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Great Smokies National Park

From the Smokies to the Piedmont, history professor Dan Pierce chronicles everyday Southern folks

By Arnold Wengrow

Dan Pierce

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson (left) and History professor Dan Pierce, with Pierce's book on the park's establishment

Growing up in West Asheville, History Department Chair Dan Pierce didn’t think he would ever share a stage with Dolly Parton or hang out with Richard Petty. In fact, he didn’t think he would grow up to be a college professor.

His father, C.R. Pierce, was pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “My dad’s congregation was very much working class,” Pierce said. “They were not college educated. My roots in West Asheville shaped me in a lot of ways.”

Celebrate the Smokies’ 75th anniversary:

Oconaluftee (Cherokee): June 15
Includes groundbreaking ceremony for new Visitor Center

Newfound Gap Rededication: Sept. 2

One way was his developing a deep affection for everyday Southern people and making their history and culture his specialty. He has written about or lectured on mountains, moonshine and stock-car racing. Writing about NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, “the most Southern sport on earth”), Pierce visited with Richard Petty—as well as NASCAR personalities Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, David Pearson, Humpy Wheeler and Chris Economaki. He was a favorite with reporters covering the trial of legendary Tennessee moonshiner Popcorn Sutton, and The Wall Street Journal even quoted Pierce in Sutton’s recent obituary.

“The part of the book I have been proudest of—and probably have gotten the most comments on—is the chapter on the removal of the working-class farm families and the condemnation of their land.”

—Dan Pierce, history professor

Pierce’s 2002 book, The Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat to National Park, is something of a bestseller. “For an academic book, it does pretty well,” Pierce said. “Most sell about 250 copies; mine has sold about 4,000-5,000 copies, in hardback and paperback.”

As a member of the board of the Great Smoky Mountains Association, Pierce has a prime role in the 75th anniversary celebration this summer and fall. He’s helping raise awareness of the park’s anniversary, meeting with the media and participating in regional events, hoping to rub elbows with invited dignitaries. Dolly Parton is the anniversary’s ambassador, and President Obama has been invited to the Sept. 2, 2009, re-enactment of the park’s dedication at Newfound Gap.

“The park could never happen today. And it still seems hard to believe that it happened even then.”

—Dan Pierce, history professor

“I haven’t met Dolly yet,” Pierce said, “but I’m hoping I’ll be on the platform with her at the rededication.” He’s also hoping President Obama will be there, as President Franklin Roosevelt was for the Sept. 2, 1940, park dedication.

Pierce, a graduate of Western Carolina University with a master’s degree from the University of Alabama, has studied Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the past 15 years, beginning with research for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Tennessee. “I found out that much of what I thought I knew was wrong,” he wrote in Smokies Life magazine. “What I did find was a compelling, complicated and unique story that still teaches us important lessons today. The park could never happen today,” Pierce said. “And it still seems hard to believe that it happened even then.”

Pierce’s next book explores a favorite topic, stock car racing. White Liquor and Red Clay: NASCAR in the Era of Big Bill France, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2010. He also plans to write a guide to NASCAR-related places in North Carolina.

The problem was that, although earlier parks in the West had been created by the federal government from land already owned by the government, Great Smoky Mountains National Park required the acquisition of land in private ownership. About $10 million was needed to buy property owned by individual farmers and timber companies.

“We think about establishing the park as coming from an environmental concern, but in the 1920s and ’30s, it was an economic development issue,” Pierce said. “Business and civic leaders promoted the idea that if we have a national park in our area, tourists are going to come and spend money.”

Roosevelt

President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Newfound Gap for the Sept. 2, 1940, dedication of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, "for the permanent enjoyment of the people." In celebration of the park's 75th anniversary, a re-enactment of the dedication will be held Sept. 2, 2009, at Roosevelt Monument (Newfound Gap), and President Obama has been invited.

Park supporters raised about $1 million from business people, housewives, blue-collar workers and even school children, and the state legislatures of North Carolina and Tennessee agreed to issue $2 million in bonds each, contingent on raising the remaining $5 million. “They didn’t think they’d have to ante up, but John D. Rockefeller threw them a curve,” Pierce said of Rockefeller’s surprise donation of $5 million from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund.

Then came the daunting task of purchasing, mostly from unwilling sellers, the 427,000 acres required by the federal government to create a national park. The process took years and often was tied up in court by timber companies and reluctant residents of established communities in Elkmont, Greenbrier, Cades Cove and Sugarlands in Tennessee and Cataloochee in North Carolina.

Pierce has made sure to tell the story not just of the businessmen and politicians who spearheaded the park’s creation, but also the story of the ordinary people whose lives changed forever when they sold their land and relocated. “The part of the book I have been proudest of—and probably have gotten the most comments on—is the chapter on the removal of the working-class farm families and the condemnation of their land,” he said. “If I feel any sadness about the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is for the families who lost their homes, churches, businesses and communities.”

Down-Home Southern Professor

Dan Pierce’s academic acuity rests easily with a down-home Southern manner that puts students at ease. Working with 17 History majors on their senior theses, Pierce conveys his enthusiasm for regional history, and a number of his students are researching Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “One of the best things about teaching here is that you get to work closely with undergraduates and show them how to do research,” he said.

Dan Pierce and Tim Cole

Dr. Pierce with Tim Cole '09

Tim Cole ’09 (History) moved to Burnsville from New Orleans, bringing a love of Southern history and the outdoors with him. He knew about famed Smokies photographer George Masa, of Asheville, and author Horace Kephart, who wrote the seminal book on the region’s people, Our Southern Highlanders. But he didn’t know about Pierce.

“So when I came to UNC Asheville in January 2007, I walked into Dr. Pierce’s office and saw Masa’s photographs and a picture of Kephart on the walls,” Cole said. “I knew things were going to be good.”

Pierce encourages students to go beyond the facts of history to understand its significance. “His approach to history is completely different from what I had experienced in school,” Cole said. “He showed me that history isn’t confined to dry facts, dates and events. I saw that history is lively and interesting, and with details and background we can see the meaning of historical events. It’s a much more dynamic approach.”

An outdoorsman, Cole plans to hike the John Muir Trail in California, take a law enforcement class and work for the National Park Service after graduation.

Professor Emeritus of Drama Arnold Wengrow founded Theatre UNCA in 1970. He is a contributing editor of Theatre Design and Technology magazine.

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