The Strange History of the Walker Sisters in the Smoky Mountains

The Walker Sisters cabin in the Smoky Mountains.
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The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is filled with a variety of historic cabins from a bygone age. When you visit the park, you can walk into these cabins, look around, and imagine what life must have been like over a hundred years ago. But what if you didn’t have to imagine?

In the 1940s and 1950s, visitors to the Little Greenbrier section of the park were greeted by the Walker Sisters, a group of women who looked like they walked right out of the 1800s. These sisters weren’t actresses or participants in some sort of historical reenactment, they actually lived in a log cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Born and raised in the Smokies, the Walker Sisters didn’t let the establishment of the national park disturb their traditional way of life. Read on for a brief look at the Walker Sisters’ unique history.

The Simple Life in Little GreenbrierA spinning wheel with yarn in an old cabin.

The Walker Sisters spent their entire lives in a cabin in Little Greenbrier Cove that was built by their grandfather in the 1840s. The property was obtained by their father, John Walker, when he returned to the area after fighting for the Union in the Civil War. John and his wife Margaret had eleven children: seven daughters and four sons! From oldest to youngest, the Walker Sisters were:

  • Margaret
  • Polly
  • Martha
  • Nancy
  • Louisa
  • Sarah Caroline
  • Hettie

While all of the sons eventually left home, only one daughter, Sarah Caroline, got married and moved away. When John Walker died in 1921, the property was left to his unmarried daughters. Without any men around, the Walker Sisters assumed all of the responsibilities on the farm. For the next 40+ years, the sisters would be completely self-sufficient: raising livestock, growing vegetables, and making their own clothes.

(See Also: How Much Do You Know About the History of Log Cabins in the Smoky Mountains?)

A sign along the Appalachian Trail.The National Park Moves in…But the Walker Sisters Don’t Move Out

Although Nancy died in 1931, the five remaining unmarried Walker Sisters were still going strong when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially dedicated in 1940. While most locals caught within the GSMNP’s boundaries moved away after the creation of the park, the Walker Sisters refused to give up their family farm. Eventually, a deal was struck in which the sisters received $4,750 for their land and permission to continue living in their cabin for the rest of their lives.

With the establishment of the national park came a host of new restrictions. The Walker Sisters weren’t allowed to hunt, fish, cut wood, or graze livestock. To make the most of their new situation, the sisters became quasi-ambassadors for the national park. When visitors came to Little Greenbrier, the Walker Sisters would say hello and sell their handmade products, such as fried apple pies, crocheted doilies, and children’s toys. Louisa even wrote poems that were available for purchase!

The Old Ways are the Best Ways

While the rest of the country was buying their groceries in supermarkets, shopping in department stores, and enjoying modern appliances like vacuum cleaners and washing machines, why did the Walker Sisters insist on living like they were still in the 19th century? By all accounts, it seems like the sisters just concluded that it was the natural thing to do. The old ways were good enough for their father and grandfather, so they figured that if it ain’t broke there’s no need to fix it. The sisters put it best themselves when they said, “Our land produces everything we need except sugar, soda, coffee, and salt.”    Old water barrels outside of a log cabin.

Even though the sisters lived a seemingly austere lifestyle, they actually had a great sense of humor. In a 1946 interview with the Saturday Evening Post, the Walker Sisters revealed their dry wit. As she spun socks for her nephews who were still serving in Europe, Martha quipped, “Guess it ain’t every soldier in Germany that can say his old-maid aunts raised his socks off’n a rocky mountainside for him.” Later in the article, Margaret joked that they needed one of their male relatives to help them with their “bullheaded” mule because “a Tennessee mule has got to be handled special, and none of us can cuss.”

Polly Walker passed away in 1946, with Hettie following her the next year. When Martha died in 1951, the two remaining sisters asked the National Park Service to take down the “Visitors Welcome” sign at their cabin, because they were simply too old to do all of their chores and entertain tourists as well. Margaret died in 1962 at the age of 92, and Louisa lived in the house until she passed in 1964. Sarah Caroline, the only sister who got married and moved away, died in 1966.

The Little Greenbrier School.See the Walker Sisters Place for Yourself

The Walker Sisters may be gone, but their historic cabin is still standing in the national park. The Walker Sisters Place is located along the Metcalf Bottoms Trail. To get to the homestead, first take the 0.7-mile hike from Metcalf Bottoms to the Little Greenbrier School, which was built by John Walker. Then, continue on the trail for 0.6 mile, where the path crosses over a footbridge. After 1.1 miles, hikers will reach the 0.2-mile side trail that leads to the Walker Sisters Place. 

