By Phil James
On a casual walk along old foot and bridle paths and once-traveled roadways in and around Shenandoah National Park, one might stumble upon stacked foundation stones in the woods, or perhaps rough-edged fieldstones sticking upright from the earth that mark the final resting places of loved ones. Lone standing chimneys continue to indicate where families lived decades or even a century or more ago.
Whose home was there? What was life like for them? Why did they have to leave and what were their thoughts and feelings when their once-welcoming door closed behind them for the final time?
Lyricist John Howard Payne penned the words to “Home, Sweet Home” in 1822:
Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home
A charm from the skies seems to hallow us there
Which seek thro’ the world, is ne’er met elsewhere…
So evocative were those bittersweet strains of Payne’s soulful composition that the playing of his popular tune was often banned in Army camps during the Civil War, lest thoughts of desertion be stirred. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine wrote in 1883: “His song is that one touch of nature that makes the world kin.”
An exile from home splendor dazzles in vain
Oh, give me my lowly thatched cottage again
The birds singing gaily that come at my call
And give me the peace of mind dearer than all
Home, home, sweet, sweet home
There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home!
For hundreds of families in the 1920s and ’30s, scattered from their homes by a media blitz and the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen, those words were especially poignant. Denied a seemingly inalienable right, they could not go home again.
The Albemarle Blue Ridge Heritage Project, a grassroots effort begun in 2016, took up the mission “to honor the sacrifices made by Albemarle Co. residents and landowners who were displaced so that Shenandoah National Park could be established.” The group set a goal to raise funds to build a permanent, publicly accessible memorial that would serve to inform and educate present and future generations about the plight of those separated from their home and property through an eminent domain condemnation by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The donation of an old chimney from the Zermie and Addie Shiflett place in Blackwell’s Hollow provided a nucleus of building stones. Those were supplemented with selections from several other locations around the area including the former Blackwell’s Hollow Mission site. The Shiflett’s homestead was surveyed in 1926 as tract #215 for inclusion in the proposed national park. A later reduction in the Park’s total acreage mercifully left their home outside the boundary line.
Beginning with official land surveys in 1926 and, for some, lasting even beyond the Park’s official establishment in 1935, many hundreds of families in eight Virginia counties were forced to live with the uncertainties of what the future might hold. In Albemarle, 221 tracts comprising nearly 25,000 acres were surveyed for inclusion in the proposed park. In the end, due to public and private funding being insufficient to purchase all of the desired tracts, approximately 16,500 acres (127 individual tracts) of the originally surveyed lands were acquired by the state, removed from county tax rolls, and gifted to the federal government.
Compensation for losses was paid only to the landowners of record. Those without a clear title, renters, and tenant farmers had no recourse but to pack up and leave. Additionally, all roads were closed that passed through the Park, with the exceptions of U.S. Route 33 and U.S. Route 211. In the South District, that ruling eliminated every centuries-old passageway between Albemarle and Augusta. Some who lived on one side of the mountain but who had family members or long established trade locations on the other side were compelled to move as a result of the park’s establishment.
Edward and Emma (Sipe) Harris farmed and raised their 11 children on 63 acres, mapped in 1926 as Shenandoah NP tract #121, below Brown’s Gap. Emma (1873–1954) lovingly was recalled wearing a bonnet when out in the hot sun picking blackberries, and apron-clad while working around the house and in her kitchen. She was widely known for setting a bountiful dinner table as well as for her cakes, pies and cookies. One grandson reminisced, “When she lived on the old homeplace, when you would get to the top of the mountain, you could smell that homemade bread baking. She made everything from scratch.”
Edward (1872–1944) was the sixth of nine children born to Chapman and Angelina (Via) Harris. He provided for his own family with skills learned while working the land alongside his father and older siblings. Ed loved to share his thoughts through poetic verse to the one who was “the comfort of [his] wedded life,” Emma. Their children preserved some of those writings that reflected his love for family and the mountain land on which they lived.
“… O, could I see our crystal spring
And its tinkling silver rill,
I can see the blooming dells
And each wooded, templed hill;
I can see those giant cliffs
And the singing water-falls
I can hear the mocking bird
That to me gently calls…
And I see the Blue Ridge Mountains
That kiss high Heaven’s sky…
“O, could I drink again tonight
From a cool, Blue Ridge fountain,
And with my coon dogs Jack and Mike
Hunt the woods of Cedar Mountain,
It would be an old man’s Heaven
In God’s great world, fair and free
And in life’s shadows and sunshine
I would glad and happy be.”
The Harris homeplace, along with those of their neighbors, was razed after the family departed the mountain in 1936. The hills and fields that rewarded their hard labors with an abundant table are now covered in hardwoods. Nearby their home on the east side of Skyline Drive, between Brown’s Gap and Dundo Hollow, on the west side of Jones Run, stood an iron fence surrounding the Harris family cemetery. For more than fifty years, family members and Park officials alike have searched for it. Its vestiges remain hidden to this very day.
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