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History of the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage

The first Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was held in April of 1951. The two-day event was devoted to arranged tours, field trips, and evening programs. Four hundred pilgrims attended from 20 different states. Paintings of flowers, flower and plant arrangements, nature exhibits, and photographs of flowers were offered during evening programs.

Dr. A. J. Sharp, head of the Botany Department at the University of Tennessee, directed the event. National Geographic magazine sent a photographer and an impressive article with pictures was featured in a subsequent issue of the magazine.

It rained during much of the pilgrimage’s first year. Gatlinburg Garden Club member, Lucinda Ogle, enjoyed sharing wildflowers with friends and visitors. She worried that the weather would limit the pilgrims’ access to the trails and flowers, so she washed a case of 24 glass CocaCola bottles, picked some of the rarest flower specimens from her own woodland garden, placed them in the bottles with a small drink of water, and carried them to the pilgrimage meeting (sitting down several times to rest before continuing on). Her Coke bottle flower garden won the day and has remained a centerpiece of the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. It now features over 100 different plant species, each identified by its common and scientific names, enabling pilgrims to identify and become more familiar with the native wildflowers, especially the rare and difficult to find species. Today the plants are borrowed from a private garden and ARE NOT from the national park. After the event, the plants are returned to where they came from.

In 1957, a $1.50 registration fee was assessed for adults. In 1970 the registration fee was raised to $2.00. The 1970 pilgrimage enjoyed a record year with an attendance of 1,088 from 31 states. Limiting the number of program participants for some of the outdoor programs became necessary in 1975, and registration fees were raised to $3.00 for adults and 50 cents for students. In April 1986, the Southeast Tourism Society named the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage “one of the top 20 events in the Southeast.”

An example of dedication to the pilgrimage is illustrated by Mr. Henry Green, a golden-ager from South Euclid, Ohio, who without fail and for many years, has taken a bus from his home in Ohio to Knoxville, transferred to a taxi which takes him to Sevierville and after a night of rest at a motel, walks from Sevierville to the northern Pigeon Forge city limits where he catches a trolley into Gatlinburg in time to register and participate at the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage.

Today more than 700 pilgrims from 32 states come to participate in more than 144 indoor and outdoor programs.