The Southeast a Place of Beauty and History

Article excerpt

It is an interesting paradox that we Americans, citizens of such a comparatively young country and products of a culture preoccupied with progress, are so fascinated with our history.

In the past year, 65.9 million American adults took a trip that included a visit to a historic place, museum, cultural event or festival. That number is expected to exceed 100 million by the end of this year.

Many of us choose destinations in the sunny South, drawn, like our ancestors, by the natural beauty and comfortable climate.

Southerners have always enjoyed a close, personal relationship with the past. They speak as familiarly of long-dead relatives as they do of neighbors down the street. Events of a century ago hold as much fascination for them as today's headlines and they are happy to share their tales with friends of even a few minutes' acquaintance.

Tennessee ranks eighth in the number of historic and cultural visitors it draws each year. Nearly 8 million tourists visit Memphis, home of the blues and birthplace of rock `n' roll. The city is a monument to its musical heritage from Beale Street, a national historic landmark and major entertainment district, to the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and Graceland, former home of Elvis Presley. But music is only part of the city's heritage. Other significant sites include the Center for Southern Folklore, the National Civil Rights Museum, a number of historic homes and cemeteries, the Memphis Belle Pavilion and the Mississippi River Museum.

Just over the border in North Carolina, man's accomplishments are eclipsed by a legacy 500 million years in the making. The area of western North Carolina that encompasses the Great Smoky Mountains looks much as it did when migrating aboriginal tribes first arrived somewhere around 10,000 B.C. Christened Sha-cona-ge, or Place of Blue Smoke, by the Cherokee Indians, the Great Smoky Mountains have been made accessible by modern highways and railways, but the peaks and deep-shaded gorges and valleys have lost none of their wild majesty.

Modern explorers can experience that heritage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a 500,000-acre refuge that runs along the border of western North Carolina and Tennessee. The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests hold clues to earth's earliest days.

The area is sparsely populated, but residents are faithful stewards of their heritage who share the handicrafts and culture of their ancestors with visitors in historic buildings and museums. Twenty-two sites on the Made in America Trail are housed in the area, such as the Museum of North Carolina Handicrafts and the John C. Campbell Folk School, where artists and students study traditional folk art, music and dance.

A compelling chapter in the history of the Smokies is the saga of the Cherokee Indians who roamed the mountains centuries before the first white man set foot on American soil.

Over the past 50 years, the Cherokee have reclaimed their heritage and preserved it on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, or Qualla Boundary. Exhibits and artifacts at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian recount the history of the tribe from 10,000 B.C. through its forced removal in 1838. The story is dramatically portrayed in the outdoor drama Unto These Hills. The Oconaluftee Indian Village is an authentic replica of an 18th-century Cherokee community where visitors can learn about the Cherokee culture and watch native artisans at work. Many are members of the Qualla Arts and Crafts Cooperative, whose work graces the White House and the Smithsonian.

To the north and east lie the Blue Ridge Mountains. The history, culture and handcrafted treasures of the inhabitants are proudly preserved in historic sites, outdoor dramas and museums that showcase early Appalachian culture, African-American and Native American art and even Scottish tartans. Time-honored crafts of pottery, weaving and wood carving are handed down at places such as the Folk Art Center and the North Carolina Homespun Museum. …