The Island Show Fountain in Pigeon Forge offers entertaining water shows every 30 minutes. Photo: Jenni Veal

The Island Show Fountain in Pigeon Forge offers entertaining water shows every 30 minutes. (Photo: Jenni Veal)

Pigeon Forge, Tenn., has it all: dazzling shows, knockdown museums; outrageous rides; endless shopping; close proximity to Great Smoky Mountains National Park; and, of course, the legend of Dolly Parton and her dominion, Dollywood. However, if you peek within the nooks and crannies of Pigeon Forge, there’s even more to be found there—something heartfelt, like nostalgia.

On a recent tween weekend getaway with my two daughters and my best friend’s daughter, we experienced an off-the-beaten-path version of Pigeon Forge that included a mixture of things old and new. I fell in love again with a town that I had almost forgotten could be so rich with stories and history, discovery and fun – and enjoyed sharing the experience with the tweens in my life.

Photo: Jenni Veal

Our weekend adventure began at Music Road Hotel in Pigeon Forge. We headed straight to the pool so the girls could splash away the evening in the hotel’s pool, lazy river and 60-foot slide.

Saturday morning, after breakfast at The Old Mill Restaurant, we happened upon the city’s second annual Welcome Back Vietnam Veterans Parade along US-441. Within minutes, we were waving and shouting “Thank you for your service” to the service men and women who passed us. The morning became an impromptu lesson in honor and patriotism that I had not anticipated in Pigeon Forge.

After the parade, we toured the historic Old Mill, which was built in 1830 and served as the town’s original community center and post office. We learned that the structure had served as a Union hospital and that the grinding stones in the mill—which still grind corn that is shipped across the country—are only the mill’s second set since its beginnings.

“When you turn at traffic light No. 7, you go back 200 years,” said Donna Huffaker, director of group sales and marketing for the Old Mill. “We like to say it’s a working museum.”

The Old Mill was built in 1830. Photo: Jenni Veal

The Old Mill was built in 1830. (Photo: Jenni Veal)

We bought some bags of corn and headed to the banks of the Little Pigeon River, which runs through town and behind the mill, to feed the ducks. Pigeons fought to partake in the feast, which was a somber reminder of the now-extinct passenger pigeons that once lived there and for which the city got its name. Downstream is the remnant site of an old iron forge, the town’s other namesake, which dates back to the early 1800s.

Gathering treats at the Old Mill Candy Kitchen. (Photo: Jenni Veal)

Afterward, we crossed the street to the Old Mill Candy Kitchen, an old-fashioned candy store outfitted with barrels full of saltwater taffy, candy in all shapes and sizes, and homemade chocolate. As the girls sorted through their sugary loot, we sat in rocking chairs on the porch of the mill listening to an older man spill out hymns on a banjo.

Then we wandered over to Pigeon River Pottery, which offers handmade pottery that harkens back again to Pigeon Forge’s roots—the 1940s, when legendary potter Douglas Ferguson established Pigeon Forge Pottery. Visitors could watch potters at work each day and purchase one-of-a-kind pottery. The Fergusons’ former home now serves as the Old Mill Pottery House Café and Grille; reportedly, Ferguson’s former clay pits were not too far down the road. Today, Pigeon River Pottery has a staff of potters that showcase their work daily and create authentic pieces of art.

Photo: Jenni Veal

That night, we went to the Dixie Stampede, one of Dolly Parton’s landmark tourist destinations. The show has Dolly’s stamp of excellence all over it. The entrance is most impressive: an elegant walkway that passes along the stables of the horses from the show.

Afterward, we stopped by The Island—home of the new 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel—to check out the water fountain show that is choreographed to music. The organic water feature is surrounded by rocking chairs. Given that all the chairs were taken, we felt free to dance in the dark to the music. Turns out, that was a better way to enjoy the show.

Pigeon Forge is only a few miles north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so on Sunday morning we drove to Little Greenbrier School, which was built in 1882 and served as a school and church until 1936. The girls sat inside the stark schoolhouse and imagined how anyone could survive school in such a setting.

Next to the schoolhouse is a small, dilapidated cemetery. Nearly half of the graves are those of children, so I was left wondering how the parents of that time period survived.Greenbriar Schoolhouse

The stop made for interesting conversation in the car. What was life like back in the 1800s? Why are so many children buried in that cemetery? Why is the schoolhouse covered in grafitti, and why is it a bad idea to write your name on a historic building?

We drove a short distance to Sugarlands Visitor Center, located 2 miles south of Gatlinburg on US-441. When we arrived, author Joel Greenberg was there speaking about his new book, A Feathered River across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.

I wasn’t sure if the girls had ever heard of a passenger pigeon, so I took them by the center’s temporary exhibit of a passenger pigeon specimen. Despite this photos of them grinning next to this extinct bird, later conversations led me to believe they understood the significance of the exhibit.

Passenger Pigeon exhibit at Sugarlands Visitor Center. (Photo: Jenni Veal)

On the drive home, we contemplated all that we fit in to our tween weekend: alpine coaster bravery, water fountain dancing, historic mill tours, head-first-down-the-slide fun at the pool, passenger pigeons, stampedes and more. We all shared our favorite activities and agreed that it was another memorable visit to Pigeon Forge.

To learn more, visit the Pigeon Forge, Tenn., website.