Jason Davis: Time not kind to grandparents’ hometown

Dec. 09, 2013 @ 12:12 AM

This past Tuesday afternoon, I had to take some time off from work to travel to the burial of a relative who died the day after Thanksgiving.

It was a somber, dreary day that included a lonely drive through the hills of Campbell and Claiborne counties and into the mountainous region near the Tennessee/Kentucky border.

The drive took me across rutted gravel roads and through terrain my 2005 Toyota Prius hadn’t encountered before.

Feeling a connection with my family history I often get when called back to the hollows my forefathers called home, I decided to drive through a town of my childhood on my way back to Sevier County.

The town was where my grandparents worked and lived. It is the home to many of my pleasant childhood memories: Weekends with my mother’s parents, who doted on me, the youngest child of their deceased daughter; family Christmases and summer vacations.

My choice to extend my journey by driving through the town — once, decades ago, a thriving city — was a bad decision. In fact, it only furthered the misery of the day.

Things haven’t been kind to the little town in recent years.

Since I left that part of the state six years ago, things have gone downhill rapidly.

The once proud downtown is a shell of its former self.

I remember, as a child, walking to the baseball card shop, the dime store and the downtown grocery store.

All survive now only in memories.

Many of the other businesses of my youth are shuttered now, too, with only faded signs to remember them.

The facade of one of the few remaining businesses in the area has partially fallen as well, revealing the 100-year-old structure behind it.

The population of the town fell nearly 4 percent from the 2000 census to the most recent one, taken in 2010. I’d venture to guess it’s dropped another 4 percent since 2010.

By comparison, Sevierville rose by nearly a quarter over the same period.

Further, the population of children 0-4 years old in the town had dropped almost 13 percent in the decade between 2000-2010, meaning people in their child-bearing ages are moving out.

My grandparents’ home has had the feeling of a dying town for some time.

A boom town during the heyday of coal mining in the 20th century, things started going south — in my estimation — when Baby Boomers began leaving in droves to look for work.

Those who stayed worked mainly in the few industries that provided steady work.

That trend of leaving to seek work continued with their children, and now there is no real industry in the area.

The leading employers in the town are the hospital and the schools. Some find work at the few banks, service stations and fast food restaurants near the Interstate.

Unemployment currently sits in double-figures. 

The cheery personality of the town — still present even a decade ago — seems gone.

Perhaps I simply passed through on a bad day. I’d like to believe so. 

But the numbers, and the sights and sounds of a Tuesday afternoon, don’t lie.

Sometimes, in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, we don’t realize how lucky we have it here in Sevier County.