When the men in dark suits first came to the mountains, the boy thought them exceedingly odd creatures.
Though barely more than a tot, the boy had already seen many a stranger pass by his daddy’s farm on the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After all, the 34-acre spread sloped all the way down to the meandering dirt road that cut through Swift Run Gap. Travelers used the well-worn route to make the journey between the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the rolling Virginia piedmont to the east.
It was the Depression, and many were drifters from the lowlands, looking for work and shelter and maybe a scrap of food along the way. The boy’s family would often leave bottles of fresh milk for them in the creek that trickled cold spring water below the farm. Despite the hard times, the cash-poor farm people could afford to be generous. They had cattle, horses, sheep, and turkey, along with other livestock; they had myriad vegetable gardens and orchards of apple, peach, and cherry trees. The altitude protected the crops from the bugs and blight down below.
Much of the nation was a dust bowl, but up here in the Blue Ridgeor at least in this snug hollow between Saddleback and Hightop mountainsthe land was forgiving.
All kinds of stragglers stopped by the farm, and no one was turned away. But the men in suits didn’t behave like most visitors, who were usually polite and gracious. These newcomers weren’t here for handouts, and they offered no greetings. Instead, they sauntered around in their city shoes all businesslike, as if they owned the place.
The boy and his siblings were curious about these silent strangers and peppered them with all sorts of questions. “We’d ask ’em, ‘What’s your name?’ You know, we were kids,” recalls Fred Collier, now a white-haired, ruddy-faced man of 71. “They’d say, ‘You don’t have a need to know.’”
The ill-mannered men in fancy garb quickly drew the derision of the mountain kids, who were put off by the stubborn foolishness of grown-ups trying to play them for fools. “We said, ‘This is the dumbest bunch of people there ever was’they didn’t know where they came from, they didn’t know where they was goingthey didn’t even know their own names,” adds Collier.
Not preachers nor missionariesthe men hadn’t any Bibles or pamphlets to save souls. Not revenuers nor lawmenthey hadn’t any badges or guns to arrest people.
They carried slates to jot down their relentless calculations: head count, room count, livestock count. Ten children. Two milk cows. And so on. Just sizing everything up. And saying nothing. They were bureaucrats, and they didn’t give a fig for these mountain people any more than they did for the local wildlife. They were interested in the land.
The men’s grim demeanor and dark, formal suits were appropriately funereal, because their presence spelled the death warrant for the Collier farm. It would soon be wiped off the map, along with hundreds of others scattered along the Blue Ridge.
With one stroke of a pen in Washington the region had been designated a proposed national park, which would make it a no man’s land barred to all but paying customers. Back in the early ’20s, the authorities had targeted this stretch of the Blue Ridge for a large, scenic park that would rival the Yellowstones and the Yosemites, which had been wowing sightseers out west for decades. Here would be another bucolic paradisethis one in the eastfor city folk to visit for a picnic, all within driving distance of the nation’s capital.
Unlike those vast western parks, which were mostly virgin, unpopulated wildernesses carved from public-domain territory, the Blue Ridgethe most ancient range of hills on the continentwas home to the Colliers and many other families.
To make the park a reality, the government uprooted a community of mountain dwellers whose roots in the hollows of the Blue Ridge stretched back for generations. For them, the lowlands to which they were evicted were more alien than Mars, as one resident put it. Some resisted, and the authorities responded in kind. They condemned the properties of those who refused to sell, they made arrests, and they torched homesteads in the presence of their owners.
Like any displaced or defeated people, the Shenandoah refugees have preserved their bitterness. More than a half-century later, the painful legacy of forced resettlement still lingers in the surrounding hills, whether at the dinner table or in coffee talk at country stores. Ask an old-timer about the park and you may get a scowl and a simple, clenched-teeth retort: “They stole our land.” More than likely you’ll just get stony silence; many deem it a taboo topic not to be broached among strangers. Still others are more philosophical, if no less disheartened.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say it was a good thing that they moved us outfor the land and the people,” says Collier, who lives in plain view of the Blue Ridge, from which his family was exiled so long ago. “That’s hogwash. I can see when they want to preserve something for somebody else. I’m all for that, like when you’ve got a rare species at stake. But the rare species at stake in this one was the mountain people, and they should have left ’em alone.”
On a weekday night, about 30 people gather at a high school in Stanardsville, a small town a few miles below the entrance to Shenandoah National Park on Virginian Route 33. The crowd of elderly folks in jeans and work boots, middle-aged couples, and a few stragglers in their 20s settles into seats in the empty cafeteria and gossips away about kinfolk and neighbors.
