On our recent trip to the Smoky Mountains National Park, our first stop was at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in the small town of Townsend, Tenn. which lies just a couple of miles from the National Park. In truth, the only reason anyone would come to this town filled with motels and tourist spots is because of its convenient location just a couple of miles from the park. We didn’t know what to expect at the Heritage Center, but we had some time to kill before we could check into our room at the Gateway Inn which does not look like much from the outside, but turned out to be really nice on the inside. The Heritage Center turned out to be an interesting stop. Plenty of history about the area as well as lots of artifacts going as far back as 900 B.C. Naturally, there was plenty of history on the park and its inhabitants. Dorothy, my wife, who among her many talents likes to quilt, was fascinated by the two quilts that we found hanging in one of the rooms in the center. They were made by the Walker Sisters who lived their entire lives on the land own and cultivated by their father, John N. Walker.
Tennessee was one of the states that had mixed alliances during the Civil War. John N. Walker fought for the North, but was captured during the war and placed in a Confederate prison. After the war, in 1866, John married Margaret Jane King. Margaret’s father, Wiley King owned a piece of land in Little Greenbrier Cove, part of the Smoky Mountains. John became a part owner after the marriage. The Walkers raised eleven children, seven girls and four boys. The family lived on and lived off the land. John Walker was a skilled carpenter, orchard keeper and a blacksmith. He planted a variety of fruits, including twenty varieties of apples. They had chickens, sheep and goats among their livestock that provided milk and meat. Walker also had a smokehouse, a barn and a apple barn among other structures on his land. What they never had was indoor plumbing and running water.
The four boys and one girl, Sarah, all married and moved from the family homestead. The remaining six girls remained on the homestead. Margaret Jane died prior to the Walker land becoming part of the National Park as did Papa John who passed in 1921. Ten years later, one of the sisters, Nancy Melinda Walker died. This left five sisters, Polly, Margaret, Martha, Louisa and Hetta who remained in the home when in 1934 the Walker land became part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The National Park Service made various attempts to purchase the Walker land as it did with other homesteaders. However, unlike others, the Walker sisters refused to move. Finally, an agreement was reached where the sisters received a lifetime lease on the property. Like most sisters, they had similar family traits, yet all had distinctive personalities. Margaret ran the household, made most of the practical decisions, Martha managed all the bills and accounting. Louisa did a bit of everything, but had an artistic side and liked to write poetry which she sold to park visitors. Hetta cooked and knitted and Nancy who passed away in 1931 was an expert at needle work and as seamstress.
The last surviving sister was Louisa who died in 1964. In 1976, the Walker homestead was restored by the Park Service and opened to visitors.
Looking at the two quilts in the first photo above, one has to remember that these was made during a time when everything was done manually by hand. It took a lot of work and time as well as artistic talent to design.