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
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 dont 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
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 childrens 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 Oakleys 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 woodsmans ability of living
with the land and not against it something Wiley would
eventually master in the Smoky Mountains and become a life-long
Disaster suddenly struck the Oakley family with the death of
Elmina while Wiley was still a young boy. His mothers
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 fathers
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 fathers
Henry Oakleys 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 boys 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 sons
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 Wileys 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
Wiley Oakleys 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 Gatlinburgs main
street, which was still then a dirt road. Wileys home
also featured a shop of his hand-crafted works and gifts. When
he wasnt 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
What they found in Wiley wasnt what many expected from
guides. Wiley Oakleys 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 Parks 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
Wileys 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 wasnt 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 regions 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 wasnt 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
Oakleys 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 regions cultures.
With his mountain string band and weekly performances at his
Gatlinburg shop, Wiley and his familys 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
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 natures 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 fathers
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 Oakleys life "Rememberin the Roamin
Man of the Mountains" is written by Oakleys 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
Kepharts 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.