Hensley Settlement in Cumberland Gap NHP

Tom and I had the opportunity to tour Hensley Settlement in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park on our second day of orientation.  All the new rangers had to take driving training in order to lead tours a Hensley Settlement.  Why driving training?  Because the road to Hensley Settlement is up a mountain road requiring a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle.  The road is steep with switchbacks and drop-offs.  Tom was more nervous riding up than I was because he likes to be in control.

The lane at Hensley Settlement

We did the drive with Rangers Olivia, Lucas, and Layton.  Ranger Lucas was doing the training while Rangers Olivia and Layton were being trained.  Ranger Olivia drove up and did a fantastic job.  She grew up in these mountains and understands gears and how to use them.  Ranger Layton drove back and got us back safely.  He has never used gears before but I’m sure he will figure it out.

Schoolhouse at Hensley

The Hensley Settlement is a remote area on top of Cumberland Mountain.  There is only one road in and it is gated and accessible only by park staff.  In 1903 Nicey and Sherman Hensley moved to the top of the mountain with several other families.  Over the next 40 years they farmed, raised animals, and traded with others in the area.  They built a one-room schoolhouse.  The only way into or out of the settlement was by horse or foot.  No roads or electricity ever reached the top of the mountain.  By the late 1940’s, most of the families had moved to less remote areas.  Sherman Hensley was the last to leave in 1951.  Sherman and Nicey are buried in the cemetery at the top of the mountain.

Sherman and Nicey’s headstone

In the 1960’s, the park restored the buildings at Hensley Settlement.  Today they look similar to the way they did early in the 1900’s.  There are wood-burning stoves in the small cabins.  The cabins are sparsely furnished.  Ranger Lucas told us the story of the settlement and showed us around.  Tom and I were invited to be trained to lead tours.  I would be fine with leading the tours, but the tour guide also has to drive up that rugged road.  No thank you!  I wouldn’t even drive myself up the road, much less a van full of visitors.

Ranger Lucas telling a story in the schoolhouse

One of the cabins had a loom and a spinning wheel.  Ranger Lucas asked us to look at them and decide if they could be repaired.  Both of them looked to be in good shape except that mice had gotten at the loom.  We said we could fix them if they were not going to be left in the cabins.  If they are going to be left at Hensley, they will be mouse-eaten again in no time, so might as well be left alone.

One of the cabins

It was interesting to see the buildings and hear Ranger Lucas’s stories.  He had an aunt that lived on the mountain and remembers coming to the settlement as a child.  The Hensley family has a reunion on a weekend every year and members of the extended family participate in park events.

Visitors tend to think of living in a remote place on top of a mountain as an idyllic lifestyle.  Tom and I know differently from our living history experiences.  We could do it, but it is a lot of hard work toting water, chopping wood, and preserving food.  The people living at Hensley Settlement had to hike down the mountain to go to the grocery store.  The men went off the mountain once a month to sell their moonshine and bartered for the goods they needed.

I really enjoyed seeing the settlement and listening to Ranger Lucas but I have no interest in driving up and down the road to Hensley Settlement.  I’ll leave that to the rangers.

You can take a virtual tour of Hensley Settlement by clicking on the link.  The tour provides oral histories and additional information about the community.  Rangers give tours of the settlement during the summer and early fall on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.  People can also visit the settlement by hiking the Ridge Trail.