Cades Cove family recalls area's heritage

Jan. 27, 2013 @ 03:56 PM

Lois Caughron was working in the garden near her Cades Cove residence when she heard noises coming from her home. She walked inside to find a Boy Scout troop touring the house as though it were a museum.

That was years ago, way past the end of an era in Cades Cove history. Most Cove residents had either left or been forced to leave their homes by the '50s. Those who remained lived in an area of increasing tourist traffic.

During the recent Wilderness Wildlife Week, the panel discussion over Cades Cove given by longtime residents Ruth Caughron Davis, her sister Kay Caughron McMahan and mother Lois Shuler Caughron was as much a celebration of their life in the Cove as a reflection on the pains of leaving.

The Caughrons were one of the last families to leave the Cove. When Ruth and Kay's father died in 1999, the Cades Cove Preservation Association "couldn't wait to tear the house down and rebuild it," Ruth said.

"We have some items, little key tags, that were made out of some of the lumber that came from (the house), but it was very sad," Ruth said, tearing up.

They lived in a log cabin built of wood from the area. They never had electricity — no television or working phones — though they went to school with children who did. Their home offered shelter but was still subject to the elements. If the wind blew, soot from the fireplace scattered throughout the house. If Lois mopped the floor, the water froze.

"They say the good old days, but it wasn't," Lois said.

But anyone in the Harp Room at the Music Road Convention Center could tell that these women experienced deep joy alongside the hardships — the kind of joy children will always experience no matter their circumstances.

Ruth told of how her family sold jars of honey on the side of the road for $1 apiece. Payment was made "on the honor system," but apparently someone began stealing honey, so their father built a fake beehive on the hill near the real beehives. They sat on a board behind the beehive and peeped through a small hole to try to catch the honey-stealer. They never did.

"Kay and I spent many a hot hour in that fake beehive," Ruth said with a laugh.

Someone from the crowd asked of the honey jars, "Did they always pay for them?"

"At that time they did," Ruth answered.

Today Cades Cove, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Smokies. Visitors to the area see the John Oliver Cabin, the Myers Barn, the Becky Cable House, the churches and other historic structures. But, as Ruth will tell you, what's left is not totally representative of the mid-20th century community.

Many of the buildings were partially reconstructed, by wood that was not from the Cove, and no one lives in them. They are the hollow, honey-less beehives of their former bustling selves.

"When the tin roof came off, the whole front side of the (Becky Cable) barn rotted, and the end rotted as well," Ruth said. "They came in and tore all that off and hauled it off to the dump and put new lumber on. And you tell me that's 75 percent original? I don't think so."

Nor do these primitive log cabins reveal the very real modernity of the Cove by the time the Park Committee forced most of its residents off their property in the '30s, '40s and '50s. Ruth left in 1965, and Kay in '71.

In the end, the National Park Service demolished most of the more modern structures, leaving the early-Appalachia cabins and a distorted legacy of the area, including the Caughron house.

"They pushed everything out. The only thing that's left there is the apple tree in the front yard," Ruth said. "And I'm surprised they didn't push that down, too."

rhargett@themountainpress.com