The earliest documented settlers in Little Greenbrier were Arthur “Brice” McFalls and Alexander McKenzie, who arrived in the 1830’s. McFalls built a cabin in the 1840’s, which was reassembled later by John Walker, father of the Walker Sisters, as the “kitchen” half of the Walker Cabin sometime during the late 1870’s.
Little Greenbrier achieved national fame as a result of the Walker Sisters. The five spinster sisters who lived here refused to sell their 123-acre farm to the national park, and were able to maintain their traditional mountain life into the 1960’s.
John Walker, a Union Army veteran, and his wife, Margaret, moved onto the homestead in 1870. Over the years, as his family grew to eleven children, John expanded the cabin and made several improvements to the farm. At one point the homestead consisted of several outbuildings, including a barn, springhouse, pig pen, corn crib, smokehouse, apple house, blacksmith shop and a small tub mill. Today, only the cabin, springhouse and corn crib survive at the site.
In 1909 Walker deeded the land to five of his daughters; Margaret (1870-1962), Martha (1877-1951), Nancy (1880-1931), Louisa (1882-1964), and Hettie (1889-1947), and his youngest son, Giles. By this time the other children had already married and moved away. After John died in 1921, the farm was passed to the five daughters. In that same year Giles deeded his share of the land over to his sisters.
While the surrounding mountain communities began to slowly modernize after World War I, the Walker Sisters continued to cling to their old way of life, which emphasized self-reliance. The sisters raised sheep, grew corn and cotton, plowed their own fields, and made their own clothes from the wool and cotton they raised.
Change, however, would be forced upon the Walker Sisters. In the 1930’s the Great Smoky Mountains Park Commission, charged with purchasing property for the new national park, tried to persuade the sisters to sell their land. Realizing that the park was wading into a public relations minefield, GSMNP Superintendent Ross Eakin sent a memorandum to the Director of the National Park Service on Nov. 18, 1939, stating; “These old women are ‘rooted to the soil.’ We have always understood they were to be permitted to spend the rest of their lives on their property. . . . If they were ejected from the park we should be subject to severe criticism, and in my opinion, justly so.”
Finally, in late 1940, faced with a condemnation suit, the Walker Sisters accepted $4,750 for their land, provided they were “allowed to reserve a life estate and the use of the land for and during the life of the five sisters.” On January 22, 1941, ownership of the Walker Sisters’ land passed to the national park. A local legend claims the sisters were paid a visit by President Franklin Roosevelt who convinced them to sell the land. Although Roosevelt was in the area to dedicate the national park in 1940, there’s no evidence of him having visited the sisters.
In 1946 the Saturday Evening Post published an article about the Walker Sisters that drew a flood of tourists to their farm.
By 1953 only two of the sisters were alive. The following is a letter that was written by Margaret and Louisa to the superintendent of the park (Edward Hummel):
To the Supertendant of the Great Smokie Mountain National Park
I have a request to you Will you please have the Sign a bout the Walker Sisters taken down the one on High Way 73 especilay the reason I am asking this there is just 2 of the sisters lives at the old House place one is 70 years of age the other is 82 years of age and we can’t receive so many visitors We are not able to do our Work and receive so many visitors, and can’t make sovioners to sell like we once did and people will be expecting us to have them, last year we had so many people it kept us buisy from Sun up till sun down besides our own work We haven’t bin feling very well this winter can’t do much at our best. I write poems to sell but cant write very well I use to write of winter but I havent bin able to do much for the 2 last ones My Brother is in the Hospital and cant stay with us much We mis his help We have a Grant Nephew and his wife with us now There was 5 of us living here when we began to receive visitors and we enjoyed meeting so many nice people from different places from every state in the union and many out side, some of them came every time they came to the park, there was more of us and we were more able to care for things, they bought things from us and made it easier to have spinding money. they buy things yet if we was abel to fix them but it is to confining on us now with no more help if we get to feeling better or get till we can receive them a gain we may want to receive them a gain but we want to rest a while it is to much work for us now. Come visit us if you have time.
The Walker Sisters
Margaret and Louisa
The National Park Service assumed control of the land when the last of the Walker Sisters, Louisa, died in 1964. The National Park Service restored the cabin in 1976, and in that same year, all three surviving structures on the site were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.