Watauga Lake in Johnson and Carter Counties, TN

Watauga Lake and Butler, Tennessee

Linked by the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) decision to create a series of dams to generate electricity for the rural south,

Visitor Center Watauga Dam
Visitor Center Watauga Dam

Butler and Watauga Lake are now popular vacation destinations. They have also attracted retirees looking for four seasons, with shorter milder winters, longer springs, cooler summers and colorful autumns.

With no large industries or agricultural activities to pollute the surrounding streams and creeks feeding the lake, and surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest, Watauga Lake is known for its clean waters and beautiful scenery. Gliding over the surface of the lake, imagine yourself Daniel Boone paddling along the Watauga River on his way to “Kentuck”.

Boating, fishing for bass, trout, walleye and catfish, swimming at Shook Branch area, camping at Carden’s Bluff, or picnicking at Watauga Point, the entire family will enjoy a day at Watauga Lake. Although the lake is fed from mountain streams and the Watauga River, during the summer, the water is warm – just right for swimming! And no big waves, no salt, no chlorine – just pure mountain water.

Don’t have your own boat? Pontoon and sailboat rentals are available at Fish Springs Marina (www.fishspringsmarina.com). Pick up sandwiches, drinks and snacks at Fish Tales  for your day on the water. Call ahead and they will have them ready, or drop in and get to know the regulars who enjoy the good food and camaraderie.

Kids enjoy driving on Wataua Lake
Kids enjoy driving on Wataua Lake

Butler and Watauga Lake are also near The Appalachian Trail. The trail runs along the lower edge of the lake, crosses Watauga Dam which created the lake and then continues along the Iron Mountain Trail overlooking the lake and Butler. There are two huts on this part of the trail for hikers who want to do just a couple of days on the trail. The easy access is off Cross Mountain Road (route 91), but the trail also crosses the Watauga Dam road.

In spring and early summer, swimmers at the Shook Branch swimming area are joined by hikers cooling off, or just taking a break before continuing on their 2100 mile journey. If you see AT hikers, they are usually pretty grubby, but ask them about their experiences on the trail – and what their trail name is and how they got it. I’m sure they’d be delighted to share.

Watauga Lake is a good rest for AT hikers
Watauga Lake is a good rest for AT hikers

Old Butler was bought by the TVA starting in the late 1930’s, the homes were torn down, or moved to Carderview (which was to be the “New Butler”) and slowly foundations, roads and fields were covered by 300’ of water drowning Butler, leaving behind only memories. But the citizens of Butler did not forget, nor did they want to lose their town, so they petitioned to continue using the name Butler instead of Carderview.

Rising like the phoenix of old, today, Butler is a busy community with small town values and friendship. There are four marinas two of which rent pontoon boats; a pizza restaurant, two hamburger “joints”, an “all you can eat” Southern style restaurant, a Thai restaurant, a permanent RV facility; the Iron Mountain Inn Bed and Breakfast and cabin rentals (www.mountainlakevacation.com) ;

Colorful Fall in the Tennessee mountains
Colorful Fall in the Tennessee mountains

But what many visitors enjoy, is the Watauga River Valley Museum, usually known as the Butler Museum, built with the help of the inmates at the nearby correctional facility. Shoun Lumber Company, a three generation business in Butler donated the lumber and the former residents of “Old Butler” planned, designed and built the exhibits with help from East Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee’s departments of museums.

To remember "the town that wouldn't drown"
To remember \”the town that wouldn\’t drown\”

Photos, artifacts and memorabilia of “Old Butler” are arranged in groupings depicting life in Old Butler from the time of Native Americans to the December 1, 1948 when the dam was closed and waters began to rise.

Many of the items in the Museum were donated by the families who were moved. Now the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of citizens of “Old Butler” will be able to see what life was like before the Watauga River was dammed. For hundreds of years here in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee families settled, raised children, sent them to schools like the Watauga Academy and passed on the love of the land. Hopefully, the present day families will pass long their land to their heirs.

The family of Stout’s Barber Shop saved his entire shop before they moved away and now it is back in Butler as a reminder of life when people got their news from the barber shop and its denizens.

Generations received their first hair cut here
Generations received their first hair cut here

Tobacco was a main staple of local farmer’s income for a couple hundred years. As a friend commented, “Where else can I earn $6000 on one acre of land?”

Tobacco story at Butler Museum
Tobacco story at Butler Museum

But times have changed and tobacco is no longer as important as it once was. However, most people still plant large gardens from which they eat throughout the following year. August is a very busy time here in the mountains with canning, freezing, cooking and preparing for the winter months.

The docents of the Butler Museum are former residents of Old Butler so their commentary reflects a deep love of their former homes and community. Be sure to ask them to tell some stories about growing up in Old Butler, diving in the swimming hole or meeting friends at the Blue Bird Tea Room.

From the Museum, take a tour of the quilts painted on barns around the county (www.thequilttrail.com) Can you figure out from the quilt on the Cove Ridge Marina barn what it is called?

Butler is within an hour’s drive of a lifetime of things to do, place to go and sights to see. So how about starting with a trip down around the lake through Hampton and Valley Forge to visit the dam which started it all. From there, continue on 91 into the Cherokee National Forest on the back side of the Appalachian Trail, turning right at Cross Mountain road.

See the valley below
See the valley below

Come help clean up Watauga Lake on June 30, 2012.  Meet at Fish Springs Marina we’ll supply garbage bags and t-shirts!  It’s a wonderful day on the water with like minded people interested in helping to maintain the pristine beauty of Watauga Lake.

Share the magic of the mountains with a stay at the Iron Mountain Inn B&B in Butler.

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