Glenn Cardwell retired from his job as a park ranger in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1990s after several decades of service. He knows nearly every nook and cranny of the area, but he is especially familiar with a small town that sits just outside the park's borders.
"I grew up in Pittman Center, went to school here, and met my wife here when we were in the first grade. I picked her out early," laughed Cardwell.
Cardwell went on to teach at the school in Pittman Center before beginning his career with the National Park Service. Today he serves as mayor of Pittman Center, a six-mile town with approximately 500 residents.
"The beauty of the mountains is a magnet that draws you," said Cardwell. "This town is right between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the south and the Foothills Parkway to the north."
Before there was a national park or a town called Pittman Center, the community was known as Emerts Cove. That original moniker came from Frederick Emert, a Revolutionary War veteran and the first settler here in 1784.
The fertile hills and the crisp water of Webb Creek attracted many more settlers in the decades following Emert's arrival.
"Many pioneer settlers were of Scotch-Irish descent," said Cardwell. "They loved isolation. They loved to live in remote places. Part of that is because they wanted to avoid government intrusion into their lives."
The sustainable solitude that resulted from life in the treacherous terrain also prevented residents from easily accessing education or medical assistance.
"It was incredibly rugged terrain. It would take you a full day just to get from here to Sevierville. A lot of people died for lack of proper medical facilities," said Cardwell.
A traveling Methodist minister named John Sevier Burnett came through the Emerts Cove area in 1913 and witnessed the poor living conditions. Burnett had a vision for building a missionary outpost here where residents could find medical care, education, and worship.
In 1919, Burnett brought a friend from upstate New York to visit the area. His friend, Rev. Eli Pittman, encouraged Burnett to follow his dream of building a campus here. Pittman told Burnett to present the idea to a national meeting of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ohio. The group endorsed the idea and put Burnett in charge of building the campus.
"He [Burnett] felt like he should honor his friend, Dr. Eli Pittman, who encouraged him and was also responsible for getting a lot of money to help buy the land and build the facility as a small campus. Burnett named it the Pittman Community Center," said Cardwell.
The school at the Pittman Community Center opened in 1921. For the next few decades, the campus grew to include a post office, a goodwill store, and an agricultural center. The center gave people in these rugged hills life-saving medical treatment and immunizations. It also provided livelihood for older residents who were raised without an education.
"They had a shop here where local people could come and manufacture hand-crafted furniture. It gave them a monetary value for their labor. This became a center for handmade crafts," said Cardwell.
As infrastructure improved and access to essentials became easier, the need for a missionary outpost decreased. The community center closed in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1974, residents decided to preserve the community spirit by officially incorporating the town of Pittman Center. The only remaining building from the original campus was deeded to the town by the Methodist Church.
"Our City Hall was the Home Economics building from the old campus. In 1996 we got this building placed on the National Register of Historic Places," said Cardwell. "The building also houses our police department."
When Pittman Center Elementary School relocated, the new facility built a museum of sorts with several displays in the main lobby. The displays include an incredible amount of historic photographs and artifacts from Pittman Center's past. Public access to view the lobby can be obtained by contacting the school's main office.
With the school displays and the restored Home Economics building, Cardwell and the 500 other people who live in town work to keep their mountain heritage alive.
"Open spaces and green places and fresh free flowing water are some of the things that make this place so wonderful. But over all the resources, it's the people. They make this the most beautiful place in the world," said Cardwell.
Pittman Center Heritage Day festival
The town of Pittman Center allows the public to experience some of its history every year during its Heritage Day festival. Details on the free event can be found at the Pittman Center website.
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