By Mike Steely
Monroe County is known for many things. There’s Estes Kefauver’s home and grave, Fort Loudoun, Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, Tellico Blockhouse, Lake Tellico and Hiwassee College. There’s also Bald River Falls, the Cherohala Skyway drive, Coker Creek, Tellico Plains, Sweetwater’s Duck Pond and antique stores, and the nearby Sweetwater Valley Farms with its famous cheese.
But most people around the nation and the world know the county for its bacon. They may not know where Monroe County is but they know and crave the taste of Benton’s Bacon
Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams was formed in 1947 by Albert H. Hicks, who, with his employees, worked his dry-curing hams and bacon into a legend.
The hams are slowly cured using salt, brown sugar and sodium nitrite and aged about 10 months. Hams or bacon are available either unsmoked or hickory smoked. The smoked meat is done in a small wood stove smokehouse behind the business.
Forty-one year employee Arthur Atkins was greeting visitors at Benton’s Hams recently. The small store is located at 2603 Highway 411 North near Madisonville. Allen Benton owns the businesses but Atkins says he’s been there one year longer than the current owner.
“It takes 4 to 6 weeks to smoke bacon and 6 months or longer to smoke a ham,” Atkins said, adding “Brochette Hams can take up to 2 years.”
The small sales office has a huge collection of magazine and newspaper stories about Benton’s along with Benton Tee Shirts and a few other gift items and Tennessee products. But don’t let the store size fool you.
“We get orders from around the world and 70% of our hams and bacon are shipped by UPS to restaurants,” Atkins said.
Nationally known chefs praise the hams and bacon, including Emeril Lagasse, Tom Keller, John Fleer, and Sean Brock. Benton’s features hams from grassfed pigs. The bacon is so popular it is not only a breakfast or dinner item for various recipes, but is also used in bourbon, chocolate, and even caramel corn. Ever had bacon flavored ice-cream?
The Benton store is open Monday through Saturday 8:30 until 5 p.m.
Just up Highway 411 is Vonore with Fort Loudoun State Park and Sequoyah Birthplace Museum. Both are a great side trip while you’re in the area.
Madisonville is just “down” the highway and you won’t want to miss the historic Monroe County Courthouse. It’s in the center of the downtown area and was, in recent history, the site of a constitutional court battle over posting of the Ten Commandments.
The county seat is also the home of Hiwassee College.
South of Madisonville a few miles is Tellico Plains and the entrance to the Cherahala Skyway, a great way to cross the Smoky Mountains into North Carolina. Just before the Skyway starts up the mountain is a side road that takes you to Bald River Falls and the ranger station.
If you continue straight at Tellico Plains (left to the Skyway) you’ll eventually enter Coker Creek, a mountain village that was the site of a thriving gold industry in the 1800s. Some say you can still pan gold from the creek there.