Wiley Oakley

He was a man whose name became an icon in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Many described him as a simple, hard-working, and good-natured individual who was quick to help anyone who found themselves in need and at his doorway.
It was this simple man, however, whose intimate knowledge of the forbidding and dangerously isolated region of the Smokies would open up what many Americans
thought was a place better left to the few hardy natives who called it home. His efforts as a guide in the region would set new standards for those who followed in his footsteps and there were many, but, as long as he lived, there was none better than he and such reputations don’t come easy.
When the nation finally exerted its efforts to harness the power and resources of the mountain range, he began a second career of sorts that would not only make his name a household word in the small city of Gatlinburg, but become one that would echo throughout the nation as the unofficial ambassador of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Wiley Oakley was born on Sept. 12, 1885 to Henry Coleman and Elmina Conner Oakley at the base of Mount LeConte. He was one of nine children born to the mountain family and they made their home in a simple cabin farm.
Henry Oakley lived off of the land and made a little extra cash money working as the local postman in Gatlinburg.
As was the case with most mountain children, all were expected to help on the farm as soon as they could and the work was hard and sometimes brutal.
The family was traditionally close-knit and the parents saw to their children’s education in the old-time traditions of the mountains. With only a few books available in the entire region, the Bible was their primary grammar primer and the children learned their letters from it as well as the ability to memorize and recite lengthy passages from its texts. They were also a religious family who attended the White Oak Flats Baptist Church regularly and took an active part in the Gatlinburg community .
Wiley Oakley’s father was a hardy mountaineer who had been raised in the mountains and spent a good deal of time among the local Cherokee. From them and his own parents, he had learned of the medicinal herbs and food sources available in the mountains and it had taught him the woodsman’s ability of living with the land and not against it – something Wiley would eventually master in the Smoky Mountains and become a life-long pursuit.
Disaster suddenly struck the Oakley family with the death of Elmina while Wiley was still a young boy. His mother’s passing had a profound affect on Wiley and, to deal with his grief, the child began wandering the hills and hollows of the mountains as if looking for her. In his later recollections, he would speak of trying to climb the highest peaks to see if he could catch a glimpse of her in heaven. His father’s strength as a man kept the family close and little Wiley soon began following his every step on the mountain trails. As was the way with the old-timers, everything was a lesson and, from the littlest insect to the raging waters off of the mountain peaks, his father would use to make a lesson or take time to point out the herbs and plants, which could be used for medicine. The young Wiley proved to be an avid student of his father’s teachings.
Henry Oakley’s hard work did bring a measure of prosperity to the family and they were able to build a bigger, more comfortable home to accommodate the large family.
With a huge family to feed, Wiley also took up the responsibility at an early age of hunting and fishing the remote backwoods to help keep meat on the table and was soon regarded as one of the best hunters in the Smoky Mountains. A deer hoof slip on a game trail, flora or fauna freshly bent forward, or grass springing back into position would be things an untrained eye would not notice, but to young Wiley they were pages of a book that told him the story of the animal he was tracking and the direction it was going. He knew the best places for them to gather, the watering holes, and which way the winds were blowing to keep his scent away from the game he was tracking. In the process, he discovered unique features of the mountains and blazed private paths where only a man on foot could travel. As the young boy’s continued wanderings took him to the mountains’ tallest peaks, deepest hollows, and numerous ridges, he began to come to an understanding of the region that only a precious few had ever known.
His father, who Wiley fondly remembered for his white-beard and mountaineer appearance, took great trust in his son’s ability as a woodsman and instructed him in the ways a father does a son. He taught Wiley how to use firearms and knives in the old mountain traditions and Wiley’s reputation as a hunter continued to grow. He also taught his son the rich oral history of the Smoky Mountains. The lessons captured the imagination of the young boy and Wiley became a fountain of knowledge on the old stories – as well as an accomplished story teller himself.
Wiley Oakley’s abilities hid an artistic side of him that few would know until later years. While he taught himself to read and write, he also taught himself music, how to paint, and how to make most anything by hand.
The easy-going nature of Wiley Oakley and his personable warmth was infectious to everyone who met him. His good-natured personality made him one of the most liked individuals in Gatlinburg. His roaming eventually brought him to the door of a local lady and soon he married Rebecca Ann and started a family. Wiley provided well for his growing family much the same way as his father had before him, except Wiley was developing an excellent career as a guide and unknowingly sowing the seeds of a new type of industry in the region – that of attracting visitors to his beloved land to see the wonders of the Great Smoky mountains.
It allowed him to build a family home on Gatlinburg’s main street, which was still then a dirt road. Wiley’s home also featured a shop of his hand-crafted works and gifts. When he wasn’t working on a project, selling to customers or guiding hunters, he was always "roamin", as he called it, through the mountains and hollows of the Smokies.
Hunters and sport fishermen in Knoxville, Nashville, and other cities on both sides of the mountains soon began searching him out to guide them through the maze of mountains to the best hunting spots.