For three years, the Children of the Shenandoah have been meeting regularly to come to terms with their eviction from the highlands. The group includes former mountain people, their descendants, and sympathizers.
Group founder Lisa Custalow, 30, is a curly-haired heavy-set woman who doesn’t try to hide her country-girl twang. She grew up in nearby Charlottesville, and the stories she heard about the eviction of her mother’s family haunted her childhood. “I used to think that everybody had used to live in the mountains, and then they had to leave,” she says. As she got older, she realized she was different from her peers. Her mother’s maiden name, Shifflett, is one of the area’s most notorious mountain names, a sort of local stereotype for poor, illiterate hillbillies. In high school and college, friends would poke fun at the Shifflett clan, not knowing that Custalow was related. Since becoming a substance-abuse counselor she has heard her colleagues make similar cracks, again ignorant of her family ties.
Custalow grew ashamed of her mountain heritage even though she felt she’d missed out on the good life on the Blue Ridge. While still a student she read an article in a local paper about the displaced mountain people in which a park ranger was quoted saying that in a generation or two there wouldn’t be anyone alive to complain. She showed her mom the article. “She didn’t say nothing. She just got real quiet, and that’s what they always did whenever you’d talk about [the evictions]they’d get real kinda quiet like they didn’t have no fight in them. I guess part of me wanted them to have some more fight in them, and that’s one thing that’s always stuck with me,” says Custalow.
The group is Custalow’s attempt to revise the legacy of the Shenandoah refugeesin the minds of the refugees themselves as well as in the park’s official rendition of events. The meetings function as part family reunion and part group therapy.
This meeting’s main attraction is a video of Custalow and other group members attending the national conference of the Oral History Association in Philadelphia. All women, they are depicted talking about the grief of relocation that has been passed down to them like a family curse. Their wrenching testimonials resemble midnight confessions.
Polly Apperson, displaced as a child and now in her late 60s, vividly recalls the prejudices she encountered when she moved to the lowlands. On her first day of school in her resettlement community, Polly’s teacher marveled that her newest pupil turned out to be a polite, intelligent girl instead of the wild mountain urchin she’d been expecting.
Apperson says she has never before talked to anyone about the burning shame she felt at the teacher’s words. She bows her head and begins to sob into her hands, and several in the audience cry quietly along with her.
Custalow notes that the seeds of her anger over the evictions “were planted really early.” During trips to the old family homestead her mother would stay in the car rather than endure the humiliation of entering the Visitor’s Center, headquarters of her lifelong enemy. She recallsnow sobbing as wellthat when she told her mother about the Children of the Shenandoah she warned her that it might only dredge up all that pain again, and all those horrible things people used to say about them. “I said, ‘But Mama, I’m going to try and change that.’”
After the screening the audience applauds enthusiastically. “It seemed almost for the first time we were able to talk about our families with a sense of pride instead of a sense of shame,” gushes Custalow about the experience in Philadelphia. “Even though we’ve done that here at our meetings, to do it somewhere else and be so warmly receivedit meant a great deal to us.”
“It was interesting,” pipes up a bright-eyed elderly woman from the back. “I didn’t bat an eye except to wipe the tears.”
Her quip eases the tension as the audience titters.
“Well, the more it’s told, the less tears there’ll be,” adds another old woman.
As the meeting breaks up, Jimmy Brown, a burly, bearded man in jeans and flannel shirt, lingers at a front table, thumbing through a worn file that contains his family’s Blue Ridge saga. There are Library of Congress photographs of his great-grandfather, William Austin Brown, who was the postmaster at a tiny crossroads at the foot of Old Rag Mountain in the middle of what’s now parkland. It’s the oldest mountain on the ridge, boasting a granite peak more than a billion years old.
Brown shows off one photo he’s particularly fond of: His great-grandfather, a dignified gentleman sporting a prophet’s long, white beard, sits reading at a table in a neatly furnished room. On the wall above hang prints of the Roman Coliseum and a chanteuse.
“He had a nice two-story frame house, not like the log cabins you read about,” says Brown. “This is probably the most reproduced photo of the park. It was in a paper in Paris, and the caption said, ‘What an educated man he was. He even had a picture of the Roman Coliseum.’”
Brown holds a worn, faded envelope and points proudly to the postmark: Old Rag, Jan. 12, 1936, the day the post office closed for good. Before then the village boasted a store and two churches. All that exists now is a foundation or two undergoing an archaeological survey.
Though Brown now resides in the lowlands, he’s keeping the family tradition alive. He delivers mail in Madison County, east of the Blue Ridge, and his wife is postmistress of nearby Reva.
