By Matthew Wendler
It was an annual tradition for the men of the Martin Family to spend Father’s Day weekend in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. William Martin, his father Clyde, his 9-year-old son Douglas, and his 6-year-old son Dennis had entered the park June 13, 1969. His two sons were beaming as they exited the car and prepared to set out into the woods. This trip would be Dennis’s first camping experience overnight in the wilderness.
The Martin’s hiked a few hours along the vast trails until they reached a point called the Russell Creek Shelter, where they would stay for the night. They were accompanied by another family, consisting of a father and his two young sons. Oddly enough the two families shared the same last name.
It was around 4 p.m. the next day when the families arrived in an area of the park called Spence Field. The spot was located near a path called the Appalachian Trail, which ran along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. This was the place they intended to camp for the night.
To pass the time, the children decided to engage in a game of hide and seek. After 30 minutes of playing amongst the grassy meadow, the boys found themselves huddled together and plotting a prank to scare their families. The plan was to quietly sneak up near the men and jump out simultaneously with loud shrieks sure to surprise them. Worried his bright red shirt would give them away, Dennis was told to sneak in from another direction at a farther distance up the hill.
William watched Dennis duck behind a bush close to the treeline near the Appalachian Trail. The three men heard the boys discussing their plan and decided to play along with the prank. When the kids jumped out at them from a nearby bush, the men gave startled cries before bursting into laughter along with the children. All of a sudden, things got quiet. William looked around, expecting to see his son among the group or in the distance, but Dennis had not come out of his spot.
William called out for Dennis and checked around the bush he last saw him by, but found no sign of the young boy.
The man began to panic and started heading west along the Appalachian Trail in a desperate attempt to find his son. Roughly two miles of ground was covered before William turned back without a hint as to where Dennis had gone. Clyde hiked a nine-mile trek to the nearest rangers station in Cades Cove and reported Dennis as missing person around 8:30 p.m. An overnight search was launched by the park, but a heavy rain storm hampered and added complications to the ranger’s efforts.
What followed the largest and most extensive search in the park’s history. Over 1,400 people had volunteered to help look for Dennis, including the Army National Guard, Special Forces, the Knoxville Fire Department and Boy Scouts. Long periods of rainfall would occur throughout the search, causing many of the trails to flood and possibly washing away key pieces of evidence.
The U.S. Army Green Berets were called in to help with the search and had a base established within the park. They had little communication with the park service workers and denied their offer to act as escorts. Some people question whether the Green Berets had found something not known to the public.
A trail of child-sized prints were found leading to a stream in the park June 17, 1969. The prints indicated the person who left them had only worn one shoe. It was determined the shoe track was the same type Dennis wore the day he disappeared. Authorities dismissed the information and believed the tracks had come from one of the Boy Scouts helping in the search.
As weeks passed, new information was uncovered about an odd sighting witnessed in the park the day Dennis disappeared. Harold Key was hiking with his family that day near an area known as Rowan’s Creek around 5 p.m. It was located roughly seven miles from where Dennis was last seen. Key claimed to have heard a loud, troubled scream in the distance as they advanced along a trail. Shortly after, Key’s son claimed he could see a bear and pointed towards a shape darting across the path. The shape, however, was not a bear, but a large, disheveled middle-aged man. He moved anxiously toward the bushes as though he was trying not to be seen and quickly made his way in the direction the Key’s came from. The man allegedly had something large slugged over his shoulder.
When Key heard of Dennis’s disappearance, he reflected on the suspicious man he had seen and wondered if there was a connection. Key phoned the F.B.I. and reported the sighting, claiming he’d show them where this incident occurred. The F.B.I. later interviewed Key and told him not to tell anyone what he had seen.
William found out about the Key family’s sighting through a reporter and became furious. Both the park service and the F.B.I. had agreed to inform William of all information they’ve gathered during the search. When asked for an explanation for why the sighting was kept from him, the F.B.I. regarded the sighting as irrelevant and claimed no one could make that distance on foot within such little time.
A tracker for the park service named Dwight McCarter decided to investigate this claim and hiked the distance from Spence Field to Rowan’s Creek. He completed the trek in nearly 90 minutes, debunking the F.B.I.’s claim. William had also hiked the distance and made it at roughly the same time as McCarter. Their investigation, as well as the sighting from the Key family, added to the belief of the idea that Dennis had been abducted.
There is a legend told of a group of feral wildmen that live deep in the woods of the park. Some people suggest one of these men who had kidnapped Dennis and that the Green Berets were only called in to exterminate them. McCarter had made mention of one man that lived off the grid in the park, but he was hardly feral and stayed at a secluded cabin many miles out from Spence Field. The wildmen theory is interesting, but most likely comes from a minor detail taken out of context.
In contrast, there are many people who believe that Dennis had just wandered off too far and got lost in the woods. The conditions he had to face through the nights he was alone could have caused him to die of exposure. While it sounds reasonable, it has to be questioned why Dennis would walk away, especially when his mind was already set on sneaking up and scaring his family.
It was later found in 1985 that a man failed to report the discovery of a child’s skeletal remains in the park many years earlier. The man was illegally harvesting ginseng from the park at the time and didn’t originally report the find as he feared he’d be prosecuted. He claimed the skeleton was located by an uprooted tree in an area known as Big Hollow. An investigation was conducted there shortly afterwards, but too much time had unfortunately passed and the remains were unable to be located. The search for Dennis Martin was called off Sep. 11, 1969 with no true explanation for his disappearance.