What they found in Wiley wasn’t what many expected from guides. Wiley Oakley’s knowledge extended beyond where to find the best trout, deer, bears, and wild boars. He knew the plants, the trees, and seemingly every blade of grass. He even knew secret places in the mountains to hide and wait out storms or sudden changes in weather. As his guide reputation grew, he soon found himself conducting Governors, Congressmen, businessmen, and celebrities from all parts of the nation into the forbidding mountains to hunt. The stories they brought back to their homes encouraged others to travel to the region to meet Wiley Oakley. Letters poured into his little Gatlinburg shop from across the nation. They ranged from people he had guided on tours thanking him to writers wanting to meet and record the wealth of knowledge he had gained throughout his life in the region.
When the "official" federal movement began forming the Smoky Mountains into a national park, scientists from Knoxville and the Smithsonian Institution hired Wiley Oakley as a guide and were simply astounded at his ability to show them numerous plants, flora, and ferns never before catalogued in America. His knowledge of every possible nook and cranny in the mountain folds was priceless to them and he soon became a major consultant in the Park’s formation. Surveyors called on him repeatedly to help establish the Park boundaries. With all of the guiding and help he provided the government in the process, Wiley Oakley found himself becoming a national treasure. To help promote the region to tourists, the mountaineer found himself "roamin’" outside the boundaries of his beloved home and to places like Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. where his homespun stories attracted a national audience. His poetic descriptions of the physical beauty of the Smokies was second only to the old stories of the people of the Smoky Mountains he told. The Oakley voice that spoke those oral histories carried the unique lilt and dialect native to East Tennessee and reawakened the national spirit of self-reliance and rugged individualism. Radio stations in major cities across America carried them and the little city of Gatlinburg soon became known as a destination stop for a growing number of American travelers – most of which wanted a chance to meet old Wiley Oakley and hear him spin the tales of the Smokies. His popularity earned him a nickname as the "Will Rogers of the South" and a popular radio guest in his day.
He and his wife continued to bring their family up in the Oakley traditions of hard work, community service, and religious values. He saw that his 12 children received as good an education as they could get in the mountain community and also took time to teach his children the things he was taught as a child. His family was always his first responsibility.
Wiley Oakley never became caught up in the celebrity reputation. He was always himself and never tried to be any more or less to the thousands of people he met. When danger came to his family home,Wiley was said to be as stoic as the mountains he loved.
As the nation was torn apart by the guns of World War II, Wiley, the father, saw off six of his sons and one son-in-law to the battlefields to serve their nation. Relatives said he prayed every night for their safety, did whatever he could to help in the war effort, and was standing there to welcome his sons home when they returned.
The war also made its presence felt in the Smoky Mountains while Wiley’s sons were overseas. In 1944, Wiley wrote of being approached by a distraught woman whose husband had been one of five military officers to disappear over the Smoky Mountains in an airship that reportedly crashed in the area. She had heard he was the best and wanted to hire Wiley to help her look for him. It was January and the weather was subject to change at a moments notice. Maybe it was the thoughts of his own sons in the war or his childhood quest to find his mother among the mountain peaks that led the Gatlinburg native to accept the job, gather his things and set off with someone who knew little about the land in front of them. With what little knowledge she had of the wreck, she set out with Wiley Oakley and kept pace with him the entire way covering anywhere from ten to fifteen miles a day on foot. The mountaineer noted the lady had a powerful set of German-made binoculars and Wiley wrote of the determination in her eyes to find her husband or his body. The woman never gave up hopes of finding him, but, when she finally had to call off the search and return home, Wiley Oakley watched her go with a great sadness and respect.
It was during this time that the Smoky Mountains he loved so well had begun changing dramatically. It wasn’t so much the preservation of the Smokies into a national park that was changing the legendary land of his youth, but the developing economic conditions and landscapes brought on by the Tennessee Valley Authority and companies like the Aluminum Company of America. The lumber camps, the mines, and the mountain settlements where natives had long found employment began disappearing and many families, who had resided for generations on the land, had to leave their homes and start over building a new life in places that were strange to them. They abandoned many of their customs to adapt and, as a result, many of their stories and histories disappeared in the succeeding generations.
By the 1950s, Wiley Oakley had achieved almost legendary status among the region’s natives. From the city of Gatlinburg to the inner reaches of the Cherokee Nation, the mountaineer was regarded as the principal source of information on the mountains. His reputation among the Cherokee was particularly noteworthy as he was for all intents and purposes regarded by many of them as an unofficial member of the tribe who wandered freely on the Reservation. His years in the mountains had earned him numerous friends among them. At many places, his money was no good to them as the old mountaineer had often brought meat to their tables in hard times or graciously shared what he had with them. As a life-long student of the mountains, it wasn’t unheard of him as a young man sharing camps with the Cherokee hunting parties in the mountains and trading stories.
Following World War II and the further establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a prosperous nation and newly expanding highway system saw American tourism become a lucrative industry as thousands of people people began descending on the Smoky Mountain region and the city of Gatlinburg. Wiley Oakley’s fame continued to grow as America began choosing the mountains as their primary holiday destination to camp, hike, fish, and travel the many wilderness trails.
