Austin native authors Smoky Mountains book

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 4, 2000

Most people who enjoy hiking think of it as a peaceful experience where they can be alone with their thoughts, where they can get lost in their surroundings.

Friday, August 04, 2000

Most people who enjoy hiking think of it as a peaceful experience where they can be alone with their thoughts, where they can get lost in their surroundings.

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Austin native Margaret Brown shatters those ideas in her book "The Wild East: A Biography of The Great Smoky Mountains."

Brown, a history professor at Brevard College in North Carolina, described The Wild East as an environmental history of the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Smokies were originally farmland with communities around them, Brown said by phone, but beginning in 1910 and continuing into the 1930s, 75 percent of the park was heavily logged.

Nine communities in the area were removed by officials in Tennessee and North Carolina to create the park.

In the 1940s, more people were removed to create a dam.

Brown first became interested in the Smokies in 1987, while hiking them and running into human remains, such as a chimney and old cemeteries.

For Brown, this was a strange occurrence.

"I always thought of a national park as a place where you would find trees," she said. "Having human remains there was very interesting to me."

Prior to her hiking trip, Brown had not even been to the southeastern United States.

"You have to leave home to be more aware of your surroundings," she said. "Everything is more mysterious. You really see things when you’re a stranger that others don’t."

Brown said the idea to write on the Great Smoky Mountains came from questions she had about the area.

"I wondered how removing people affected the future of the park," she said. "Were they happy or sad? I find it fascinating to have two (communities) in one area."

The amount of research needed in ordered to piece together such a large amount of history included exploring 14 different libraries and took 12 years to complete.

Brown explained that her prior experience as a journalist helped a great deal in this adventure.

"I was editor of the Austin High Sentinel," she said. "Interviewing people was a natural thing for me to do."

And interview she did.

Her first stop was the archives of the Smoky Mountain Park, where they keep correspondence of all administrators.

Noticing that not much was written, Brown expanded her search to include courthouse records in Tennessee and North Carolina.

This allowed her to bring the story into the present.

"I ended it with interviews of those who work there now," Brown said.

For her dissertation, Brown also completed a lot of records research.

"Historians go lots of different places," she explained.

This is because memories can often be faulty.

Upon beginning her hike, Brown never imagined she would write a book about the history of the land she explored.

"If you told me on the hike that it would become a twelve year project, I would’ve said ‘No, I don’t think so,’" she said. "But that’s how life is, the more you know the more questions you have."

Brown compared the book writing process to a magnet.

"You’re drawn to it, but you can’t say why," she said. "But at the same time, you can’t stop. It’s hard to let go."

For Brown, this proved to be very true, as she dedicated the book to her old teachers back in town.

"When you do something that takes twelve years, you can’t do it by yourself," Brown said. "In doing this, I ended up with a lot of gratitude about how I was educated."

As a young girl, Brown always had an interest in nature and the outdoors. Her father, Frank Brown, was a trout fisherman and used to take his children with him to hike in the area while he fished.

Ann Linnea, Brown’s older sister, also contributed to her love of nature.

"From the time I was a little girl, she used to take me out bird watching," Brown said. "She was my nature instructor."

Brown, a self-proclaimed bookworm in school, called Ann the adventurer.

She recalled a time when Ann took her camping in the middle of winter, an experience she is grateful for.

A 1977 graduate of Austin High School, with a bachelor’s degree in Communications from the University of Minnesota, Brown explained that this book was her teacher, as it was written while she was studying to become a history professor.

"The book taught me," she said. "I used it to learn what I needed to know to become a history professor."

Brown received her master’s degree from the University of Kentucky in 1990. Her master’s thesis and dissertation are the subject of her book.

This book is the first solo effort for Brown, who was a contributor to Hiking Trails of the Smokies, a historical guide. She also co-authored a guide to historical structures in the park.

She is currently at work on a novel completely unrelated to her latest effort.

"That’s how I think writing is; you get really possessed with a certain question," she said. "When answered, to me, it means the start of something new."