Upland Chronicles: Levi Trentham was called ‘prophet of the Smokies’

Feb. 15, 2014 @ 11:36 PM

In his younger days, Levi Trentham scratched out a living trapping bears and selling hides. When outsiders started traveling to the Smokies, he made more money by skimming tourists. Then, native guides and storytellers were in demand. And the fast- talking mountaineer known also as “Uncle Levi” was a natural.

He became known as the “prophet of the Smokies.” Postcards carried his image. Almost all early publications about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park made mention of him. In 1932 Trentham, then 80, was invited to bring his ox-drawn card to Knoxville for the dedication of the Henley Street Bridge. His role was to be the “spirit of the Smokies.”

During the final months of World War I, some folks in Elkmont, the bustling logging town where Trentham operated a store, decided it would be a good idea to display their patriotism by decorating the area with American flags.

Old Glory flew everywhere – from cabins, from storefronts, from trains and treetops. One particular flag had been mounted high atop a white pine near the parking lot of the Wonderland Hotel.

Accounts vary as to why Trentham decided to exercise his freedom of expression on that warm day in June. Some said he was feuding with another storekeeper who provoked him into an argument. Others told that he was outraged that the crown of such a beautiful pine had been chopped off. And some said he was a crusty old mountaineer who didn’t give a hoot about the federal government.

Whatever the reason, he took one look at the patriotic scene and snapped. Using profanity, he mocked the Stars and Stripes. Trentham was arrested for the tirade, fined $100 and confined to his own land for the duration of the war. He was permitted to leave only for visits to his store.

He apparently didn’t learn a lesson from the incident. Trentham was later fined the same amount for calling some Red Cross women “a {sic} set of whores.”

Levi Trentham was born Feb. 22, 1852. He was one of 10 children of Robert Trentham and Mary R. “Polly’ Fancher Trentham. On Jan. 4, 1872, he married Litha Emmaline Ownby and they raised a family of 10 children.

Trentham was an imposing figure with a long beard. He reputedly earned the moniker of “prophet of the Smokies” by telling of visions which later came to pass, at least according to his own speculative reasoning.

An often-repeated story about Trentham is the time he and Ben Parton struck off up Jake’s Creek in pursuit of a bear. Trentham and his neighbor Parton had hunted the bear around Elkmont for years. They carried heavy powder rifles, and long hunting knives for skinning. This time they found a cave they thought might be the bear’s den. Parton crawled in the cave to flush the bear out. Levi waited at the mouth of the cave.

Suddenly, a thunderous roar came from within the cave. Parton had found the bear and the fight was on. Human screams were as loud as those of the beast. About half an hour later, Parton emerged. Scratched and bleeding he inched his way to daylight, dragging his quarry behind him. Paying little attention to Parton’s ripped flesh and tattered clothing, Trentham stroked his beard in contemplation and casually asked, “You-a-gettin’ my bear?” Parton screamed his answer, “Your bear, hell! Go in and get your own damn bear!”

Bill Hooks, in his book “Whistle over the Mountain,” tells that Levi Trentham couldn’t read nor write, yet ran a grocery store. Levi’s filing system consisted of nails hammered into the walls of his store; each nail “belonged” to a certain customer. When someone bought an item on credit, Levi would draw a picture of the item and put it on the customer’s nail.

One day after a man had settled up his bill, he came back and told Levi he had cheated him, and furthermore that he had cheated Levi. When Levi asked how that happened, the customer said you charged me for something I didn’t get, and you gave me something I didn’t pay for. Uncle Levi said, “What be it?” The customer said, “Well, you charged me for a wheel of cheese and I ain’t bought no wheel of cheese.” Levi said, “Well, what did you buy, then?” “I bought a grindstone!” Levi told him that he’d just forgotten to draw the hole in the picture and that’s why he got the cheese instead of the grindstone!

When Emmaline died in 1928, Trentham chose to bury his beloved wife on his own property instead of the old Elkmont Cemetery. This was the beginning of what became known as the Levi Trentham Cemetery. Although now within the park boundaries of the park, the tranquil little cemetery on the banks of Jake’s Creek is still used today. Most of those interred there are somehow related to him.

Levi Trentham died on Saturday, Feb. 15, 1936, one week before his 84th birthday. The following Monday, relatives almost filled the little Elkmont Baptist Church, which was dismantled and moved to Wear’s Valley two years later. The famed bear hunter was survived by seven children, 64 grandchildren, and 110 great-grandchildren.

The little log cabin built in 1830, in which Levi and Emmline lived and raised their family, was moved to the Daisy Town section of Elkmont after Trentham sold out to the park service. The Mayo family, owners of Mayo Seed Company in Knoxville, bought the structure and moved it behind their summer cottage to use as a guest house.

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 to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com