Just past the main drag in Gatlinburg is an entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park via the Blue Ridge Parkway. Crossing that line from town to parkway we were instantly transported away from the uproar into serenity - literally. Standing on the edge of the first creek, just park side of the line, you can only hear the sound of rushing water and other nearby hikers. So thin is the veil between uproar and serenity it didn't seem possible yet, here we were. In Florida nothing is quite so clearly divided but steep mountains have a way of dealing with sprawl. The rushing water that forms the many rivers, streams and water falls filters down from snow covered ridges roaring like holiday traffic the whole way but, somehow pleasantly so.
Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina the park is America's most visited national park. It is therefore, no wonder the surrounded small cities and towns have grown up so much. Progress is inevitable but, perhaps it could use a few less Ripley's. In all fairness, despite the commercialism, you will find authenticity in Sevier County, Tennessee, a central jumping off point for the park, and in the many other Smoky Mountains cities and towns. Gatlinburg isn't entirely inauthentic either once you see past the glare of downtown you will find some great shops and restaurants.
A stones throw away, Pigeon Forge is nearly the same except for the Old Mill Square - it's saving grace. I immersed myself in the Old Mill Square to soak in that mountain town feeling. Lots of people may think every town should have an amusement park, some Ripley's "museums" (scoff), go-cart racing, mini golf, etc... I'm clearly not like a lot of people. Here, in this place, I prefer pulled taffy shops, grist mills, mountain pottery, kayak rentals and, well, authenticity damn it! It's my blog so I get to state my opinion and if I didn't blog honestly I wouldn't be authentic either. Enough said! So, I simply chose to turn a blind eye to it's surroundings.
In Pigeon Forge's Old Mill Square there is authentically something for everyone. (O.K., I've now said authentic way too many times and way too many ways - pardon my sarcasm.) There are two restaurants, a general store, a pottery shop, the Farmhouse Kitchen store, a creamery, a candy kitchen, a toy store and a jewelry store and the old mill. Meal and flour are still ground here daily the same way it's been done for almost two centuries. The old mill has been in existence since the early 1800's and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A water-powered gristmill on the banks of the Little Pigeon River produced the meals and flours for early settlers and even furnished electricity for the town until 1935. It is the anchor piece of the old mountain town I was hoping for even if it appeared to be dropped in the middle of a carnival bordered by a six lane highway. O.k., really, enough said.
The Old Mill Restaurant is the main attraction. Situated on the Pigeon Forge River atop the grist mill it serves Southern cuisine. Southern cuisine is a fancy way of saying generous portions of family style, slow cooked to perfection country-fried steak, sugar-cured ham, pot roast and gravy, chicken and dumplings, roasted turkey and stuffing, corn chowder, chicken potpie, fried okra, scratch-made biscuits, muffins, corn fritters... Shall I go on? When Morgan and I ate there I could swear I'd eaten there before and it was likely true but, in all honesty I couldn't place the exact memory. I was last in this area a very long time ago and it was more like a feeling called to mind of me sitting there with my grandmother like I had in so many southern style restaurants over the years. It felt wonderful! My grandmother was a true southern woman; an amazing woman, who persevered through life with grace, dogged determination and wit. And she knew all the best routes and stops between Florida and North Carolina. She loved these mountains where she had lived on the North Carolina side for many years. She traveled a lot. One could say she is my travel muse. Perhaps that is what I was truly seeking in these mountains full of beauty and grace - a connection to the earth and my grandmother. It was so worth the trip!
The Old Mill Square complex of restaurants, bakery, pottery and craft shops is more of a total destination than a single stop among the areas tourist attractions and much more interesting than the factory outlet malls or Dollywood. Visitors can still watch meal and flour being ground the same way by the huge water powered granite French Buhrs in the mill, or pottery being thrown (the black bear salt and pepper shakers pictured on the left are available for purchase), or bread and candy being made. Just remember if you choose to indulge in any of the southern hospitality treats you can always work it off hiking or skiing or rafting. Just be careful about shopping at the general store. You could end up taking home sacks full of all those calories you just worked off. They sell everything you need to recreate the southern cuisine at home even the cookware.
Check out their catalog online.