History of Pigeon Forge
Pigeon Forge is located in the heart of the beautiful valley . . . in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains . . . The towering peaks of Mt. LeConte dominate the southern horizon.” The name ‘Pigeon’ came from the river and the river’s name from passenger pigeons, so named because of their passing from one part of the country to another in immense flocks, Pioneer settlers reported that these beautifully colored birds, now extinct, were so numerous that they darkened the sky as they flew into the valley and that the trees were stripped of limbs by the weight of their great numbers, according to an excerpt from The Birds of North America by Jacob Studer.
The Forge part of the name comes from a booming ‘forge’ built in 1817 by Isaac Love. This was a site near the present Old Mill. With its first business being iron and furnace forge, Pigeon Forge has progressed 10 fold from pioneer town to profitable town Sitting on land that was once Cherokee hunting Ground, a 1700’s treaty opened the valley up for settlement. Mordecai Lewis was a Pigeon Forge pioneer who received a 151-acre land grant and built the now historic Old Mill around 1790. In 1849, the mill (or forge tract) was purchased by Mr. John Sevier Trotter who sold it to Mr. John Marshall McMahan. Mr. John Marshall McMahan sold one fourth of the mill interest to A.T. Householder in December of 1900. His transfer deed mentioned a sawmill, gristmill and a carding machine. The Forge that gave Pigeon Forge its name was dismantled sometime before 1884. Some believe it was moved to Kentucky. The five hundred pound hammer used in the forge was preserved. The hammer was displayed at the Forge Hammer Grill owned and operated by Henry and Fannie Butler. Forge Hammer Grill later became Butler’s Farm Restaurant and, finally, the Apple Tree Inn. For years, a live apple tree grew inside the dining area of the restaurant. It was first owned by Dick and Mildred Bunting and is now in the hands of Garnett Cole and her son Kyle. The forge’s hammer continued to remain on display at the Apple Tree Inn for many years. It is still in the possession of the Cole Family.
The first settlers that came to Pigeon Forge area were traders that followed the trail of the Great Indian Path from Virginia to the center of the Cherokee nation, according to J.G.M. Ramsey in The Annals of Tennessee to the Eighteenth Century. Revolutionary solider, Colonel Samuel Wear, a soldier of the Revolution from Virginia, settled here before 1783. Wears Fort, near the mouth of Walden’s Creek on the West Fork of the Little Pigeon, was a refuge during Indian raids. The Pigeon Forges new library was build near this historic site. According to the Tennessee Annals, Col. Wear was active in the organization of the State of Franklin and served as clerk for Sevier County’s First court in the State of Franklin, also drafting the Tennessee State Constitution.
Folks in Pigeon Forge have been worshiping at a log meetinghouse southeast of the present Methodist Church building as early as the War Between the States. Between 1900 and 1930, change occurred slowly. Citizens experienced the extension of the telephone, the remodeling of the Old Mill, the advent of the automobile and train transportation, and World War I. During these years, before the Parkway spread through the community’s farmland, Pigeon Forge’s main highway was a dirt road that ran primarily along the river. By 1902, Pigeon Forge had a telephone exchange. By 1916, the Independent Telephone Company and the Trotter Telephone Company had lines in Pigeon Forge and Wears Valley. The People’s Telephone Company was serving Pigeon Forge in 1928. The Sevier County telephone exchanges where purchased by the Southern Bell Telephone Company in 1928. In 1909 the completion of the Knoxville, Sevierville, and Eastern Railroad from Knoxville to a station on the Andy Love farm (near present day KOA Campground). The first passenger train from Knoxville arrived January 9,1910. In August 1916 The Pigeon River Railroad Company was incorporated in August 1916 as an n affiliate company to Knoxville, Southern, and Eastern Railroad. The Pigeon River Railroad bridged the river in Sevierville and made its way into and through Pigeon Forge, traveled south along the bank of the river and ended at the community then known as McCookeville just south of the city on U.S. Highway 441. 1921 saw the Pigeon Forge Power and Light Company organized with a plant at the Old Mill. This plant was replaced in 1930 when power lines were extended to Pigeon Forge by the Tennessee Public Service Company.
