Upland Chronicles: Eunice Eledge left her mark at Dollywood

Jan. 17, 2014 @ 07:53 AM

When Rebel Railroad opened in 1961, the two brothers from North Carolina who developed and owned the attraction could have not imagined it would one day be among the most visited amusement parks in the world. Neither did Eunice Eledge when she started working there in 1970. She was hired by John Fox to serve as his office manager when Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns, purchased the attraction and changed the name to Goldrush Junction.

The path that eventually led Eunice to a career culminating at Dollywood began in Freeborn, Ky., where she was born on Oct. 9, 1927. Her family later moved to Grundy, Va., where Eunice graduated from high school in 1945. The following year she married Elza Lewis, and the young couple soon moved to Knoxville. One of Eunice’s aunts lived in Knoxville, and the newlyweds thought it would be easier for Elza to find a good job in a bigger city.

About a decade later, Eunice and Elza separated, and she was left a single mother with four children, Amy, Charles, Debbie, and Marti, ranging from infancy to 9. In order to provide her family, Eunice went to work on the graveyard shift in the obstetrics department at East Tennessee Baptist Hospital. She worked there for 19 months and considered taking classes to become a LPN. However, fate intervened, and she got a job making more money in the office at Riches Department Store.

She started out as secretary to the comptroller but was soon asked to attend classes to learn Cobol, a language for writing provably-sound compiler optimizations.

Eunice met Hubert Eledge, a farmer who worked at Bush Brothers, when she drove her aunt to Sevierville to visit his wife who was very ill at the time. Hubert’s wife died a few months later, and they began dating. Eunice and Hubert married on Aug. 20, 1967, and she and her younger children moved to Sevierville to live on his farm.

She commuted to Knoxville until Riches sold out to Millers, and the new owners decided to downsize the computer operation. Eunice volunteered to resign since she was interested in finding a job closer to her home. Responding to a newspaper ad, she  interviewed for a position as office manager at Goldrush Junction. The interview with John Fox took place at Rawlings Furniture Store in the showroom window. She began her duties on Jan. 1, 1970, in a small trailer that was used as an office.

Goldrush Junction soon built a new office and hired a receptionist. Interestingly, a maintenance worker walked into Eunice’s office one day with a small bundle wrapped in a blanket and laid it on her desk. Eunice was startled when she uncovered an abandoned bear cub.

She placed the frightened cub in a box and took it home, stopping en route at Stewart’s Drug Store to purchase a feeding bottle and baby formula. Eunice’s family, friends, and co-workers pampered the cub. They named her Pocahontas, but the frisky little bear was always called Pokey. For several months, Eunice transported the bear between work and her house, where Pokey slept in the bathtub.

After Pokey was about four months old, she resided full time at Goldrush Junction and spent the night in a playpen. When the park was open, Pokey was escorted to the gazebo where she entertained visitors until the day came that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency intervened. They removed the bear and released her into the wild.

In 1977, Goldrush Junction was sold to Jack and Pete Herschend, of Herschend Enterprises, and renamed Silver Dollar City Tennessee. The brothers were looking to build on the success of their original Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo.

They poured more than a million dollars into the park right away, bringing in more craftsmen as well as adding more rides and attractions. Eunice was promoted to director of finance, becoming the first female in a management position with Silver Dollar City in Tennessee or Missouri. She was delighted the first time attendance records in Tennessee topped those in Branson.

Under the Herschends’ direction and commitment, attendance grew steadily through the early 1980s, attracting the attention of Sevier County’s most famous native, Dolly Parton. In 1986, Parton partnered with the Herschends, and together they reopened the park as Dollywood. With Dolly Parton as the face of the park, attendance soared in the first year under the new name. Since becoming Dollywood, the park has more than doubled in size and received more than $110 million toward new attractions.

Eunice remained on the staff and was in the forefront of the transformation from Silver Dollar City to Dollywood. She retired as finance director but remained at Dollywood to work on other projects.

She facilitated innovative new programs such as the Dollywood Foundation and the formation of the Dolly Parton Scholarship program, the forerunner of the Imagination Library. Eunice was also responsible for increasing the Dolly Parton Fan Club from several hundred to over 6,000, and contributing to the success of the popular evening concert series at Dollywood featuring celebrity guests.

When Eunice finally retired for good, Dolly sent her an arrangement of flowers in one of her own shoes. The red high-heel pump was mounted on a board that included a brass plaque reading:

Eunice,

One could never fill your shoes,So I will fill one of mine.

Dolly

4-25-93

Now 86, Eunice resides in Sevierville and remembers fondly her association with Goldrush Junction, Silver Dollar City and Dollywood, particularly her relationship with Dolly Parton, whom she calls a wonderful lady and a good friend.

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 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.