Roamin’ with Wiley Oakley, legendary mountain guide
Harvey Oakley leaned forward in his chair and said: “One of my dad’s favorite sayings was, ‘I was never lost – I was just bothered for a few days. And I always came out! ‘”
My wife and I were at Harvey’s in 2003 because I was giving a talk on his father, Wiley Oakley, at an upcoming event, and I asked Harvey to join me. It was a real treat to have several hours of information about Wiley Oakley directly from his son.
As Harvey spoke, I could see his father’s lean, aquiline features on his face. His father was born in September 1885 near the base of Bullhead Mountain, a peak in the Smokies now called Mount Le Conte. From his rustic beginnings, Wiley Oakley became a legendary guide, storyteller, author, businessman and promoter of the Smokies until his death in 1954.
Harvey and his wife, Melba, along with Harvey’s sister, Lucinda Ogle, helped keep Wiley Oakley’s colorful story alive in the decades since his death. Harvey had even portrayed his father in an outdoor theater production and at other public events in the Smokies area, wearing a wool hat and red plaid shirt like his father. He, Melba, and Lucinda had also kept Wiley’s book “Roamin’ and Restin” in print over the years, and Harvey even published his own book about his father, “Remembering the Roamin’ Man of the Mountains.”
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In his living room, Harvey reflects on his father’s love for the Smokies: “Dad’s mother died when he was just a boy. He missed her so much that he started roaming the mountains, thinking that if he climbed the highest peaks, he might catch a glimpse of his mother in heaven. He thought the pretty white clouds in the sky might be his mother’s fluttering white dresses ascending to heaven.
Thus began Wiley Oakley’s love for the Smokies.
Wiley has become a true mountaineer. He learned to cultivate, hunt, fish and travel the mountains. Along the way, he acquired a good knowledge of plants, trees and animals, showing a genuine interest in them beyond just consuming them.
The Smokies also gave Wiley Oakley the love of his life. At 19, he met a mountain girl named Rebecca Ann Ogle from the Noah “Bud” Ogle family. They married in January 1906 after making an unannounced night call to the home of a local preacher. Not very happy with the unusual moment, the preacher refused to invite the couple and instead dragged papers and money for them through the door. Later, Wiley joked that they were married by an “invisible preacher”. For the rest of his life, he referred to Rebecca as “his golden-haired bride from Scratch-Britches Mountain.” The couple raised 12 children together.
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Wiley eventually got a job as a guide for the Mountain View Hotel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, guiding guests on hikes and tours in the Smokies. He also worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps on trail construction when the park came into existence.
As a guide, Wiley discovered he had a knack for storytelling. His melodious Appalachian voice, vernacular expressions and laid-back style have made him a favorite among tourists, including many important visitors. In the 1930s, he and Rebecca opened a store in Gatlinburg, Tennessee called the Wiley Shop. There, they displayed a sign that humorously proclaimed “Antiques Made to Order.” Inside, Wiley booked reservations for tours, sold crafts and souvenirs, and told stories — some identified as tales by a yodel.
As his fame grew, Oakley was invited to share his stories in print. He resisted but eventually wrote a periodic column, “Roamin’ with Wiley”, for the local newspaper. He wrote each story in pencil on blue lined school paper. When his stories were published as they were written, he said, “Lawd, the present generation will disown me for life – all that turrible spell and all!” He added: “I’ve never been to school, so I didn’t put those colons or semicolons in. All I put is a point. And that means catching your breath and starting over! More of his colorful stories can be found in his book.
In addition to writing, Oakley toured the cities on promotional trips and happily left his voice to posterity on several recordings. One of the best is “The Cow Barn,” a humorous tale of his honeymoon in a mountain lodge.
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Wiley Oakley remained an institution in the Smokies until his death. Today he is commemorated by books, a monument outside the Gatlinburg Visitor Center, and by nearby Wiley Oakley Drive. Thanks to the work of Harvey and Melba Oakley and Lucinda Ogle (all now deceased), the colorful story of Wiley Oakley’s life is preserved. Like the spirit of his mother, his story still travels the peaks of the Smoky Mountains.
Arthur “Butch” McDade retired from Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a ranger. He is the author of “Old Smoky Mountain Days” and “The Natural Arches of the Big South Fork” and contributed to the “Appalachian Encyclopedia”. He has written over 50 feature articles for numerous magazines and is currently an editor for Smoky Mountain Living as well as the Smokies Life newspaper and the Smokies Live blog produced by the Great Smoky Mountains Association. He lives with his wife and their rescued dogs and cats on the edge of the Smokies.