Mountain Time: Glenn Cardwell of the Smokies

Mountain Time: Glenn Cardwell of the Smokies

By Arthur “Butch” McDade

Butch and Glenn
Arthur "Butch" McDade, left, and Glenn Cardwell, right, outside of Sugarlands Visitor Center in 2014. Photo courtesy of Arthur McDade.

In Greenbrier there’s a path that leads to an old homesite. The house is gone but you can still spot foundation stones and a stone springhead nearby. And, if you really look around, you can find an old automobile frame.

I had the honor of hiking to this homesite several times with Glenn Cardwell. The last time was in 2014, two years before his death. Hiking there meant a lot to Glenn; it was where he entered this earth on a cold Christmas Eve in 1930, four years before his birthplace and the surrounding forest became part of the new Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

As we hiked, Cardwell would talk and point things out. He had a soft voice and was one of the kindest folks you’d ever meet (I once asked his wife Faye if Glenn ever got mad—she said, “No.”). He told me everything about his life, from his humble beginnings in Greenbrier to the 34 years he spent as a national park ranger in the Smokies.

A sense of place permeated Cardwell’s life—he never forgot where he came from. He attributed this to his mother “Pearlie,” who took him into the forests of the Smokies on long walks along Hills Creek. Cardwell attended school, but he believed he got his real education by following his mom in the woods. She was an “herb doctor” familiar with healthful native plants.

Glenn Cardwell
Glenn Cardwell on a footbridge in Greenbrier during a hike with Arthur "Butch" McDade in 2014. Photo courtesy of Arthur "Butch" McDade.

His mother’s teachings served him well when he became a ranger in the Smokies in 1961. With his knowledge of the woods, he became a go-to authority on plants and animals. In the Smokies, he mentored well over one hundred park rangers during his career and guided thousands of park visitors on nature walks. He directed visitors to family cemeteries and assisted on “lost person” cases. He became a “ranger’s ranger” and was later honored by Great Smoky Mountains Association as one of the 100 most influential people in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Cardwell once mentioned that after he left this job in 1995, he intended to retire, but his retirement didn’t quite go as planned. In 1998 he became mayor of nearby Pittman Center, Tennessee, a position he held for nigh on 18 years. He also authored two history books on the area. He stayed busy, he said, because “if you rest, you rust!”

Cardwell was a man of the Smokies. He never wanted to leave these mountains, turning down jobs from other parks. He only temporarily left while in the Navy during the Korean War and while attending the University of Tennessee. He said that while in the Navy, half-way around the world, he vowed that if he ever got back to the Smokies he’d never stray farther than the local co-op store in Sevierville. And to cement his attachment to the area, he married his childhood sweetheart and they lived permanently in Emerts Cove, only three miles from where his mother brought him into this world.

On my last hike with Cardwell, I asked what the most memorable thing was that his mother taught him. He said he learned a lot from her, but she gave him a saying he remembered to that day. She’d told him, “Glenn, once you fall in love with nature, you’ve got a friend for life.”

Arthur “Butch” McDade worked 30 years for the National Park Service at several sites, ultimately retiring from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He currently works as a freelance writer.

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