Living History

American history is documented and categorized by presidential administrations.  However, that does not mean that only presidents make history.  We all have a story to tell.  In the end, long after the poets and the pundits have had their say, we know that we are the ones who have actually lived it.

Kathy Lynn Tergeson was born in Jamestown , North Dakota on March 27, 1960.  The youngest of her farming parents’ six children, young Kathy loved school and history in particular.  During her high school years she traveled and performed many weekends competitively debating on her school’s forensics team until she graduated from Fargo North High School in 1978.  In addition to her academic and competitive prowess, she worked nearly every minute she was not studying to save her college tuition.  By the time she entered Morehead State University to study sociology and history; the farmers’ daughter had already saved over $10,000.

While working on her Master’s degree, Kathy left school and married David Franchuk in 1982.  However, she did finish her studies and earned a Master’s degree in history from North Dakota State in 1987 and returned to her al ma mater as a teacher the following year.

David was a locksmith and the couple moved to Bismarck in 1988 to start their own business.  Kathy agreed to put her teaching career on hold and spend the first year helping to get the family enterprise started, but one year turned into eleven and she never returned to the classroom.

Kathy and David shared a passion for the Smoky Mountains and even as children studied the history of Appalachia from afar.  They had decided early on to move to East Tennessee, but it took more than five years to sell their business so they could live their Smoky Mountain dream.  In 1999, one of their employees bought the locksmith shop and the couple was on their way to their new mountain home.

Shortly before they relocated, Kathy came to Sevier County to look for work.  Having studied Appalachia for most of her life, even though she had never lived here, she had an unusual knowledge of the area.  So, as fate would have it, in February 1999, Kathy walked into the office of the Smoky Mountain Tour Connection in Pigeon Forge and told then owner Abbie Bales she would be moving here in a couple of months and would like to be a tour guide.  But having never lived here or possessing any real family lineage, Bales was polite, but skeptical.

Once Kathy and her husband finally moved to the mountains, she returned to Abbie’s office and convinced her to try her just one time.  She said, “If your customers are not satisfied with me, I will not bother you again.”  Bales agreed, and eleven years and more than 700 tours later, we can safely assume Kathy passed her audition.

As a historian, Kathy knew that the history of these mountains was a collection of stories about the triumphs and tragedies of the people who gave much to call this beautiful place home.  Almost following that same painful tradition, on September 8, 2001, Kathy and David’s life together came to a tragic end when David was accidentally killed during a hike near their new dream home just off the Spur.

Kathy was devastated.  But, the strength of her faith carried her over and through her pain.  “O Lord, the king rejoices in the strength you give; he takes great delight in the deliverance you provide.”  Psalm 21-1

Determined to carry on, a month later Kathy returned to work.  Not being allowed to have her customers see that anything was wrong got her through the day.  Tears and prayers filled the long and lonely nights.

Then, in 2004, Kathy married Mike Gwinn, a very talented local musician who had once been the bass player for Jimbo Whaley’s band when it was called the Pine Mountain Railroad.  Professionally, he is the group sales manager for Mainstay Suites in Pigeon Forge.

Today, in addition to their careers, Mike and Kathy perform what they call “ Hills & Hollows Mountain Music and Storytelling.” Kathy finds most of her material in the local libraries, which have recordings from elders and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park archives.  She also interviews elderly residents herself to learn their stories.

Kathy tells tales about logging in the mountains during hard times, details about the formation of the national park and stories of colorful characters that lived and shaped the culture of mountain life.  Her education and training allows her to bring a distinguishing style to her storytelling.

A talented and accomplished musician, Mike brings the musical perspective to their program. If Kathy shares a story, Mike will usually follow it with a song related to the subject. He mainly plays the guitar, but will also use several unique instruments, such as the Claw Hammer Banjo, a Banjola, which is a cross between a Banjo and Mandolin and the Dojo, a hybrid of the Dobro and Banjo.

Like many of the people she keeps alive through her stories, Kathy Gwinn is a living example that Grace represents much more than simple gifts.  Grace happens in spite of separation and isolation.  For Grace reunites life with life and reconciles one’s self, transforming misfortune into a meaningful vocation by converting misplaced guilt into real courage.

“History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.” – Sir Winston Churchill

Henry Piarrot is the general manager of the SpringHill Suites by Marriott Pigeon Forge.  Please send all story recommendations to


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