The History of the Old Country Church at Dollywood

Published Dec 21, 2021

Strolling through Dollywood, you’ll spot the little white-painted church with a bell on top and a sign out front: “Robert F. Thomas Chapel.” This is the warm heart of Dollywood, a real church where everyone is welcome.

Why have a church in a theme park? Five decades ago, this park was Goldrush Junction, with an Appalachian history theme. Goldrush Junction built the rustic church in 1973 to reflect the role of religion in 19th-century local life.

Since its opening, long before Dollywood arrived, the church has been the Robert F. Thomas Chapel. Thomas was a local doctor and minister who established clinics, promoted immunization, and traveled, often on foot, to treat anyone in need. Among his thousands of patients was Avie Lee Parton, whose baby girl he delivered in 1946. That girl was Dolly Parton, and her parents paid Thomas with a sack of cornmeal.

Built from Local History

At a mere 48 years old, the church building is young compared to many Appalachian churches. But look closely. Many of the warm, welcoming touches here are much older than the building itself and connect to Sevier County history:

  • Walk through doors crafted in 1891 for the Pleasant Valley United Methodist Church.
  • Sit down on wooden pews formerly used in a local church and a courthouse in the late 1800s. 
  • Look out through the windows, knowing that more than 130 years ago, students gazed out these same windows and daydreamed. The windows come from the county’s first secondary school, open from 1806 to 1890. 
  • The small stained glass window from the early 1900s once graced the First United Methodist Church. 
  • That window’s soft gold and blue hues are the backdrop for the wooden statue of a shepherd Jesus, carved by Dollywood artisans in the 1990s.
  • The chapel bell originally hung in the historic Williamsburg School in Pigeon Forge. 
  • The upright piano used to accompany hymns has seen plenty of services in its 118 years. The piano was the gift of a former Dollywood employee. 

Welcoming Worship

The Robert F. Thomas Chapel holds weekly services. All are welcome to join in 30-minute worship, held Sundays at 11:30 a.m. during Dollywood’s regular season and Sundays at 4:00 during Smoky Mountain Christmas celebrations.

Stay near Dollywood, in a Pigeon Forge cabin, and explore the theme park’s history as well as its rides and shows.

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