Upland Chronicles: W.L. Mills was a driving force in Gatlinburg’s growth

Aug. 16, 2014 @ 10:29 PM

Peppered throughout Gatlinburg are reminders of Mayor William L. Mills. Known as a selfless and honest man of unquestionable integrity, he was a well respected Gatlinburg leader for three decades. The W.L. Mills Conference Center and Mills Park are among the testaments to the appreciation the citizens of Gatlinburg had for him.

Born March 21, 1912, in Knoxville, William Luther “Bill” Mills was a son Sherman and Beatrice Smith Mills.

Bill Mills first came to Gatlinburg in 1932 as a 19-year-old enrollee in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He cleared land for campsites in the Sugarlands and set up tents as temporary headquarters until permanent CCC buildings were constructed from old chestnut trees found dead in the park.

For the remainder of the 1930s, Mills was stationed in numerous CCC posts all over the United States. However, he returned briefly to Sevier County to marry Nora Tipton “Tippy” Sharp, a daughter of Hewlett Clyde Sharp and Mary Murphy Sharp of Sevierville. The couple was married Oct. 9, 1938.

A CCC commander arranged for Mills to take an examination that led to his commission as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. In 1940 he began regular duty in the Army and was assigned to help organize the first armored division. He served with the division in combat, making landings in North Africa where they fought Rommel’s forces, and then into Sicily, Salerno, Italy, up the Poe Valley with a stop at Anzio Beach, and on to France.

He resigned from the regular Army in 1946 but continued to serve in the Army Reserves until 1972, when he retired with the rank of colonel. He and his family, which by this time included a son, Brent, returned again to Gatlinburg, and Mills took a job with Sevier County Bank. Later, they had a daughter Linda.

For the next five years, Mills made pre-dawn trips, sometimes over treacherous roads, carrying as much as $100,000 in cash, to Sevierville. In 1951, Mills resigned from Sevier County Bank to join the newly organized First National Bank of Gatlinburg.

At the same time that Mills joined the new bank, Jesse Cates was hired as the first bookkeeper. Jesse was very capable and trustworthy, which allowed Mills the time he needed to attend to civic duties without having to worry about the bank in his absence.

Mills owned and operated the Davy Crockett Theatre in Gatlinburg for 10 years. In his earlier years he worked at the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville.

In 1953, he was appointed to serve the unexpired term of Woody Luther on the Gatlinburg City Council. Luther had resigned to become a member of the Sevier County Election Commission.

Mills was first elected to the Gatlinburg City Commission in 1954. He never asked for a political office because people were always asking him. In 1956, he was chosen mayor.

During his administration, Gatlinburg grew tremendously. A sewer plant and system were built, along with the municipal golf course, the first chamber of commerce building, the Anna Porter Library, several city parking lots and the Civic Auditorium, which is now named after him.

In his role as mayor, Mills spent countless hours attending social functions and making speeches. Thousands of convention delegates were entertained with his gracious “Welcome to Gatlinburg” talks, which always included jokes from his ever-growing collection.

Until a few years before Mills retired, commissioners were not paid, and the mayor had no more power than his fellow commissioners. When they made trips to Nashville to check on the progress of legislation that would affect the town, they had to pay their own expenses including fuel cost.

Mills was very active in the Gatlinburg First Baptist Church and was well known for giving credit for his success to God. He was a member of the Mountain Star Lodge No. 197 of Sevierville.

He retired from the city commission in 1975, and the city presented him with a plaque for his service to the grateful community. In 1976, Mills was named an honorary ranger by the National Park Service in recognition of his concern for the park system.

Mayor Mills died Sunday afternoon, Oct. 23, 1977, following an extended illness. He was 65. Mills is buried in the Shiloh Cemetery. At his funeral, Dr. Charles Maples said, “Let us give praise and thanksgiving for the gift of Bill Mills.”

In a tribute published in The Mountain Press, Bill Postlewaite wrote: “Bill Mills was not so much a banker-politician with a talent for community leadership as he was a community leader with a talent for banking. Although he was deeply involved in local government along with the business establishment, he never once, in our 30 years of publishing, asked for preferential treatment in the newspapers. He was always open with our reporters and editors, for he understood the role of a free press.

“During Gatlinburg’s formative years, he was effective as the right mayor at the right time, for he possessed the ability to get along with all people and to bring together the various local factions in the solution of common problems.

“Certainly with the support and encouragement of his bank directors and the obvious support of the voters for so many years, it becomes clear that his talent, patience, and leadership made a lasting contribution to the entire community.”

Carroll McMahan is 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; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or ron@ronraderproperties.com.