History of Pigeon Forge

Historical Marker Interactive Map

Early Park Interactive Map

Pigeon Forge, Tenn.--Pigeon Forge, today a playground for vacationing families, was once a valley of golden wheat fields and lush farm lands with the majestic peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains for a backdrop. The town takes the first part of its name from the Little Pigeon River, and the river takes its name from passenger pigeons. These birds, now extinct, were so numerous that they darkened the sky as they flew into the valley, and the beech trees along the river were stripped of limbs by the weight of their great numbers. The second part of the name came from the bloomery ‘forge’ built by Isaac Love in 1817, on a site near the present Old Mill.

Mordecai Lewis was a Pigeon Forge pioneer who received a 151-acre land grant and built the now historic Old Mill around 1790. In 1849 the mill (or forge tract) was purchased by Mr. John Sevier Trotter who sold it to Mr. John Marshall McMahan. Mr. McMahan sold one fourth of the mill interest to A. T. Householder in December of 1900. His transfer deed specifically mentioned a gristmill, sawmill, and a carding machine.

The first white settlers to come into the Pigeon Forge area were probably traders who followed the trail of the Great Indian path from Virginia to the center of the Cherokee nation. Colonel Samuel Wear, a soldier of the Revolution from Virginia, settled here before 1783. Wear’s Fort, near the mouth of Walden’s Creek on the West Fork of the Little Pigeon, was a refuge during Indian raids. This historic site is located near Pigeon Forge’s library building.

As early as the War Between the States, folks in Pigeon Forge were worshiping at a log meetinghouse southeast of the present Methodist Church. The building was used by Methodists, both Primitive and Missionary Baptists, and United Brethren. Sometime in the 1870s or 1880s, a new frame building was built. The Methodists officially organized in 1880.

The iron forge, which gave Pigeon Forge its name, was dismantled sometime before 1884. Some believe it was moved to Kentucky. A vertical saw operation took its place. Through the efforts of earlier residents, the five hundred pound hammer used in the forge was preserved. After the original forge was removed, the hammer was displayed, first, at Butler’s Home Market, then, Henry and Fannie Butler’s Forge Hammer Grill and later at Apple Tree Inn. The forge’s hammer continued to remain on display at the Apple Tree Inn for many years.

The first telephone was installed in Pigeon Forge in 1898. At this time, a group of houses had been built along the west bank of the Little Pigeon River across from the Old Mill and to the south. This ‘string’ of houses became known as ‘String Town’.

Between 1900 and 1930, change occurred slowly. Citizens experienced the extension of the telephone, the remodeling of the Old Mill, the advent of automobile and train transportation, and World War I. In this thirty year span also came another blacksmith shop, the construction of a steam-powered planing mill, more stores, a Baptist church, a new Methodist church, an elementary school, a cannery, and a power plant. Chairs and furniture were produced, and a bottling plant was opened. Citizens remodeled Shiloh Methodist Church and expanded Shiloh cemetery grounds, and they experienced an aeroplane exhibition on September 15, 1923. During these years, before a long ribbon of pavement spread through the community’s farmland, Pigeon Forge’s main highway was a dirt road that ran primarily along the river.

Business and professionals were beginning to arrive in Pigeon Forge in the early 1900s. Some of these include Quarrels Brothers Garage, Robertson’s Garage, Leonard Ogle’s Barber Shop, E.E. Conner and Mrs. J.M. Whaley’s dry goods/grocery store, Dr. Samuel Gibson’s medical practice, the Butler Brothers Company, Mr. Dave Householder’s feed and grain business, the Farmers Supply Stores, the Stott Brothers Store, Tebo Watson’s Barber Shop, and the Roberts Brothers Blacksmith Shop.

Pigeon Forge students attended a brand new school building in 1923. The school moved from its location near the Methodist Church across to the east side of the river on a parcel of land that had been part of the James L. Gobble farm.

