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Tennessee travelblog: A day in Pigeon Forge

Tinley Argyle, 8, pets a horse after Dolly Parton's Stampede. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)
Tinley Argyle, 8, pets a horse after Dolly Parton's Stampede. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)

We used to have a running joke in the office. Is Art Modell, the man who moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, still alive?

I had no dog in the fight, but my boss and great friend Mike Sherman did. Sherm grew up in Maryland a huge Colts fan, was devastated by the loss of the Colts and soon enough became a Ravens fan extraordinaire.

I once spouted off something about Modell being dead, and Sherm was aghast. Modell was dead? No way. Turns out he was right. Modell was still alive, well into the 2000s (he died in 2012).

This is all relevant to our Tuesday in the Smoky Mountains, because we spent the day in Pigeon Forge, a resort town if ever there was one, mostly thanks to Dolly Parton. But Art Modell himself plays a part in it.

Pigeon Forge is quite a place. It sits in a beautiful valley, just north of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and five miles north of Gatlinburg.

Today, U.S. 441 through Pigeon Forge is a seven-lane, divided highway stretching a couple of miles with more attractions than you can count. Hotels. Restaurants. Shops. Go-cart tracks (I think we counted seven, all of them expansive and multi-leveled). Museums. Musical shows. Kids’ activities. All by the score.

And the tourism explosion that struck Gatlinburg with the 1934 opening of the national park did NOT strike Pigeon Forge.

The town that in the early 20th century had no major roads or railway remained largely isolated in the 1950s. A few camps and lodges had opened, but nothing of great revenue-generation.

But Gatlinburg to the south was land-locked and had little room to grow. And Gatlinburg’s land largely was controlled by a few families. With millions and millions of tourists starting to flood the area, something had to give.

What gave was Pigeon Forge.

Pigeon Forge got its name from Isaac Love, an early 1800s entrepreneur. Love inherited some property on the Little Pigeon River and took advantage of Tennessee tax incentives – yes, tax breaks in 1817, for iron works on land unfit for farming – to create an iron forge. Ore mined in the Smoky Mountain foothills was brought to the forge via ox-drawn wagons and smelt the ore into pig iron, which was then molded using a 500-pound trip hammer generated by the power from the river.

Isaac Love’s son established the first post office in the area. Pretty cool that the name didn’t fall back on someone’s pride and name.

Pigeon Forge crept along for more than a century. The town didn’t even incorporate until 1961. But soon thereafter, a couple of North Carolina brothers opened “Rebel Railroad” in Pigeon Forge. It was a train ride that simulated a Union forces attack during the Civil War, then carried tourists to a mock frontier mountain town.

The brothers, Grover and Harry Robbins, changed the name to “Goldrush Junction” in 1964, after Civil War centennial interest  waned. Goldrush Junction prospered as a tourist attraction, and the brothers added a log ride.

In 1969, Pigeon Forge zoning assigned the entire stretch of U.S. 441 for tourism use, and danged if that’s not what I saw this week. I mean, I there’s a major grocery store, a bank, a drug store, a couple of gas stations. But the rest of it is tourist-related.

And in 1969, Art Modell bought Goldrush Junction. He kept it for seven years, and in 1976, the year I first went through Pigeon Forge and don’t remember anything except the gorgeous river, Modell sold it to a Branson, Missouri, group that owned Silver Dollar City. Goldrush Junction was renamed Silver Dollar City, the Ozark theme in Branson was restructured in Pigeon Forge with a Smoky Mountain theme, and the park became very popular.

Pigeon Forge officials got aggressive. Between 1982 and 1987, four major outlet malls were built.

Another amusement park was built, and more attractions followed. The Herschends, who owned Silver Dollar City, approached Dolly Parton, native of nearby Sevierville, about becoming a partner. Silver Dollar City became Dollywood.

Today, it’s impossible to even keep track of all the tourist stuff in Pigeon Forge.

Niche museums (Titanic, Alcatraz East, Southern Gospel, Elvis and Hollywood Legends). Musical theaters (a tribute to Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack; American Oldies; country music shows). Kids activities by the hundreds.

Pigeon Forge takes family-friendly to the extreme. Liquor-by-the-drink didn’t even pass in Pigeon Forge until 2013.

