Upland Chronicles: President Roosevelt’s visit to Sevier County remembered

Apr. 26, 2014 @ 11:36 PM

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the presidential entourage left Washington, D.C., by train on Sunday evening, Sept. 1, 1940, and arrived in Knoxville the next morning at the old Southern Railway Depot. Thousands of people waited to catch a glimpse of the popular president, including Sen. K.D. McKellar and Gov. Prentice Cooper, as well as Clyde Hoey, governor of North Carolina.

From Knoxville, the presidential motorcade made its way to Chattanooga where President Roosevelt was scheduled to dedicate the Chickamauga Dam. Meanwhile, excitement was rising in Sevier County, as residents made final preparations for the first and only visit of a sitting president to the county.

After the dedication of the Chickamauga Dam, Roosevelt and his party returned to Knoxville. Thousands of people had been waiting for hours along the sidewalks of Gay Street to see the president. The tremendous turnout slowed down the motorcade considerably. By the time the entourage crossed the Henley Street Bridge, it was already behind schedule.

Hundreds stood along Chapman Highway to see their president and first lady as they passed by. The presidential limousine, with its top down, rolled slowly past the enthusiastic throngs as Roosevelt held his hat above his head to acknowledge the applause and grinning faces.

Although hopelessly behind schedule, the dignitaries stopped in Sevierville long enough for the president to be greeted by Postmaster Ralph “Pug” Murphy, one of the leading Democrats in the county. At Murphy’s suggestion, the motorcade’s route was slightly adjusted in order for the president to travel down Joy Street, where several Democrats resided.

Even though the event took place on Labor Day, Sevier County schools were in session. However, classes were dismissed early so students could stand along the route and get a glimpse of the president. Truckloads of school children came to town from all over the county to witness the historic event. Carrying American flags and handmade signs, students from Sevierville Elementary School and Sevier County High School walked to downtown Sevierville.

Church bells rang out heralding the president’s arrival in Pigeon Forge. Hundreds of spectators were on hand there as well.

As in Knoxville, Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, the streets of Gatlinburg were filled with throngs of people who had been patiently waiting for the president to arrive. National Guardsmen lined the streets, and all traffic was halted on the Parkway from noon until after the motorcade passed.

The ceremony at Newfound Gap was scheduled to start at five in the afternoon, but cars had been gathering as early as seven that morning. Just hours later, there was no parking for automobiles, and those wishing to attend the ceremonies had to be shuttled in school buses. By the time the president arrived, 10,000 people were waiting.

The manager of Knoxville’s Andrew Johnson Hotel had filled a truck full of food to feed Roosevelt and his party. The luncheon fare included fried chicken, crab salad, cheese sandwiches with caviar, and sardines and crackers. The president was observed smoking a cigarette in his famous holder after having eaten, enjoying the magnificent view.

At the dedication ceremony, Gov. Prentice Cooper and North Carolina Gov. Clyde Hoey spoke to the crowd, along with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes.

Sen. McKeller, wearing a tan suit and black bowtie, sat behind the president as he began his speech. McKellar had conducted a bitter open feud with J. Ross Eakins, superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The dispute seemed forgotten as McKellar sat behind the president. The scene was saved for posterity in a photograph that became a very popular postcard.

Following an introduction by Ickes, the Commander-in-Chief delivered his speech atop the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial, which was built with funds donated by North Carolina and Tennessee and was supplemented by Civilian Conservation Corps work. Wearing the leg braces that enabled him to give the illusion he could walk, he got up and spoke to the masses that welcomed him enthusiastically.

Once the crowd settled down, the president began his remarks, saying, “I have listened with great attention and great interest to the thousands of varieties of plants, trees, fishes and animals that Gov. Cooper has just told us about, but he failed to mention the hundreds of thousands of species of human animals that come to this park.”

Later in his speech he said, “There are trees here that have stood before our forefathers ever came to this continent; there are brooks that still run as clear as on the day the first pioneer cupped his hand and drank from them. In this park, we shall conserve these trees, the pine, the redbud, the dogwood, the azalea, the rhododendron, the trout and the thrush for the happiness of the American people.

“The old frontier that put the hard fiber in the American spirit and the long muscles on the American back, lives and will live in these untamed mountains to give future generations a sense of the land from which their forefathers hewed their homes.”

Throughout his remarks, the president emphasized the virtues of the new national treasure and warned of the impending perils that could adversely affect freedom.

He concluded with the following words: “The winds that blow through the wide sky in these mountains, the winds that sweep from Canada to Mexico, from the Pacific to the Atlantic – have always blown on free men. We are free today. If we join together now – men and women and children – to face the common menace as a united people, we shall be free tomorrow.

“So, to the free people of America, I dedicate this park.”

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 cmcmahan@scoc.org.