In 1923 citizens of Pigeon Forge were invited to a Sevierville Chamber of Commerce meeting to hear what the creation of a national park would mean to this county. Then on May 22 1926 President Calvin Coolidge signed a bill that created the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with 10 million travelers per year. It would be fourteen years into the future before President Franklin D. Roosevelt would ride through Pigeon Forge on his way to dedicate the new national park. With The Great Depression the mill operations failed and went into bank receivership. Fred Walter Stout, purchase The Old Mill and remain in his family until 1996. A.B. Blanton, Jr., currently owns the Old Mill, and Ben Frizzell. “The Pigeon Forge of today is a town that will see much progress in years to come. It is an excellent industrial site, the roaring waters of the (Little Pigeon River) stream affording excellent power for almost any project. It will be the stopping place for many tourist both in the immediate future and when the (Great Smoky Mountains) park actually has come under the supervision of the government.” This was the future predicted on May 7,1930 by Roy Montgomery. In 1952, the ease side of the Parkway was paved for a two-way highway, and in 1956, workers began paving the west side. At this time Pigeon Forge Pottery was fast becoming an important part of the Great Smoky Mountains vacationing community in Sevier County. The fifties and sixties brought in businesses like Texaco, Light House Drive-in, Z Buda’s Drug Store and The Norma Dan Motel. Norma Dan still in operation today opened the weekend of July 4, 1958. During this period before the tourism explosion, there were still fields of green along the Parkway where businesses would one day pay millions of dollars for a small piece of ground. As development progressed, residents considered turning the foothills community of Pigeon Forge into a city. However, it took the threat of building an airport through the middle of it to spark action.
History records report that in 1957 Sevierville aldermen were meeting to acquire land in Pigeon Forge for a new Sevierville-Gatlinburg Airport. It was reported that 100 citizens turned out at the Pigeon Forge School to study municipal incorporation and other site for a new airport. Not one person voted in favor or location the airport in the community of Pigeon Forge. The opposition made its mark and 3 years later the first election was held for incorporation but failed in 1960. March 1961, a five-member committee had been appointed to start working on a second try at incorporation. Progress was coming with or without incorporation. On April 4,1961 Pigeon Forge residents voted 160 to 152 to incorporate. They began operations under the first fiscal year, the town expected to receive slightly more than $13000.00 in state revenue. In 1961, the Rebel Railroad attraction opened just outside Pigeon Forge’s city limits. The property would later be annexed by the city. The early attraction entertained with its train robbery show and girls in the saloon. In 1970, it was purchased by the owner of the Cleveland Brown’s NFL football team and named Goldrush Junction. Goldrush Junction was purchased by two Herschend brothers of Branson, Missouri in 1976 and became Silver Dollar City, a mountain craft theme park. In 1986, Dollywood opened in a partnership between the Herschend and country singer/superstar Dolly Parton. Dollywood has become Tennessee’s number one attraction. During the city’s development years, residents began to see a new Pigeon Forge develop on the Parkway expanding from the few businesses by the Old Mill. Teenagers and adults alike frequented midway Drive-In Movie Theater. On the river, the town had a new bowling alley that later became a roller skating rink. The Smoky Mountain Car Museum had also opened. April Tree Inn, Trotter’s and Green Valley served family style meals that enticed travelers to stop and eat on their way into Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains. More sophisticated amusements came to Pigeon Forge over time including, Ogles Water Park and Flyaway Indoor Skydiving. Souvenir shops such as Hillbilly Village enticed visitors with its hillbilly characters out back. Music started making its way into the city, as Bonnie Lou and Busters Moore’s Smoky Mountain Hayride show opened in a new coliseum. Colorful ‘hillbilly’ shops with crooked fronts surrounded Archie Campbell’s Hee Haw Show in north Pigeon Forge. Burger King, came in the early 1970’s as the first fast food restaurant and soon to follow was Arby’s Roast Beef.
The World’s Fair in Knoxville was expected to be a great boom to the tourist industry in Pigeon Forge new motels were constructed and many expanded. Investors were counting on the Fair to attract new vacationers who would discover Pigeon Forge for the first time and continue to return. They invested money on the expectation that Knoxville vacation housing would be full to overflowing, and this city would be the place to house the overflow. The Fair opened in 1982, and because there were so many new lodging units, business people did not see a big increase in individual business dollars. Markets key to the city tourism industry heard reports that housing was scarce, these reports were false and negatively affected the Pigeon Forge tourism market because guest began canceling advance reservations and they drove in to shop for better rates along the Parkway. After 1982, Pigeon Forge initiated a major joint marketing campaign between the city and private businesses to take advantage of the World’s Fair’s expansion vaulted the town into the beginning of a second tremendous growth period. In the ‘80’s,Pigeon Forge expanded, the Parkway was expanded to six lanes, and a trolley system was developed to accommodate the heavy flow of traffic. One century ended and the new millennium began, Pigeon Forges skating rink and the drive-in restaurants faded into memory as Dixie Stampede Dinner Theater and The Track amusement opened. Investors researched Pigeon Forge’s market and opened The Factory Merchants Mall. It paved the way for the area to become known as a major outlet-shopping destination. Belz Factory Outlet World and Tanger Mall opened. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which changed its surrounding cities from tiny mountain towns to premier resort destination, continues to receive millions of visits each year. In Pigeon Forge seasonal high traffic counts approached 92,000 cars a day in 2006.