Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Remembrance of Things Past: Gatlinburg #15

The Gatlinburg firestorm of last November took out so much of my hometown, but so much was already gone. 

During the 1940s, especially after War World II ended in 1945, Gatlinburg become a boom town. 

Parkway of Gatlinburg, circa late 1940s
The average cost of land jumped from $50 to $8,000 per acre during that decade. The mountain families who sold their farms to become part of the national park, then moved to town and bought cheap property in the early 1930s experienced a windfall. Family-owned businesses began to appear all over the Smoky's new gateway resort to accommodate the influx of visitors. 

There were two full service gas stations in the center of town: Texaco on the right and Esso on the left just up the street from Denton's Drug Store and Dr. Ralph Shilling's office, the town's resident doctor who treated us original Gatlinburgians. The Texaco was were we kids took our bikes to inflate the tires because "you can trust the man who wears the star."

And folks have to eat, generally three meals per day.

The dictionary defines café as a "restaurant usually small and unpretentious." The origin is from 1780 to '90 and the French word for coffee, so the original French cafés were coffeehouses, tearooms, bistros and lunchrooms or small informal places to get a cup of coffee and a quick meal. You didn't have to dress up, dining was casual.

Pearl Bales & grumpy author
Like the century itself, in the late 1940s, Grandmother Pearl Ogle Bales was in her late forties and had already raised two families; first her younger brothers and sisters after her mother died in childbirth in 1919 and the second was her own three children. Her oldest daughter Edith was grown and away from home and her two sons: Rubin and Russell had been away serving their country in the Pacific. Consequently, Grandma Pearl had time on her hands and she knew how to cook. She had also worked for a time in the kitchen in Andy Huff's Mountain View Hotel, but like so many of the original Gatlinburg families, she saw opportunity. Remember, mountaineers were good at making something out of nothing, improvising. And being strikingly different, my former upland grandparents from Baskins Creek opened separate businesses. 

Homer Bales at cafe
The larger hotels in the new resort town had their own dining rooms, but there were only a few smaller eateries for tourists and locals alike. The Riverview Cafe was in the "upper end" of town and the popular lunch counter at the Trailways Bus Station and Howard's Cafe in the middle, so grandma Pearl opened Bales Cafe in the lower end, across from the Sinclair station and near the Pioneer Inn. The stone building with hardwood floors and pine walls and ceiling was on the Parkway and the bank of Little Pigeon River. To find out the evening special all you had to do was phone the Gatlinburg operator and ask for number 167.

Uncle Alvin Latham
And it was truly a family business. Pearl was a mama to many. And if you were born into the Bales family, you had a job. Everyone who was old enough worked there one time or another. If I had been older, I would have too but that would come later. For awhile, both my mother and father worked either in her kitchen or out in the serving hall and even Uncle Alvin Latham bussed tables and washed dishes for Grandma Pearl.  

She served "homemade meals in mountain fashion." The menu included traditional favorites like hot biscuits with mountain honey, eggs, bacon, gravy, green beans, mashed potatoes, cornbread, fried chicken, fresh trout, chicken 'n dumplings, country ham, creamed corn, apple pie à la Mode and the best blackberry dumplings I've ever tasted. Five decades later the memory lingers. The cafe only had about a dozen tables, all covered with white tablecloths, and could serve roughly 40 people at capacity. The tables at the back looked down on to the Little Pigeon River. 

Pearl & Homer Bales with grand-kids, 1956
Some of my most ingrained childhood memories go back to spending time at the cafe. Grandma was friendly and gregarious, quick with a hardy chuckle, but she was also a mountain woman who could chop her own firewood or put you in your place if she had to. She was ahead of her time. She spoke her mind. Years ago grandma Pearl confessed to me that she once got into an argument with another woman that was settled with a fist fight in the middle of the road in front of her cafe. Pearl won the disagreement. 

Ma & Pa Kettle
Pearl and Homer always reminded me of Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride's Ma and Pa Kettle, popular characters in ten movie comedies made between 1947 and '57, roughly the exact same time frame of the cafe itself. Grandma Pearl never missed one of their "picture shows" at the Cherokee theater. She loved to laugh. According to Wiki, the Kettles were "a hillbilly couple with fifteen children whose lives turn upside-down when they win a model-home-of-the-future in a slogan-writing contest. At the verge of getting their farm condemned, the Kettles move into the prize home that is different from their country lifestyle. After that, they are subjected to more unusual situations." I think Grandma Pearl identified with Ma Kettle. Growing up in a log cabin at the headwaters of Baskins Creek after the turn of the century, who would have ever guessed that someday she would own her own cafe in downtown Gatlinburg.

It's a long and winding road.

But Pearl did own a café and folks just liked stopping by for a cup of coffee and chat. It was that kind of place...where everybody knows your name. 

And today, all these years later, all that I have left of Bales Cafe is a single chair that was once in her dining room. Every now and then, I like to sit in the red bottomed, ladder back and eat a cornbread muffin in remembrance of things past. And is that a bowl of mountain honey sitting on every table? Sweet!  

©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  

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