- [S106] The Mountain Press, 7 Apr 2013.
Wiley Oakley: ‘Roamin’ Man of the Mountains’
BY ARTHUR “BUTCH” MCDADE
If you walk through “The Village” shopping area in Gatlinburg and wind your way uphill past the public restrooms, you’ll enter the grounds of White Oak Flats Cemetery. In the southwest corner, you’ll find an impressive monument with the name Oakley emblazoned on it. In addition to the name, the monument’s motif is that of stacked logs.
The log motif is appropriate because underneath it lays Wiley Oakley and his wife Rebecca Ann. They were mountain folk born on lands which became part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and they adapted to the significant changes caused by the creation of the new park.
Wiley Oakley used his innate skills in fishing, hiking, storytelling, writing, mountain-lore and area promotion to become the most colorful personality in all the Smokies. His exploits as a guide and rambler earned him the nickname of “The Roamin’ Man of the Mountains.” He is a legend in the history of the area.
Wiley Oakley was born on a hardscrabble farm below Mt. LeConte on Sept. 12, 1885. His family made a living by farming, hunting and fishing. Wiley learned the ways of the mountains from his parents and also from a Cherokee Indian named Jim Goings.
Harvey Oakley, Wiley’s late son, told me that his father’s mom died when Wiley was very young. He said his dad missed his mother so much “that he began to roam the mountains looking for her, thinking that if he climbed the highest peaks, somehow he might catch a glimpse of her in heaven. He thought the pretty white clouds in the sky might be his mother’s flowing white robes.” From that point on Wiley Oakley regarded the Smokies as a sacred place.
Growing up, Wiley and his friends roamed the Smokies when they weren’t working on the farm. Their adventures even got them into a tight jam once. Wiley, his brother and some boys went on a hunting trip and they camped out. To amuse themselves one night, they put campfire coals on flat rocks and then slammed them with the side of an ax, causing a pop. The embers also flew up in the dark, providing a fireworks show.
On this night the embers shot out in various directions and the dry leaves fueled a fire that got away from the boy’s stomping feet. As the fire grew, the other boys made a dash through the wall of flames. But Wiley was stunned and didn’t move fast enough.
He later wrote that, “I saw I was trapped and the flames was going up through the trees and roarin’ like low thunder. I began to think I was a goner.”
Looking around in terror, he spied a hollow chestnut log on the ground. He scrambled into its decaying interior just in time, as the force of the fire swept over. He breathed through his hat as smoke filled the tree. The other boys ran for help, and several hours later they found him in good condition. He later wrote that this was the scariest incident he ever had while roaming the mountains.
The Smokies also gave Wiley the love of his life. He met Rebecca Ann Ogle and they married on Jan. 19, 1906. (She was the daughter of Noah “Bud” Ogle, whose house is on Cherokee Orchard Road in the Smokies.) Their marriage produced twelve children, and Wiley always referred to her as his “Golden-haired bride of Scratch Britches Mountain!”
When city visitors came to the Smokies in the early 20th century to camp and fish, Wiley saw a way to make a living beyond subsistence farming. He figured there was business potential in the growing tourism, and he made his move.
In Gatlinburg, Oakley promoted himself as one who could guide “furriners” into the mountains. This led to a relationship with the Huff family and their Mountain View Hotel. They used Wiley to guide guests into the Smokies. He fit right in with this new role, regaling clients with his lilting mountain voice, his easy-going style, his knowledge of nature, and his humor and storytelling. He was a hit, and many guests requested him on return trips.
Wiley and his wife also opened a shop in town as visitors kept coming. Here they sold souvenirs and other items. He entertained shoppers with songs and yarns; his son Harvey said that if Wiley yodeled after a story, it was a “tall tale.” Wiley even put up a humorous sign outside which read: “Antiques Made to Order.” He also was prone to say, “I’ve never been lost, just been bothered for a few days. And I always got out!”
Wiley’s fame as a guide led to visits with famous people who came to the Smokies, including John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Henry Ford, Ernie Pyle, and Kate Smith. He even met President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Oakley also wrote a weekly column for the local newspaper along with books on his ramblings. He even traveled to New York City and other big cities promoting them and his home town.
Wiley continued his “roamin’” and “yarnin’” for many years. But cancer intruded into his vibrant life and he died on Nov. 18, 1954 at age 69, leaving a legacy that has been hard to top.
He’s memorialized by a monument at the Gatlinburg Welcome Center, and with a road named in his honor. You can also find copies of his book Roamin’ and Restin,’ and Remembering the Roamin’ Man of the Mountain,” by Harvey Oakley, in bookstores. And several episodes of “The Heartland Series” feature him and his storytelling.
These are fitting memorials to a local man who did much good. Wiley Oakley was a genuine mountaineer from the Smokies who looked forward, saw the future, and embraced it with a smile and a colorful mountain yarn.
— Arthur “Butch” McDade is a retired Great Smoky Mountains NP ranger with 30 years of service in the National Park Service. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to email@example.com; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- [S106] The Mountain Press, 1 Feb 2014.
Upland Chronicles: Sevier County’s beautiful Mount LeConte
ARTHUR "BUTCH" MCDADE
View of Mount LeConte from the Gatlinburg Bypass.
Mount LeConte Lodge from window of dining hall.
In Sevier County, one mountain looms over the rest. Its dark grey outline dominates the mountain skyline for miles around.
In the winter, it’s frequently covered with a white, snowy veneer. You can see it from miles away as you drive Interstate 40 toward Sevierville, and on clear days it’s visible from downtown Knoxville.
