Carroll McMahan chronicles history of Sevier County

Jan. 17, 2014 @ 11:10 PM

A few years ago, Carroll McMahan delivered a eulogy at his great-aunt’s funeral.

“I told about the family stories she used to tell,” said McMahan. “Now that she’s gone, I’m so thankful about the opportunity I had, that I listened to those stories. I’ve always been interested in the heritage of the people I grew up around.”

Since early 2013, McMahan, 64, has served as Sevier County historian. In that capacity, he responds to queries about local lore, and he consults on historic structures.

And nearly every week, he writes Upland Chronicles, the history column that runs each Sunday in The Mountain Press. In Upland Chronicles, McMahan explores a broad range of Sevier County topics, from pioneer days to the tourist trade.

He has written Upland Chronicles columns about triumphs and disasters, cabins and churches, architects and ferry boats. He has written about famous people and not-so-famous people.

“Many of my stories are about more obscure pieces of our heritage than would be in a regular history book,” McMahan said. “You can’t tell stories without talking about prominent people and political leaders, but at the same time, I like these stories to be about regular people living life here in Sevier County, people accomplishing something out of the ordinary.”

McMahan conceived Upland Chronicles in 2010 with commercial real estate advisor Ron Rader. “The idea was to invite other people to write, and we still do,” McMahan said. “But I’m sure I’ve written 90 percent of the articles over the past three and a half years.”

The column’s name was McMahan’s idea. “I wanted something that spoke to the area but didn’t have the words Sevier County or Smoky Mountains, because they’re used so frequently.”

To research his columns, McMahan consults archives including the history center at the King Family Library. He goes over funeral records.

And he does a lot of interviewing. “I know people all around the county,” he said. “In just about any section of the county, I know somebody who knows someone else who can tell me a particular thing.”

He’s careful to confirm what his sources tell him. “They tell you things you want to check out,” he said. “Older people, who tend to be the ones you talk to most often, can be a little sketchy on dates and facts. They know just enough to pique your interest, but you do have to go look things up.”

Unlike other communities its size, Sevier County is inextricably linked to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So is its history.

“There’s very few (Upland Chronicles) articles where the Smoky Mountains park isn’t written about – lots of times in the context of the establishment of the park,” McMahan said. “And the whole tourism business that came out of that created lots of interesting stories about people who moved here and started interesting businesses.”

He gets a lot of feedback on his columns. “That makes me feel like they make an impact. The thing that surprises me is that I probably get as much feedback from people who are not natives of this area and have interest in the local heritage.”

McMahan is the author of two books: “Images of America: Sevierville” and “Elkmont’s Lem Ownby: Sage of the Smokies.” “Elkmont’s Lem Ownby,” which was published last year, tells the story of the last leaseholder who lived in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Since 2006, McMahan has worked for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce, where he is special projects coordinator. He is a Sevierville native whose family has been in the area for seven generations.

A Sevier County High School graduate, he lived in Nashville for 20 years, where he worked in the airline industry. He met his wife Michelle, a nurse, in Nashville.

After a stint managing a bed and breakfast in Gustavus, Alaska, the two settled in Knoxville’s Fountain City neighborhood, where they are active members of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Church.

McMahan is a member of the East Tennessee and Smoky Mountains historical societies, and he is on the board of the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance. He received the East Tennessee Historical Society’s 2012 Community History Award. The Daughters of the American Revolution, Spencer Clack Chapter, gave him its Historic Preservation Recognition Award.

History is “extremely important,” McMahan said. “It’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from.”

kburns@themountainpress.com