By Phil James
Moletus and Sarah Jane (Frazier) Garrison married in 1908 and went to housekeeping high atop the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Albemarle on the Rockingham County line. Never in their wildest dreams could they have imagined that in less than two decades everyone and their brother in the eastern United States would begin making plans to come traipsing right through their backyard.
Life was much too busy for such far-fetched thoughts. Although the newlyweds lived for a while with Moletus’s grandmother, there still was land to clear, a garden to set out, orchards to work, field crops to tend, and provisions to put by for the winter ahead. Travel off the mountain to the post office, store and mill at Mountfair would be too treacherous to risk when ice and snow arrived at their 2,800′ elevation. Before the year was out, their first child Sally was born.
As the years raced by, eight more babies, four boys and four more girls, arrived beneath “Leet” and Sarah Jane’s wood-shingled roof, as did the occasional extended family members who needed a season of shelter from life’s storms.
The gathering storm that they could not prepare for, however, was wrought not by nature’s fury but by the desire of the Commonwealth of Virginia in the mid-1920s to host a national park within convenient driving distance of the major population centers in the eastern US.
When the state chose to exercise its authority of eminent domain and proceeded to make a blanket condemnation of the acreage required by Congress for a national playground—cleansed of all evidences from two centuries of human habitation—the Garrisons and their good mountain neighbors found themselves smack-dab in the middle of the proposed park’s South District. With little if any recourse, they waited on the dreaded piece of mail containing eviction papers that would compel them to leave behind all of the improvements and securities for which they and preceding generations had labored.
While they waited, the 1920s drew to a close with dismal news of economic depression and difficult times in the lowland cities. The early ‘30s brought more of the same. Season to season, the mountain residents lived with the uncertainties of what their own future might hold. Yet, flowers still bloomed in the springtime, trees continued to provide an annual bounty of fruits and nuts, new babies enlarged their communities, and the dead were laid to rest in ages-old mountain burying grounds.
Leet and Sarah Jane’s daughter Rosie Mae, bride of Woodie Keyton (the storied “Sage of Pasture Fence Mountain”), penned vivid personal recollections of the Garrison family’s self-sufficient life on the mountaintop prior to the establishment of Shenandoah National Park.
“I remember everything about our home in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” said Rosie. “Our house had a big front porch, high off the ground. On one end of the porch was a 10×12’ room which Dad called the meat room. We had two big rooms downstairs. One was the living room, one was the kitchen. We had two big bedrooms upstairs. We had two big beds in each room for us children. Mom and Dad slept downstairs in the living room.
“Underneath our front porch was a big cellar. Over on the right of our house was a hill. My dad dug back under that hill and made another cellar, which he called the dirt cellar. Mom, Dad and the oldest boys and girls worked hard all summer. When winter came, both cellars were full of canned goods, potatoes, apples—bushels of them—sauerkraut, and brine cucumbers in wooden barrels. My dad was a real farmer.
“We had two good work horses and one mule. Always had two milk cows. He raised his own hogs, chickens and jackrabbits. Always two good hound dogs. Raised corn that he had ground each year into corn meal. Raised his own wheat that he had made into flour. I remember going with my dad in a two horse wagon to Mr. Lem Shifflett’s water mill [at Mountfair] in Brown’s Cove about nine miles off the mountain from where we lived. Dad would give Mr. Shifflett so much corn and wheat to have [ours] ground for the winter. He never paid with money.
“Dad always planted pole beans in the corn field. He would let them dry and we would shell them out by the bushel to have for the winter to eat. Raised his own cane to make molasses. He raised cabbages, turnips, tomatoes, butter beans and sweet potatoes.
“We had all kinds of fruit trees: apples, pears, cherries, damsons. Dad made his own apple cider. We had wild blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries and blue grapes.”
Some proponents for the establishment of Shenandoah National Park and their allies in the media, in order to sway public opinion and hasten the removal of all residents (or “squatters” as they were often characterized) still living on proposed park lands, painted the mountain residents with a broad, disparaging brush. One of many such examples appeared in Charlottesville’s Daily Progress newspaper in May 1932, where some were described as living in “perennial starvation and penniless squalor”, and speaking a “queer, Chaucerian English, almost un-understandable.” One doctor reported that “the use of soap was almost unknown to them and that many suffered from malnutrition and tuberculosis.”
The article summed up its biased position thusly: “No matter what is done with these people, they will be better off. They have nothing to lose.”
“I don’t remember how long it was before we left the park,” said Mrs. Keyton, “but we moved before winter. We moved to Barboursville. My dad bought a small farm there. We didn’t have a barn or corn house there so Dad built one of each, and a big hog lot for our pigs. The farm was real poor. Dad didn’t do much farming there.
“I know it broke my mom’s and dad’s heart to leave their home on the Blue Ridge Mountains. But they didn’t let us children know it.”
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