Summertime is always the best of what might be.
If you stand still at Elkmont, you can almost hear summer. Kids laughing as they play tag around the old log cabins. Or waiting for lightning bugs to flicker at dusk. Mothers calling their kids in for supper. Old timers swapping tales of the way it used to be. Life was good, once upon a time.
It was a logging boom that brought the people here — in the early 1900s — as railways transported logs, and families, mostly from Knoxville, Tennessee, settled in to cabin life in the summer.
The place was known as Elkmont, taking the name from the Knoxville Elks Club. Members and residents loved fishing in the Little River and staying in the cabins for the summer. But in 1934, when the Great Smoky Mountains was designated as a national park, summer residents were given a choice: they could either sell their land and move or deed the property to the National Park Service in exchange for a lifetime lease meaning summers in the Smokies into the future.
Some homeowners left. But others stayed. And from what friends have told us, it was the best of times. Returning each year, these summer residents caught up on what had transpired during the year at their non-summer homes, kids played outdoor games, and grown-ups sat in front of stone fireplaces on chilly nights or in rockers on wide front porches.
But in 1992, leases expired, and the National Park Service became the owner. With no one to maintain the summer residences, the houses fell into disrepair — so much so that in 2009 many buildings were razed, leaving only 18 of the original buildings, abandoned but still on view for visitors to Elkmont today. If you visit now, you’ll see a few houses being repaired, but many have remained untouched, blocked off to keep visitors out.
It was an end of an era, for sure. No summer residents. No gathering as they once did at the Appalachian Club to meet, greet, and talk over dinner. And no sounds of happiness on summer nights in Elkmont.
Today, though, for visitors and photographers, these few houses remain as treasures, remnants of the past and reminders of good times known only to the residents and their guests.
Some of the houses are off limits . . .
others are open to explore with caution.
But all are picture-worthy for simple construction or faded-glory colors or the simple details that distinguish one from another. Like the red windows on the Levi Trentham house at the top or the chunky log construction in this sturdy house.
If you listen closely, you just might hear the chatter of the people, sharing their joy as they reconnect each summer, telling about a past school year, or promising to explore a new path during the summer before them.
Ask any former resident of Elkmont about summer living there, and you’ll get an almost tearful, quite nostalgic response. It was loved and treasured by many. And needs to be seen today —
if for no other reason than to let yourself imagine the joy of being in the Smokies summer after summer with friends.
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.Wallace Stevens
Travel the Smokies,
Rusha & Bert
How to get to Elkmont: Drive US-411 from Gatlinburg to the Sugarlands Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Drive toward Cades Cove for about 7 miles and turn at the sign for Elkmont Campground.
For more information on the history of Elkmont, try these sites: