great smoky mountains

Hogs to H.O.Gs- The French Broad River Road

Long before interstates or train track connected the 63 miles between Asheville and Newport, the challenge for a farmer was to get his products to a large city market to sell. The fertile valleys of the French Broad River and Cocke County produced abundant foodstuff that was in demand for people as far south as Charleston, SC.

In 1874, then Tennessee Bureau of Agriculture agent, Joseph Buckner Killebrew reported: “These are exceedingly fertile valleys, the soil equal to any in the State. It is alluvial and deep. With anything like fair cultivation, it will produce from fifty to one hundred bushels of corn to the acre.”

While corn can be used for milling or distilling, much of the corn grown in Cocke County was used to fatten hogs to sell in the markets of the South.  Hogs are voracious eaters and the corn yields in the river plains of Big Creek and the French Broad were prolific. In contrast, the plantation farmers in Georgia and South Carolina used their lands for cotton and rice to sell in large cities and globally.  With most of the land in use for cash crops, plantations owners needed to purchase pork to feed the large number of field hands working to plant, tend, and harvest their crops. The annual hog “drive” through Cocke County to Asheville would begin in early November along the dusty road running parallel to the French Broad River.  Once reaching Asheville, the farmers would then the sell the hogs directly to plantation farmers or to slaughterhouses.

A drover could move his herd of pigs about 10 miles a day, keeping his hogs moving with shouts “Soo-eey,” “Su-boy,” or “Ho-o-o-yuh.”  Along the route, there were inns that had pens and feed for hogs, and perhaps a bed for the drover. One of these inns, Wolf Creek Inn, stood where Wolf Creek enters the French Broad south of Del Rio.  The road became so well known for the hog drives, that Asheville has placed a statue of walking hogs in downtown to represent the heritage of this porcine economy.

By 1880 and the completion of the railroad between Newport and Asheville, the years of the road taken over by large hog drives became a distant memory.   Today the 25 E highway between Newport and Hot Springs, NC is known as the East Tennessee Crossing Byway, a national scenic byway.  It is a bit ironic that this road is very much favored by motorcycle clubs for group rides, some of which are riding Harley Davidson, known in slang as Hogs.  The legend is that a Harley Davidson racing team selected a hog as a mascot and the label has stuck ever since.




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Newport: A City History Shaped by Transportation

Nestled on the north side of the Great Smoky Mountains is the quiet city of Newport Tennessee. Bordered by rivers, a train track, and divided by a state and federal highway, the city can be easily overlooked. But a glance into its past reveals a historic era from the late 1700’s forward worth exploring.

Cocke County Tennessee embodies a rich history of the pioneers who settled the area. The first town, Old New Port was formed in 1799 when John Gilliland, the first settler of Cocke County, donated fifty acres of land to build the town two years after Cocke County was established. New Port was thus named because it was a new port on the French Broad River. Fines Ferry, the former crossing for the French Broad River, no longer exists, and while much has changed, a few pieces of history still remain. But this history may be told differently depending on who you speak to in the present Newport.

The O’Dell house, the oldest structure still standing, is residential and has been declared an historic site. The building dates back to 1813 and was built by Abel Gilleland, son of John Gilleland, who settled in the area in 1783. The house is the primary physical reminder of the once bustling town of Old New Port. It is a significant architectural example of the type of residence built by men of prominence in early East Tennessee and is still occupied by descendants of the original owners. Few of this type of structure can still be found in this area.

Local resident, Edward Walker was born, raised, and still lives in Newport. As the history of the area goes, Walker is as much an historian as any. A former school teacher, now retired, Walker is a fount of information.

“The railroad arrived at the tiny village of Clifton in 1867,” said Walker. “This is when the controversy to move the county seat really revved up.”

Walker says you had the Cliftonites on one side and those living in New Port on the other. Whoever had the majority on the county legislative body would vote to move the county seat back and forth between the two. This happened at least three times. Finally, in 1884 the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the county seat could be on the Pigeon River in what was the village of Clifton. The name followed and what once was Clifton became New Port. If that isn’t confusing enough, Clifton was also once known as Gorman’s Depot. But in 1884 all three converged to become the county seat with the name of Newport. The original courthouse in Newport did not survive a fire so many of the original records and photographs are lost.

