Images of log cabins puffing out smoke and cast iron kettles on the stove come to mind when we think of the old ways of life. Following WWII, many families were thrust into a new, modern way of life. Even in remote areas, electricity was becoming more common. And a new wave of suburban houses (along with the products that go with them) flooded the market.
But, in the midst of all this activity, one Appalachian family was adamant about doing things the way they had always done them: the Walker sisters. Several national and state parks were established during the Great Depression as part of President Roosevelt’s effort to create jobs and infrastructure. Many families were asked to relocate when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1940, but the Walker sisters fought to keep their land.
John Walker, the family patriarch, had worked hard over the years to acquire more land and create a thriving orchard on his property, planting apples and cherries among other fruits. The Walkers had 11 children in total, with only one of the seven daughters marrying and one dying in childhood. John Walker passed away in 1921, leaving his daughters in charge of the family farm.
The remaining 5 spinsters worked the land diligently, keeping a garden and farming, as well as keeping sheep and processing wool, cotton, and flax into clothing in a mud-clad log cabin. In an unprecedented move, the sisters simply refused to leave their 122-acre property when the National Park Service ordered them to do so. Margaret, Polly, Martha, Louisa, and Hettie, the sisters, received a lifetime lease on their property as well as cash for the land.
However, this came at a cost. Trapping, hunting, and grazing activities on the farm had to be restricted in order to comply with National Park Service regulations. The Walker sisters shifted their focus to processing the orchard bounty and creating handicrafts with their talents. Because the sisters were on national park land, visitors came in droves to see “5 Sisters Cove,” and the sisters obliged them by giving demonstrations and selling handmade wares like dolls and apple hand pies.
The sisters died one by one between 1947 and 1966, but they never stopped doing things their way. The Walker family buildings are still standing, and visitors can still visit the historic site. These Appalachian sisters were not about to give up their land or enter the modern world for the sake of doing so. While there’s no denying that national parks benefit the country, the Walker sisters’ story makes you wonder how many of us would have had the same level of fortitude if faced with a similar situation.