As a Northeast Tennessee native who loves a good story, I am always fascinated to learn more about the history and backstories of interesting attractions in our region—especially when it has anything to do with Dolly Parton, Dollywood and the Smokies. The more you know and understand, the more meaning and enjoyment are brought to any experience.
So, once upon a time, as I was riding one of my favorite thrill rides in Dollywood, the Barnstormer, I found myself wondering how Dollywood’s “Dreamer in Chief”—that’s Dolly Parton herself, for those who don’t already know—dreamed up this attraction and how it fits into Dollywood overall.
I decided to do a little digging to find out why there is an airplane, a big, beautiful red barn decorated with banners advertising “Dueling Daredevils,” and a huge swinging thrill ride all nestled within this sweet little area of Dollywood called Owens Farm. And wouldn’t you know, I found a treasure trove of interesting backstories once I dug deep enough!
The first clue I discovered was from a story marker I found hanging inside the wall of the barn. It looks like those historical markers you see on the side of the road. In this case, you encounter it just after exiting Barnstormer.
Okay, that makes perfect sense. Owens Farm is named after Dolly’s mother’s family. Rev. Jake Owens was Dolly Parton’s maternal grandfather!
In an interview Dolly gave to the Knoxville News Sentinel in 2011 at the grand opening of Owens Farm (still available to watch on YouTube), she said, “This whole little area we’re calling the Owens Farm? Well, my mother’s people were all Owenses, as you know, and Pete Owens, who’s head of [Dollywood’s] publicity department, it’s dedicated to his family as well… so we’re happy to kind of share that. But we thought it would be a wonderful thing to have it named after my mom’s people, because the Parton name has gone all over the world for all these years, so I want to honor my father and my mother!”
So that solves that part of the mystery about WHY there’s an Owens Farm—but what in the world is a “barnstormer” and what does that have to do with anything? Let’s dig a little deeper…
Since Dolly mentioned him in the interview, I decided to ask Pete Owens, Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations at The Dollywood Company, about the plane and barn theme. If anybody could clue me in a little more, I knew Pete was the one to do it!
Pete filled me in by telling me how “barnstormers” landed their airplanes on Grandpa Jake’s farm, as was typical in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, and offered to take people on rides. After World War I, flyers bought many of the surplus airplanes, often biplanes called a “Jenny” plane, resembling the one exhibited in front of the barn in Dollywood. The fliers would travel the country, land their light planes in fields on farms, and typically charge people a quarter for a ride. Can you imagine how exciting this was for people, especially country folk, back then?!
The Barnstormer ride itself is designed so that you can actually imagine that you are a passenger of one of those daring stunt pilots of that era, flying through the Smoky Mountains over Jake Owens’ farm. The pendulum arms of the attraction, which seat up to 32 riders back-to-back, swing progressively higher and higher with each swing, reaching a maximum speed of 45 miles per hour, 230 degrees of rotation and an unbelievable height of 81 feet! The minimum height requirement to ride Barnstormer is 48 inches.
So, there you have it, folks – the amazing backstory of the daring barnstormers performing in the Dueling Daredevils Aerial Shows on Owens Farm!
Oh yeah! Pete gave me one other little treasure nugget of information that I found really interesting. Did you know that many of the signs and banners hanging throughout Dollywood honor hosts with a long tenure at Dollywood? Well, the “Dueling Daredevils” on the banners in Owens Farm, “Rooster Flanagan” and “Angel Flanagan,” represent and honor none other than Ken Bell, the original President of The Dollywood Company, and Barbara Joines, former Dollywood Vice President and General Manager—both of whom retired around the time this attraction opened. I love how The Dollywood Company loves and honors its hosts!
Once I discovered the backstory, this attraction became all the more exciting the next time I visited. I hope you enjoyed learning more with me, and that your imagination takes flight the next time you visit Owens Farm and Barnstormer!