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Pigeon Forge: A Dolly Parton welcome

Dolly Parton still makes appearances in Dollywood

Ever since starting my tour of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, the hype for an upcoming interview had been building. Already, I had noticed photos of the big hair, glittery outfits, full makeup and mile-long smile all over town.

Dolly Parton, born just outside Pigeon Forge, remains a beloved celebrity in the eastern Tennessee town, not only because of her musical and cinematic contributions, but also for her extensive work in bringing tourism to the region. The internationally famous star still frequents the area, as she owns the Dollywood theme park, Dollywood Splash Country and Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede.

“Dolly’s here at least three times a year,” said Trish McGee, publicist for Dollywood. “We give her our new ideas, and she can give it the OK or not. She’s a very opinionated and brilliant businesswoman.”

I was touring Pigeon Forge during one of her visits while she was celebrating the 25th anniversary of Dollywood.

But before I met the country music legend, I wanted to get to know the surrounding area Parton loves. As I toured the town, I found Pigeon Forge not that different from Dolly herself; both are full of hospitable charm and surprises.

Although Dollywood has plenty of opportunities for thrills on roller coasters and a new zip-line course, the park also contains a calmer section where time stands still.

Dollywood Craftsman Valley is a re-created early-20th-century mountain town where costumed interpreters demonstrate tasks once widely found in the Smoky Mountains, such as blacksmithing, glassblowing, woodcarving and wagon-making.

Once inside the village, I walked into the Valley Carriage Works, where Tom Crawford handcrafts authentic wagons year round.

“The six-seat wagon you see behind me took about 80 man hours,” said Crawford. “We build about 20 to 30 wagons a year. We don’t work hard enough to be a profit-driven business. We’re always happy for an excuse to take a break and talk with visitors.”

After learning about the labor-intensive wagon-making process, I continued down the park’s cobblestone street past the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, the Dollywood Express train ride and the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame.

Music pervades the park, with such wide-ranging styles as a string band and a 1950s and 1960s musical called “Dreamland Drive-In.”

“Music was important to Dolly, so it’s a key point in Dollywood,” said McGee. “There are lots of different kinds of music at the park. There are around nine acts with music at Dollywood currently playing, but the acts vary with the seasons.”

The musical “Sha-Kon-O-Hey: Land of Blue Smoke” tells the story of a family forced to leave their Smoky Mountain home in the 1930s. Eight songs written by Parton, along with acrobatics, talented singers and special effects, weave the 45-minute story together.

“We are able to tell stories through our shows,” said Ashley Adams, Dollywood publicity coordinator. “For this show, they asked the East Band of Cherokees for help in developing the play.”

A tempting revue
Outside of Dollywood, the Pigeon Forge area boasts bountiful sources of entertainment, such as the grooving performers of the Temptations Revue. Nate Evans, who performed with three of the original Temptations, sang alongside three other performers with slicked-back hair and shiny shoes.

“Go back in your mind,” said Evans during the show. “We’re on a ride back in time kind of like ‘The Twilight Zone’ but without all the spooky stuff. There won’t be no Snoop Dog up in here tonight.”

The group harmonized and danced to famous Temptations hits such as “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “My Girl” and “Just My Imagination.” The show quickly encouraged audience participation as people danced in the aisles and clapped along with the familiar tunes.

The next day, I explored an attraction that calls itself “an amusement park for the mind.” WonderWorks stands out in Pigeon Forge as an immense upside-down building with interactive exhibits aimed at both entertaining and teaching science.

“People have an innate thirst for knowledge,” said Rich Benjamin, marketing and sales director for WonderWorks. “We want visitors to have a great time, but we also want them to learn something. We have virtual games, simulated hurricane winds, a bed of nails and various other mind puzzlers to keep guests engaged.”

Later that evening, I watched a zany take on the biblical Joseph that featured a desert GPS and a pharaoh playing tribute to Elvis Presley as part of the show’s gags. The Miracle Theater’s production of “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat” had fun with the well-known tale, with Broadway-caliber singers, fun sets and lively performances.

Old mill, fresh taste
The delicious biscuits from Old Mill Restaurant Biscuits prove that biscuits made from scratch cannot be beaten. I ate so many that it was difficult to finish my pancakes. But as the pancakes also tasted exceptional, I made sure to fit them in as well.

The nearly 200-year-old mill next door still grinds flour between large stones the same way it did when it opened in the early 19th century. Taking a tour through the historic landmark, I was struck by its authenticity, down to the original handmade square nails in the floor.

“See all those bags of flour piled around the room?” asked Emma Huskey, guide for the mill. “Those are all bagged by hand. We try to do as much by hand as possible.”

My guide went on to explain the process of producing flour, as well as tell stories about how the building was used as a hospital during the Civil War.

My tour continued to the rest of the Old Mill Square’s shops, which include the General Store, the Farmhouse Kitchen, the Creamery, the Candy Kitchen, the Toy Bin and the Pigeon River Pottery. Inside the pottery shop, I browsed through exquisite pottery pieces with beautiful swirling colors.

A demonstrator even showed me the tricky procedure of shaping a ball of clay into a bowl by hand. The artisans at the pottery create the plates, bowls and other serving pieces for the two Old Mill Square restaurants.

“Just like we have recipes for food, there are recipes for making pottery,” said Donna Huffaker, marketing and group sales director for the Old Mill and Old Mill Square. “There are six potters for the actual production here.”

An unsinkable museum
Just opened in 2010, the Titanic Museum re-creates the experience of being aboard the Titanic down to the last detail with 400 authentic artifacts and 20 galleries. When I arrived, a costumed guide handed me a boarding pass for one of the actual passengers on the Titanic so I could learn about her story and whether she survived the sinking.

Wandering through the museum felt like I was going through the original boat, because the outside is a half-scale three-deck re-creation of the ship, and the inside contains replicas of the ship’s grand staircase, engine room and outside deck with an iceberg guests can touch.

Upon entering a tiny room with four bunk beds, I learned how disparate the first-class conditions were from the third-class ones aboard the Titanic.

“We’re now going into third class,” said Rick Laney, public relations director of the Titanic Museum. “Don’t be fooled by the four beds you see. There would have been about six to eight children in the room that would also have to find a spot on the floor. It would not have been uncommon for you to sleep next to horses, steers and other animals. You bring your own bedding.”

When it came time for Parton to make her Dollywood appearance, I headed back to the theme park for the upcoming interview. To prepare, I toured the Chasing Rainbows museum where Parton keeps many of her awards, costumes and celebrity artifacts.

The costumes displayed in the main room of the museum glistened with their bright colors and flashy ornamentation. Videos interviews, awards and items from Parton’s past, such as her marriage certificate, helped tell the story of her rise from rags to riches.

Finally it was time to meet one of my favorite singers to talk about her involvement with one of the South’s most popular theme parks. Although I was more than a little nervous, her presence made me feel completely at ease as she walked in with the same big smile and unpretentious, friendly demeanor I’d always seen.

“There’s really something for everyone at the park,” said Parton. “My favorite is probably different than most. At the Backporch Theatre, there is a show called ‘Dolly’s Family Reunion’ where my family plays music. Since we are family, I love to just walk onstage and surprise them.
“I knew this would be a wonderful place to put the park. The Smokies have been around long before me. Millions and millions of people have been coming here since the park opened.”

When she left, I found myself comparing Parton’s fun-loving charm with the many attractions of the Pigeon Forge area. Both continue to reinvent themselves but keep true to the entertaining qualities that keep people interested.

Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism


For more on Pigeon Forge:

A titanic new attraction
Help yourself to Dollywood’s food