A Success Story For Children & Adults

In my People of Passion book is a story of one of the most dramatic and important school beginnings in America. Gatlinburg, Tennessee was a struggling little mountain community in 1910. Today, with ten million tourists annually, it has more visitors than any mountain resort in America. This is an account of the historic event that led to the growth.     
   There were numerous college-sponsored settlements in the early 1900s for tenement residents in American cities. Meanwhile, the national press began writing about Southern Appalachia. Moved by the stories, the Pi Beta Phi college sorority for women wanted to help. In 1910, they chose to establish a settlement school in the South and asked the commissioner of education where a school was most needed. He sent them to Tennessee. The state board of education directed them to Sevier County.   
   Sorority representatives visited the school superintendent in Sevierville. He told them Gatlinburg was in dire need of a school. He said the people didn’t want to leave, so they needed training to help them earn a better living in the highlands. Gatlinburg’s settlement school opened in 1912, and the teachers were shocked at how isolated the children were, shut in by mountains on every side and separated from society by almost impassable roads. 
   About 200 families lived in and around Gatlinburg. The town itself consisted of only seven houses, three general stores, a blacksmith shop, and a Baptist church. Pi Beta Phi set up the school across from the church in a tiny shack rented for $1.50 per month. Only thirteen children came sporadically in the beginning. The highlanders were proud and resisted outside interference, even though they did want educational opportunities for their children.
   No sudden miracles happened. Pi Beta Phi struggled. They asked parents to help get children to attend school and they worked to make learning exciting and fun. The facilities were poor and the atmosphere was depressing. Pi Beta Phi requested the townspeople team with them to obtain land for a new building because they had grown to love these mountaineers and wanted to establishment a permanent school. But the people still rebelled against the outsiders. Discouragement eventually persuaded Pi Beta Phi that maybe the best thing to do was leave.
   Pi Beta Phi issued an ultimatum that the people must do their part in buying land and showing they wanted the school or Pi Beta Phi would depart. The sorority pledged $600 toward the purchase of a 70-acre tract on which to build. They told businessman Ephraim Ogle they would buy the land from him for $1800, even though they weren’t certain he would sell. A final hour was set, at which time the teachers would go if the town didn’t respond. 
   A few residents longing for the school made a last desperate struggle to obtain the land. Pi Beta Phi was already resigned to the fact they were leaving because no one had contributed any money and Ephraim Ogle had not yet agreed to sell. The teachers packed their bags and sat on their cottage porch, waiting for the horse-drawn carriage to come for them. However, Mrs. Andy Huff and a few other supporters had not given up. Almost hysterical, Mrs. Huff pulled her husband away from his logging camp and pleaded with him to save the school. Andy Huff had been a booster from the outset, having personally taken his small daughter to school each day to encourage others. 
   Huff gave $250. Businessman Steve Whaley matched it. They were still short $700, even if Ogle decided to sell. Meanwhile, the carriage for the teachers was headed toward their cottage. Excitement was high when Ephraim Ogle walked to the cottage ahead of the carriage and said he would sell. He also said he would contribute $250 toward the purchase. Andy Huff and businessman Isaac Maples said they would take care of the final $450. The carriage left without its passengers and the Pi Beta Phi Settlement School was in Gatlinburg to stay.
   The story doesn’t end here. Not only did the children benefit from Pi Beta Phi’s presence, the adults also gained tremendously. Rel Maples, born in 1905 and the founder of the renowned Gatlinburg Inn, claimed that the Pi Beta Phi School of Arts and Crafts did more for Gatlinburg than the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. He said Pi Beta Phi furnished women thread with which to weave, worked with them, and marketed their products. They also assisted men with materials and techniques and marketed their wood-carved items. This established income for the families and showcased their beautiful handiwork throughout America. In turn, the area was introduced to the world.   
Carl Mays, author of over a dozen books, speaker at over 2500 events, can be contacted at carlmays@carlmays.com or 865-436-7478. His books are available in stores, at www.carlmays.com, and on www.amazon.com. 


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