Fall is an extraordinary time to explore Appalachia’s Tennessee River Valley. When the hardwoods of the mountains produce the classic hues of autumn, and the skies take on a cerulean blue, the people of Appalachia know it is time to celebrate the harvest and the traditions of their agrarian heritage.
Harvest traditions include picking apples and making cider. Apple trees were introduced by early settlers who brought tree stock that had to be adapted to survive the new growing conditions. The cold winters and warm summers proved ideal conditions for cultivating apples of different cross-pollinated varietals creating a cash crop for farmers and an important food staple for families.
Settlers also relied on traditional handicrafts such as wood turning, pottery making, weaving, and hand-pieced quilts – as necessary household items on the frontier. The generational isolation of the mountain communities preserved these traditional handcraft skills and today creates an economy built around artisan arts and crafts.
“Fall attracts many visitors to the mountains to see the beauty of autumn. Every road provides a rich visual experience, but to truly appreciate Appalachia, stop and visit some of the authentic family farms and artisans who are preserving the traditions,” says Julie Graham, spokesperson for the Tennessee River Valley MapGuide Council.
Located in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Carver’s Orchard, a family business, has been growing apples for generations. Overlooking 40,000 apple trees is the Applehouse restaurant, legendary for its catfish and home-style breakfasts – the perfect place to fuel up when hiking the Smokies.
Nearby is the campus of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. The history of the school dates back to the establishment of a settlement school to bring literacy to the children of the community. Students traded handmade arts and crafts in exchange for their schooling. In 1926, a retail shop was opened and began selling the traditional handcrafted work of Appalachia. Today, the galleries feature the works of local, regional and international craftsman and artists.
The beautiful hollers of the Clinch Mountain range are home to Joppa Mountain Pottery, a family business which has been creating handmade stoneware and Raku pottery in the timeless methods of wheel thrown or hand sculptured. All glazes are hand mixed, creating one-of-a-kind pieces of art. Local tourism director, Jennifer, suggests, “Call before you go and arrange for a tour with the artists to learn more about the techniques that are used.”
Follow the river southward to discover a relative newcomer to apple farming – Apple Valley Orchards – a family farm which began its operations in 1974. Along with apples and stack cake, the family offers tours and educational outings during September and October. Early on, European settlers discovered that honey bees were not native to North America, making apples a challenge to grow. The introduction of bees and cross-pollination led to the overwhelming success of apple production in the southern Appalachia region as a staple food source.
The Tennessee River Valley is also a destination for vintners and wine enthusiasts, who are discovering the award-winning vineyards and viticulture industry that dots the Valley. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Lake Chatuge is Hightower Creek Vineyards, a small family-owned business. The vines are a mix of old world vinifera, native American and French hybrids used to make a variety of wines produced from locally sourced fruits. Wine and music – the language of Appalachia – come together on October Saturdays during the Vino and Vibes concert series.
One of many annual harvest events celebrating apples and arts is the Prater’s Mill Festival held every October. Heritage Park serves as the venue for food, traditional music, and juried art displays and craft demonstrations. The Historic Mill is an homage to the life of farm families and the simplicity of gathering farm people together for local commerce and sharing of news among the community. Restored by the Prater Mill Foundation, the building serves as a centerpiece of Heritage Park.