Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Remembrance of Things Past: Gatlinburg #14

"The first 18 years really shape you forever. It's like a glass of water filled with mud. You can pour clear water in until it appears clear, but there's still mud there," said Bruce Springsteen recently. And the mud that's in my blood washed down the north slope of Mt. LeConte. Once known as Bearskins Creek because Ursus americanus blood was also spilled into its waters, Baskins Creek was the center of our kid world. We walked it, waded it, fished it, swam it and watched it flood its banks, muddy and mad.

Homer Daniel Bales 

In the late 1940s, granddad Homer Daniel Bales witnessed small tourist courts open along the creek. He even helped Everett Trentham build his and got the idea he could do the same although he didn't have much flat land to work with. He was in the "holler" just the side of a mountain with the creek at the bottom. But true opportunity only presents itself every so often in your life, once or twice, who knows. As the old timers were apt to say, "you strike while the iron is hot."

Spending his boyhood at the Jim Bales homesite on Roaring Fork, he hopped the ridge and moved down Baskins. As a former logger, he was used to uneven terrain, granddad Homer was a mountain man. He made the most of what he had. He could be rather stoic and taciturn but what he understood was what he could build with his own two hands. That was real. Like the trucks he always drove, he was built Ford tough living just shy of 100 years (5 Jan 1899 to 3 Jan 1998).

Bales Cabins "on the banks of beautiful Baskins Creek" was in continuous operation from 1949 to 1996, just little cottages on the creek, knotty-pine paneled walls and chairs on porches, nothing fancy. But they were solid and serviceable like himself built for working class tourists who needed to stay for a week for less than $100. On a slow night you could rent a cabin for six dollars and buy a RC Cola or Nehi orange for a nickel sold from an outdoor fridge. Open every April through October, all you had to do was phone the Gatlinburg operator and ask for number 167. The first three decades granddad Homer ran the business with the help of Mom and Flora Williams who cleaned all the cabins and washed the linens. We kids: sister Darlene, Gordon Williams, plus neighbors Ben and Larry grew up "en plein air" on the mountainside around the cabins and in the creek with the crawdads.

We were one big extended family. Guests came every year from all over the southeast listening to Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney on the Motorola car radios. See Rock City signs were everywhere including birdhouses. Men wore slacks, narrow brimmed straw hats called pork-pies or caps and short-sleeved shirts of scratchy rayon or maybe simply plain white teesThey came to the creek to relax. The women wore Bermuda shorts and flip-flop sandals in the latest bright colors: chartreuse, turquoise and saffron. America had found a bright palette once again after the drabness of war. And everyone smoked, everyone except granddad Homer, either Lucky Strike, Camels or Pall Mall, the Marlboro Man came later. All the rentals had multiple ashtrays, they had to.

Initially, the cars had rounded butts like bugs but as the decade wore on, they stretched longer, grew brighter and sprouted finsDad bought a coral and white 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner that made him the coolest Dad in the history of Dads. It was my dream car and still is. Mom was mad at the extravagance and I swear we ate beans, beans, beans for months to pay for the financial setback, but jeez it was worth it, even a dorky kid looked like a cool cat in that backseat, daddy-o. The car was cranked, it was a Skyliner. I'd eat 75 cases of pintos to have it in the driveway today. 

The Smiths and Maxeys and Foxes, all good folks, returned to the cabins every year to sit by the creek sipping colas from returnable bottles worth two cents. They brought their Kodak Brownie Hawkeyes and took photos of each other smiling, hugging. They were happy. They were on vacation in the Smokies. The park boundary was only a half mile upstream. For entertainment? They'd buy another Nehi and watched the kids play in the creek some more trying to catch minnows in a cup. They were there to relax and watching the mountain stream was entertainment enough. 

Granddad Homer even built a concert dam to hold back the water creating a manmade swimming hole, a kid haven. Who needs a heated pool when you could swim in creek water like Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan? It was an atypical childhood growing up in Gatlinburg.

Sister Darlene standing in
flooded road. 1966. © Bales family archive

After a heavy rain Baskins rushed muddy brown down from LeConte. Sometimes it would bolt out onto the road, wild like a stallion. Heavy rain wore down the mountain and it bled sand and silt and clay mud.
For many, many years, Baskins Creek and those cloistered little cottages were my cosmos, my all and everything. But on Monday, November 28, the cabins built by Homer Bales depicted in these photos burned to the ground in less than an hour. It was Old Testament wrath or as close as I ever hope to come near itEverything is gone—My Wonder Years—only ashes remain and the fire muddied the creek that flows through my veins yet again.

I'm a child of the creek. I'm a child of that creek, the same creek of Baskins Falls located three miles upstream where Grandmom Pearl once took her showers.

At some point you realize that everything you knew and loved is gone. And you're all alone.   

© 2017 From the upcoming book, 
"Vintage Gatlinburg: 
The Transformation of a Small Timber Town to Mountain Resort
 Family Remembrances 1899-1969
by University of Tennessee Press author and native son  
Stephen Lyn Bales

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