Just the Facts

New Greenway feature – A tribute to McRae’s legacy

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Deena Bouknight

Journalist and historian Barbara McRae wrote much about Macon County when she was alive, and much has been written about her since she died in March 2021. On June 23, McRae was once again the focus of attention during a gathering to dedicate the Barbara McRae Memorial Viewing Platform, located near the Big Bear Park picnic and playground area of the Little Tennessee River Greenway.

A two-year project motivated by McRae’s love of the wetlands and the birds that thrive there, the platform was designed by Ed Haight, who was also the site manager. The project involved at least a dozen volunteer builders and an 11-member planning committee. Members of the Friends of the Greenway (FROG) and Franklin Bird Club, both of which McRae was involved, made up the majority of volunteers. Student painters with the Lyndon B. Johnson Job Corps in Franklin painted the completed platform. 

ARTIST JOHN Sill created the signs marking the location of the viewing platform. Other posted signs call attention to the birds, wildlife, and plants in the wetlands habitat.

According to one of the dedication’s speakers, Rita St. Clair, a member of FROG and secretary of the executive committee, many entities had to be involved in the planning and construction of the viewing platform to make sure that the wetlands were protected, the proper permits were obtained, approval was achieved, and more. 

“I’m proud to say that only private donations covered the cost of the project (around $18,000),” she said.

“Everyone involved did an excellent job,” commented Macon County Board of Commissioners Chair Gary Shields, just before he pulled the ribbon on the entry ramp to the platform. 

MACON COUNTY Board of Commissioners Chair Gary Shields with Friends of the Little Tennessee Greenway’s Rita St. Clair prepares to cut the ribbon as part of the June 23 dedication of the Barbara McRae Memorial Viewing Platform.

A vice mayor for the Town of Franklin, McRae was also a naturalist and community leader, having spearheaded such efforts as the Women’s History Trail, “Sowing the Seeds of the Future” sculpture, and much more. In fact, another site named for her is a little farther down the Greenway, at the half-mile marker. The Barbara McRae Cherokee Heritage Apple Trail includes cultivars of mostly apple trees, as well as a few peach trees, established by Cherokee farmers – much like the fruit trees that once grew along the Little Tennessee River. 

“Barbara was a rare spirit who found something to be joyful about every day,” said Stan Polanski. “She had a child-like curiosity about the natural world.” 

Stan and his wife, Mary Polanski, who worked with McRae on many projects, reminded attendees that McRae wrote a weekly nature column and much of her inspiration and content was gleaned from viewing the wetlands as well as other areas around the Greenway. 

“Barbara would be jumping up and down happy about this platform,” said Mary. “Our admiration of her motivated us to take this opportunity to revel in the outdoors.” 

STAN AND Mary Polanski shared about Barbara McRae prior to the ribbon cutting for the viewing platform.

Mary shared that during McRae’s battle with cancer, she wrote daily Haiku poems – many of which focus on nature topics. 

“Light through bare trees; wetland woods; here the healing starts,” was one that Mary read. 

“Why this location?” John Sill asked at the dedication. “Because, if you wanted to find Barbara, chances are she was right in this very spot – watching birds and taking photographs of them. Now others can enjoy this rich environment. Barbara was not a tall woman. With that in mind, this platform has a good vantage point – above the growth. People can come and enjoy the window to the world that is out there.”

St. Clair noted that even before the dedication took place, vandals had already defiled the memorial platform with graffiti. She expressed hope that the Barbara McRae Memorial Viewing Platform would be protected and experienced as a place for solace and reflection as well as a site to experience the wildlife in the wetlands.