The Strange History of the Walker Sisters in the Smoky Mountains
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 Greenbrier
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:
- Sarah Caroline
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?)
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.”
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.
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.
Update: The Walker Sisters Cabin is currently closed to visitors due to structural concerns. In 2022, the cabin will undergo renovations, including roof replacement. You can still explore the historic farmstead, including additional outbuildings while the Walker Sisters Place is closed.
To learn more about everything to see and do in the Smokies, check out our Great Smoky Mountains National Park page!
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.
May 12, 2016 at 3:29 am
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!
May 12, 2016 at 9:50 am
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.
May 19, 2016 at 4:37 pm
It’s the same for me. And was for my dad. He would point out all the errors in the daily paper.
September 8, 2016 at 11:58 pm
Karen, I never comment on other people’s personal mistakes, but when I see them on posters or news articles I will. The funniest one to date that I read was, “with friends like that who needs enemas”? At least that one made me chuckle.
September 9, 2016 at 1:20 am
September 10, 2016 at 5:47 am
Kustom Jeff Dailey
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.
May 19, 2016 at 11:51 am
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.
May 13, 2016 at 1:54 pm
Hi Leslie. You’re absolutely right! We have updated the blog to clarify this. Thank you so much for your comment!
May 17, 2016 at 1:45 pm
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.
May 30, 2016 at 7:59 pm
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!
June 2, 2016 at 10:49 am
Lisa Walker Ezzell Ijames
It’s not the Walker cabin. That’s a cabin in Cades Cove, I believe.
April 25, 2017 at 11:20 am
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.
December 1, 2016 at 10:45 am
Lisa Walker Ezzell Ijames
The Walker sisters were my great aunts. My grandfather was their oldest brother, James Thomas Walker. But the cabin pictured in the article is not the Walker cabin. That cabin is one in Cades Cove. The Walker cabin is this one below:
April 25, 2017 at 11:18 am
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.
April 25, 2017 at 11:51 am
How did they heat cabin if they could not cut wood, gather dead?
April 25, 2017 at 6:49 pm
Lisa Walker Ezzell Ijames
Dead wood and coal, I imagine.
April 26, 2017 at 12:16 pm
Reva M Yates
Lisa, are you kin to Leon, Billy and Travis walker?
May 3, 2017 at 9:02 pm
Lisa Walker Ezzell Ijames
I don’t know, Reva. I have cousins I have never met. Where do they live and who were their parents?
May 4, 2017 at 10:10 am
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
June 16, 2017 at 3:06 am
I love it !!
May 5, 2017 at 9:50 pm
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.
January 13, 2018 at 9:47 pm
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