Posted by Darryl Payne in Gatlinburg Attractions
Arts and crafts in the Great Smoky Mountains have a rich history. In addition to the mountains themselves, crafts were one of the original factors that started drawing tourists to the area in the first half of the 20th century. The public's appetite for acquiring hand-made pieces of art and craftwork grew steadily over the years, and today, the original works of skilled local artisans continue to be one of the area's top draws.
Those visiting the Smokies today can see the popularity of arts and crafts best manifested by visiting the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community in Gatlinburg. More than 100 artists and crafts people make their livings in this enclave located north of downtown. The community is essentially an eight-mile-long, triangular route formed by Glades Road, Buckhorn Road and U.S. Hwy. 321 (aka East Parkway). Most of the participating members' shops, studios and galleries are located along Glades and Buckhorn.
The types of arts and crafts you'll find when you tour the community are wide ranging. Artisans include carvers, weavers, watercolor artists, casters, soap makers, potters, silversmiths, photographers, woodworkers, candle makers, sculptors, leather workers, glass workers, basket weavers, broom makers, dulcimer makers and jewelry makers. And believe it or not, that's not all.
One of the great things about visiting the Arts & Crafts Community is that you can do it at your own pace and on your own schedule. You could spend an hour or multiple days driving from shop to shop and browsing each resident's wares. Another cool part is that often, you can find the artisans are at work in their shops, and they're usually pretty good about demonstrating what they do and answering questions about their work.
Of course, they're always happy to make a sale too. And when you're doing your Christmas shopping, looking for a unique gift for someone back home or just in search of a one-of-a-kind souvenir of your trip to the Smokies, you can't get much more authentic than purchasing a hand-made work from a local mountain crafter.
In addition to most of the traditional arts and crafts forms mentioned earlier, you'll find a number of eateries and food-related vendors in the community. There are cafes and restaurants, a confectioner and creamery, a fudge maker and an old-fashioned soda fountain as well as retailers specializing in jams, jellies and gourmet food items.
If you're visiting the Smokies by car, you'll easily locate the community by traveling west on U.S. Hwy. 321 from downtown Gatlinburg just a few miles until you hit Glades Road. That's where the loop begins, and if you follow it all the way around through Buckhorn, you'll wind up back on U.S. Hwy. 321 again. If you don't want to drive, you can take a trolley from downtown. Make sure you get on the trolley designated for the yellow Arts & Crafts Community route. You can ride there and back from downtown for only $1 per person and have unlimited access to the community while you're there.
Another way to check out the work of Gatlinburg's best artisans is to visit one of their annual shows at the Gatlinburg Convention Center. Each year, members of the community organize craft-show events around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. This is an especially convenient and efficient way to see what these artisans have to offer, and the timing couldn't be better in terms of shopping for the holidays. There's also a show scheduled each spring to coincide with Easter.
While arts and crafts are definitely a commercial venture these days, things didn't start out that way. Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, what we call crafts today were simply things that the locals learned to make by hand as a way of surviving everyday life in the mountains. Skills like pottery, leatherwork, woodwork, broom making, quilting and metal work fall into this category.
In 1912, members of the Pi Beta Phi women's fraternity founded a settlement school in Gatlinburg. It was the only source of public education for area children at the time. Fraternity members helped locals learn how to commercialize and sell their handiwork, and when the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1930s ushered in the age of tourism, local crafters were ready to answer the call by offering their works for sale to visitors from out of town.
One offshoot of this early tourism boom was the evolution of craft workshops, which eventually became what is known today as the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, which is still located in the heart of downtown Gatlinburg. The other major offshoot was the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community.
For years in the early 1900s, Gatlinburg craftsmen practiced their trade downtown, often doing their work on the streets where tourists could easily access them. By the late 1930s, factors like exposure to the elements, increased traffic and excessive commissions to downtown shop owners led many of the craftsmen to move their shops out to the Glades area of town, where many of them happened to live. That's where they set up their shops and studios, and the seeds were sown for the vibrant crafts community we know today.
Another watershed moment for the community was the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville. Visitors from all over the world came to East Tennessee for that event, and many of them made daytrips to the nearby Great Smoky Mountains. Between May and October of 1982, some 11 million people visited the Arts & Crafts Community and essentially introduced it to the entire world.
Today, the shops and eateries have been joined by lodging providers, wedding chapels and other affiliated businesses, making the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community one of the must-see stops for anyone visiting the Smokies.
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