Over the years, this mountain has had various names, ranging from Bullhead, High Point, High Top and Central Peak, among others. When you drive the Parkway from Sevierville looking south, this mountain, with its distinctive three peaks, totally dominates the skyline and looms over all the other ridge-line mountains.
The mountain is now called Mount LeConte, the third-highest peak in all of the Smokies and one of the highest peaks east of the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Mount LeConte is special in many ways. Geographically, it doesn’t follow the usual southwest to northeast trend of the Smokies. Rather, it is a five-mile spur running due north off the main crest of the Great Smoky Mountains.
It has the highest free-fall waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Rainbow Falls. Five distinct – and challenging – hiking trails leading to its summit: Alum Cave, Boulevard, Bullhead, Rainbow Falls and Trillium Gap trails, with Brushy Mountain and the Appalachian Trail as connectors.
The mountain boasts an arch rock, a window arch, and a sulphur-brown bluff called Alum Cave – which is not a true cave, but rather a recess in the bluff wall where various attempts at mining minerals occurred in the past. Even though it is not the highest peak in the Smokies (6,593 feet above sea level, 50 feet shorter than Clingmans Dome), its elevation gain is the steepest of the park’s highest peaks. It rises over 5,300 feet from its base.
It has an historic, rustic lodge near its apex, which hosts tens of thousands of humans who annually hike up to stay overnight in the lodges’ wooden cabins. Tens of thousands more annually make day hikes to the summit and back down, or carry backpacks for an overnight stay in a nearby backcountry shelter. Unlike Clingmans Dome, there is no paved road or paved path leading to Mount LeConte’s summit; one has to fully earn this mountain’s summit by that age-old, honorable tradition of hiking on foot.
Today’s official name of Mount LeConte is generally attributed to Samuel Botsford Buckley. The scientist named it in honor of John LeConte, who helped Buckley take barometric readings of the major Smokies’ peaks in the late 1850s. Another theory is that Swiss geologist Arnold Guyot named it in honor of John LeConte’s brother, Joseph, in the mid-19th century.
These early scientific designations notwithstanding, many of the mountain folk of the Smokies in Sevier County in the 19th and early 20th centuries simply called the mountain by the aforementioned local names. Mountain farmers in Porters Creek/ Greenbrier, Roaring Fork, White Oak Flats/Gatlinburg, Sugarlands, Cherokee Orchard and other areas hunted deer, turkey, black bear and other game in the valleys and ridges of the lower to mid-altitude regions of the peak in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Occasionally, some hardy youngsters from these farms pushed up the mountain now and then, drawn by the allure of what might be “just over the next ridge." But “peak-bagging” was not a luxury activity for folks who labored long hours over six days a week on hard-scrabble farms in rural Sevier County in the 19th century.
There weren’t maintained trails up the mountain like today, so the going was extremely difficult. And mountain hiking just for the sake of hiking used up a lot of precious physical energy, energy that was better used for productive work on the farm. So recreational hiking on LeConte wasn’t common until the 1910s or 1920s, when the newly arrived automobile propelled sportsmen from the cities to the mountains.
But one local man – born on the flanks of LeConte in Sevier County – responded to the lure of the higher reaches of the mountain and became regionally famous.
His name was Wiley Oakley, and he went on to become a popular fishing, hunting and hiking guide. Oakley hunted and roamed the ridges of LeConte in his youth, mostly alone. He learned the lore of the plants and animals from his father and from a Cherokee Indian who lived in Cherokee Orchard. In the early part of the 20th century, Oakley led fishermen and hunters on trips to the mountain as a guide for the Huff family’s Mountain View Motel in Gatlinburg.
Oakley took members of the Smoky Mountain Conservation Association up the mountain to a high camp near Basin Spring near the summit as the movement for a national park developed. He also helped the Civilian Conservation Corps in hacking out the Alum Cave trail to the summit in the 1930s. Oakley wrote about his times in the Smokies in "Roamin’ and Restin’," and in newspaper columns for the Gatlinburg newspaper.
In 1926, Jack Huff of Gatlinburg constructed a few log buildings near the spring and opened the rustic LeConte Lodge to hikers and horse riders. In that year he even carried his elderly mother up the trail on a chair strapped to his back. Today the lodge continues to house registered hikers in its rustic cabins, and serve them hearty breakfasts and suppers.
For those who love the Smokies, and especially the Sevier County part, no better mountain to hike can be found than LeConte. Its trails provide portals to beautiful views such as those from Cliff Top and Myrtle Point. It’s an iconic mountain, more than just a mass of uplifted meta-sandstones and Anakeesta rock.
There’s another world up there, a beautiful mountain world as different from the lowlands as night and day for those physically able and experienced enough to make the effort. It’s a “bucket list” destination for many lovers of the Smokies, and a pleasure to the eye when viewed from on high.
Arthur "Butch" McDade is a retired Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranger with 30 years of service in the National Park Service. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to email@example.com; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.
- [S73] Rawlings Funeral Home, Book 2, 18 Nov 1954.
Oakley, Wiley Manson Sept 12, 1885 Sevier Co. Nov 18, 1954
Spouse: Ogle, Rebecca Ann
Father: Oakley, Henry
Mother: Conner, Elmine
Sons: Elmer, Woodrow, Orvile, Harvey, David, Wiley Jr.
Cemetery: Gatlinburg Baptist
Brothers: H.H, Levator, Ernest
Sisters: Mrs. Florence Ramsey, Mrs. Vlora Chance, Mrs. Josie Loveday
- [S34] In the Shadow of the Smokies, Smoky Mountain Historical Society, (1993), 574.