I once heard a gentleman refer to Kahite’s oldest residents as “the original settlers.” That probably sounded as odd to my ears in 2019 as it would have to evict Confederates in 1865, Cherokee marching west (at gunpoint) in 1838 or local tribesmen in 1600 — tribesmen who inhabited the Vonore area thousands of years before the Cherokee.
What counts as “Vonore” is actually arguable. According to the town limits? School bus routes? Postal address?
Authors of the 1991 “Vonore: Yesterday and Today” cast a wide net, including communities as far away as Lakeside (so-called long before Tellico Lake), Citico, Toqua, Chota, Corntassel (all names of native towns), Morganton, Chilhowee, Soak, Ball Play (where the Cherokee played stickball), Hopewell, Howards and Mount Pleasant.
If historians were to take a snapshot today, they’d add the lakefront retirement communities of Kahite, Legacy Shores and Rarity Bay, as well as the families on Jimenez, San Isidro and Little Mexico Drive, just past Lankford Salvage off Sweetwater-Vonore Road. True blue Blue Devils might protest. But if history tells us anything, it’s that Vonore’s culture is in constant flux.
Archaeologists radiocarbon dated hearth remnants near Vonore to 7500 B.C. (google “Icehouse Bottom”), with permanent settlements cropping up around 500 B.C.
The Cherokee arrived around 1600, liking the river valley so much that they made Tanasi, a town near the foot of Mount Pleasant, capital of their great nation, which at its height stretched from Maryland through Georgia and Alabama. That “Tanasi” sounds familiar is no coincidence — it’s the origin of our state’s namesake. A stone placard marks its location (now underwater) along the road to the Chota Memorial, six miles past Ball Play Bridge off Citico Road.
Explorers Pardo and Desoto passed through in the 16th century, but it wasn’t until 1711 that the first known European trader set up shop this side of the mountain. British South Carolinian Eleazer Wiggans made Tanasi his home, which was 543 Cherokee-strong by 1721.
With trade flourishing, the British erected Fort Loudoun in 1757, but surrendered it amid souring relations with the Cherokee three years later. Only four miles from present day downtown, you can visit a reconstructed fort most any day before sundown and enjoy lively reenactments (cannon-fire included) certain weekends. See Ranger Will Kinton for the full story.
Shortly after Fort Loudoun fell, Americans won their independence, and the Cherokee, who had sided with Britain, began to feel pressure from settlers moving west. A series of increasingly lopsided treaties followed.
The first gave the Cherokee the option to stay or move to Arkansas. Willie Maw, son of Hanging Maw, stayed and was granted a reservation in Corntassel near where Color Wheel Farm is today (where Niles Ferry meets Povo Road). He and his family are said to be buried somewhere nearby.
The second treaty, coming in 1835 under President Andrew Jackson, was less accommodating. The result: Americans in full possession of the Vonore area and thousands of Cherokee dead of exhaustion and disease along the Trail of Tears between here and Oklahoma.
For a quarter century the new locals married, raised families, farmed and thrived amidst Vonore’s natural beauty. Then war, split allegiances, and land-grabbing.
When Confederates took control of the area, they seized the land of locals serving in the Union Army, as well as anyone living outside the Confederacy. Then when the Union won, it was their turn.
“Arthur Henley,” as recounted in “Vonore: Yesterday and Today,” “lived the life of an English Squire … He spoke both French and Cherokee and the Indians gave him the name Standing Turkey … (After he passed) the family land was confiscated from his son Arthur, who was killed during the Civil War. The Unionists stated that he had abandoned the land to go South with the ‘Rebels.’”
Vonore continued its farming tradition under Reconstruction and, when a railroad came through in the 1890s, a depot was built and the town incorporated. Its name, as told by the late A.J. Kennedy, was suggested by Dr. Walter Kennedy, “with ‘von’ being a German preposition meaning ‘of’ and ‘ore’ referring to fabulous tales told by prospectors in search of ore in the nearby mountains.”
Rather than ore, Vonore’s mountains proved rich in lumber. Babcock Logging Company harvested Citico’s timbers in the 1920s and, after a fire in 1925, the US Forest Service purchased much of what was left, allowing the area to regrow naturally as part of the Cherokee National Forest.
Enjoyed by campers, hikers, horseback riders and hunters today, look no further than Curly Butler should you need a guide.
Vonore endured the Depression with the rest of the country, then offered its finest to once again suppress the Germans. While there are accounts of horse tracks, moonshiners, saloon brawls and election day fistfights (and worse), most citizens’ pleasures were simple. As told by John H. Wells in Pie Supper at Chota, “The girls came in with their pies that would be auctioned off, their boxes wrapped with multi-colored ribbons … The sweetness of honeysuckles and wild flower from along the river scented the night air. To the children, a Pie Supper transformed Chota from the drudgery of books and studies to a site of joy for both young and old … At times there was string music with the cake walk.”
