On Nov. 26, 2016 Golf Digest and the New York Times reported that Gatlinburg’s beloved Hillbilly Golf had burned down during the forest fires that ravaged the region.
The reports of its death were greatly exaggerated.
While the 36-hole miniature golf course that became a destination spot in Gatlinburg wasn’t lost, only there was a moment where it appeared to be.
“We were told by the city that it had burned down,” manager Jim Howard said. “It was three or four days before they let owners come back, and it was very controlled. You had to meet them over at the American Legion Hall, and you were escorted in and you had 15 minutes.”
“I got out and ran up and looked at everything and got an assessment. I kind of got an idea of, ‘yeah, we got some damage, but for the most part we’re okay.’ I called my wife and told her that it was still standing and gave her an assessment, and she just burst down crying. It was pretty emotional,” Howard said.
Howard’s wife Nancy Howard and her sister Rande Hackler are the owners of Hillbilly Golf, and the course is more than just a job for them, but a family affair since their father opened the course in 1971.
“He worked here until he was 93 years old,” Howard said. “When he passed away his dying words to the girls were, ‘Don’t sell the golf course.’”
What came after the fire and reports of the course burning down showed the family atmosphere doesn’t just stop with the ownership.
“We had people call us from New Zealand, South Africa, from England and from probably 20 some odd states just concerned about the course,” Howard said. “This place means so much. … Not a day goes by that we don’t get a comment similar to, ‘my grandfather brought my father, my father brought me and now I’m bringing my kid.’ It’s kind of a generational thing; people bring ashes of loved ones to put up here.”
Despite the fires not reaching the course, Hillbilly Golf still had damage. The fire burned down the clubhouse before reaching just 15 feet short of the course. Wind damage severely affected the course, knocking down trees and bridges.
Hillbilly Golf was determined to open up on time for its 46th season on time, no matter the work it took.
“Nancy had declared, ‘We will open on the first weekend in March,’ which is our traditional open,” Howard said. “We will open on March 2 at 9 a.m. just like we normally do, and I beat her by 10 minutes. I opened it at 8:50.”
“I really have to hand it to the crew we had here. … It took us from the day we were allowed back in to 8:50 on March 2 to clean it up. I really have to hand it to them.”
Little did Howard know what would come next. A month to the day of the reopening, a mountain wave hit. The forest service clocked the winds at 100 mph and knocked down nearly 40 trees.
Hillbilly Golf would have to do it all again.
They wouldn’t repair the course completely to its previous state. During the fires a 160-year-old Hemlock tree was uprooted and turned upside down. Hillbilly Golf left the tree there with its roots sticking into the air.
They refer to the 40 trees knocked down as “Hillbilly Pickup Sticks,” and markers and signs around the course show and explain the damage that occurred.
Despite all its trials, Hillbilly Golf is still growing strong. The family atmosphere that has left its mark on so many visitors still runs strong as Hillbilly Golf will open for its 49th season in March.