The Wild Frontier: David Crockett State Park

Davy, Davy Crockett! King of the wild frontier

David Crockett
David Crockett (source: Library of Congress)

I was just a little too young to catch the first big wave of Crockettmania when it crested in 1955. Walt Disney had taken the notion to produce a series of television programs on American heroes, and the frontiersman from Tennessee was his first subject. A miniseries of five hour-long episodes, Davy Crockett hit the highlights of David Crockett’s life, with the first three covering his early days as an “Indian fighter,” through his terms as a Tennessee and U.S. Congressman, and finally his death at the Alamo. They proved to be wildly popular, and later in the year, chronology and history be damned, episodes 4 and 5 were released as prequels with fanciful and fictional meetings between Crockett and legendary river boatman Mike Fink and non-historical river pirates. The first three episodes were edited together into a theatrical release, which was also wildly popular in the U.S. and Europe, and the last two episodes were also knitted together into a film. Disney repeated the TV episodes, now in color, in the 1960s when they switched networks to NBC.

It was a pop culture juggernaut. Consider this: the theme song, originally performed by The Wellingtons, made the Billboard magazine charts. With four different artists. AT THE SAME TIME. It was a number one record for Bill Hayes, with series star Fess Parker and Tennessee Ernie Ford also chalking up top ten hits, and Mac Wiseman also charted with a country version. When the films were released in Europe in 1956, Hayes and Ford also had top ten hits in the UK, and a French version by Annie Cordy made it to number one. As for The Wellingtons, though they didn’t make the charts with the Ballad of Davy Crockett, a few years later they sang another theme song that you may have heard of. It starts off, “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip….” Yep, Gilligan’s Island.

Davy Crockett, the TV series and movies, were huge in terms of marketing and product tie-ins. Coonskin caps were all the rage, and Walt Disney literally made millions on the merchandise. He plowed much of it into paying for Disneyland, which opened in 1955, and The Mouse was roaring. Flush with success, Disney tried to replicate the Crockett success with miniseries on other larger-than-life folk heroes such as Elfego Baca and John Slaughter. You are not alone … I never heard of them either. No one quite took off like our hero in buckskins.

The legend of David Crockett looms large in these parts. Crockett was born in what is now east Tennessee in 1786, and gradually made his way westward, living for a time in modern-day Lincoln County in Tennessee, where his hunting grounds included the Walls of Jericho. In 1817 Crockett moved to 600-plus acres in Lawrence County, Tennessee, and established a grist mill, distillery, and other businesses until they were washed away in a flood in 1821. To commemorate that period of his life, during which he started his career in elected office, David Crockett State Park was created in 1959. We had noticed signs for the park on our trips to Nashville, and weather and schedule aligned recently so that could finally visit and pay our respects.

thumb_img_4685_1024We drove up after putting in a morning of trail maintenance on the perpetually-in-development Fleming Trail at the Wade Mountain Preserve. The drive to Lawrenceburg took around 90 minutes, much of it on US highways. We made a quick stop at the park office to pick up a free trail map. There are about 8.5 miles of hiking trails in the park, plus a 2.9 mile paved bike trail. After perusing our options, we fabricated a loop of sorts using two of the longer trails: the Trail of Tears Retracement Trail (2.5 miles) and the Shoal Creek Trail (1.4 miles).

03trailheadThe parking lot for the Trail of Tears Retracement Trail is just up the road past the park office, with a gravel parking lot off to the left just after you pass a ranger’s residence. The parking lot can accommodate five vehicles comfortably, with additional parking nearby at a picnic shelter. The trail leaves from the northwest corner of the parking lot, where two large interpretive displays set the scene. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced all Native tribes to abandon their native homes in the Southeast to make the arduous journey to the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. In 1838 660 Cherokee left from Fort Cass in present-day Charleston, TN, on a 700-mile trek to Evansville, Arkansas. The trip took around three months, and 23 members of the tribe died along the way. This trail covers part of the actual route they traveled.