A gruff, gray-haired man named Bob Johnson tells me not to be misled by the evening’s presentationthe evictions didn’t mean gloom and doom for everyone. Like Collier and Apperson, he was just a child when the park was formed. His father sold his property and moved his family down the mountain, where they greatly improved their economic fortunes. As an adult, Johnson worked for the park for nearly 40 years before his recent retirement. Now he spends volunteer time helping to map the park’s cemeteries.
He claims the majority of the mountain people not only fared well in the lowlands, they prospered.
But Custalow and the Children of the Shenandoah are still angry at the parknot just for the evictions, but also for the park’s subsequent whitewashing of events. For them, it’s a double crime, and both times park officials have propagated lies about the mountain people.
Through the years the saga of the mountain people has been reduced to a few condescending words in park brochureswords implying that these were wretched folk saved from a squalid existence. The diversity of their culture was likewise whittled down to a single image at a Visitor’s Center exhibit: a photo of a destitute farmer sitting on the porch of his run-down cabin and staring at a parched field.
Custalow says repeated complaints from her group prompted the photo exhibit’s recent removal, but there are many other grievances yet to be addressed.
Topping the list is an orientation film, The Gift, which the National Park Service shows to many of the 2 million visitors every year at the Byrd Visitors Center at Big Meadows. The 20-minute film, which was produced in the ’60s, features panoramic views of the park that capture the glory of the Blue Ridge. It also contains archival footage, including clips of a stirring dedication speech by President Franklin Roosevelt.
What it glosses over are the mountain people, whose brief appearances are punctuated by crude, clichéd banjo music, and photos and newsreels of impoverished locals and drought-ridden hollows. The mass eviction is dismissed with a breezy summation: Some land was not given up willingly….Several hundred families still living in the park were settled nearby.
For the Children of the Shenandoah, the interpretation of the evictions is pure park propaganda. And Custalow argues that the film’s title suggests that her ancestors got together and decided to donate their land to the park service. In fact, the “gift” refers to the land that Virginia acquired and then presented to the feds for the national park.
Park officials agree that the film is no more sensitive to the mountain people than were their evictors. “It’s patronizing, and there are a few buzzwords in there,” says Reed Engle, cultural historian at Shenandoah National Park. “We want to redo it, but we can’t right now.” The problem is that there’s simply no money for such an undertaking, which would cost as much as $100,000.
Engle, who’s been park historian for just three years, is part of a new administration that even Custalow admits has been supportive of her group. Engle and his cohorts are making a concerted effort to finally tell the whole story of the park, one that includes an objective reassessment of the displaced mountain people.
Worn and weathered by eons of tempests, the Blue Ridge belongs to the Appalachian chain, the oldest mountain range in the New World. Rounded and inviting rather than imposing, they share little in common with the postcard-perfect grandeur of the steep, preening Rockies, which are always suitable for framing. It’s hard to imagine Ansel Adams pointing his camera at these tired hills: The hazy, hallucinatory Blue Ridge simply won’t translate to Kodak.
In some ways, the mountains are even more striking in winter than during their peak sightseeing season, when motorists jam Skyline Drive to marvel at the world-famous display of autumn foliage. There are no leaves to block the breathtaking vistas that President Herbert Hoover called “the greatest in the world” back when the 100-mile-long, 195,000-acre park consisted mostly of cleared land.
During the stark off-season even the casual observer can catch a glimpse of the life left behind by the mountain people. In the bare woods off a trail that follows the curving road near the north end of the park stands the stone foundation of a mountain home. Amid the chaos of uprooted, storm-strewn trees, its slabs are remarkably intact, a tribute to some expert masonry; the house might have been snatched away by a twister the day before. From the back, a rusty pipe snakes toward a nearby spring, gurgling with crystal-clear water.
Back across Skyline Drive, down below two flat shelves of what were terraced gardens, gray stones poke from a grove of scraggly boxwoods on the mountainside. This is the family graveyard, a still-tidy plot of century-old slabs that mark the final resting places of several infants. Authorities razed most of the homesteads shortly after the park opened, to obliterate the distracting signs of man’s presence and to return the land to nature.
So along with foundations, chimney ruins, and crumbling stone walls, the graveyards are pretty much all that remain of the people who lived and died here. They provide an important symbolic anchor for the mountain refugees and their descendants, who still hold funerals in the park.
The graveyard affords a grand prospect of Shenandoah Valley stretching toward Massanutten Mountain on the horizon. This was the view from this family’s front yard.
From this vantage point, it’s no wonder so many people who have visited the park request that their ashes be thrown to the winds of the Blue Ridge. And it’s also no wonder that the people who came here so long ago stayed until the government exiled them.
