» Subscribe Today!
The Power of Information
The Ledger - EST. 1978 - Nashville Edition
Skip Navigation LinksHome > Article
VOL. 44 | NO. 22 | Friday, May 29, 2020

Second disaster threatens Smokies tourism

Businesses that survived 2016 fire face hardship again with COVID-19 scare

By Dan Fleser

Print | Front Page | Email this story

Jake Ogle watched the night of Nov. 28, 2016 unfold in Gatlinburg on a camera mounted atop Ripley’s Aquarium. He got a grim eyeful.

A fire, originally reported in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park five days earlier, had been whipped by strong southern winds and swept into Ogle’s hometown. His parents had evacuated their home in Greystone Heights, a subdivision nestled on a ridge above the aquarium, and were hunkered down with their son at his home in Knoxville.

“I remember going to bed that night – what little we could sleep – just thinking our whole city is going to burn to the ground,” Ogle says. “Because all you could see was things on fire.”

Pete and Joy Jucker had a closer view, which made events even more terrifying. Joy drove through burning landscape to evacuate. Pete ended up trapped at Ober Gatlinburg, which was spared by the grace of the winds’ course. He helped convert the facility into an overnight shelter for others who were stranded.

“Events like that,” Ogle adds, “they get less impactful over time, but they never go away.”

And now comes a different sort of scary with the coronavirus pandemic, which swept in several weeks ago. While not menacing like flames, it threatens livelihoods and Gatlinburg’s way of life, which depends on tourism.

Pete Jucker characterized the pandemic as “insidious” and notes, “the feeling of not knowing what’s going to happen to me, that’s evil coming at you.”

‘Improve and move on’

The fire consumed more than 2,400 structures and claimed at least 14 lives. Another 176 were injured.

The home of Ogle’s parents – the home in which he had lived – was destroyed. So were 10 cabin rentals that the family operates, including a popular cabin that once was the home of Ogle’s great grandmother.

The Juckers lost their home of 17 years as well. Joy escaped with the family pets but little else.

Downtown Gatlinburg was largely spared, however. And the city’s resilience – a trait Ogle describes with great pride – endured as well.

“I think our community up there has always had the mentality, when times get tough, roll up your sleeves and get to work,” he explains.

“So once all of that kind of blew through, when things had burned and burned and then the fire was out, we all knew it was time to get to work. Let’s rebuild what’s been lost, let’s improve and move on.”

The Gatlinburg area had largely recovered from the November 2016 fires that left much of it in ruins. Now the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a second wave of economic hardship on the vacation mecca, threatening vacation rentals, hotels, shops, restaurants and attractions with additional financial woes.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick | Ap

As Gatlinburg carefully reopens its economy, the experience looks different but still manages to stir the embers that lurk in some people’s memories.

“Someone said this up there and it’s so true,” Ogle says. “He told me this COVID-19 pandemic is literally like living the night of the fire every day. The future is so uncertain right now. Where is this virus going? All of this news is circulating. What’s true? What’s false? … All of these questions.”

Family history, modern tech

The first cabin in the Smokies belonged to Martha Jane Huskey Ogle and has been preserved as an historic site in Gatlinburg. Anyone can visit but renting isn’t an option.

“It’s kind of a running joke in our family that when an Ogle dies, they don’t sell the house,” Jake Ogle says. “They just turn it into an overnight rental.”

His great grandmother, Hattie Mae Maples, was born in 1898 and as a 19-year-old married Charles Ogle. She took the proceeds from their retail business and bought property. Cottages and a 15-room motel eventually were built. The rest is more family history.

Ogle and his brother, Taylor, manage a commercial real estate development company in Sevier County. Along with cabin rentals, they have a hand in hotels and campgrounds. They are investors in two restaurants and have a landlord/tenant relationship with at least 20 others.

The cabins that were lost to the fire have been rebuilt.

