By Lauren Stepp
When forced to vacate their homes, women screamed and men threatened to shed blood. At least, that is how the legend goes. But according to local author Wayne Caldwell, the annexation of Cataloochee proceeded quietly. Pioneers collected their children and left the valley without putting up a fight.
“A few folks went to court,” says Caldwell. “But that was the extent of their opposition.”
In the 1920s and early 1930s, United States National Park Service (NPS) officials chartered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though its boundaries enveloped Cataloochee, families living in the Haywood County village thought the plan would fail. Considering the government’s shoestring budget, “no one was terribly worried about it,” says Caldwell. That is, until American financier John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated $5 million to the cause.
“From that moment forward, the phrase ‘For the Greater Good’ became a notorious term in Western North Carolina,” says Bill Lineberry, a board member of the Western North Carolina Historical Association (WNCHA). On Wednesday, August 5, WNCHA will sponsor a day trip to the Cataloochee Valley Historic Area. The deadline to register is Tuesday, July 11.
Caldwell will lead attendees through the five remaining buildings: Palmer House, Caldwell House, Woody House, Beech Grove Schoolhouse and Palmer Chapel. Today, maintained trails are named after Caldwell’s family, who settled here in the 1830s. He says they likely came from West Virginia or Pennsylvania, and Ireland before that.
Caldwell’s personal ties afford him stories unknown to most. For one, Cataloochee was not a backwards place. The 1,250 citizens farmed and lived in off-grid cabins, but they also had a post office and general store. A fellow named Will Messer even built a two-story, 11-room gingerbread-style house. It had hot and cold water, too.
“The government thought all us mountaineers lived in one-bedroom homes with dirt floors,” says Caldwell. “Well, that wasn’t the case.”
When forced to decamp, many pioneers relocated to Maggie Valley. Some bought cheap land in Clay County and others moved out west. A cousin named Raymond Caldwell headed just a few miles south. A boyish 14, he considered moving a grand experience.
“Raymond thought it was an adventure to live in a big town like Waynesville,” says Caldwell. But for many, leaving those fertile fields was heartbreaking. And no amount of money could offset the bitterness.
Caldwell makes that much known in his novels, Cataloochee and Requiem By Fire. During a similar Cataloochee day trip in 2015, he even read excerpts from his texts in Palmer Chapel, the exact site where Reverend Pat Davis told residents about the forthcoming annexation.
“Wayne made the ghosts of Cataloochee come alive, so to speak,” says Lineberry. “His insight and family stories provided an authentic reminder of how things were in the mountains not that long ago.”
Reservations for motorcoach seating and a catered box lunch are due by Tuesday, July 11. Tickets are $75 for the general public and $65 for WNCHA members. For more information, call the Smith-McDowell House at 828.253.9231 or visit wnchistory.org.