Out front of the county courthouse in most small American towns stands a bronze statue of a revered citizen, often, a
general on horseback, sometimes a founder holding a flintlock or maybe a religious icon, but at this pretty town on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee the townsfolk have saluted their greatest benefactor - Dolly Parton.
The bronze statue in front of the Sevierville County Courthouse depicts the famous, buxom singer sitting on a rock in her bare feet, strumming a guitar. And it's not just because Parton grew up in this town to write and record more than 5,000 country-western songs and become one of the world's most famous entertainers that has her sitting on the courthouse lawn. She is an economic engine that has brought prosperity to this town and its nearby neighbours, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
Dollywood, the singer's huge amusement park in the heart of Sevierville County, is the most popular tourist destination in Tennessee with an entry fee. Nearly 2.4 million visitors pushed through Dollywood's gates last year.
Further up the hill more than 10 million visitors walked free into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina boundary.
In the 1970s, Pigeon Forge was nothing more than a wide spot on the road. It sits next to Sevierville, which was the sleepy county seat. Gatlinburg was also a small quiet mountain town. Their boundaries bump into each other along Highway 441, south of Knoxville.
The three communities drew some new attention from the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, but an even bigger boost came in 1986 when Parton bought the Silver Dollar City amusement park in Pigeon Forge.
Attendance shot up more than 75 per cent and Parton was able to hire more than 2,200 of her neighbours to work in the park. Dollywood tells her story and those of her mountain-folk neighbours. It has all the latest rides, including some unique to North America, but its theme is primarily life in the Appalachians.
The Dolly Parton Museum has been added to the park. It contains many of Parton's famous dresses, draped in rhinestones. Every award she has earned over her career, from Oscar, to Emmy, to Grammy, to Golden Globe, to People's Choice and the keys to nearly every city she visited in the world, are on display in the museum.
So too is the scrap of paper on which she wrote the lyrics to Coat of Many Colors, her favourite song. It tells some of the story of her life of poverty in the Appalachian Mountains. Her earlier story is told in the park's replica of the two-room cabin Parton grew up in with her 11 siblings and her parents.
A steam train that spent its early years in northern Canada offers one of the best ways to see the park. The steam locomotive, built in 1942 to carry American troops through the Yukon to defend Alaska against a feared Japanese invasion during the Second World War, now carries a Japanese invasion around the 125-acre park. Admission to Dollywood isn't cheap. It's $45.70 US for adults and $34.55 for children four to 11. One consolation is the money goes to a good cause - the Imagination Library.
Parton launched and funded the Imagination Library in Sevier County 10 years ago. Every child in the county is mailed a free book a month from birth until age five. The library is one of several education incentives she has introduced in her home county, such as paying students $500 if they graduate from high school. Imagination Library has now spread to 41 states with a long list of donors, including government funds.
There's no fee to enter Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Highway 441 from Sevierville County winds and twists its way up to more than 5,000 feet above sea level to go over the chain and into North Carolina.
Great Smoky is 500,000 acres of solid bush. Its gently rolling mountains are among the oldest in the world and they contain what many scientists claim is the planet's greatest diversity of plants, animals and invertebrates in a temperate zone. That's because the Ice Age didn't reach this far south, but that mile-high wall of ice 10,000 years ago sent a lot of animals, birds and seeds scurrying south. They liked the Smokies, so they stayed.
Cherokee Indians named the area 1,000 years ago. The dense forests put out so much moisture each day that a mist hangs above the trees looking like whiffs of smoke; thus - The Great Smoky Mountains. The forests are mostly hardwood and the colours in October are spectacular.
Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.
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