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How Dolly Parton's Childhood Home Became the Dollywood Empire

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The entrance to Dollywood. Photo by Susan Harlan.
The entrance to Dollywood. Photo by Susan Harlan.

"Is this the real house?" asks a woman as she shuffles through the cabin, eating barbecue off a red plastic plate.

"I don't know," says her friend. "Is this the whole thing?"

I'm standing in the replica of Dolly Parton's childhood home at the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Visitors enter the cabin on the left, from a front porch hung with old oil lanterns, and exit to the right. A hallway several feet wide runs along the cabin's interior, and a wooden fence and glass wall separate visitors from the two-room home: you are both in the cabin and not in the cabin, surveying a recreation of the space where Dolly lived with her parents and eleven siblings. Several other people walk through the cabin, marveling at its size. One man laughs out loud. "How many people lived here?" he asks no one in particular.

Dolly Parton's Tennessee Mountain Home. Photo by Susan Harlan.

Lack and excess coexist uncomfortably at Dollywood, where the cabin represents one kind of "Tennessee Mountain Home," and the ever-expanding Dollywood brand another. Dollywood strives to give its visitors a sense that they are at home in the Smoky Mountains, but being at home is about luxury. Those who flock to Dollywood, Dollywood Splash Country, and Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction can stay at Dollywood Cabins, which come complete with bedside jacuzzis in the master suites, "picnic pavilions," swimming pools, and home theaters. And in late July, the latest addition to the Dollywood empire opened its doors: the DreamMore Resort. Like Dollywood Cabins, the resort is geared towards families—visitors are encouraged to "Make the Most of Family Time"—but it markets itself as opulent and grand.

The DreamMore Resort, as a work in progress. Photo by Susan Harlan.

The replica cabin, by contrast, strives to give visitors a glimpse into Dolly's impoverished childhood, which underpins the park's nostalgic vision of Tennessee. A sign proclaims it "the original cabin," with its "original family treasures" that "still stands at its location on Locust Ridge." This year—all year—Dollywood celebrates its 30th anniversary, an opportunity for this world of Appalachian replicas to insist that it is "original." This word is emblazoned on anniversary signage throughout the park. The emphasis on originality relates to Dollywood's insistence on its all-American, down-home authenticity, and the fact that the cabin contains "original family treasures" owned by the Parton family makes it difficult to distinguish between the real and the fake.

The cabin is inseparable from the Great Smoky Mountains. The idea of place is central to all theme parks, which must strike a complicated balance: they should be specific enough to resonate with potential customers and generalized enough to appeal to a wide audience. Disneyland opened in 1955 as a placeless place. Its "Main Street USA" folded all American main streets—already a mythic idea—into a single location that was everywhere and nowhere at once. Some have attributed the failure of Freedomland, which opened in 1960 in the Bronx and was intended to be the "Disneyland of the East," to its geographical specificity. Freedomland was conceived of by Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood, who worked in the planning, construction, and management of Disneyland before a falling out with Walt Disney. The park included zones such as "Little Ole New York," "The Great Plains," and "The Old Southwest."

But Dollywood is absolutely geographically specific, and it is successful. Divided into ten zones—Country Fair, Showstreet, the Village, Craftsmen's Valley, Rivertown Junction, Wilderness Pass, Timber Canyon, Owen's Farm, Jukebox Junction, and Adventures in Imagination—it is a consumable, artificial version of the mountains that lie just beyond its walls. Some theme parks create fantastical worlds, promising the possibility of escape from the everyday. But Dollywood encourages visitors to confuse the actual Great Smoky Mountains with those represented in it.

[The kitchen. Photo courtesy of Dollywood.]

The cabin stands close to the park's entrance, suggesting that you need to see it before moving on to other offerings. The kitchen walls are covered with floral wallpaper and old newspapers and hung with cast iron pans and enamel mixing bowls. The table is set with plates and aluminum coffee cups. A kettle sits on the stove, and the shelves are lined with earthenware jars, rusted tins, and even a container of Spam. On the floor are baskets filled with firewood and pumpkins, and by the stove are a broom and a butter churn. A washing basin stands between the kitchen and the bedroom, on top of which rests a container that has been turned on its side and labeled "LYE SOAP." The date of 19 January 1946, Dolly's birthday, is circled on a calendar for Ward's Cow-Feed and Pride Hog and Pig Feed in Nashville.

A two-thirds wall separates the kitchen from the bedroom. Lace curtains hang in the bedroom window, and the couch has been pushed up against the bed, which is covered with a quilt that brings to mind Dolly's patchwork "Coat of Many Colors" that she immortalized in the 1971 song:

Every piece was small,
And I didn't have a coat
And it was way down in the fall
Momma sewed the rags together
Sewin' every piece with love…

Two necklaces hang on the wall above the bed, as do several old photographs of her parents. When I sit down on the floor in the hallway, I see that there are wooden toys stored under the bed.

The bedroom, towards the kitchen. Photo by Susan Harlan.

As people pass through the cabin, the refrain is always the same: Look at this; look at that. Look at that jar of buttons. Look at that old stove. Look at that cool sewing table. Look at those plates. But no one stays for long.

The bedroom. Photo by Susan Harlan.

