Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were staying in room 388 at the historic Gatlinburg Inn one evening in 1967 when the idea of writing a song about the mountains struck them. “Rocky Top,” an official Tennessee State Song, was born and became a big hit by Lynn Anderson in 1970.
The song describes a place called Rocky Top, Tennessee, which is one of the three peaks of Thunderhead Mountain located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hikers on the Appalachian Trail cross directly over Rocky Top.
Such is the lore one hears discussed in the lobby of the Gatlinburg Inn, constructed between 1937 and 1940 by R.L. (Rellie) Maples, Sr., and his wife, Wilma. Wilma Maples, now in her late 80s, loves to sit in her favorite chair in the lobby of the Gatlinburg Inn and reminisce with guests while crocheting and watching the Fox New Channel. She banters with the best of them, discussing today’s political landscape. But her favorite pastime is chatting with the guests who stayed at the inn with their parents in the 1940s and 50s.
The old hotel boasts many “firsts.” It was the first location of Gatlinburg’s city offices; the city’s First National Bank was organized there; and even the first dentist, Dr. Meaker, had an office at the inn.
Celebrity guests through the years have included: “Lady Bird” Johnson, Liberace, Dinah Shore, J.C. Penney, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. The inn even appeared in the movie A Walk in the Spring Rain, staring Ingrid Bergman.
Today, the inn’s landscape is carefully manicured, and inside it retains its early 20th century charm. A large porch with comfortable rocking chairs was added in more recent years.
Today’s guests, as they walk through the halls, might easily imagine hearing fiddle and lyrics coming from behind the door of room 388. But they would have to listen fast. The composers took just 10 minutes to write “Rocky Top.”
For more about Wilma, check out our profile on her.
Those who have visited The Gatlinburg Inn are likely to return—and bring their children, and someday, their children’s children, and before you know it, the endearing owner of the enchanted hotel situated among the Great Smoky Mountains is welcoming fifth generation guests to her historic inn. Mrs. Wilma Maples dedicates each day to the legacy built by her husband, R. L. (Rellie) Maples, in the late 1930s.
The 450 rose bushes she planted for Rellie in the 1950s are still in bloom today, as they welcome visitors season after season. It’s easy to see how celebrated artists, writers, singers, and movie stars draw inspiration from the breathtaking beauty and genuine hospitality characteristic to the inn.
Mr. and Mrs. Maples lived in an apartment at the hotel for 25 years before building a home together in the mountains. An inspiring profile published in the Greater Knoxville Homes & Living shares the story of how Liberace used to stay at the hotel when he was performing in the area and “loved having Wilma cook southern dishes for him in the apartment’s small kitchen. He watched and talked while Wilma cooked.”
Celebrity portraits and autographs (including The Saturday Evening Post’s very own Robert Silvers) grace the walls of the inn. But at the end of the day, whether you’re visiting from Hollywood or Oklahoma, you can expect southern hospitality at its finest.
Perhaps Gatlinburg’s former mayor, Chuck Bradley—who worked at the inn from 1967 to 1974 before going to work for the state—said it best when he credited Mr. and Mrs. Maples for “helping to instill the right work ethic along with courtesy to the public that you serve.” Bradley attributes much of the community’s culture to the generosity and philanthropy of Mr. and Mrs. Maples. By establishing scholarships, building an outdoor theatre, and founding the Rel Maples Institute for Culinary Arts, Mr. and Mrs. Maples “have played a wonderful role in the history of Gatlinburg and the surrounding area,” says Bradley, who upon retirement was asked to come back and help manage the inn. “I said yes without hesitation. It was just like coming back home.”
Click here to read “Hit Song Born at an Inn.”