Wiley continued to travel and speak across the nation about the Smoky Mountains, writing articles about his experiences for magazines, and becoming a fixture in newspaper columns as a primary source of knowledge and information. Wiley even penned a couple of books on his experience and travels in the Smoky Mountains, which became an instant classic among scholars studying the region’s cultures.
With his mountain string band and weekly performances at his Gatlinburg shop, Wiley and his family’s efforts helped bring the culture and traditions of the SmokyMountains to life, which attracted other businesses and helped make Gatlinburg one of the more popular tourist locations in the South. It was always his talents and abilities as a guide in the Smoky Mountain wilderness, however, that earned him his greatest reputation and a place in the annals of American history.
As time wore on, the "Roamin Man of the Mountains" began feeling the wear of life and was soon diagnosed with cancer. As in his youth and rigorous life, his waning years battling the disease set an example of courage and strength for his family and friends.
The self-educated Gatlinburg mountaineer who had literally brought the world to his door and opened an new era in American tourism, finally lost his battle with cancer. On Nov. 18, 1954, Wiley Oakley quietly passed away and was laid to rest in White Oak Flats Cemetery in his beloved Gatlinburg.
While many people over the years had written of Wiley Oakley and characterized the mountaineer in so many different ways, the words delivered in eulogy by Tennessee Congressman and Democratic Whip J. Piercy Priest served as a lasting and honorable tribute to the life and times of the Smoky Mountains’ Wiley Oakley.
"Let us raise in the hushed stillness of the mountains a simple but rugged memorial to the memory of one who was and is the living spirit of the Great Smoky Mountains. As the years pass, the name and fame of Wiley Oakley will become legendary. But he was infinitely more than a legend. In his unhurried life was reflected the serenity of the hills, rock-ribbed and eternal, from which he drew his quiet strength. In character, he was sturdy and stalwart as the tall pines that crown the wind-swept peaks; and the sincerity of his humility sprang from a deep and genuine sense of gratitude for the bounties, the blessings and the teachings of nature and nature’s God. From these teachings, he developed an understanding heart and mind, and a soul so sensitive to his primeval environment, that in his own life from season to season, could be envisioned the ever-changing moods of the mountains. The imprint of his personality is indelibly inscribed in the hearts of thousands, great and small, who knew him and were privileged to share his companionship. In the years to come, million will pause to read words that may be chiseled in bronze or marble on a memorial marker high in the mountains...and roamin’, somewhere nearby, will be the immortal spirit of Wiley Oakley. He was a man, take him all in all, we shall not look on his like again."

There are numerous place names and roads found in the Gatlinburg today that honor Wiley Oakley as well as a plaque at the Gatlinburg Welcome Center. His descendants are numerous and most still reside in the region.
Special thanks for this story has to go to the National Park Service, The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and numerous Wiley Oakley descendants in Sevier County., who each had countless stories of their father’s colorful life in the Smoky Mountains.
The books mentioned in the story written by Wiley Oakley are available in many locations throughout the region. One retrospective of Wiley Oakley’s life "Rememberin’ the Roamin’ Man of the Mountains" is written by Oakley’s son Harvey Oakley, who spent his career with the National Park Service in Gatlinburg and includes valuable excerpts from the thousands of letters the Gatlinburg native received throughout his life as well as numerous photographs of Oakley and his family.
Wiley Oakley may be best remembered for his knowledge of the Smoky Mountains and his home-spun wit that enthralled America, but scholars of the National Park System and others will tell you his efforts accomplished something entirely unique that would set the Great Smoky Mountains National Park apart from every other one in the nation.
Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, the Parks of the Northwest and Alaska are all known for their natural environmental wonders and the focus of the U.S. Government is primarily on the preservation of terrain features and the scientific study of them. The Great Smoky Mountains, however, is a Park system where the unique people who called it home – not the forests that sheltered them – have been the traditional focus of study and its main attraction thanks,in part, to Wiley Oakley and to Horace Kephart’s work "Our Southern Highlanders." It was the first in a long string of publications that documented the unique brand of people who inhabited the region. A population never heard from, but with traditional family roots intact that , in many cases, can be traced to colonial times – an object of fascination to many American scholars since it was first written about by Pres. Theodore Roosevelt in his book "The Winning of the West."
While things have evolved over the years and scientific study is becoming more of a focus with NPS officials in the Park, it is the culture of the mountaineers and the Cherokee that still draw hundreds of thousands of tourists each year to the region and new efforts are underway in many regions to preserve the traditional skills and handicrafts of the era.
When the Great Smoky Mountain National Park unveiled its new auditorium last year, it also debuted a new introductory film for visitors to the Park. Sprinkled in among the scenic views and wildlife was a section devoted to the hardy mountaineer culture that once pervaded the region. The voice and interview used to help tell the story was 93-year-old Gatlinburg native Lucinda Ogle- the daughter of none other than Wiley Oakley.