04footbedThis trail is a portion of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. The Trail of Tears isn’t a single track from Point A to Point B. Various routes traversed nine states, including one route that passed through Huntsville (a portion of which is preserved in the Land Trust of North Alabama‘s Blevins Gap Preserve). This stretch in David Crockett State Park starts out as a level dirt surface on a ridgetop though a hardwood grove next to the park road. 05origsegment_signThis trail generally follows the historic route, and at times literally follows in the footsteps of the Cherokee for several segments, always marked at their beginning and end. I couldn’t help but think about how my boots were on the same ground as those deerskin moccasins were 179 years ago, and how my journey was for fun and that I would sleep in my bed at home that night, while every step the Cherokee took carried them farther from home into an uncertain future.

At .25 miles the blue-blazed Trail of Tears Retracement Trail crosses the purple-blazed Overlook Trail. 09homesiteThe first of four interpretive signs along the trail is located near here, depicting the journey through the town of Lawrenceburg. The Trail of Tears retreats away from the park road during this segment, passing some picnic shelters and through a patch of daffodils that probably mark an old home site with some foundation stones still in place. 11bench_cowviewJust before the trail bends back toward the road, a side trail leads to a bench where you can sit and contemplate the view to the west (a big cow pasture). Sharp-eyed Ruth also spotted a winged elm to the left of the bench — those tree ID courses are paying off!

13trail_by_roadThe trail now clings to the side of the road, with the aforementioned cow pasture off to the left behind a line of what we think are mockernut hickories. That fence has been there a while, as we noticed one tree that had completely enclosed the strands of barbed wire that were long-ago tacked to it. Two more interpretive signs describe the food sources for the Cherokee and David Crockett’s opposition to the Indian Removal Act. The Ballad of Davy Crockett, not exactly a paragon of historical accuracy, alludes to his position in the full version of the song:

He give his word an’ he give his hand
That his Injun friends could keep their land
An’ the rest of his life he took the stand
That justice was due every redskin band
Davy, Davy Crockett, holdin’ his promise dear!

15removal_interp_signCrockett, in his plain-spoken way, was more direct in his assessment, writing, “I believed [the Indian Removal Act] was a wicked, unjust measure, and that I should go against it, let the cost to myself be what it might.” This principled stand cost him his post in 1830, as his re-election bid was defeated, though he was later returned to the US House of Representatives for a second term. He died in 1836 in the Battle of the Alamo, and was spared the indignity of seeing the Cherokee marched across his former property in pursuit of the wicked, unjust measure.

17archery_rangeAfter the trail passes Campground 2, off to the right on the other side of the road, signs are attached to trees warning that an archery range is nearby. Now that’s a motivation to stay on the trail! The range didn’t have any archers when we walked by, but several backstops were set up and ready for action. The trail continues paralleling the road, passing through a stand of shortleaf pines, before taking a turn to the left, just before the park road bends to the right and splits to form a loop. The trail continues into the woods at this point, but instead of a dirt track it’s now a gravel road. After passing a group campsite with a portajohn, fire rings, and an ample supply of stacked firewood, the trail crosses a powerline cut, then re-enters the woods for about 100 yards before it ends at a fence, overlooking the cow pasture (and a hunting blind) again to the west. A final interpretive sign puts it into perspective — from this point, the Cherokee still had two more months of walking, through late fall and early winter, to reach their final destination. Our little afternoon stroll was 2.5 miles, and only took us a couple of hours.

As a hiking experience, the Trail of Tears Retracement Trail is an easy walk on a mostly level, well-tended earth surface. Its scenic quality is fairly low, though, since its entire length is next to a busy park road. The views aren’t great, but there are points of interest along the way. The real value of this trail is in its historic significance and as a reminder of an injustice perpetrated by the greedy and intolerant.

Our second trail was selected to be a change of scenery.  The Shoal Creek Trail is a creekside walk that begins at a parking lot in the north end of the park.  We retraced our route along the gravel road portion of the Trail of Tears Retracement Trail until we reached the paved park road, then walked down the road toward the park’s restaurant and swimming pool.  The restaurant overlooks Lake Lindsey, a large fishing lake formed by a levee.  After passing the levee, we continued on the road until we reached the Crockett Museum and bird aviaries.  The museum has a replica gristmill, and is built on a tributary of Shoal Creek in the general area of Crockett’s original buildings.  The museum was closed — it’s only open from Memorial Day through Labor Day — but there were several cages with very cool birds of prey.  We joined quite a few folks in admiring the red-shouldered hawk, barred owl, red-tailed hawk, barn owls, and great horned owl.

