Women of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club / BY LIZ SKENE
Women of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club
Women of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club
30-year-old Harriett Fowlkes mourned, saying she had “given up hopes of ever getting to do very much more hiking in the Smokies.” Once an active member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, she had left her job as a home economics teacher in Knoxville, Tennessee to live and work in Jackson, Michigan. And although she didn’t care for the term “veteran,” she submitted her application to be designated as one of the club’s “veteran hikers” anyway, an honor introduced just one year prior. Her application demonstrated that she had met the club’s rigorous guidelines for that honor: for at least three consecutive years, she had joined no fewer than 25 percent of the club’s scheduled hikes; she had hiked a minimum distance of 300 miles and three-fourths of the Appalachian Trail within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and had climbed eleven specific Smokies peaks. Thus, in 1938 Fowlkes became the club’s first female veteran hiker.

Harriett was part of a group of hiking enthusiasts from Knoxville who believed no group of persons anywhere would profit more from creating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park than they. Additionally, they saw that their efforts in the locating and routing of new trails, including the A.T., would help to “lay the nucleus of a trail system in the Smokies equal to any other mountain playground.” Their dedication to these two goals was unrelenting and underpinned the monthly group hikes, educational programs, social events, and other club activities. Even as they scrambled to find ways to pay for the 1934 handbook after losing their money in a bank failure, club members still carried out their A.T. clearing program, crediting the “bull-dog tenacity and unquenchable enthusiasm” of its loyal members.

From its beginnings in 1924, the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club brought together many southern Appalachian wilderness advocates. Among these were Harvey Broome, a co-founder of the Wilderness Society, Paul Fink, who served on the Board of Managers for the newly formed Appalachian Trail Conference and is a 2019 Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame inductee, Carlos Campbell, a founding member of the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, and Jim Thompson, whose photographs were used extensively to advocate for a national park in the Smokies. Yet behind the scenes, female club members contributed to the club in innumerable and varied ways and their efforts sustained the club’s high level of activity and advocacy.

While the club’s women never achieved the levels of notoriety many of the male members did, evidence of their considerable contributions can be found throughout club records and correspondence. One such example is a letter from George Barber, chairman of the 1937 Appalachian Trail Conference Reservations Committee to Guy Frizzell, General Conference chairman. After the record-setting conference (16 states and the District of Columbia were represented), he wanted to “pay especial tribute to Miss Besse and Miss Sewell for the wonderful work they did.”

1933 Labor Day hike to Three Forks
From top: Marking the A.T. in the Smokies; A 1933 Labor Day hike to Three Forks including Carolos Campbell and Mabel Abercrombie (first two on left)
Margaret Broome was one of the most active women in the club’s early days. In 1930, Margaret was 22, single, and working as an assistant librarian in the Knoxville Public Library. As the younger sister to Harvey Broome, Margaret served in many club roles, including chairman of the handbook committee, handbook editor, hike leader, hike supervisor, and on the board of directors. She later married Robert Howes, first director of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, after they were introduced by Benton MacKaye.
Club members at Hall's Cabin in 1932
Club members at Hall’s Cabin in 1932, including (from top left) Dorothy Trainer, Mable Joyner, and Harriett Fowlkes
Mabel Abercrombie lived in Atlanta until moving to Knoxville for a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Forestry Division in 1934. Mabel took numerous photographs of the Smokies on club hikes, many of which are now part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park archives. She became friends with Benton MacKaye who said Mabel knew what “wilderness really means.”

A confluence of factors enabled the young women who joined the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. Women have always been active in conservation efforts — they were admitted to the Appalachian Mountain Club at its second regular meeting in 1876 and, by 1929, more women than men had become members of the National Parks Association. The cultural and economic necessities of the Great Depression, as well as the recent mobilization for suffrage and temperance, further encouraged women’s participation in public life to blossom. Furthermore, Appalachian women have a long history of labor unrest. The club’s women were part of a long Southern tradition of activism and civic engagement.

Highlighting contributions of women to the national park movement and development of the Appalachian Trail is imperative to understanding the importance and breadth of amateur conservation activism. Volunteers and hiking clubs are the heart and soul of the Appalachian Trail community. Today, the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club continues to offer monthly hikes, and maintains 102 miles of the A.T. This legacy was made possible by the tireless and often unrecognized and underappreciated work by women in the club’s early day. Undoubtedly, we have them to thank for growing and sustaining the hiking community we hold so dear.
Photos courtesy the Great Smoky Mountains National Park