Discover the Real Gatlinburg: The Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community

Downtown Gatlinburg wasn’t always filled with cheesy souvenir shops, wax museums, and fast food joints. In the years before Dollywood and the miles-long carnival strip of Pigeon Forge, this eastern Tennessee town was known for craftsmen and artisans who occupied shops and roamed the city streets, demonstrating their skills.

An early craft shop, not so different from what you’ll see today. Photo courtesy of Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community.

As tourism grew, escalating rents drove the arts and crafts community from the city center. But for the vision of woodworker John Cowden and a few of his friends, they could have faded into obscurity. Suffering from from long hours and worn out feet, Cowden and his fellow artists decided to just stay home where they would be near their tools and the source of their supplies. They opened workshops, studios, and galleries right alongside their homes or even inside them, most of which were concentrated along a an eight mile loop along that winds through the Tennessee hills surrounding Gatlinburg. As visitors started coming, other craftsmen and artists joined in, until it grew to be the largest group of independent artists and craftsmen in America.

Located just three miles from downtown, this historic district has been designated a Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail. Marked with distinctive signs, the trail is easily driven, and all of the shops provide free and ample parking. Better yet, leave your car behind and board an old-fashioned trolley at one of 100+ stops around the city. The Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community Yellow Route travels the entire eight mile loop continuously, allowing visitors to hop on and hop off throughout the day. The fare? A whopping $1.00 for unlimited one-day use.

With nearly 100 shops, studios, and galleries lining the route, it’s easy to spend an entire day examining gorgeous quilts, old-fashioned straw brooms, exquisitely woven baskets, beautiful jewelry, hand-dipped scented candles, Victorian ceramic pitchers, pottery, stuffed bears, leather vests, woodcarvings, oil and watercolor paintings, and much more.

Tim Simek and Mark Edelman, playing their hand-made dulcimers on the streets of Gatlinburg. Photo courtesy of Smoky Mountain Dulcimers.

My favorite shop was Smoky Mountain Dulcimers. I have always wanted to play a musical instrument. As a young girl I took organ lessons for a short time and later, in my twenties, I bought a guitar, determined to learn to play. It was no use; my only musical talent was singing. But old dreams die hard. Confronted by rows of gleaming, meticulously hand-crafted dulcimers hanging on the wall, I was tempted to try again. The woman behind the counter patiently demonstrated how to play and then handed the pick and metal slide over to me. Following a by-the-numbers chart, I strummed a halting “Amazing Grace.” I was sorely tempted to take the shiny instrument home. Sensing my hesitation, the saleswoman explained she had learned while watching TV in the evening, plucking out tunes during commercials. Fortunately, common sense prevailed; although I’d have every good intention of practicing, like my guitar, the dulcimer would likely end up gathering dust in a corner. The best contribution I can make to the world of music is to be an avid listener. And so I did. Choosing one of numerous cafes and restaurants located along the route, I enjoyed a delicious lunch while listening to toe-tapping live mountain music. The guy playing the dulcimer? Way better than I could ever hope to be!

10 thoughts on “Discover the Real Gatlinburg: The Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community”

  1. Hi Barbara,
    My name is Jane and I’m with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blog posts about the Arts and Crafts Community to share on our site and I came across your post…If you’re open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you 🙂

  2. Hello. This is kind of an “unconventional” question , but have other visitors asked you how get the menu bar to look like you’ve got it? I also have a blog and am really looking to alter around the theme, however am scared to death to mess with it for fear of the search engines punishing me. I am very new to all of this …so i am just not positive exactly how to try to to it all yet. I’ll just keep working on it one day at a time Thanks for any help you can offer here.

    • Hi Timothy:
      By “”menu bar” I am assuming you mean my header, where the photos fly across the screen. This is a pretty complex customization of my theme which I don’t recommend you take on yourself, unless you have knowledge of html, css and some limited php. No worries about the search engines punishing you for a design – that does not concern them. They are only concerned with paid text links, spamming, etc. Design is of no consequence. If you want to try this customization, I am happy to share my steps. Please refer to the following article written by the theme developer, who asked me to explain how I customized her theme to get the cover flow effect into my header: Best of luck.

  3. The “Real Gatlinburg” indeed…at least this unique slice of traditional Smoky Mountain living carries on!

    Overalls not required, but if you do wear them, you might be put to work 🙂

  4. As an Australian I couldn’t even mark Tennessee on a map but I am pleased to see older skills being preserved with determination. The old b&w is a treasure.

  5. Just one question – is everyone there required to wear overalls?! 🙂

    Great info Barbara – wish I would’ve known about it when I was traveling cross country through Tennessee a year ago! Maybe I’ll get a second chance!


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