Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, where ancient mountains, covered in pine, glow in purple, pink and blue hues, as a smoky mist rises from their thick cloak of trees. World-renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, this is also a place to explore what remains of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. This is America’s most visited national park — the Great Smoky Mountains.

On today’s episode, the story of 6 sisters who lived off this great land, all on their own.


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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park – NPS Website

How Five Sisters Kept the Old Ways Alive – Saturday Evening Post

The Strange History of the Walker Sisters in the Smoky Mountains – Visit My Smokies


Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, where ancient mountains, covered in pine, glow in purple, pink and blue hues, as a smoky mist rises from their thick cloak of trees. World-renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, this is also a place to explore what remains of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. This is America’s most visited national park — the Great Smoky Mountains.

On today’s episode, the story of 6 sisters who lived off this great land, all on their own.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.


Before the arrival of European settlers, the region now encompassing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was part of the homeland of the Cherokees. The first wave of westward expansion in the newly formed united states saw frontier people pushing into and over the Appalachian Mountains. As conflicts grew with Native Americans protecting their right to live where they had lived for centuries, President Andrew Jackson signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act, beginning the process that eventually resulted in the forced removal of all Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River to what is now Oklahoma.

As white settlers arrived, logging grew as a major industry in the area, and a rail line, the Little River Railroad, was constructed to haul timber out of the remote regions. Cut-and-run-style clearcutting was destroying the natural beauty of the area, so after the turn of the 20th century, visitors and locals banded together to raise money to preserve the land. The new National Park Service had also been wanting to establish a major park in the eastern United States.

Congress authorized the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1926, without the land to do so. It would have to be bought or taken over. John D. Rockefeller Jr. contributed $5 million, the U.S. government $2 million, and private citizens from Tennessee and North Carolina began to assemble the land for the park, piece by piece. Slowly, mountain homesteaders, miners, and loggers were evicted. Farms and timbering operations were closed. The park was officially established on 15 June 1934, and during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, and other federal organizations made trails, fire watchtowers, and other infrastructure improvements.

During the land purchase, hundreds of families were asked to move out of their mountain homes. If they owned the land, they were paid for it, and Some went willingly. Others fought against it, but most families moved immediately. A select few, including the six unmarried Walker sisters, received a special lifetime lease—a chance to live out the rest of their lives in the log cabin they were raised in. Their story is one of strength, hard work, and a love for the land of the Smokies.

The sisters’ father, John N. Walker, married Margaret Jane King in 1866 shortly after returning from the Civil War, where he fought for the Union and was imprisoned by the Confederacy. After marrying, John Walker obtained a house and property in Little Greenbrier Cove through Margaret’s family, later expanding his land by buying out her brothers and sisters. The house was made of logs from tulip-poplars, insulated with mud and rock. Other buildings on the Walker property included a barn, corncrib, smokehouse, pig pen, apple barn, and blacksmith shop. A springhouse situated on a nearby flowing creek kept dairy products such as milk and butter cool throughout the year, as well as provided storage room for pickled root vegetables.

An innovative man, John crafted ladderback chairs, looms, tools, and a small cotton gin. He also planted orchards that included more than 20 kinds of apples, as well as peaches, cherries, and plums. Chickens, sheep, goats, and hogs were all raised on the farm.

Together the Walkers raised eleven children—seven girls and four boys. All eleven children reached maturity — given the time period and lack of medical care, this was an extremely rare case. The sisters, from oldest to youngest, were Margaret, Polly, Martha, Nancy, Louisa (pronounced Lou-EYE-za), Sarah Caroline, and Hettie.

In 1881 John Walker and his son, James Thomas, helped build a small, log schoolhouse at the center of the growing Little Greenbrier community. It would also double as a Primitive Baptist church until 1925. Because there was so much work to do on the farm during the warm seasons, class was held in the winter for two to three months. School was a privilege; it was a chance for children to learn, see their friends, and escape their chores for a little while. Lessons included spelling, math, reading, and writing.

The Walker boys left home or married, while only one of the seven sisters—Sarah Caroline—married. The other six unmarried sisters stayed in Little Greenbrier with their father and inherited the farm after his death in 1921. He was 80 years old. One of the sisters, Nancy, died ten years later, and the remaining five sisters began to establish their life on the farm. They fed and clothed themselves, raised livestock, and maintained their mountain homestead for over forty more years.

For farmers like the Walkers in the Great Smoky Mountains during the nineteenth century, winter and early spring work included pruning fruit trees, repairing equipment, clearing new ground for future planting, and hauling manure from the barn to use as fertilizer, especially on the family garden.

Although some farmers considered spring the earliest time to start plowing, others plowed during winter to turn under old plant material and allow the winter freezes and thaws to help break up the soil. Many burned their fields before plowing to get rid of weeds and old vegetation, and to help control insects.