We spent our Tuesday in Pigeon Forge. We went to the Island in Pigeon Forge, which opened in 2014, just off U.S. 441. The Island basically is Gatlinburg rolled into an outdoor mall. An amusement park, souvenir shops, restaurants, specialty shores, with Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Hotel serving as an anchor. You’re not nestled in the middle of the Smokys, but otherwise, it’s the Gatlinburg experience and much easier to navigate. In the middle of the Island is a huge fountain works, with rocking chairs circling the water. J.J. and I took advantage of the rocking chairs multiple times.

The amusement park is nestled in among all the commerce. While I waited in line with Tinley to bungee jump (she bungeed, not me), some of us got a snack and some shopped, all within eyesight of the bungee area. All with free parking in a massive lot served by a shuttle that was easy and frequent.

My favorite spot was the Emory 5-and-10, an old-fashioned general store that claims to be the South’s oldest five-and-dime. They had old-time candy and toys and soft drinks. I tried Cheerwine for the first time in my life. Not half bad. And it’s always fun to drink out of a bottle.

We were impressed. The consensus in our group is that if we ever come back to the Smokys, we’ll drive through Gatlinburg, but get out and spend our time at Pigeon Forge.

For dinner, we went to Dolly Parton’s Stampede. You probably remember it as the Dixie Stampede.

Haley and her family have been to the Dixie Stampede in Branson. They thoroughly enjoyed it, primarily because the girls love horses, especially 8-year-old Tinley, who ironically enough is severely allergic to horses.

The Stampede changed its name last year, for all the reasons you’d expect. Dixie is a tough sell these days. Not necessarily in Pigeon Forge, where many of the souvenir shops still sell Confederate flags. But Dixie is anathema to corporations; Stampede officials virtually admitted as much with the name change, saying in a press release the name change clears up any confusion and “will help efforts to bring the show into new cities.”

The Stampede is a dinner theater with a horse show as the entertainment. It’s like Medieval Times in Dallas, only instead of jousting knights, it’s cowboys and cowgirls performing tricks and racing horses. The theater sits 1,100 people in a horseshoe, with an arena in the middle. Some kind of sawdust is used on the floor to keep the dust from flying around.

The dinner is rustic but good. The Stampede gives you a fork, which apparently is different from times past, and you drink your soup out of a bowl with a handle. The dinner consisted of a whole roasted chicken, a piece of pork loin, a corn on the cob, a broasted slice of potato and an apple turnover for dessert. The chicken was outstanding. The corn and pork, not so much. But who cares. I had a whole roasted chicken.

The service is incredible. You sit side by side at long tables, and servers come along with remarkable speed and efficiency, filling drink glasses and adding to your meal. I thought the waiters were as impressive as the riders.

And the show was good, if you like horses. Lots of stunt riding – some gal stood on two horses, each foot planted on a separate saddle, and the horses galloped side by side, and she eventually jumped with both horses through a huge ring of fire, landing with both feet still on the horses. They have races and competitions and comedy skits.

There’s a little bit of history, complete with buffalo and an American Indian performance, but the script talks about how settlers shoved the Natives out of the American West, which is true, but omitted is the part about the forced removal of the Natives from the Smoky Mountain region. This is where the Cherokees were before the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma.

All in all, a unique way to have dinner. Tickets are $50 for adults, so it can get pricey.

We arrived at 4:30 p.m. so the girls could look at the horses in their stalls, then you can enter what they call the saloon for a pre-show. Customers sit around tables, with a stage in the middle, and Tuesday night, Mountain Ruckus, a bluegrass band, performed. They were legit and relatively funny, too. So it was a good time. My only complaint? During the pre-show, they had face painting but charged $1.95. And during the show, they sold flags for $3 for kids to wave. Kids’ tickets cost $30; maybe they’re trying to make up the difference.

Our show was at 6 p.m., so we got out at 7:30 – the Stampede does three shows a day – and still had some time, so the girls did a little more shopping. They love to go through the souvenir shops, though why I don’t know. They all seem the same to me.

We then drove back to the cabin, having spent a day at Pigeon Forge, a tourist marvel courtesy of Isaac Love and Art Modell and Dolly Parton.

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Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›