To learn more about everything to see and do in the Smokies, check out our Great Smoky Mountains National Park page!

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23 thoughts on “The Strange History of the Walker Sisters in the Smoky Mountains

  1. Kathee Denny says:

    Sometimes I wish I could be a proofreader, or just wish I didn’t see the mistakes when I read these articles and post. “Our land produces everything we need expect sugar, soda, coffee, and salt.” Our land produces everything we need “EXCEPT sugar, soda, coffee, and salt.” (2)
    “Guess it ain’t every soldier in Germany that can say his old-maid aunts raised his socks off’n a rocky mountainside for him.” In lieu of “raised his socks” did you mean “rinsed”? Loved the article! We spend a lot of vacation time in TN, and would love to see this cabin.

    • Jason Fishman says:

      Hi Kathee. Thank you so much for catching the expect/except error; we have fixed it. You really should be a proofreader! As far as the raised/rinse question; we checked the original quote, and it is actually “raised”. Thank you again for reading and commenting!

      • Kathee Denny says:

        Thank you for letting me know that. I always love learning something new. I have been told that on the proofreading before. For some reason it sticks out like a sore thumb to me.

    • Kustom Jeff Dailey says:

      Hey Kathee, In this case raised would be correct, she is referring to them growing/raising/spinning and knitting the socks. Not sure if they were wool or cotton so terms could be slightly different but she means the sock was wholly created on their farm.

  2. Leslie Sholly says:

    The Walker Sisters’ homestead is not located where the school is. I don’t know the exact length of the trail, but it’s considerably more than .7 miles from Metcalf Bottoms.

    • Jason Fishman says:

      Hi Leslie. You’re absolutely right! We have updated the blog to clarify this. Thank you so much for your comment!

  3. NewOrleansBrownsfan says:

    None of the pictures above look like the Walker Sisters’ residence; I’ve been there several times. If the first one is indeed their residence, (it bears some resemblance) then the NPS must have moved it to its current location, because it is presently in an incredibly green, pastoral setting. Its current location bears no resemblance to the desolate, rocky slope pictured above.

    • Jason Fishman says:

      You have a good eye! Unfortunately, we didn’t have any photos of the cabin, se we used some file photos from the same time period. The last picture on the left is the Little Greenbrier School. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  4. AnOldCruzer says:

    My Father’s family claims kinship to the Walker Sisters. I am not sure exactly where the connection ties into our family, but Dad’s Mother’s family came from the Gatlinburg area and we still have other (living) cousin’s in that area. There is even a road somewhere near there named for her family, which I found really cool.
    We were able to visit there, back in 1998, and see the cabin and other structures. We also visited with some of those living relatives and drove our family road. It was great to feel the history around us.
    The Smokey Mountains are sooo beautiful. I sure hope the horrific, devastating fires in Gatlinburg and the Smokey’s this week (11/30/16) haven’t gotten to this area. I know these historical buildings can be rebuilt, but the original is such a personal treasure I hope they survive.

    • Jason Fishman says:

      Hi Lisa. Thank you so much for sharing some of your family history. You have deep roots in the Smoky Mountains! Also, thank you for sharing that wonderful photo of the cabin! We recently obtained our own picture of the Walker Sisters cabin, and we have added it to the blog.

      • Lisa Walker Ezzell Ijames says:

        I don’t know, Reva. I have cousins I have never met. Where do they live and who were their parents?

        • Michael Cutali says:

          Got friends that own the land right outside of park boundary from walker sisters that claim kinship they are the frye’s. And they have a trail from their present day home off katy hollar/lyon springs that leads right to the sisters cabin

  5. Daniel Grover says:

    We found a poem by Louisa in my dad’s files after he had passed. I suspect that his mother and father(my grandparents) had obtained it. The poem is called ‘The Old Pine Tree’ composed by Louisa Walker, Aug. 24, 1941, Sevierville, Tenn and there is a notation (‘R.7’) on the bottom right corner of the page. There is a colored drawing at the top of the page of a landscape scene with pine trees and two blue birds flying in the forefront and two birds flying in the distance. It is a lovely poem.

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