and 50 acres for $500, as a wedding gift for his daughter Eva and her husband Stephen Ownby.

Before they sold it to the Avents, Eva and Steve’s first two children were born there.

Nashville attorney Frank Avent and his wife, artist Mayna Treanor Avent, had built a summer home near the Appalachian Club where they spent time and Mayna enjoyed the setting for her art.

However they jumped at the opportunity to purchase the cabin further up Jake’s Creek and surrounded by local mountain folk.

In 1926 Frank renovated the cabin, constructing a loft, chimney and kitchen shed. By this time he was serving as the Commissioner of railroads for the state of Tennessee and was not able to stay in the cabin as long as his wife and children.

Mayna Avent was 50 when she and her husband purchased the cabin and was already established as a noted artist. She was born on Sept. 17, 1868, in the Tulip Grove Mansion on the grounds of the Hermitage Estate, home of President Andrew Jackson.

She studied art in Nashville and Cincinnati before moving to Paris to study at the esteemed Academie Julian. While there she was pursued by a French count who asked for her hand in marriage. But she had fallen in love with Frank Avent of Murfreesboro before she left and returned home and married him in 1891.

After the birth of her children, a son James and a daughter Mary, Mayna began painting and her art appeared in museums throughout the nation. When they started spending time in the Smokies she knew she had found the perfect spot for inspiration and exploration.

The rustic environs of the Smoky Mountains were a far cry from the urban museums where her work was displayed. She was twice commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to paint reproductions of damaged portraits, one of Sarah Polk, wife of President Polk and the other of Emily Donelson, hostess of the White House for Andrew Jackson.

In 1941, Frank Avent died. Mayna continued living in Nashville and returned to the Smokies whenever she could. By this time her children were grown and it was difficult for her to stay alone at the cabin.

In the early 1950s she moved from Nashville to Sewanee to live with her son. Mayna Avent passed away on Jan. 2, 1959. She was 90.

Like the other summer residents of Elkmont, the Avent family was able to keep the cabin after the park was established through a lease agreement.

Mayna’s granddaughter and namesake, Mayna Nance submitted an application for listing the cabin on the National Register of Historic Places. She knew the lease agreement would be ending in 1992 and feared the beloved cabin could be dismantled by the park service once the family vacated the premises.

The detailed 18-page application included floor plans of the cabin, a history of the cabin its self, and the history of Mayna’s life and work. Although there were significant issues including the fact that the Avents had altered the original design, the Tennessee Historical Commission concluded that it is common for log cabins to be modified by their owners.

Furthermore, the commission agreed that although the Great Smoky Mountains national park is dotted with historic home sites and cabins, no others were associated with an artist of Mayna Avent’s stature and regional importance.

And so, in 1994, the Avent Cabin was accepted to the National Register of Historic Places, achieving the listing with two historic functions: as both architecturally significant because of the scarcity of buildings from the mid-1800s that still remained in the national park and as a culturally significant place as an artist’s studio.

The Avent Cabin stands today as a reminder of the sturdy pioneers who settled there over a century and a half ago and the famed artist who drew her inspiration from the beautiful mountain setting.

Carroll McMahan is the Special Projects Facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. 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 to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.