High above Jakes Creek near the Elkmont area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits a beautiful, long forgotten cabin with surprising cultural significance. The Avent Cabin was built around 1845 by Humphrey Ownby, making it one of the oldest remaining structures in the Smokies. The remarkable detail that makes this cabin unique is that it was once owned by Mayna Treanor Avent, one of the South’s highly acclaimed artist. Born into a wealthy family in 1868, Mayna’s childhood home was Tulip Mansion located within view of Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage Estate. Mayna was a talented artist from a very young age; when she was 20 she left for Paris where she studied Art at prestigious Academie Julian. After her time in Paris, Mayna returned to Tennessee and married Frank Avent. The two eventually built a home on Belmont Boulevard in the bustling city of Nashville. Mayna’s art garnered praise from far and wide; commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to paint reproductions of two famous portraits, and also by Vanderbuilt University to portray a chairman at the School of Medicine, Avent also has paintings on display in several distinguished museums including Tennessee State Museum.
The Avent family spent much time in their summer home in the Elkmont community of the Smokies. In 1918 the Avent’s bought the small cabin on Jakes Creek from Steve and Eva Ownby who had been given the cabin as a wedding present by Eva’s father Sam Cook. From that point on Mayna spent much of her time at the cabin, making it her official summer studio. The huge southeastern facing window was installed by Mayna’s son Jimmy to let in the beautiful natural light of the Smokies.
It was this window that first drew my attention to this beautiful cabin many years ago when I was a ranger in the Smokies. I was hiking down from Bearpen Gap when sunlight bouncing off the large glass panes caught my eye. I had never noticed the cabin before as it is not on the main trail. On this spring morning I crossed Jakes Creek to get a closer look at the remote cabin. I peered inside the window and felt like I had stepped back in time. Spread before me was a table filled with hand woven baskets, an old oil lamp and books stacked high. Single beds were made up with vintage checkered blankets and fluffy down pillows. In the far corner beside the fireplace stood a corner cupboard handcrafted to fit precisely into this space. I was surprised to see a large spinning wheel sitting near a red ladder that led to a loft. A colorful woven blanket hung behind the spinning wheel. There were intricate oil paintings on blocks of wood; they depicted the view from the cabin porch.
A book in the small kitchen contained notes from visitors that had found this beautiful gem before me. People that had been invited to stay by the Avent family and others like me that had stumbled across this magical place and enjoyed the serenity from the front porch. Stories and memories were recorded in the book including a thanks from a couple of hikers that had found the cabin when a snowstorm caught them by surprise; taking refuge in the cabin, the hikers had left 3 dollars to replace a screen that had been cut so they could get into the cabin. Sitting on the porch that day I didn’t know who Mayna Avent was, but I did know this was a very special place.
Mayna Avent died in 1959 at the age of 91. Her artwork remains to be admired by all; it is a beautiful testament to a talented artist who lived life to the fullest, enjoying the simple pleasures this beautiful place has to offer. In 1994 the Avent cabin was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It achieved this status because it was deemed to be architecturally important, having been built in the mid-1800′s and because it is culturally important, having once been the studio of a renowned artist.
Last week I decided to take my youngest daughter Abby Rose to this special place. After a hearty breakfast at the Pancake Pantry in nearby Gatlinburg, we set out to find the cabin. Exploring the Elkmont community, we took our time going up the trail. It was such a beautiful and warm early spring day and we enjoyed taking pictures of wildflowers that were beginning to bloom up the mountainside. We finally found the small overgrown footpath to the cabin and crossed the long bridge over Jakes Creek. To Abby’s dismay this is the longest footbridge in the Smokies and was a bit shaky as it crossed over the roaring creek. We found the cabin, still standing proud after all these years. We spent some time looking around…most of the furniture is gone now. All that remains are three beds, a hat rack, and the corner cupboard near the fireplace. In the kitchen there is a sink and an old wood stove. Upstairs in the loft the red curtains hanging in the window are torn and tattered now. The bright color hints at the lively place this was when Mayna and her family spent summers here. All is quite now. Except for the roar of Jakes Creek. Abby and I sat on the front porch and shared some vanilla caramels as we listened to the creek. It was so peaceful that Abby took a nap as I explored around the cabin. It is such a wonderful, almost secret place. I love to imagine Mayna creating one of her beautiful paintings in the light of the large window. How blessed she was to have such an amazing place. How blessed I am to get to sit on this porch occasionally. I will be back. Soon.