Pigeon Forge citizens were invited to a Sevierville Chamber of Commerce meeting in 1923 to hear what the creation of a national park would mean to this county. President Calvin Coolidge signed the park bill establishing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on May 22, 1926. It would be fourteen years into the future before Franklin D. Roosevelt would ride through Pigeon Forge to dedicate the new national park.

In 1952, the east side of the Parkway was paved for a two-way highway, and in 1956, workers began paving the west side. By this time, Pigeon Forge Pottery was fast becoming an important part of the Great Smoky Mountains vacationing community in Sevier County. The fifties and sixties brought in businesses such as Gus Ward and Glenn Beal’s Esso on Stringtown Road. Arlie Roberts had a Texaco station just south of the Old Mill Avenue; other businesses included Lamon’s Café, Sims’ Service Station, and Trotter Electric. Light House Drive-in was near the Pigeon Forge Shopping Center and across the Parkway sat such businesses as Pickel’s Grocery, Z Buda’s Drug Store, and Lee’s Restaurant. Two Newman brothers opened a fine new supermarket as small country stores and their peddlers were becoming history. The Norma Dan Motel, still in operation today, opened the weekend of July 4, 1958.

Fort Wear Game Park, a zoo with wild animals, was in the heart of Pigeon Forge. Occasionally, the elephant would escape and go directly to the river. Pigeon Forge Elementary School by this time had been moved to a site near the zoo, and students watched the escape excitedly from their schoolhouse windows.

During this period before the tourism explosion, there were still fields of green along the Parkway where businesses would one day pay millions of dollars for a small piece of ground. As development progressed, residents considered turning the foothills community into a city. However, it took the threat of building an airport through the middle of the community to spur them to action. In 1957, Sevierville aldermen were meeting to acquire land in Pigeon Forge for a new Sevierville-Gatlinburg Airport. Around 100 citizens turned out at the Pigeon Forge School to study municipal incorporation and other sites for a new airport. Not one person voted in favor of locating the airport in the community of Pigeon Forge. The opposition apparently made its mark, and the airport proposal was abandoned. In 1960, a first election was held for incorporation, but failed. By March of 1961, a five-member committee had been appointed to begin work on a second try at incorporation. On April 4, 1961, Pigeon Forge residents voted 160 to 152 to incorporate. A month later, the city began operations under the council-manager form of government. In the city’s first public meeting on May 30, 1961, the city commissioners took their oath of office. The meeting was held in the home of Mr. Charles C. Clabo, the Justice of the Peace for the Fifth Civil District. Commissioner Xan Davenport was named Mayor, and Mr. Winfred Whaley was appointed vice-mayor. The third commissioner was Mr. Wade McMahan. Mr. Dan Conner, a Pigeon Forge citizen, was selected to serve as the new city manager. Mr. Conner’s first order of business was to appoint Charles Clabo as city recorder.

The next few meetings were held in the school building which has since been redesigned and expanded and is now the site of City Hall. On July 6, 1961, the sixth meeting of the city commission was held in its new office – two rented upstairs rooms in the Paul Sims building on the north corner of the Parkway and Old Mill avenue.

In 1961, the Rebel Railroad attraction opened just outside Pigeon Forge’s city limits. The property would later become annexed by the city. This early attraction entertained with its train robbery shows and cancan girls in the saloon. In 1970 it was purchased by the owner of the Cleveland Browns and became Goldrush Junction. Goldrush Junction, in turn, was bought by two Herschend brothers of Branson, Missouri in 1976 and became Silver Dollar City, a mountain craft theme park. In 1986, Dollywood opened in a partnership between the Herschends and superstar Dolly Parton. Dolly’s name recognition and the amusement’s marketing plan eventually made Dollywood Tennessee’s number one attraction, and helped secure Pigeon Forge as one of the top family vacation resorts in the southeast.

In the early 1960s the city commissioners continued working on city affairs. A new fire department was created, and commissioners voted to pay the city manager $100 per month. By the end of 1961 Kyle Cole was the new fire chief. In November the council voted to pay $25 a month for a part time clerk to stay in the city office. The $25 would be matched by the Pigeon Forge Water Department – then an independent department not under city jurisdiction. At the March 15, 1961 meeting, City Manager Dan Conner announced that he had employed Earlene Teaster to serve as city clerk.

