The Pigeon and the Forge: History of One of the South’s Premier Destination Cities

Gazing out across quiet wheat fields swaying, the breezes carrying warm air into the dark shadows cast by the majesty of Mt. LeConte, some of the earliest settlers in the foothills of East Tennessee built their homes in the exact plots where hundreds of attractions, restaurants shops, and theme parks would grow into one of the most popular destination cities in the southeastern United States. Pigeon Forge, only 5 miles north of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was unknowingly destined to be a tourist stop for the hundreds of visitors to the most visited national park in the United States. Despite the amount of traffic passing through her little parkway, Pigeon Forge has managed to preserve her Southern charm and shape the culture of Southern hospitality and mountain charm into the staple of the town’s allure!

Where She Got Her Name

Described to appear as a billowing dark cloud rising and falling into the air, flocks of the passenger pigeon inhabited the thick forestry of the Smoky Mountains before their extinction in the 20th century. Pigeon meat was considered cheap and easy to come by, leading to the bird’s sharp decline during European settlement in North America.

The Pigeon River acquired its name from these small birds, the river upon which Isaac Love built the iron forge in 1817 near the present-day location of the Old Mill. This iron forge, a huge hearth by which blacksmiths forged metal tools and structures, would lend Pigeon Forge the second part of her name. The original forge was removed, but the large 500-pound hammer used by the blacksmith was kept in Pigeon Forge through the 20th century in various locations in the town. The town built along the west bank of the Little Pigeon River was known as “string town” because of the line of houses connected by the first telephone wires in 1898.

Fun Facts

  • A zoo with exotic animals used to reside right in the heart of downtown Pigeon Forge! Students at the Pigeon Forge Elementary School got a real treat, occasionally, when the elephants would escape to go bathe in the Pigeon River!
  • Present-day Dollywood rests on the original site of Rebel Railroad, a saloon entertained with a train robbery and can-can girls!
  • Burger King was the first fast-food restaurant to plant a location along the busy Parkway in downtown Pigeon Forge in the early 1970s!

Museums and Historical Attractions

While we could describe the entire history of Pigeon Forge, it’s best to see and hear all about this quiet mountain town turned tourist resort from spirited locals and the preserved Southern history in many of Pigeon Forge’s exciting attractions!

The Old Mill Square
Built on the original location of the iron forge from which Pigeon Forge received its name, The Old Mill Square is a charming trip back into the quieter times of the quaint mountain town, before it turned into a premier tourist destination. After perusing the art displays, boutiques, and souvenir shops, sit down to a good ‘ole country feast with large portions at The Old Mill. Request to sit by the window for gorgeous dining views of the Little Pigeon River. The Old Mill is still fully functional! Pick up flour or some of their famous pancake mix in The Old Mill General Store, produced by the Old Mill churning!

Cades Cove
While this 11-mile loop boasts some of the most incredible views and photogenic spots in the Smokies, there is a lot of history preserved in tiny mountain cabins, churches, and farm structures. These wooden buildings, dating as far back as the 1800s, lend visitors to the Smoky Mountains an authentic version of what pioneers would have stumbled upon in their passages through the Appalachians and into Tennessee.

Tour the Cades Cove cabin town by horseback, bicycle, or car! There is also a historic hiking trail that leads to beautiful Abrams Falls, named for a Native American Cherokee Chief who once resided in the Smoky Mountains. Visit the Cades Cove Visitor Center located halfway along Loop Road to pick up souvenirs and more information on the peaceful pioneer town quietly nestled in this dreamy mountain valley.

Country Tonite Theater
Music is tightly wrapped into Southern country traditions, like a banjo string to a tuning key. Country Tonite Theater celebrates Smoky Mountain and patriotic traditions through song, dance, comedy, and more on a spectacular stage for 2 hours of some of the best entertainment in the country!

Award-winning shows have graced the stage of Country Tonite for over 2 decades with country and gospel music, both new and old. Each year promises new numbers, more knee-slapping hilarity, and the same high-quality production show after show for a memorable, family-fun experience!

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Ride slowly along the one-way winding road along the fastest and largest mountain stream in the Smokies to soak in the serene forest views, lush and green from the richly saturated soil. In these thick forests along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, you are not only afforded gorgeous views of nature, but also sights of preserved historical buildings tucked quietly away from society. Like a black-and-white picture come to life, faded wood of log cabins, mills, and churches rests under the dense forest canopy along the road. Be sure to stop by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Visitors Center to pick up a guide book! The guide book (just $1) provides brief explanations and insights into historical significant points along your adventure on the scenic trail.

Dolly Parton’s Stampede
Watch a theatrical tail of 2 families residing in the Smoky Mountains filled with love, comedic run-ins, and exhilarating mountain competitions! Equally as memorable is the delicious 4-course Southern feast. Dip your homemade biscuits into your cup of Grandma’s Creamy Vegetable Soup while keeping your eyes glued to the talented acrobats and equestrian teams parading around the stage! Come early to enjoy some pre-show laughs, music, and let the kids be made-over into a grisly mountaineer or a cute princess!

Home to 5 of the South’s largest festivals, Dollywood is a great place to experience some Southern personality and culture put on display through amazing shows, savory dining, and fun mountain-themed rides. Tour through 150 acres of roller coasters and country-style architecture and attractions in the area’s oldest amusement park!

Hillbilly Golf
History and mini-golf? You bet! Hillbilly Golf begins its 18-hole course by scaling golfers up the mountainside in a trolley before starting some of the most unique holes you will putt this side of the Mississippi! Accompanying each green is Smoky Mountain memorabilia and interesting facts about the Pigeon Forge area for a fun-filled, educational day of miniature golfing!

Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community
Cabins and churches are not the only important historic elements preserved in the Smoky Mountains; Gatlinburg is home to the nation’s largest and oldest group of independent artisans! The 8-mile loop, just a few minutes from downtown, is filled with shops owned by skilled handcrafters that produce a wide range of items like intricate metalwork, beautiful woodcarvings, and gorgeous leather goods.

Tour the loop to get to know more about the people of the Smoky Mountain area from the artisans themselves! Many shop workers have resided in the Smokies for generations passing along their craft and preserving the artistic culture of the Appalachian pioneers.

Whether you are a history geek, a thrill seeker, or simply looking for an escape to the peaceful mountains, Cabins for YOU has the perfect cabin to begin planning your dream Smoky Mountain vacation!