Frost could occur in the valleys as late as May, but several cold tolerant crops could be planted in March, including onions, mustard greens, turnips, potatoes, and cabbage. Farmers often looked to signs from nature to decide when to plant. Before planting corn, some waited for the first Whip-poor-will to call or oak leaves to grow as big as a “squirrel’s ear.”

Planting gardens and fields continued through the spring as the ground warmed and the chance of a killing frost diminished. Gardens were worked entirely with hand tools—mostly shovels, hoes, and rakes—while animal-drawn equipment was used in the larger fields. Through the spring and early summer, weed control consumed an enormous amount of time and hand labor.

The six Walker sisters did all of the farm and housework themselves for more than 40 years. Even the most simple meal represented hours of labor, a tremendous amount of sweat, and good luck with the weather. A typical meal at the Walker house almost always included pork and corn. Their garden also provided them with many other types of fresh vegetables in the growing season. In the winter, ham, bacon, and salt pork was cured in the smokehouse.

Pigs were the primary source of meat for mountain families for several reasons. For one, almost every part of the animal could be used. Secondly, pigs were self-sufficient and could be raised at little cost to the farmer. Pigs were especially good foragers and were allowed to roam the forest in search of food. They would eat things that other livestock could not. Hogs used their tough snouts or “rooters” to dig up plant bulbs, roots, and insects, and would also eat frogs, snakes, and lizards. In the fall, they feasted on chestnuts, acorns, and other wild nuts.

To keep the animals from wandering too far afield or becoming wild, many farmers would periodically take salt and corn to a feeding spot in the forest. This also made it easier to catch the animals in the fall when it was time to select hogs to be fattened before butchering. Older hogs were usually chosen, while younger animals were left for next year.

The sisters were also excellent spinners and weavers. Wool from their sheep was washed, carded, and spun using a spinning wheel, sometimes dying the yarn with berries or bark. They then wove the yarn into fabric. Flax and cotton were also grown at the Walker sisters’ farm to produce their own textiles using the cotton gin that their father had built, which they then used to sew their own clothing. Following in their mother Margaret’s footsteps, the daughters also kept a herb garden for mountain remedies, including horseradish, boneset, and peppermint for healing teas. Natural plants in the forests were collected, too. The Walker sisters once said, “Our land produces everything we need except sugar, soda, coffee, and salt.”

In 1926, after Congress approved authorization of the national park, parcels of land collected from families and timber companies alike were bargained for, haggled over, and eventually purchased, including the Walker sisters’ 122-acre homestead. Refusing to leave their mountain home, the sisters held out until 1940, when President Roosevelt officially dedicated Great Smoky Mountains National Park from a stone memorial at Newfound Gap. The sisters’ property was forcibly sold to the government for the sum of $4,750, but they were offered the opportunity to live out the rest of their lives at their home with a lifetime lease.

Living in the national park meant traditional practices such as hunting and fishing, cutting wood, and grazing livestock were now prohibited within the park boundaries. The sisters had to develop a new lifestyle. Visitors flocked to the park and visited what became known as “Five Sisters Cove.” The Walkers welcomed the curious newcomers and saw them as an opportunity to sell handmade items such as children’s toys, crocheted doilies, fried apple pies, and Louisa’s hand-written poems. The sisters were even featured in the Saturday Evening Post in April 1946, showcasing their mountain lifestyle to the rest of the country.

The year before the Post writer visited the homestead, Polly passed away. Hettie died a year later in 1947, and Martha died in 1951. With only two sisters left, Margaret and Louisa wrote a letter to the park superintendent asking if the “visitors welcome” sign—with information about the Walker sisters—could be taken down, explaining that they were getting too old and tired to get work done on the farm and greet visitors, too.Margaret was 82 and Louisa was 70. Margaret Walker died in 1962 at age 92, and Louisa stayed in the house until she died on July 13, 1964. The last sister, Caroline, who had moved away and married, died in 1966.


Though the Walker sisters are now gone, their legacy lives on through their homestead, the objects they created and lived with, and the neighbors and visitors they interacted with well into the 1950s. By parking at Metcalf Bottoms, you can take the short half mile walk up to the Little Greenbrier schoolhouse, which John Walker and his son helped build. If you’re up for a little more, take the Little Brier Gap Trail a mile up to the Walker sisters beloved home. Stand on the porch and imagine what life was life for the five sisters when they trapped food in the forest, tended to their gardens and livestock, and openly welcomed visitors before and after the park was established. New visitors will not be greeted by fried apple pies, but instead by a reminiscent, peaceful atmosphere that surrounds the now-vacant homestead of the Walker sisters.

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. Much of the text was written by Lindsey Taylor for the National Park Service. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


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