Upland Chronicles: Red Maples remained a humble man

Jan. 31, 2014 @ 11:42 AM

A few people remembered him as the Goat Man, others knew him as Red, and to thousands of Silver Dollar City visitors he was known as the old prospector. His natural mountain man likeness graced billboards, posters and greeting cards. Lately he was the subject of artist Paul Murray, who created etchings and paintings of him in his studio.

James Thomas Maples was born March 6, 1927. He was one of 10 children of Luther and Anna Thompson Maples. James was raised in a tiny tar-papered house “on Maples Branch,” which was named for his Revolutionary War ancestor Josiah Maples.

Because his father needed another hand to tend the farm, young James dropped out of school in the fourth grade. At 17 he walked to the draft board, where he added a year to his age and took the oath to serve his country in the waning days of World War II.

After the war, he returned to Sevier County. On July 17, 1947, James, 20, married Wilma Ivy, 16. He did whatever he could to support his family, which grew to include a daughter, Carolyn, and two sons, Terry and Tim. Because of his red curly hair and beard, he received the moniker Red.

In the late 1950s, James struck out on a trek through East Tennessee, riding a goat-driven wooden wagon adorned with pots, pans, and other wares. He was labeled the Goat Man. According to his wife, Wilma, the trip lasted for a short stint of only a few weeks but some people thereafter referred to him as the Goat Man.

He worked for a number of years in a local pulp mill and later as a laborer at Johnson & Galyon Construction Company in Knoxville.

In 1977, while visiting Silver Dollar City, James, then 50, was spotted by an employee who suggested he apply for a job there, since he looked so much like a true mountain man. For about 10 years, James worked at the Pigeon Forge theme park, where he was known as the prospector.

Soon his natural-born image was used to promote the bustling Smoky Mountain tourist industry, appearing on billboards that lined the way from Sevierville to the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Because of the constant exposure, everywhere James went he was recognized. He could not understand what all the fuss was about.

He left Sevier County for several years to live in Benton, Tenn. After working there as a security guard for a few years, he returned to Sevier County.

He then got a job at the Gem Mine in Pigeon Forge. That business, too, used his likeness on its advertising brochures.

Although quiet by nature, James was not shy. He possessed a gift of gab, and had a great rapport with tourists.  He was a natural-born storyteller who could keep listeners spellbound. He could spin a yarn off the top of his head and make it sound believable to strangers, who seemed to enjoy his talkative nature.

He loved animals, especially goats and burros. One of his favorites was a burro named Gus. James and Gus made television commercials, and posed for pictures for tourists. His garb of overalls became his trademark.

While paying a bill at a local service center, a chance encounter with a stranger would take James down another interesting path. The stranger was Paul Murray, an artist with a studio on Glades Road in Gatlinburg and another one in Ontario, Canada. Murray began sketching and painting James and Wilma.

Paul Murray said, “I’m trying to capture the last flicker of light of the past, the character and depth of people of yesterday. I don’t know what an artist’s job is exactly. I do know I’m trying to capture something that is almost lost – fading fast.” He found those qualities in Maples.

Murray hired James and Wilma to entertain at his Gatlinburg studio on Saturday afternoons. An advertisement for the events stated, “Join us for our Smoky Mountain Man Storytelling, when Red Maples brings his mule and his wife, from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m., and tells tales and great stories about ‘livin’ in the ol’ mountain ways.’”

Unfortunately, last fall, James, who was 86, began to experience a decline in his health. On Jan. 14, after suffering complications from surgery, he slipped quietly away. It came as no surprise that near his impending death, he requested that he be buried in his overalls and dress shirt.

After his death, his niece Beulah Karr remembered him: “He was always a very humble man who was never aware of the impact he had on others.”

His wife Wilma said: “We were married for over 66 years. He was always a good person, a good husband, and a good father and grandfather. We raised three children and a grandchild who was like our own; and he was always there for me and them.”

Throughout all the years of publicity, Maples remained as he appeared to the artist, the thousands of tourist, and his friends and neighbors – a simple, hard-working, unpretentious mountain man.

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 or would like to submit a column, contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411, email cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161, email ron@ronraderproperties.com.