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Gee Interprets a Settler in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Gee quilting on the porch

Gee quilts on the porch of the Davis House. Photos by Danny Bernstein.

Sarah "Gee" Phillips is not Mrs. Sarah Davis; she just plays her on the Mountain Farm Museum in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Right now, Gee rocks on the porch of the Davis House while working on a quilt pattern.

"Mrs. Davis wouldn't be quilting on a Monday. She would probably be scrubbing her laundry on a washboard," she explains to visitors.

For the past 18 years, Gee has been coming down from her home in Dayton, Ohio, to volunteer in the Smokies. She arrives for the Mountain Life Festival held at the Farm Museum the third Saturday of September and stays for six weeks during the height of the fall colors. It's also when the park gets its greatest number of visitors.

Gee, 80 years old, was born and raised in the community of Wheat in east Tennessee, now part of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She remembers people from all over the country moving into her town during World War II and living in prefab houses.

"My husband and I wanted to volunteer on the farm because we both grew up close by. I've been coming to the Smokies since I was a little girl. This farm museum is like my early childhood," she explains.

This day Gee wears a blue dress, white apron, and black tie shoes. She works four days a week, Fridays through Mondays - and has three days to hike, visit, and do her shopping and laundry outside the park. While she volunteers here, she shares an apartment with a seasonal ranger.

The Davis house was built in 1900-1901. John E. Davis, Sarah's husband, was a cooper, so the family was quite well off. He and his sons built the house from chestnut trees. The boys gathered stones in the stream for the chimney. The park moved the house from Thomas Divide above Deep Creek; the barn was the only structure that was situated here originally.

"Not every farm would have all the buildings that are here on this farm museum," says Gee. "This is just to give visitors an idea of what a farm would have."

She reminds visitors that settlers wouldn't put a house on bottom land because that land would be reserved for growing crops.

She greets visitors with "Come on here and sit down a while." Her east Tennessee mountain accent comes back when she returns to the Smokies. She and her husband moved to Dayton in 1948. Gee's two sons think that their mom's volunteer activity is kind of neat.

Each day Gee decides what needs doing. One day, she makes soap. Another day, she bakes cornbread over an open fire, and later reheats some lunch for herself. The kitchen is in a room separated by a wall from the rest of the house. You have to go outside and back into the kitchen. Visitors can look inside clearly, but Gee doesn't want visitors actually inside the tiny kitchen, especially while she's cooking.

On the first crisp day in October, visitors ask how Gee would have kept warm in winter.

"To begin with, we would have kept the door closed," she explains. "I would be dressed in wool and not synthetic. Also people didn't shower every day. They sponge bathed. You needed to be careful with your water because you had to carry it all from the stream."

A bucket of water with a ladle sits on a side table. She doesn't bring it in from the Oconaluftee River close by, the way it was done at the beginning of the 20th century. A barrel hides a pump situated on a sand pipe, a tubular cavity several feet deep filled with gravel and sand. This system prevents the water pipe from freezing in winter. The pipe is hooked up to the water supply at Oconaluftee Visitor Center nearby. In other words, Gee uses treated city water like the rest of us.

Sam Reed, a local volunteer, helps Gee. A retired construction worker, he now sports a long beard and wears blue overalls. He's on the farm the same days as Gee and brings water to the kitchen and builds a fire. Even in Mrs. Davis's days, great-grandmothers, like Gee, depended on others to deal with the heavy lifting. When he's not helping Gee, Sam works on farm chores.

Gee explains how she and her husband, Ray, started volunteering. "We were on vacation in Glacier (National Park). I met a volunteer at Logan Pass who spent three months doing volunteer work," she says. "So my husband and I decided to come down here and find out about volunteering."

Her husband died six years ago but Gee keeps coming back.

"The people here are like my extended family. Volunteer service is the reward, the way I can give back to the national parks," says Gee. "I've been to many parks. But here I feel a childhood connection to the farm."

She says that she will keep coming back as long as she can.

While the park can provide specific training on visitor services such as interpretation, they can't teach lifeway skills such as quilting, black-smithing, open-hearth cooking, heirloom gardening and broom making. Most current volunteers have gained those skills on their own and come to the park with those skills already developed. Gee encourages children to quilt with her. "So there are a few stitches that are bigger than others. No big deal."

But Gee did get help with the history of the Davis family. Tom Robbins, a ranger/historian, now retired, gave her a print-out of the history of the farm. There's also a large notebook of articles on the farm and farm skills in the Oconaluftee Visitor Center library. In 1993, Gee met the youngest daughter of the Davises and has entertained some of the Davis grandchildren.

Gee may be in "uniform" but she's not cautious about giving her opinion on the state of the world.

"The only drugs we had in our days was when your mama lined up all the kids and gave us medicine on Saturday night - cod liver oil and castor oil," she tells a woman who is a regular visitor in the Smokies.

Visitors also come back every year, sometimes staying in the same campground. "We've watched other children grow up while they've watched ours do the same," says a woman.

Unlike Western parks that might be a once-a-lifetime experience for most visitors, many people come back to the Smokies year after year. They may stay in the same place each time and expect the same attractions, such as watching and listening to Gee.

Lynda Doucette, the park's supervisory interpretive ranger on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, explains what Gee contributes to the Farm Museum.

"Gee brings the past to life by allowing visitors to connect with the meanings found in the Mountain Farm Museum exhibits. She takes these treasures from the past and enables one generation to connect to another.

We certainly would love to have staff and volunteers at the Mountain Farm Museum throughout the visitor season (spring, summer, & fall) to interact with visitors. Our biggest challenge is that we don't have enough housing available or the funding to pay for housing so we need to look for volunteers who live in the local community."

Ms. Doucette explains that "the most important skill set a volunteer needs to have is the ability to speak with a variety of people, enjoy public contact and a willingness to serve."

Gee always leaves visitors with "So happy you stopped by."

Once a visitor asked her where they could find "real hillbillies."

"You're looking at one," she replied.

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Neat story! Neat lady!

Y'know, some of the greatest resources in our parks are our volunteers. What did we ever do without them?

Thank you for this in-depth look at this GSMNP volunteer. I particularly appreciate her dignified answer to the thoughtless question about "real hillbillies." She is a very humble and classy lady.

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