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Transformation at Tremont

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Story by Sherri Gardner Howell | Photography courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains Institute At Tremont 

The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont celebrates a big birthday this year: 50 years as a learning center.

While the roots of Tremont go even deeper, the formation of Tremont dates to 1969. It was then that a group of intrepid local educators and citizens dreamed of transforming a soon-to-be-demolished Job Corps center inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into outdoor classrooms – a residential environmental learning center.

First, a brief history lesson: Tremont is in Walker Valley, which was first settled by the William Marion Walker family in the late 1800s. “Wild Will” was said to have kept his family fed by beekeeping with more than 100 hives providing honey that he sold to neighbors. He later opened his valley to tenant farmers. When W.B. Townsend started Little River Lumber Co. in 1901, many of the Walker Valley folks moved out to find work in logging. It was the logging company folks who combined “tree” with “mountain” and named the area “Tremont.”

When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park became a reality, Townsend sold the land to the Department of the Interior, which was establishing the boundaries of the park. Tremont became a hiking destination. In response to the dreams of that citizens’ group, Maryville College and the National Park Service founded the Tremont Environmental Education Center in 1969.

Other milestone years include 1980, when the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association took control of the educational center; 1985, with the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont; and 2000, when the institute became independent of the Natural History Association and master of its own fate.

The roots of the past give a good foundation for what the Tremont board and staff, led by President and Executive Director Catey Terry, call the “transformational years.”

The transformational years, says Terry, mean not only growth for Tremont but also reaching beyond the institute’s boundaries. “What we are trying to do is export the style of learning we do here on our campus to regular classrooms. We want to help teachers feel confident and empowered to take students outside and to use outdoor experiences to connect to that core curriculum and the standards they are trying to meet in the classroom.”

“We are looking not just at the future of Tremont but of education and how to re-imagine education,” says Marketing Manager Laura Beth Denton. “What if every school spent half of their school day outdoors?”

Tremont hosts more than 80 school groups each year for either three- or five-day residential programs. Teacher Professional Development programs are offered at least six times a year with adult, family and youth programs making up the bulk of the programming year. Colleges and universities offer customized experiences in a variety of fields of study.

Jeremy Lloyd, manager of field and college programs, has been at Tremont for 20 years and sees the mission of the institute as being even more crucial today.

“Cellphone technology is taking over people’s lives, and we all need a place to disconnect,” says Lloyd. “The outdoors is the perfect place for that to happen. Here at Tremont, in a simple phrase, people get to be human again. They have their basic needs taken care of, and they
get to be a spiritual creature outdoors who is thinking, feeling, touching and laughing. From age 9 to 90, people come to Tremont and learn not only about the mountains, the outdoors and the environment, but about themselves and how they relate to the world around them.”

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