Trailside Talk: Boughs of Balsam

Trailside Talk: Boughs of Balsam

Mike Hembree

Visitors to hotels sometimes grumble about the quality of the beds in their rooms. Mattresses are too hard, or maybe too soft. Pillows are too bouncy, or too flat. Fitted sheets won’t stay put.

Perhaps surprisingly, some aspects of snoozing became an official topic of discussion in the Smokies even before the park was officially chartered. The park was approved by Congress and the president in 1926, but years of work would follow before the charter was granted in 1934 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park's first superintendent, J. Ross Eakin. Photo courtesy of Open Parks Network
Great Smoky Mountains National Park's first superintendent, J. Ross Eakin. Photo courtesy of Open Parks Network.

With the park still very much a work in progress, J. Ross Eakin was assigned to the Smokies as the park’s first superintendent in January 1931. He would remain in that office through March 1945, but it’s likely that his harder years were the early ones, a time when park lands were in transition from ownership by farmers, families, and timber companies to the oversight of the federal Department of the Interior. The changes were dramatic and drastic.

Eakin dealt with matters large and small, and letters crossed his desk both from park supporters and from those who would attempt to disrupt the park growth process at every turn. The issues tied to the development of the first big national park in the Southeast were many. Some could be settled by a letter or phone call; others would plague park officials for years.

LeConte Lodge, circa 1937. Photo by Jack Huff, courtesy Open Parks Network.
LeConte Lodge, circa 1937. Photo by Jack Huff, courtesy Open Parks Network.

Barely a year into his long tenure in the Smokies, Eakin received a letter from Jack Huff, who managed business at LeConte Lodge atop Mount Le Conte both before and after the park’s designation. Huff, a hotelier in Gatlinburg who became a combination entrepreneur/rambling man in and around the Smokies, often had questions for park officials about the lodge, then still quite primitive, and how it would operate under park regulations.

In his January 27, 1932, letter to Eakin, Huff passed along information relating to the comfort of his overnight guests (Huff’s unique approach to spelling is retained here): “I have found out that there has been another wind starm on Le Conte that blew done something in the naberhood of seventy five trees around near the camp. I think if it is all right with you I can use balsam boughs for beds another year. I can use the Balsam from the turned up trees.”

Even in the park’s early years, there was concern for the forests that brimmed with life and ultimately would attract millions of visitors per year. The fact that timber companies had wiped out much of the land’s old-growth trees made those that remained that much more important.

Eakin, in perhaps one of his easier decisions, responded to Huff quickly. “It will be quite all right for you to use balsam boughs from down timber but we must be sure that no more boughs are taken from standing trees,” he wrote.

Smokies LIVE

Eventually, the lodge atop Le Conte would become one of the Smokies’ favorite destinations, and its beds, while still not in the realm of luxury, would become something more than tree limbs.

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.

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