Splendid Isolation at Cumberland Gap’s Hensley Settlement
If you want to get away from bad traffic and bothersome phones, do what Sherman Hensley did and go to the top of Brush Mountain. Temperatures are 10 degrees cooler than in the valley. You can sit on a log cabin’s front porch and watch deer graze in wildflower meadows.
In 1903, Sherman grabbed his bride and landed atop the mountain. He didn’t move down until 1951. In the years in between, he and his kin established the Hensley settlement, home to approx.100 people. With true pioneer spirit, they lived off the land and grew crops. They paid for store-bought supplies in hard cash generated from moonshine sales.
The old-timers hauled supplies up the mountain by a cumbersome sled, a feat that earns my admiration as I ride a groaning, squeaking van on a steep road. Of course, a paved road didn’t exist back then.
I’m with guides from Cumberland Gap National Historical Park who direct tours several times a week so visitors can understand life 100 years ago in remote Southern Appalachia. Hensley Settlement was added to the national park in the mid-1960s. Careful restoration of three farmsteads, spring houses, a school house, blacksmith shed, and cemetery has kept the settlement a living history museum.
As I’m walking through a fenced tract, I breathe in the quiet. No traffic, no ringing phones — only birdsong and cricket chirps. If I squint my eyes, maybe just maybe, I can see farmers hoeing fields, women hanging clothes on the line, and small children scampering down the lane.
Historical interpreter Pamela Eddy tells me the paling fences were built to keep animals out of the gardens, not to keep animals in. Deer are plentiful, and bears come across the clearing too. Structures of rough-hewn timber and rough-cut stone rest low in slopes so they are protected from the winds. Winter winds are intense, says Pamela. Gates are tied shut so they don’t break off their hinges.
About 25 original buildings remain in the clearing. We go past the springhouse, once used for food storage. Light flows through the windows of the schoolhouse where desks form straight rows and a wood-and-coal stove dominates the center of the room. Plows once used by resourceful, self-sufficient people now rest in pastures.
If you want to be like Sherman Hensley and depart from the chaotic modern world, visit the Hensley Settlement. Shuttle rides depart from the national park visitor center. The excursion takes approx. four hours. A small fee is charged. Reservations can be made by calling 606-248-2817.
As the name indicates, history is a big part of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia share an interwoven story and all three states claim the park. Its location at a narrow indention in the Cumberland Mountains made it a vital connector to Native Americans who traveled from their homelands to hunting grounds in the lowlands of Kentucky. Explorers used the well-worn path to expand settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. Surveyor Dr. Thomas Walker of Albemarle County, Virginia, reached the Cumberland Gap in 1750, but the name we most link with westward expansion is Daniel Boone. The frontiersman came to the gap in 1769 and, along with a group of woodmen, built the Wilderness Road in 1775. By 1796, it was a wagon road with settlements along the way. Historical records show by 1810 more than 300,000 pioneers crossed Cumberland Gap and established settlements in Tennessee, Kentucky and westward. The strategic location brought the conflict to doorsteps during the Civil War. Once rich coal and iron ore deposits were located, great change came again to Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia.
Outside of history lessons, Cumberland Gap National Park offers plenty of mountain scenery and natural attractions, making it a favored destination for nature photographers, backcountry campers, and hikers. The national park has 85 miles of hiking trails with the Ridge Trail and the White Rocks Trail being two of the most popular. Pinnacle Overlook gives a bird’s eye view of Tennessee from 2,440 feet. The Northern terminus of the Cumberland Mountain Trail is at the summit of Tri-State Peak. Two-hour tours into Gap Cave showcase flowstone cascades, outstanding stalagmites and other geologic formations.
Visitors to the Tennessee town of Cumberland Gap can see the remains of an old iron furnace, a vestige of the mining industry of the 1830s. A stroll through the small business district will take you to antique shops, a general store, gift emporiums, and several cafes. The Pineapple Tea Room serves sandwiches and country cooking, along with desserts like banana pudding. Musical performers, often bluegrass artists, play on some days. Luckily I picked the right day!
The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum is well worth your time. The museum has a stellar collection of memorabilia, displayed in interesting, fact-filled exhibitions. Be one of the 14,000 visitors a year who learn about Lincoln and gain a better understand of his presidency.