A lifelong connection to the Smokies is woven into Barry Hipps’ legacy of service. Thirty-five years ago, Hipps sat on the board of directors for Great Smoky Mountains Association, then known as Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, and later returned to the organization to become a long-time member of GSMA’s retail team.
Hipps comes from three generations of individuals who have dedicated their time and talents to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, including his grandfather, a Civilian Conservation Corps enrollee who is believed to have been assigned to the Smokemont camp. Later, Hipps’ father worked with the Job Corps program located near Oconaluftee Visitor Center. To this day, Hipps reminisces about the special experience of living with several other families on the Job Corps campus, nestled beneath the mountains just beyond the Oconaluftee River, less than a mile from where he would eventually spend his tenure with GSMA.
“I have known and worked with about eight park superintendents—in previous jobs, with Swain County government, and then with GSMA,” Hipps said. “We had relationships with the park and members of the park management staff. When I was on the board, Randy Pope was the park superintendent. I remember Randy participating in the board meetings. I have had many discussions with superintendents and have been involved with many manager meetings during my time with the association.”
During his two terms on the GSMA board, Hipps was employed as general manager of the Cherokee Historical Association, which produced the outdoor drama Unto These Hills at the Mountainside Theatre and Oconaluftee Indian Village. He served in that organization for 20 years before returning to GSMA as manager of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center store in 2006.
“One of the major changes I have seen is the growth of the association,” Hipps said. “If you go back to when I sat on the board of directors in 1987, there has been a tremendous increase in the size and scope of the operation since then.”
While GSMA has grown, so has the number of visitors to the Smokies, and Hipps has witnessed firsthand some significant projects the association has undertaken to serve that growing number. In 2010, the new Clingmans Dome Information Center opened to the public, a project that transformed an old CCC-built restroom structure into an information hub and GSMA store conveniently located at one of the park’s most popular destinations. The following year, the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center opened its doors and began welcoming visitors into an impressive facility complete with a cultural history museum and an enlarged GSMA retail space.
The association provided funding and assisted in the planning for both of these projects that greatly enhanced GSMA’s ability to serve visitors on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. Hipps has observed the growth in visitation at Oconaluftee Visitor Center and the increasing amount of traffic at the Clingmans Dome store. He noted that the smaller Clingmans Dome store—from its humble origins as an old restroom—has become one of the most visited stores in GSMA’s operations, even exceeding the larger Oconaluftee store at times.
“I believe more people are coming, taking the full ride along Newfound Gap Road, and venturing out to Clingmans Dome to visit our store. The Dome is located toward the middle of the park, and for the size of the store and space up there, it is quite an achievement,” Hipps said.
With many hands and hard work, GSMA’s selection of merchandise has also expanded over the years. Hipps has seen growth in sales and business in his time. The variety of items carried in the store has changed and become more vast and more diverse since the beginning days of visitor stores.
“Before I was on the board, rangers only had a few sales items,” said Hipps. At the time, GSMA provided a limited selection of mostly brochures and pamphlets, and park rangers handled the sales of these publications. “Today, we provide a variety of items to appeal to many guests coming into the visitor centers, from plush toys, high-quality publications, and children’s books to apparel, jewelry, candles, foods, and calendars.”
Naturally, in the 35 years since Hipps first got involved with GSMA, its relationship with the park has evolved. Recently, the cooperating association began to step into the role of manning the information desks for the park service, providing relief to the rangers and offering visitors valuable information and education about the Great Smoky Mountains.
“I have a lot of experience doing this as a volunteer,” said Hipps. “Many times, guests would see someone behind the desk and start asking their questions.”
Hipps retired as senior store manager for GSMA’s North Carolina stores in 2014, but he came out of retirement in 2017. After learning of the departure of three employees, Hipps asked if it would be helpful for him to come back to work part-time. He currently works at Oconaluftee Visitor Center as a volunteer at the information desk on Mondays and part-time seasonally in the store.
“It’s what I do,” said Hipps. “It’s a good way to spend my time in my later years of employment. It’s been a great privilege in my life and something I have enjoyed being able to do. When I work my last day—someday—I don’t think I’ll work for pay ever again.”
This story appears in the spring 2023 issue of Smokies Life, which includes a special section of stories celebrating GSMA’s 70th anniversary. If you missed that issue, you can purchase it here. If you would like to receive the magazine in the mail twice a year on a regular basis, you can join GSMA here.