The Blue Ridge presented the first formidable natural barrier that 18th- and 19th-century pioneers encountered as they headed west. Hordes of fortune seekers poured through the gaps, but some liked what they found on the mountaintop. To hell with Lewis and Clark and the endless land rush, the Blue Ridgers had found their own version of the promised land right here. They stayed behind and put down roots. And those buried just off Skyline Drive were their descendants.
The pull of the mountains was as much practical as it was mystical. This was a refuge to make an independent living, free from the plantation system that ruled the Old Dominion. Some mountaineers were former indentured servants, and now they had their own farms to rule over as they pleased.
“A large part of the American dream, whether dreamed by a Jost Heydt with chests of gold or by an Amos Corbin, who reached Corbin Hollow without funds to buy land but made a home anyway, was to live uncrowded in peace and freedom surrounded by beauty and abundance,” writes Darwin Lambert in his natural/cultural-history tome, The Undying Past of Shenandoah National Park. “This dream came true for a large proportion of the park-land people. Few of them ever had much money, but far from being deprived, they could and usually did draw on a greater diversity of abundance than the average lowlander could afford.”
But the highlanders’ good life ended abruptly when the government decided that their land
of abundance would serve better as a national park than as the stomping ground for a bunch of hillbillies.
Many stoically accepted their predicament, sold their land, and came down from the ridges. Collier’s father got $1,000 for his property and moved his family into a resettlement area off the mountain. But others defied the order, and government officials condemned and seized properties at will. One 62-year-old man was arrested, handcuffed, and bodily removed; local deputies dumped out his belongings and boarded up his house. In other instances, authorities torched homesteads with the families standing right outsideto convince them once and for all that it was time to scat.
Before it was all over, authorities had banished more than 500 families from the designated park area. At the time, the mass evictions made national newsnot as a gross injustice but as a sign of progress. This was the News on the March era, and the mountain people made easy scapegoats, pegged as an impoverished, pathetic lot. Reformers agreed that the mountaineers’ eviction was the painful medicine they needed to save them from their own backwardness and help them join the real world. Only by booting them off the mountain, the thinking went, could they be stopped from destroying the land.
News accounts from the period embraced the park plan and the cultural imperialism that informed it. The New York Times championed the project from its inception, and one of the bigwigs on the paper’s editorial board even helped raise funds for the park. In numerous editorials and articles, the Times framed the undertaking as a noble attempt to redeem a ravaged land into “A New Virginia Playground,” according to a banner story in 1936 on the park’s opening. The dedication by President Roosevelt sounded this very theme.
In a sense, though, Roosevelt was simply amplifying park propagandathat the mountain people had ruined their own paradise. In fact, a severe chestnut-tree blight, clear-cutting by timber companies, and the Depression itself, among other catastrophes, had done more damage to the Blue Ridge in less than a decade than had centuries of human habitation.
Convenient half-truths like these provided a justification for the park’s creation, while relegating the former inhabitants to white-trash caricatures who deserved everything they got.
And yet the park’s subsequent blossoming as a reclaimed wilderness area makes it an astounding success as an experiment in conservation. More than a half-century later it’s hard to argue that the beautiful Blue Ridge doesn’t truly belong to everyonerather than some early birds who got there first way back when. Especially when you consider that the next mountain over, Massanutten, is now a condo-glutted ski resort run by a development company. So maybe the sacrifice of the mountaineers was a necessary evil after all.
Few have challenged the prevailing view to defend the rights of the forgotten mountaineers, save a handful of academics. “The Shenandoah removal constitutes one more case of the misinterpretation and misrepresentation of Appalachian culture and one more case of cultural chauvinism,” write anthropologists Charles and Nancy Perdue in an article in Appalachian Journal.
However, park officials are starting to fully acknowledge the sins that attended the park’s formation. “It was a very unobjective, one-sided story we told,” says park historian Engle. “There is no single mountain personthey ran the gamut from very wealthy people to very poor people. There was a tendency in that period to characterize them all as snaggle-toothed moonshiners, and that was not accurate.”
The image of mountain people as a malevolent breed of lowlifes is an enduring one with roots in the mysterious Blue Ridge itself.
In his 1845 “Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” Edgar Allan Poe describes a weird excursion in the hills just outside Charlottesville, where he had been a student at the University of Virginia two decades before. In the story, the protagonist embarks on a hike through what is now the southern tip of Shenandoah National Park. The hiker descends into the “thick and peculiar mist” from which the mountains derive their name and gets spooked: “I remembered strange stories told about these Ragged Hills, and of the uncouth and fierce races of men who tenanted their groves and caverns.” Then he makes what may be the first sighting (in literature, anyway) of a Blue Ridge mountain manor rather, monster: “There came a wild rattling or jingling sound, as if of a bunch of large keys, and upon the instant a dusky-visaged and half-naked man rushed past me with a shriek.”