In 1967 the council passed a resolution which allowed Pigeon Forge to elect five commissioners instead of three. The City Manager, Mr. Clifford Brackins, resigned his position as City Manager, and council appointed Mr. Orlie Trentham temporarily. He received a token salary of $1 per year. After Mr. Trentham’s term, the city began hiring fulltime professional managers. These were Mr. John Lane, Mr. James L. Asher, Mr. T.C. Runion, Mr. Don Scalf, and the current city manager, Mrs. Earlene M. Teaster. Mrs. Teaster had previously been city recorder and assistant city manager, and the interim manager at various times. The city manager literally participated in the city’s development from the ground up – from her early days as city clerk to her many years as city manager. Through the changing councils over time, Mrs. Teaster maintained a constant stability, always with vision and sound leadership.

In the following years, residents began seeing a new Pigeon Forge develop on the Parkway. Family style restaurants such as the Apple Tree Inn, Green Valley, and Trotter’s enticed travelers to stop and eat on their way to Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains. Remac’s Drive-In Restaurant by the Midway Drive-In Theater became a Pigeon Forge institution, and there were Hurst’s Diner and the Dog-N-Suds. Motels began as small family cottages or tourist courts. Over time, more sophisticated attractions came. Every summer students flew in from Hawaii and porpoises were brought in to perform at Porpoise Island. Tommy Bartlett’s Water Circus show entertained with stunts on a man-made lake and with colorful ‘dancing waters.’ Magic World catered to young audiences with rides, shows, and a prehistoric dinosaur exhibit. A Mountain Ocean wave pool, Ogle’s Waterpark, Flyaway Indoor Skydiving, and hillside water slides came. Souvenir shops such as Hillbilly Village enticed visitors with its hillbilly characters out back.

Music made its way into the city as Bonnie Lou and Buster Moore’s Smoky Mountain Hayride show opened in a new coliseum. Colorful ‘hillbilly’ shops with crooked fronts surrounded Archie Campbell’s Hee Haw Show in north Pigeon Forge.

Pigeon Forge’s first fast food restaurant, Burger King, came in the early 1970s with its slogan of ‘Have it your way!’ Modern motels opened, including the Best Western Plaza, the Toni, Family Inns, and the Ramada Inn. These set the tone for the next generation of hotels – the Grand Hotel, the Holiday Inn, and other national hotel chains.

In the 1980s the Pigeon Forge Parkway was expanded to six lanes, and a trolley system was developed to accommodate the heavy traffic flow. Teaster Lane was constructed as an alternate route away from the busy Parkway, and Wears Valley Road was expanded to five lanes.

In the late 1900s and as the new millennium began, attractions such as Dixie Stampede Dinner Theater, King Solomon’s Palace and the Kingdom Resort, and The Track opened. Investors researched Pigeon Forge’s market and paved the way for the area to become known as a major outlet shopping destination.

In more recent years, city officials have aggressively promoted to maintain revenues in sluggish economic times, and they have worked to increase visitation during slower shoulder seasons. They established a department to promote new business investment and developed a music road section for music theaters and entertainment shows.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which changed its surrounding cities from tiny mountain towns to premier resort destinations, continues to be the nation’s most visited national park each year.

The towering peaks of Mt. LeConte still dominate the southern horizon of Pigeon Forge. Although the lofty mountains have changed little since the early Native Americans followed the river paths, Pigeon Forge’s picture has been the exact opposite. Changes in this city have made the town an entirely different place than the residents around the early ‘forge’ knew. Each change has come with its own challenge for city leaders who have successfully maintained a family friendly resort that greets great numbers of vacationers every year.

*This information is taken from the following sources: The Mountain Press newspapers, Pictorial Descriptive Historiette of Pigeon Forge by Dott Linwood McMahan, and Reunion at the River by Mrs. Beulah D. Linn. It was researched and compiled by Veta W. King for the library publication, The Pigeon and the Forge – A History of Pigeon Forge.