33crockett_fallsWe continued a little farther down the park road, crossing over a covered bridge (a modern replica) on the way to the parking lot for Crockett Falls.  Shoal Creek is about 40 feet wide at this point, and is also pretty shallow.  The creek tumbles over a small shelf to form a waterfall about two feet tall.  Frankly, it’s a little underwhelming compared to the Cumberland Plateau and Bankhead National Forest waterfalls we usually visit, but like its namesake, Crockett Falls has its own homely charm.

The northern trailhead of the green-blazed Shoal Creek Trail begins in the southwest corner of the parking lot for the falls, and it’s paved for the first 50 yards or so.  Then a set of steep steps climbs a hill to a picnic shelter and views of Shoal Creek.  The paved bike trail and the Fitness Trail intersect the Shoal Creek Trail in the vicinity of the picnic shelter.  We followed the green blazes along the hillside overlooking the creek, where the trail was mostly level until it steeply descended the hill and hugged the west bank of Shoal Creek.  The creek flowed merrily along to the south, still around 40 feet wide and relatively shallow.  The trail map said that we might see evidence in this stretch of old CCC-era roadbeds and remnants of brick buildings that once made up a mill, but other than one pile of stones that seemed out of place we didn’t notice any historical features.

47tributaryThe trail continued southward, crossing small tributaries along the way.  The first one we came to had a nice plank bridge.  The next one, which coincided with the intersection of a connector trail to the west, was crossed via stepping stones.  51trib_crossingBy the time we got to the third one, it was as if the trailbuilders had just said “the hell with it” and threw down some sticks to walk across.  There are four connector trails, marked with double green blazes and a white blaze at the intersections, that climb a small ridge to join up with the Overlook Trail (or the park road) along this part of the trail, so you can bail at various locations to form shorter loops.  We decided to walk the length of the trail all the way to Campground 1.  50footbedThe trail  follows the creek almost to its end, before it turns away from the creek and ascends the ridge via a stairway.  Once you’ve climbed the ridge, the campground comes into view, and the blazes eventually end at the southern trailhead for the Shoal Creek Trail, at the edge of one of the campground roads.  We walked up the campground road back to the main park road, then turned right and walked about 0.15 miles to return to the parking lot for the Trail of Tears Retracement Trail.  Accounting for our road walking and a little bit of backtracking, we had put in a 5.4 mile hike for the day.

24restaurantWe came off the trail around dinnertime, and drove down to the Crockett’s Mill Restaurant.  As we approached the restaurant, we spotted two deer standing by the side of the road.  They eyed us and the other cars warily, and one dashed across to safety while the other held its ground.  We finished the drive to the restaurant, changed into clean clothes (we were a bit filthy from the trail maintenance earlier in the day), and I enjoyed dinner from the buffet while Ruth ordered off the menu.  As we paid the check afterwards, I noticed a small pile of coonskin caps for sale in the restaurant lobby.  I was briefly tempted, but settled on a patch instead for the backpack.  As we drove out of the now-darkened park, Ruth noticed a raccoon scampering away from us along the side of the road.  You could certainly understand why raccoons would be skittish in this particular park!  (Though I suspect a related species, Procyon polyesteris, was hunted to make the coonskin caps for sale in the restaurant.  By the way, if you search Amazon for coonskin caps, a surprising number of listings claim to have real raccoon tails.  No wonder the little guy we saw was so motivated to get away!)

We enjoyed our day at David Crockett State Park, though I speculate that David Crockett would have had mixed feelings about The Legend of Davy Crockett.  It’s a boastful song full of sentiment and exaggeration, which might have amused him, but he would have taken exception to being called a king of anything.  He was born an American to a Revolutionary War veteran, and never served a king.  But I think he would have liked the bit about the wild frontier.

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