In the depths of the Depression, a pair of University of Chicago sociologists produced an account of Blue Ridge life that seemed to corroborate the experience of Poe’s hiker. In their 1933 study Hollow Folk, Mandel Sherman and Thomas Henry described a fallen peoplenot so much malevolent as patheticeking out a miserable existence in an arid landscape. Focusing on the most impoverished and isolated hollows, their intent was to show how the mountain people symbolized “the growth and decline of human culture.”
They went further than mere condescension, even suggesting that the locals were unpatriotic, since some of the children apparently didn’t know the national anthem. Their book proffered just the sort of barbs needed to convince the public that the mountain people needed to be rescued.
Hollow Folk, which was sold for years at park visitor’s centers, has since been universally denounced as a sham. It is now agreed that it was unscientific and grossly prejudiced, useful only as pro-park propaganda.
Near several of the communities depicted in Hollow Folk stood a resort named Skyland, run by a wealthy Washingtonian named George Freeman Pollock. More than any single person, Pollock was responsible for Shenandoah National Park.
As a young man, Pollock become entranced with the Blue Ridge while surveying his father’s property, and he eventually built a sort of minikingdom in the hills. In 1889, Pollock opened Skyland near Stony Man Mountain, one of the ridge’s highest peaks. Here he hosted statesmen, industrialists, and other famous guests, who rode on horseback from Washington to his rustic, exotic hideaway.
A flamboyant showman, Pollock threw lavish parties, which by the 1920s included massive bonfires, jazz orchestras, snake-handling displays, and costume pageants in which he dressed up as an Indian chief.
Many of the locals became employees of the resort and worked under Pollock. The guests patronized the locals, who likewise played their part in the cross-cultural charade, appearing in rags and clutching busted old squirrel guns to elicit sympathy and charity.
In his memoir Skyland: The Heart of Shenandoah National Park, Pollock delivered a variation on Hollow Folk’s depiction of Blue Ridgers as savages: “The Blue Ridge mountaineer was probably no different from any other Anglo-Saxon; but being ignorant, usually having a chip on his shoulder and being possessed of bulky strength, he had to go through a good many years of ‘mixing’ before he became the docile person he is today.”
In the early ’20s, federal officials began looking for a national park in the east, “a typical section of the Appalachian range established as a national park with its native flora and fauna conserved and made accessible to public use.” By 1924, Pollock was busy crusading for his beloved Blue Ridge, which was competing for the designation with nearby Massanutten Mountain to the west and the Great Smokies down south. He lobbied by inviting government officials to Skyland, and his hospitality did the trick: In 1926, Congress authorized the establishment of Shenandoah National Park.
Virginia officials began to raise the money to acquire the land and planned to present it as a gift to the feds, who would officially designate the area Shenandoah National Park. It was a done deal, really, but the Depression hampered fund-raising efforts and seriously delayed the project.
There was another hitchthose goddamn mountaineers. They weren’t all going quietly, as the authorities had predicted, and there was a crowd of them entrenched in those ridges and deep hollows. There was no single large landowner in these parts, just a lot of small farmers, many of whom were not cooperating with the state officials who came by to survey their land and offer a price. By the the mid-’30s, as Skyline Drive snaked its way down the ridge, several hundred families were still residing in the park.
It wasn’t over yet.
To get to Shaver Hollow, you pass the entrance of the park and head west on Route 211 under Thornton Gap. Then you veer down onto some billy-goat back road that twists and turns and goes up and down, banishing all sense of direction. Skirting the edge of the park, you cross a few creeks on precarious one-lane bridges and go past an open field, where you hang a left onto a boulder-and-gravel driveway that is allegedly another road. If it’s the muddy season (which it’s been since Hurricane Fran swept through), you park your car and hoof it up a steep ravine that corkscrews upward into a meadow. Follow the road all the way around in a half-moon past a retention pond overlooked by two rustic cabins, and turn into a dark, tree-shaded lane framed by a creek on one side and a thick stone wall on the other. The temperature drops as you go up, and you’re on a bona fide hike as you head into the hollow. You reach a clearing where an old log cabin sits in a storybook setting.
You’re not officially in the park anymore, but you might as well be: This is the home of Darwin Lambert, naturalist, author, and historian of Shenandoah National Park. It’s his back yard, and the 81-year-old knows it better than any man alive.
