Just three weeks after my visit to the Smoky Mountains and Dolly Parton’s DreamMore Resort in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee in November, 2016, I was heartbroken to hear about the devastating fire that swept through the very places we visited in Sevier County. More than 1700 structures were destroyed or damaged and more than a dozen people died in the historic fire called “the worst in a century in Tennessee.” Indeed, Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner who proudly showed us around his city—the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited of all national parks—lost his home and business. Now after five months, all towns are rebuilding and have picked up business as usual.
Miraculously, Dolly’s beautiful new 307-room DreamMore Resort where I stayed and her theme park Dollywood nearby were spared. Dolly, who patterned her hotel after her most beloved traditions growing up in a cabin in the Smokies, was devastated for her people and her mountains.
“I hurt and grieved and prayed right along with them, and because I’m one of them and they are part of me, I knew that I had to do something to get my people through these hard times and see them land on their feet on the other side,” she wrote May 8 on CNN. “That’s what families do. That’s what neighbors do. I knew that my people had helped me out through the years—been there and helped see me make all my dreams come true. And I was going to do everything I could to put their dreams back on track, too.”
She is doing just that. Through her Dollywood Foundation, she is raising funds through donations from around the world to help those who lost their homes and jobs in the fire. Qualified families received $1,000 every month for six months for a total of $10,000 for each family. The final checks were distributed May 5, 2017.
For long-term needs of the community, her foundation has partnered with Mountain Touch Recovery Organization formed by leaders of Sevier County and the cities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville.
“ We’ll get there, because that’s what us mountain folks do,” Dolly wrote. “I’ve always thought of everyone in my family as My People. It’s just the way we were raised—everybody is important and everybody takes care of each other. And it goes a lot farther than your kinfolk. Your neighbors are your family ’cause they take care of you, too, and I’ve always thought of everybody in my mountains as part of my family.”
When people ask her how they can help, she tells them: “That’s easy—come see for yourself. Bring your family and have the time of your lives. Take a hike in our beautiful mountains. Make memories at the great attractions here, eat some of our great cookin’. You’ll find it as hard to leave my mountains as I do, but I’ll tell you my secret—once you make the Smokies part of your life, the mountains will live in your heart forever.”
DreamMore, 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd., Pigeon Forge, TN 37863; 865-365-1900; http://www.dollywood.com/resort
Sevier County is the Number 3 County in Tennessee for tourism economic impact, generating $2 billion in domestic travel expenditures. These expenditures supported $440.7 million in payroll and 20,500 jobs within the county. For information, visit www.visitsevierville.com, www.mypigeonforge.com, www.gatlinburg.com and www.smokymountains.org.
Claudia Carbone is an award-winning travel writer based in Denver. Read about other hotels she’s visited in Sleepin’ Around.