The Smokies’ balds are large pastures or meadows atop the mountains. Some of the best known are Gregory’s Bald, Andrew’s Bald, and Spence Field. No one knows exactly how or why they were formed. It was once believed that the Cherokees kept them clear as hunting grounds or lookouts, but the more popular belief today is that they were kept clear by early white settlers for the purpose of grazing livestock.
One thing we know for sure, the balds were once used for cattle grazing, which proved to be a real cash cow, pardon the pun, for the Smokies’ cattle herders. Herds were brought from the surrounding area, from as far as sixty miles away, to graze atop the Smokies. The herds were driven to the balds in the late spring and back down to the lowlands in the early fall. The cattle herders, like Cades Cove’s famous Tom Sparks, charged a $1.00 a head, as long as you provided salt for your herd; otherwise, the price “skyrocketed” to $1.25 a head.
In 1901, a late season blizzard hit the Smokies, trapping newly arrived herds with their drovers in five feet of snow. The herds froze to death and their drovers, trapped with the Smokies’ herders in their herder’s shack, a small shelter meant to accommodate no more than one or two people, were forced to risk life and limb descending the mountain. It was a flight for their lives in the scariest of snowstorms. Fortunately, they all lived to tell the unfortunate news of the death of their herds.
Once down off the mountain, the dozen or more drovers made their way to Squire William H. Dunn’s house, which was located on the edge of today’s Townsend. They knew the good squire would be hospitable and willing to help them. However, Squire Dunn’s house was surprisingly crowded, not only with his own large family, but with a number of surveyors from Pennsylvania doing work in the mountains. With nowhere for the blizzard-beleaguered drovers to bed down in his house, Squire Dunn graciously and quickly made arrangements for them to be fed and shelter in a nearby school.
For the most part, the Smokies’ cattle herding enterprise ceased with the great blizzard of 1901. Most nearby cattle owners were no longer willing to risk their herds and livelihoods on the unpredictable mountaintop pastures of the Great Smoky Mountains. Ironically, this once lucrative cash cow of the Smokies was to be replaced by the far more lucrative iron horse; for in a strange twist of fate, the Pennsylvania surveyors who left no room for the drovers in Squire Dunn’s house, were known as the “Clearfield Men,” the leader of whom was Colonel W. B. Townsend. No one could have imagined at that time the unimaginable change the winds of the 1901 blizzard had brought to the mountains.