As a young man, Lambert was present at the birth of the park, and he counted many of the evicted mountain people among his friends. Likewise, he remains a friend of nature, and through the years he has watched the wilderness regain its dominion in the Blue Ridge. He remains a strong proponent of the park. If anyone can see both sides of the Shenandoah removal controversy, it’s him.
Lambert and his wife Eileen, a writer and photographer, have lived in the century-old two-story cabin since 1964. To the side of their cozy place is a bamboo grove and small frog pond, their “tad pool,” over which a weeping willow fell several years ago. The couple left the tree undisturbed, and the trunk still sprouts leaves every spring: They call the scene a nature sculpture and even gave it a name, Life and Death Bridge.
Lambert first came to the Blue Ridge long ago, as a teenager trying to escape Washington, D.C. He was an 18-year-old file clerk from Nevada who had come east looking for work during the Depression. Stifled in his office job, he took a bike ride to the mountains and ended up spending the night in the woods. He’s been enamored of the Blue Ridge ever since.
After his excursion, Lambert found out about the proposed park and decided to transfer to a park service position. He took botany classes in the city, and on weekends and school leave he stayed with a mountain family. “I never knew anybody that seemed as happy a family as the Sisks,” he says now.
When the park officially opened in late 1935, Lambert was one of its first employees, but he soon decided he didn’t want a career inching up the park bureaucracy. Instead, he penned the park’s first guidebookcomplete with his own drawings and photos of flora and faunaand other writing projects, which became his trade.
After spending a few years in his native Nevada, where he helped found another national park, Lambert returned for good to Shaver Hollow. “I feel most at home here, and I know these mountains better than any other place. I know more about what makes it tick, the trees and flowers and the wildlife. I feel like I know how to do everything that needs to be done here,” he says.
As a staunch, lifelong advocate of the park, Lambert regards the removal of the mountain people as a necessary evil for a greater good. “I think there could have been a gentler way, and I think the government made some mistakes,” he says.
Even though Lambert feels deeply for the displaced people, he cautions that many, including the Children of the Shenandoah, have romanticized the hardscrabble life of their ancestors: “They couldn’t have lived that way much longer, but it isn’t that they lost so much. It’s simply that somebodyagainst their willshoved them,” he says. “It’s the resentment of somebody doing that to you. It’s a violation of your pride and your independence; and they bitterly disliked that, and I don’t blame them.”
He remembers well the unquenchable anger of evicted families; some returned to set park forests ablaze to get revenge. “They’d say, ‘Red cow’s gonna come grazin’ up your way, if you don’t watch out.’” Even today, Lambert says he’s amazed that no one was killed during the tumultuous events.
There were several close calls.
Melanchthon Cliser, a 62-year-old Blue Ridge native, was the most stubborn mountaineer of all. Cliser ran a filling station and roadside diner called Blue Ridge Lunch on his property, which sat along the old Lee Highway (Route 211) at the top of Panorama Gap at the north end of the park. He lived with his wife of 35 years in a house his father had built.
The government offered Cliser $4,855 for his 46-acre plotan offer Cliser refused over and over. Instead of making way for the park juggernaut, Cliser wrote letters to the secretary of the interior and other high-ranking government officials. He even tried to call the president. Cliser had a simple message for the authorities: He wasn’t moving.
Lawmen nabbed Cliser right in front of his store; he had come out thinking the sheriff and his deputies were merely dropping by as regular customers. They cuffed the stunned Cliser and prepared to haul him in. “You’ve got me, boys, but I ain’t a-goin’ nowhere from now ’til Christmas,” he said. As the deputies waited patiently, Cliser stood proudly in handcuffs and delivered a “quavering” rendition of the entire “Star-Spangled Banner.” He then gave a minispeech of sorts, declaring himself a free man simply defending his constitutional rights.
Even then Cliser refused to leave his mountain perch without further protest. It took four deputies to wrestle him into the sheriff’s car, which whisked him down the mountain to a jail in nearby Luray. Meanwhile, his wife and the couple’s dog, Boodgy, sat defiantly on the front porch, even after authorities removed the couple’s furniture and boarded up the house to prevent re-entry.
For two days in the autumn of 1935 the incident made the front page of the Washington Evening Star, complete with banner headlines and numerous photos. Cliser and his wife moved in with relatives in the lowlands, and he was still tirelessly appealing his eviction more than a decade later, when he died at 75.
