Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Shenandoah: The Taking and Making of a National Park

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By Phil James

Locals congregated on store porches such as this one at Nethers, on the Hughes River near the base of Old Rag Mountain in Madison County. Its post office opened in 1885 and closed down along with nearby Yowell/Nethers Mill in the mid-1940s. (Photo by Arthur Rothstein for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, 1935.)
Locals congregated on store porches such as this one at Nethers, on the Hughes River near the base of Old Rag Mountain in Madison County. Its post office opened in 1885 and closed down along with nearby Yowell/Nethers Mill in the mid-1940s. (Photo by Arthur Rothstein for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, 1935.)

One does not just make a park. It is not a simple undertaking because a park is not only about the land, it is very much about people. That was never truer than with the establishing of Shenandoah National Park during the 1920s and ’30s.

As early as 1892 a movement arose in western North Carolina “urging the government to purchase sufficient land in the Appalachian chain for a national forest pleasure-ground… a national park. Its nearness to the thickly settled states would guarantee it three visitors where the Yosemite has one.”

Subsequently, in 1899, at the Southern National Park Convention at Asheville, NC, the Appalachian National Park Association was formed to promote the establishment of a park along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. As more states jumped onto the eastern park bandwagon, the location criteria expanded.

To achieve the most bang for their promotional buck, boosters sought potential park locations accessible to the greater masses. Knowing that it was Congress who would ultimately give a thumbs-up or down, placing a national park within driving distance of Washington, D.C. became a persuasive angle. For the most open-minded decision makers, the obvious question was “Where?” The far-flung, isolated western parks were established on public lands. But where, in the long-settled and heavily populated eastern U.S., could such an ambitious project provide an easily accessible feeling of relaxing escape?

Politicians and conservationists were lobbied with ideas from various groups that hoped to capitalize on the lucrative tourist traffic that such a “national” feature would attract. When the movement began to get real traction in the early 1920s, the more prominent decision makers were guided into the Blue Ridge Mountains where the charismatic George Pollock had been welcoming and entertaining guests since the 1890s at Skyland, his rustic mountain complex in Page County, Virginia. It was there, in the refined air nearly 3,700’ above the city’s hubbub, they found their answer.

Some of the early proponents suggested that the mountain residents, their homes and farms, be allowed to remain on the parkland. As plans progressed that scenario was soon pushed aside. A caveat was that Congress would not pay for parkland: it was the responsibility of the individual state to acquire the land and gift it to the feds for the privilege of having such a special feature in their state. In addition, the government would not accept such a gift unless it was void of residents.

President Coolidge signed legislation in 1926 establishing Shenandoah, Great Smokies and Mammoth Cave National Parks, but the herculean task of actually creating such “pleasure-grounds” was only beginning. For Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, 521,000 acres had been recommended (but was later reduced to less than half that amount). That optimistic vision encompassed land containing long-established villages, farms, industries, schools, churches, cemeteries—and thousands of residents—whose centuries-old traditions and ways of living would have to be addressed and “resettled” outside of the Park’s boundaries.

That year Harry F. Byrd was elected Governor of Virginia. He brought to the executive office great enthusiasm for the Park idea and for the economic advantages that its tourism would provide to the Commonwealth. Fundraising quotas were assigned to cities and towns, and rallies were held throughout the state to raise the necessary money to purchase the properties. For Charlottesville and Albemarle County alone, that goal was $61,000, a tidy sum from passing the hat in 1926.

Physical surveys were made of the affected properties in each of the eight counties that the park would straddle. The contentious “Public Park Condemnation Act” was passed by Virginia legislators enabling the properties in each county to be acquired by eminent domain — in short, utilizing the state’s powerful right to condemn and take possession of private property for public use.

The media of the day promoted the attributes of the proposed park and trumpeted the need for private monies to complement state funds to purchase the condemned lands at “fair market value” determined by local panels headed by circuit court judges. However, the dirtiest of devils was in the details: how to remove the inhabitants?

Such a condemnation would never have been suggested in a city where big business and lawyers made and interpreted the rules. The mountain resident was not perceived as such a formidable foe. Public spokespersons as well as the media began to denigrate their rural neighbors, opining that their removal from such isolated climes would be a merciful favor.

Arno Cammerer, then National Park Service director stated, “There is no person so canny as certain types of mountaineers, and none so disreputable.” Subtle media bias presented itself in wording, alternately labeling the residents as “half-wit,” “mountain people,” “obdurate,” “park folk,” and “settlers.” In 1935, newspapers reported that “windows, doors and other fittings” were removed from vacant houses inside the park “to prevent squatters, wandering families, from taking possession and so embarrassing the park service…”

Robert H. Via (who owned a profitable farm in upper Sugar Hollow in Albemarle County) was with a group who challenged the state’s authority on Fourteenth Amendment grounds. Their challenge, contending that the state had no legal powers to condemn land for the purpose of gifting it to the federal government, proved to be one of the most serious legal threats to the park’s establishment.

Lasting more than a year in the court system, the case failed at the state level, and, when appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court just three days before Thanksgiving in 1935, it was dismissed in a matter of minutes. A month later, on the day after Christmas, Shenandoah National Park was officially established.

William E. Carson was a former Chairman of the State Conservation and Development Commission. “It was not to our taste and liking,” he wrote, “to dispossess thousands of people from their lands, and to forcibly eject them from their homes and to be at dagger’s point with our mountain neighbors, or to be the subject of criticism by well-meaning but impatient citizens who wanted the park forthwith, failing to realize the enormity of the task we shouldered… If the park will give the people of Virginia half the enjoyment it gave us anxiety and tribulation it will be a mountain of content.”

When you visit your National Park, think on the labors of the visionaries who preserved for us that privilege, and especially on the ones who formerly lived there. It is their legacy and hidden sacrifice that we honor with our appreciation and respect for the lands they once called home.

Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2016 Phil James

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