Jake said that virtually all of their businesses have been impacted by the pandemic and have been retooled with safety upgrades. The restaurants are operating at 50% capacity.

The Juckers have three stores, two in Gatlinburg and one in adjoining Pigeon Forge. They sell puzzles in two of those stories and actually grew their business during the shutdown by pushing their product online. Pete adds that they had 700 orders in April. Their customers came from coast to coast. They would’ve filled orders from Egypt, Israel and Australia as well but shipping costs were prohibitive.

“Puzzles have become the new toilet paper,” Joy Jucker says.

Reopening again

The reopening, though, will involve the more time-worn tradition of visitors browsing and consuming.

“Keep folks safe but also we’ve got to build people’s confidence back in terms of doing day-to-day activities,” Jake Ogle points out.

A normally bustling Gatlinburg street shows only light foot traffic in this May 20, 2017 photo. The fire of six months earlier curtailed the number of visitors to the area.

In the fire’s aftermath, the initial challenge was setting the record straight and informing the public about the extent of the damage.

“There was an image problem,” Taylor Ogle acknowledges. “People thought that the whole town burned down. We had to retrain people that it didn’t.”

Once the city reopened Dec. 9, its plight became a new attraction, which brought out the thoughtfulness in people. Rather than come to gawk at the damage, visitors flocked to the parkway to support the local businesses. The volume of visitors at the aquarium that first day exceeded expectations. Patrons hugged waitresses after dining at the popular Pancake Pantry downtown.

“When somebody struggles,” Jake Ogle says, “for most folks it’s kind of a natural reaction: we need to go support them.”

Now every city, not just Gatlinburg, shares the impact of the coronavirus. And everyone is weighing their own personal responsibilities and considerations in coping. The responses might tend to be more guarded than altruistic.

“My feelings are not the same as my wife’s feeling or my neighbor’s feelings,” Pete Jucker explains. “So many people have so many different ideas about their well-being.”

These different perspectives were parading up and down Gatlinburg’s parkway last week. The gathering on a warm afternoon represented at least 20 states, based on an unofficial tally of different license plates either in town or on the roads between downtown and the national park.

A large sign loomed above the procession, welcoming people to town and urging them to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines of social distancing and using facial covering. Below, the crowd moved in the usual herd-like fashion.

Masks were being sold in several shops and promoted as a sale item in at least one. Although some family groups were wearing them, they were not a standard accessory with either visitors or workers.

“The thing that will be hard to manage is that everybody has different risk tolerance,” Ogle says. “I’m just saying some people don’t care to be six feet apart and others want to be 12-feet apart.”

No matter how difficult, they must manage. The fire left them with at least one useful guide.

During the two weeks that the city was closed, Ogle notes, the traffic and business in Pigeon Forge and Sevierville were “drastically effected.” The experience showed how interdependent the cities are.

“We all need to work together in terms of having a consistent message and a consistent game plan,” he says, “a consistent strategy in terms of navigating the pandemic.”

‘You can’t just sit at home’

Pete Jucker literally straddles Gatlinburg’s past and present regarding these ordeals.

While the downtown went through its altered routine, he was working on higher ground in the city during the aforementioned balmy afternoon. He was tending to a project related to a program called “Firewise,” which promotes fire safety in the wildland/urban interface.

There’s no comparable guidance for a pandemic. Regardless, Jucker says he doesn’t believe that present circumstances preclude forward thinking or corresponding action.

“Let’s try to stay safe but let’s try to stay safe and continue with our life and our livelihood,” he says. “You can’t just sit at home.”

The Ogles have amended the resilience characteristic for themselves, adding spirits to suit the occasion.

“We’re hopeful and we’re optimistic,” Taylor Ogle says. “We’re going to prepare like things are going to change back to – if you want to call it a new normal. But changing back to normal.”

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter & RSS:
Sign-Up For Our FREE email edition
Get the news first with our free weekly email
TNLedger.com Knoxville Editon