There were other ugly altercations. John Mace owned a place near Madison Run. From a spring on his property, he bottled his own quite lucrative brand of “Health Mineral Water,” which he recommended “to all suffering from Eczema, Pimples, Tettor, or other skin diseases, Stomach Trouble, Kidney Trouble, Nervousness, or Loss of Appetite.” Like Cliser, he refused all offers for his property. After deputies finally talked him out
of his house, they chucked out his furniture and belongings and piled them in the yard. Then, with Mace standing by, the authorities burned
John T. Nicholson wrote a poem that tried to describe the despair of his 73-year-old father, who had lived in the mountains all his life. The 28-stanza dirge was published in the June 1, 1934, edition of a local newspaper, the Madison County Eagle. If it hardly qualifies as a work of art, the lamentation has a melancholy that Wordsworth, the great elegist of 18th-century rural England, would have recognized:
In the old mountain home,
For six months more,
Where then shall I go,
Down in the valley,
To perish and to die.
It must be awful, you know,
Some who left, wept and mourned,
And said in words so sad,
I would rather go to my grave
Than to leave my mountain home.
Sad the thought to leave
A garden spot of paradise,
When one is old and feeble,
And cannot work any more,
Life will not be worth living,
When planted in the valley,
Where everything is different,
To the seeing and the hearing.
Now when the angels come
To take my soul to rest,
Hope they will find it in the park.
Then the old will be out of the way
While the park is progressing,
When the people out of the cities
Come to see the beauties of the park.
The elder Nicholson was given permission to live out his last days in the park, but he didn’t need the extra time. Before his family was actually moved out, the old man died in his beloved mountain home.
Park officials have long pointed out that there were many squatters among those evicted. In some cases, the government paid them for land they never actually owned and then helped relocate them into modern houses.
Despite the high drama that sometimes flared during the evictions, most families went quietly.
Fred Collier remembers that the impending removal seemed as inevitable as the sun rising over Saddleback Mountain. “I knew it from the time I can remember that we were supposed to be moving out,” he says. His father, Clarence, accepted the eviction and led his family to one of the resettlement areas provided by the state government. “My daddy was pretty calm about it. He wasn’t like some that wanted to get their shooting irons,” says Collier.
But his mother harbored a lifelong resentment against the park. During their last year in the highlands, the park service forbade the Colliers to cut trees or brush in their own back yard. In the ’80s, Collier was visiting his mother and some friends after an ice storm had ripped through the park. “We we were talking about the storm,” says Collier, “and she got to laughing. And someone said, ‘Mama, I don’t think that’s too funny,’ and she said, ‘I do. Before we moved out of there, they wouldn’t let us break a bush or cut a switch. Now the Good Lord come along and look what He done to ’emHe cut millions and millions of ’em.’”
The Colliers moved to one of the government-sponsored resettlement areas in the lowlands, which were doomed from the start. The houses may have been new, but they were built close together in a forced village settinghardly a haven for independent people who’d been used to having an entire mountain or hollow to themselves. Within a few decades only a handful of people remained in these Depression-era planned communities.
When Collier returned from World War II, his family was in the midst of its second government-sponsored relocation. He worked in a local textile mill for years and eventually bought the 177-acre cattle ranch he now owns outside Ruckersville, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge.
A short, compact man with a weathered face, the 71-year-old stays busy every day tending his 30 head of cattle. He’s working on this cold winter day even though he’s limping on a badly bruised leg: Recently he was cutting an oak, and the falling tree trunk jerked around and nailed him.
Although Collier doesn’t belong to any clubs or political parties, he’s been meaning to drop by a meeting of the Children of the Shenandoah, but he hasn’t gotten around to it. It’s not a priority, however, because Collier long ago made his peace with the eviction. He still believes it was wrong, and he deems the park a big waste of money. But he’s not bitter anymore, mostly because he’s too busy being angry at the county government. Greene County officials have designated his property a commercial growth zone, and he’s already getting taxed too much as it is. “It’s the same bureaucrats who came on the mountain,” he gripes. “They’re all the samethey still don’t know who they are or where they’re from.”
Now we’re barreling toward the mountains in his Ram pickup, which is loaded with firewood. Collier wants to check out the old homestead.
Once there, Collier seems disappointedthere’s really nothing to see, and he knew that anyway. They tore down the house long ago, and the whole place is covered with woods. It doesn’t look anything like the way he remembered it. This was a farm, and now it’s just another roadside thicket. “I used to be running distance from everything,” he says. The only thing that remains from the old days is the creek gurgling down the slope into a drain under Route 33. He says I’d be surprised how big the trout were that he used to pull out of the creek.
A few miles away we visit the resettlement community, a dreary group of buildings and a crumbling shack that used to be the village post office. Someone has filled it with junk.