By August of 1869 the railroad had extended as far east as Wolf Creek. A stagecoach was required at this point if you wanted to go to Hot Springs or Asheville. There was no crossing by railroad until 1882. The earliest existing Newport on the Pigeon map only dates back to 1887.

A discerning eye, with help from a local historian, can spot a few original buildings. The railroad tracks still run through town but are now used for freight only. The original main building of Newport Grammar School is the oldest, continually used, elementary school building in the state of Tennessee.

Walker says the town hit a boom in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Capitalists once looked to come to small towns when starting an industry. “Everyone had big ideas and talked big but wanted to build their business on the backs of the locals. The businesses would succeed but often moved elsewhere after a time.”

Following the route of state road 25E, the East Tennessee Crossing Byway is an 83-mile national scenic byway that links Cumberland Gap and to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The drive follows the old river road pathway to Asheville and Hot Springs, and runs directly through the town of Newport.

The design plan and completion of Interstate 40 cut a path through Cocke County and Newport. As with most highway system builds, downtowns lost their sense of purpose and direction when industry, and then commerce fled to the areas along highways. Newport was no different.

But Walker says the town is making a comeback. “Downtown Newport looks better now than it has for some time,” said Walker. “We have new businesses coming to town.”

Following the lead of many larger cities, Newport is finding its way back to purpose with the renaissance of new businesses.  Newport makes for a great stopover for a cup of coffee, an ice cream treat, or a short walk around downtown to view the remaining historic buildings before trekking on to the Great Smoky Mountains.


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Cocke County’s Century Farms Highlight TN Agricultural Heritage

“Century Farms” are an essential part of the Tennessee Heritage Farms Program. Administered by the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University, the program recognizes and works to conserve farms that have remained in the same family and in continuous agriculture production for 100 years or more.

About 2,100 such farms have been certified across the Volunteer State — a dozen of them in Cocke County:

  • Baxter Farm, 1875
  • Bible Farm, 1887
  • Dwight L. Bundy Farm, 1907
  • Heritage Farms, 1849
  • Jim and Alice Freeman Gulf Farm, 1910
  • Leibrock Farm, 1886
  • M.G. Roberts Poplar Tree Farm, 1859
  • Neas Farm, 1885
  • Oakleaf Farm, 1902
  • Ottinger Farm, 1894
  • Pitts Farm, 1897

River Dale Farm, established in 1794, is also a designated Pioneer Century Farm, meaning that its operation dates back to the founding of the State of Tennessee in 1796 or before.

“Despite drought, floods, the Civil War and the Great Depression, these families have remained tillers of the soil, persevering where others have failed,” wrote state historian Carroll Van West in his 1986 book, “Tennessee Agriculture: A Century Farms Perspective.”

The Tennessee Heritage Farms Program plays a crucial role in preserving rural culture and regional identity – especially in small, mostly-rural counties like Cocke. The program provides educational resources and extension outreach to farm families and the general public, raising awareness of the importance of keeping Tennessee’s agricultural heritage well tended.

The program helps encourage and promote a sense of community pride among the farm families, local historical societies, county extension offices, student groups, city and county governments, and other stakeholder individuals and organizations interested in conserving Tennessee’s countryside and maintaining authentic connections to our cultural roots.

The Heritage Farms Program also aims to promote economic development in rural areas by highlighting the importance of agriculture to the state’s overall economy. Historic farms often attract visitors and tourists who not only appreciate the beauty of the pastoral landscapes, but admire the character, persistence and resourcefulness of Tennesseans who make their livelihoods as producers of civilization’s sustenance.

Given the range of continuing challenges facing today’s farmers, words that Van West penned more than three and a half decades ago — in the midst of the 1980s American Farm Crisis — take on even greater import today: “In a time of agricultural crisis, the legacy of the Century Farmers is a potent reminder that farmers in the past have survived similar hard times to prosper in the future.”


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