By Jim Buchanan
For years local newspapers pushed the concept of Jackson County as a tourism destination area.
In the end, the push was certainly successful.
Of course, it goes without saying the mountains sell themselves, with beautiful views all four seasons. But beyond that, important pieces were put in place over the years that enhanced the area’s reputation as a draw: the burgeoning National Park system, reservoirs that provided both power and recreational opportunities, summer camps and more.
But 70 years ago, there was a new addition to the area’s charms that in a way helped tie them all together: The inaugural run of “Unto These Hills.”
The outdoor drama in Cherokee was an immediate hit, and saw a lot of return visitors over the years, even turning into a generational affair, with children and grandchildren of the original attendees becoming fans in their own rights.
Many of those visitors decided to take in other area destinations, and the tourism industry really took off.
The Herald of July 6, 1950 was completely enamored with the production, proclaiming in an editorial “Those who have not seen this wonderful production should do so at the first opportunity. It is the greatest thing that has come to Western North Carolina in the role of entertainment.”
The premiere of the production was the top story on page 1.
“Nearly 2,600 persons witnessed the premiere performance of the great Cherokee drama, ‘Unto These Hills,’ which opened Saturday night for a summer-long run. Under the direction of the Carolina Playmakers’ veteran Harry Davis, the premiere of Kermit Hunter’s tense and brilliant drama gave promise of many years’ production … The drama, though interrupted for a brief period by rain, kept the audience attentive with the splendor of the extraordinary lighting effects. The Indian dances, folk dances, native scenery and the stirring music written by a Cherokee and sung by the choir with organ accompaniment, all blended to give vivid excitement to the play. Visitors from every section of the country were on hand for the gala opening. They were witness to the story of the Cherokee nation, a story of the cycle in Cherokee history that led the Indian from his centuries-old status of being at peace to more than a 300-year span of tragedy and defeat with the coming of the white man. … From the stormy and reckless Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, all the way to the great peace-loving genius of the Cherokee, Sequoyah, the audience witnesses a cavalcade of impressive characters that includes Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, Daniel Webster, William Henry Harrison, and such famous Cherokee greats as Junaluska, Drowning Bear, Tsali, and a host of others …”
By the end of the 1950 season, overall attendance to “Unto These Hills’ topped 100,000, drawing visitors from 45 states and 10 foreign countries.
In 70 years, those numbers have run into the millions.
As with so many other things in the mountains and across the world, “Unto These Hills” is on hiatus this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It will be back.
In the meantime, it’s safe to say it was a key player in launching this area into the imaginations of vacationers everywhere.
The final word goes to the Herald, in another editorial:
As usual, Western North Carolina expected a great influx of visitors over the July 4th holidays seeking the pleasure, recreation and fine scenery afforded by this famous mountain section of the state. They came ... yes by the thousands ... the expectations of even the most optimistic were shattered when the highways became jammed with traffic; the tourist courts, homes and hotels became overtaxed, and eating establishments saw men, women and children waiting in line for a chance for food. Western North Carolina has always been popular as a mecca for tourists and vacationers during the summer months when people flock into this section for rest in the cooling breezes of the Great Smokies. But there have been attractions added during these last few years, the creating of beautiful lakes stocked with game fish, more good highways making the scenic spots easily accessible and last but not least the opening of the Cherokee Drama, “Unto These Hills,” with all the other attractions, has really put the Great Smoky Mountains area on the map as a tourist center.