If you're at all familiar with the Great Smoky Mountains, you're probably at least somewhat familiar with the name of Wiley Oakley. There are numerous place names and roads in the Gatlinburg area that honor Mr. Oakley, as well as a plaque at the Gatlinburg Welcome Center. Also, just this past September, the Tennessee Association of Convention & Visitors Bureaus handed out the very first Wiley Oakley Tourism Award.
Simply put, Wiley Oakley was synonymous with the Great Smoky Mountains, prior to establishment, and during the early years as a National Park. Some have even described him as an icon of the Smokies.
Oakley, also known as the “Roamin Man of the Mountains”, was born in 1885 at the base of Mount LeConte. Tragically his mother died when he was a young boy, and to help deal with his grief, he began wandering the hollows and mountains near his home. Reflecting back as an older man, he spoke of how he would try to climb the highest peaks to see if he could catch a glimpse of her in heaven.
As he grew older, Wiley’s responsibilities also grew. At sill a relatively young age he began helping the family with hunting and fishing duties. It was during this time that he spent “roamin” and hunting that he was discovering the unique features of the mountains, and was even blazing his own footpaths. Eventually he became a hunting and fishing guide, and gained such a renowned reputation that he was soon guiding politicians, celebrities and businessmen from all over the country, including Henry Ford, Ernie Pyle and Kate Smith.
During the Park’s formation Wiley became a major consultant, and was even called on by surveyors to help determine the Park's boundaries.
During his lifetime, Oakley was a hunter, fisherman, farmer, merchant, developer, professional guide, botanist, artist, musician, yodeler, author, columnist, broadcaster, poet and story-teller. In fact, it was his abilities to spin tales about the Smokies that gained him national attention. His popularity earned him a nickname as the "Will Rogers of the South," and was a popular radio guest in his day.
To get a little bit better understanding of Oakley's abilities as a story-teller, take a listen to a couple of short radio clips from the late 1920s that have been posted on the English Department of the University of South Carolina's website. It's pretty obvious that Wiley had a lot of down-home charm and charisma.
To learn more about Mr. Oakley, the Tennessee History Classroom website has a short, but a pretty good biography on him.