Collier decides to drop by the old community center, where he went to school, a little ways up the road. We pull into a driveway and into a hard-dirt parking lot. The wood-frame one-room building is now a Pentecostal Holiness Church. In the back yard of the house next door, a couple of gangly teens are out in the bitter cold puffing on cigarettes. Their house is dark, looks empty, and there’s no smoke coming from the chimney.
The boys approach to check us out. Collier tells them his name and explains his mission; the three of them talk about some local goings-on. One of the teens says he’s heard something about the evictions, but his mom probably knows all about it.
A late-model Honda sedan pulls up in the driveway, and a woman gets out, draped in a thin overcoat and stepping gingerly in untied high-top sneakers. She’s a middle-aged woman, haggard but still pretty. Bundles of soft, graying hair are tied up on top of her head. She speaks in a soft, singsong voice, telling the boys to get the wood out of the trunk. Soon she and Collier are gossiping.
It turns out that the preacher at the church next door ran off with a young woman in the congregation. “Somebody said they’re over in Tennessee, still preaching,” she says. “It hurt everybody. We all had so much confidence in him.”
“Yeah, he preached Mama’s funeral,” says Collier. “I thought he did a good job.”
“We just couldn’t believe ithe was such
a nice person,” the woman murmurs, shaking her head sadly. “I go to church, and I know the Lord is real, but there are so many people who pull salvation down.”
She says times have been hard lately. She got laid off from the textile mill two years ago, and someone recently burned down her grandparents’ house on the old family property up on Hightop Mountain, a gray, tree-pronged rise on the horizon. She has family property for sale now, but nobody seems much interested. It seems as though sometimes nothing goes right, but she remains cheerful because the Lord will make a way, she says.
Silent and steady, the boys carry in the kindlingpine scraps from a nearby lumberyard.
“I would ask you in, but there’s no heat in the house,” she smiles. “So I went and got me some wood.”
She’s visibly trembling now in the biting breeze. She keeps pulling the coat tighter around what looks like a bathrobe or maybe a spring dress.
Collier offers her the logs in the back of his truck.
“Oh, Mr. Collier, you go ahead and keep your wood,” she says. “I have some wood I can split.”
He won’t take no for answer. “I’m mad at this wood ’cause it banged me all up,” he says. He pulls up his work pants to show her his bruised shinbone, purple and swollen.
“My Lord, Mr. Collier!” gasps the woman.
Collier climbs up into his truck to back it up and unload the logs.
“Oh, bless your heart.”
I tell the woman I used to drive an ice-cream truck out here years ago, and her house was on the route.
“Oh, I remember thatJosh was a small boy then and he loved that ice cream,” she says. “The truck hasn’t been by for years.”
Josh tells me his favorite ice creamsome sort of Italian ice with bubble gum at the bottom of the cone. Neither of us can remember the name of the damn thing. Then he and his buddy bum a cigarette and head inside the house.
“Y’all have a good day,” says the woman, waving goodbye as we pull away. “Next time you come by, I’ll have heat in the house.”
As we drive away from the village, Collier tells the old joke about preaching, the easiest way to make a living: “When do you want to start? You preach and I’ll hold the basket, or you can preach and I’ll hold the basket.”
Later, at a roadside bar called Spotswood Lounge, the jukebox plays a song by the Stanley Brothers that fills the place. It’s their old gospel tune, “Rank Strangers”:
I wandered again to my home in the mountains
When at youth’s early dawn, I was happy and free
I looked for my friends, but I never could find them
I found they were all rank strangers to me.
For the Stanleys, the song is about a prodigal Christian exiled on earth who yearns to join his departed loved ones up in heaven. But here in this dim tavern, which sits just outside the park boundaries, the lyrics seem to mourn a different separation.
A woman next to me at the bar says her family was kicked off the mountain and her uncle is still mighty pissed off. “We were up in God’s country,” she says. “And they sent us down to this godforsaken land.”
She says her uncle is always railing about what happened, so she figures he’d probably want to vent some more spleen. She gives me directions to his place, a small house painted an “ungodly blue,” but she warns me he may have been up all night fiddling or who knows what. Actually, he has not been feeling too well lately. He was wounded in the Korean War, she explains.
I drive to the house, which is down the road from a bullet-riddled sign that someone has altered to say, “Leave Madison County, Enter Resettlement.” In the tiny front yard, there’s a cooler perched in the fork of a tree.
A wrinkled woman answers the door, and I tell her my name and my mission, which she relays to someone in the darkness.
“He doesn’t want to talk about it,” she says, and quietly shuts the door.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.