On a breezy Wednesday afternoon, Jody Montgomery and Creed Kirkland sit on the bench in front of the Punkin Center Market. Montgomery's wife owns the general store where you will find racks of motorcycle apparel and t-shirts.
"I hang out here and talk to lots of people who come through, but my wife, Sherry, deserves all of the credit for this business," said Montgomery. "She owns this store and the Punkin Center Motorcycle Resort about a mile up the road. It's a campground specifically for people who ride motorcycles."
If location is the key to good real estate, there is no better place to sell motorcycle apparel than the Punkin Center Market. The store sits at the junction of U.S. 129 and Highway 72. Those two routes serve as Tennessee's primary funnels for traffic headed to the stretch of road known as "the tail of the dragon."
"We had a certified service come out here and count the amount of traffic. The results they came up with said there was more traffic for sports cars and motorcycles through this intersection than any other intersection in the United States," said Montgomery. "From April to November, there are around 750,000 cars and motorcycles that come through here."
The advent of the internet transformed the remote curvy portion U.S. 129 into the phenomenon now known as "the dragon."
"It really took off in the mid-1990s when riders across the world found out about this road," said Montgomery. "This side of the mountain is more or less a playground for motorcycles and sports cars because of the beautiful backroad scenery and the curves. Not just on 'the dragon,' but the Foothills Parkway and the Cherohala Skyway. You can drive a loop with all of them that will take you through Punkin Center."
The worldwide web transformed Punkin Center into a vacation destination. In the prior decades there was hardly any traffic through Punkin Center at all.
"This wasn't known as 'the dragon." It was known as the road that if you were on it, you were lost. Only the occasional lost person come through here asking for directions," laughed Montgomery.
"When I was young, all day long you might see half a dozen cars. One of the stores here used to be a beer joint and you could literally sit down in the middle of the road with folks and drink. People could pass out and wake up on the white line of the road," said Kirkland. "Now walking across the highway here is like crossing the street in downtown Knoxville."
Motorsports enthusiasts may have turned the punkin into a dragon, but the biggest physical transformation for the area happened in the 1940s and 1950s. That is when TVA began building a series of dams along the nearby Little Tennessee River.
"Before they built the dams this was all farmland," said Kirkland. "People made a living growing crops until TVA forced people off their farms. Then they had to find other ways to support their families."
Local farmers in Punkin Center produced prolific patches of pumpkins.
"Every place that you could see up and down this road, you could see a pumpkin. You could walk two miles and always be on top of a pumpkin," said Kirkland. "Some people say pump-kins, but I reckon with this southern accent we always called them 'punk-ins.' I know I always did and I spelled it that way, too. This intersection was the center of all of the punkins."
The southern spice in the name Punkin Center keeps the original flavor of this area alive long after reservoirs and roadsters turned the road's moniker into a reptile.
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Other Namesake Segments
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