Outside, a sign identifies the house as the "Tennessee Mountain Home" mythologized in Dolly's 1973 song: "These mountains and my childhood home have a special place in my heart. They inspire my music and my life. I hope being here does the same for you! Dolly." This pink signature, which reappears on other signs throughout the park, authenticates and approves this replica as a potential source of inspiration for "you," a key term at Dollywood that draws the visitor into Dolly's story. Another sign by the front porch explains the cabin's genesis:

Behind the house is a performance space called the Back Porch Theater, and standing outside on one side of the house, I can see where the musicians' instruments are stored. But the cabin is another sort of set. Inside, it resembles a stage before a show starts, silent and empty, everything frozen and waiting to be animated by performers. The recessed spotlights in the ceiling add to this effect.

Perhaps surprisingly, the replica of Dolly's childhood cabin does not fit in its environment. Although Dollywood is certainly about Dolly Parton, the cabin is jarringly personal in this largely generic landscape. The park's gristmills, barns, and country stores are also replicas, but these buildings are types. A barn in Dollywood represents all barns in Tennessee, not a particular barn. The replica cabin is hers—and her family's—and this makes it strange.

The Dollywood Express. Photo courtesy of Dollywood.

The cabin is also odd because it is a copy of a real place that is just a few miles away, tucked up in the mountains. Like Dorothy's house in The Wizard of Oz, it is both an actual home and a symbol of home, relocated where it does not belong.

Most of the buildings at Dollywood contain things that you can buy, from souvenir coffee mugs, magnets, and key chains to old-timey objects like harmonicas, pony sticks, and bags of gum balls. The wares of the working blacksmiths, potters, belt makers, glass blowers, and slate painters in Craftsmen's Valley are all for sale. But there is nothing to buy in the Tennessee Mountain Home. This is, in part, why visitors shuffle though the house so quickly: they don't know what to do if they can't take anything with them.

The cabin's lost and remembered scene of childhood isn't about consumption; it is about nostalgia. Although we tend to think of nostalgia as a desire for the past, the word comes from the Greek nostos, which means a longing for home. At Dollywood, the home is the origin point for how you understand yourself and your life, and so it proliferates.

The next home is in the Chasing Rainbows Museum. Inside the museum, I walk through several rooms of photographs depicting Dolly with other celebrities and then, eventually, I find myself in an attic.

The museum gathers together costumes, video recordings, awards, posters, and albums from her career, but before I can access this, I must return to the domestic sphere. This jumbled storage space is filled with furniture, clothes, paintings, records, film posters, suitcases, mannequins, lamps turned on their sides, and a gramophone: all symbols of Dolly's career success.

The attic in the Chasing Rainbows Museum. Photo by Susan Harlan.

And Dolly herself is there as a ghostly hologram to explain what this attic means. She speaks of the importance of "the memories of all the people who helped my dreams come true." She also compares the museum to "a special drawer" that we all might have: a space that is filled with the detritus of our own memories—ticket stubs, receipts, and what-not. And so the attic becomes a figure for memory itself.

The hologram of Dolly. Photo by Susan Harlan.

In the replica cabin, every family object had its place. But the attic is—like all attics—a disorganized mass of things: a space arranged to look unarranged. Dolly's stories and songs about her childhood emphasize her lack of material possessions, but the attic in the Chasing Rainbows Museum moves away from this, presenting a successful adult version of Dolly, defined by meaningful objects and memories.

The second replica of her childhood home, with the Coat of Many Colors in the background. Photo by Susan Harlan.
In the next room, I encounter the facade of yet another childhood cabin. This second replica is simpler than the Tennessee Mountain Home, with only a kitchen stove, a table, and dishtowels hanging on a clothesline. Off to one side, and behind glass, is a cradle in a nursery. Like the attic, this second cabin incorporates Dolly's own stories in voice-over and in panels on the walls: We had two rooms, a path and running water—if you were willing to run get it, that is.

Another wall panel describes the beginning of her career:

I would sit up on top of a woodpile playing and singing at the top of my lungs. Sometimes I would take a tobacco stake and stick it in the cracks between the boards on the front porch. A tin can on top of the tobacco stake turned it into a microphone, and the porch became my stage. I used to perform for anybody or anything I could get to watch.

As she tells a story of a tornado that spared the house after the family prayed, her voice fills the space like the sound of a benevolent god.

Dolly's Home-on-Wheels. Photo courtesy of Dollywood.

Theme parks often present idealized worlds. At Dollywood, this ideal is your childhood home to which you long to return. But you also know that a return is impossible. As I exit the museum, I pass the last of Dolly's homes: her tour bus, or "Home-on-Wheels." Dolly's friends Don and Ann Warden designed the interior of this $750,000, forty-five-foot long bus, and he drove it for fifteen years. It made more than 100 non-stop trips from Nashville to Los Angeles, traveling 600,000 miles over the years. Though it is now permanently parked in front of the museum, it represents transience and travel: life on the road, not a grounded Tennessee Mountain Home.

Dolly's bedroom and bathroom in her Home-on-Wheels. Photo courtesy of Dollywood.

This is the final magical transformation that Dollywood performs: the change of the home not just into memory, like the replica cabin and the attic, but into a moveable and grown-up form. The tour bus represents the achievement of a career that, the park insists, was assured by providence, from when Dolly was a little girl with her tobacco stake microphone in her hand. You should "chase your dreams," she says, but there is a dark side to this. You must also leave your home behind, and success means the loss of it. This home can be copied and remembered, and maybe even revisited, but it gradually recedes from view, miles beyond the theme park, up in the mountains, invisible.

· Dolly Parton coverage [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]