Vonore’s schoolhouse cakewalk tradition was alive well into the 1980s. The annual fall “carnival” held on the combined elementary, middle and high school campus (which consolidated smaller schools around 1920) added attractions such as Mrs. Pat’s balloon-popping dart throw, Mrs. Rollins’ apple bob, and a haunted house. High schoolers in Jason masks wielded chainsaws (chainless, but real and running) that made primary schoolers like myself feel lucky to survive, especially in the confusion of a strobe light.
A community hub, Vonore school was known for its family atmosphere, conveyed by a 1957 edition of “The Vonore Voice,” a paper published by the 8th graders. It featured updates on the previous year’s graduates: “Sammie Marshall is in the US Army … Frankie Isbill is a student at UT … Thelma Bowers is at home.”
Joked about Blue Devil rivalries: “Did Bettie Jean decide to be for Madisonville Friday night or did her escort decide for her? ... Betty Lou, when we play Greenback, which side are you going to sit on? You won’t double-cross us, will you Betty?”
As well as romance: “Several of the gals have their eyes on Charles Hall. Well, Gladys? Well, Linda? Well, Sissy? ... How many girls has Tommy Sloan dated in the last week? I bet he couldn’t count them on his fingers and toes.”
When Vonore High was closed in 1995 to make way for the merger with Madisonville, a Grand Reunion was held. Hallways were toured, hugs were exchanged, memories shared. VHS class of ‘95 President David Bowers began the closing ceremony, followed by a prayer from Rev. Denny Moore. Future mayor Bob Lovingood recognized school board and city officials and the last VHS principal, Mike Lowry, acknowledged the oldest alums present.
Finally, they sang. “To Vonore our Alma Mater, we ever will be true. We’ll strive and work and honor, and do our all for you. We’ll love and cherish always, and try to be true blue. Our happy high school days, we’ll live them all for you! All hail!”
No history of Vonore is complete without reference to “the lake.” We summarize it here with the account of longtime Vonore town judge Thomas “Beryl” Moser, from the 2016 edition of “People of Vonore:” “Mr. Moser is one of many Vonore natives who were forcibly uprooted when the Little Tennessee River became Tellico Lake in the late 1970s. He was living in the farmhouse in which he was born, and had no interest in moving. ‘That tree line at (Vonore Baptist) church — that’s where I used to live … It was condemned, and there were fifteen U.S. Marshalls who put me out in the road’ … Mr. Moser explained that TVA bulldozed his family home as soon as he was evicted, and then ‘put it in a hole’ … When asked how Vonore has changed, Mr. Moser said, ‘It’s changed 100% ... Used to you’d know all of Vonore. Now you don’t know a third of them. Like Kahite. Of course, most of them you don’t want to know anyway’ … Especially frustrating for Mr. Moser is the fact that far more acreage was taken than necessary. ‘TVA bought 40,000 acres but the lake only covered 14,000 … They should have let people keep the land the water didn’t cover. It only covered a quarter acre of my land. I’m not the only one – there were 380 families impacted.’”
Those 380 families and their neighbors haven’t forgotten. But they are becoming increasingly outnumbered.
According to Tennessee Reservoir Development Agency Executive Director Bryan Hall, Vonore’s lakefront industrial parks, which provide the world with steering gears and watercraft, employ more than 6,000 workers. Its lakefront communities feature a combined 2,000 homes. Of the town’s future, Hall said “Vonore has the infrastructure to grow into the largest city in Monroe County.”
If that growth happens, Mayor Lovingood would prefer it happen slowly. But he does welcome the possibility of a new steakhouse, made in part viable by the influx of lakefront retirees who tend to dine out.
VHS class of ’94 grad turned Tennessee State Rep. Lowell Russell reported that construction of the new Vonore Veterans Memorial Park “is full steam ahead,” and that a $1.4 million grant will soon expand Vonore’s broadband.
Russell remembers when Vonore only had a single red light, a light “that only worked when the police officer turned it on for school traffic.” So do I.
Back then, Rarity Bay was simply “the bluff,” a tree swing swimming hole for local teenagers. If that rock cliff had a face, I wonder if it would smile or scowl.
In fact, I wonder what trader Eleazer Wiggans would think of the Sloan Center, what Fort Loudoun soldiers would think of the reenactment weekends, or what Willie Maw would think of the Color Wheel Farm today.
I wonder what Sequoyah (inventor of the Cherokee alphabet) would think of his birthplace museum (and its recent multimillion-dollar upgrade), or of Sequoyah High School (which could use a multimillion-dollar upgrade), or of the Chota Memorial, erected to commemorate the Cherokee clans and ancient settlement sites swallowed by the lake.
I wonder what Beryl Moser, who passed away in 2017, would think of the possibility of Vonore getting a new steakhouse.
And I wonder what the true original settlers, who enjoyed Vonore’s beauty almost 10,000 years ago, would think of its ever-changing culture.