Granny’s patchwork quilt. Granddaddy’s old straw hat. Poppa’s pocket watch. Momma’s timeworn Bible with sentimental treasures pressed between its pages: a dried flower, a lock of child’s hair, a faded photograph, a handwritten note. There are things that we hold dear and no price tag could ever define their worth.
Family reunions and special occasions can offer up tastes of the past in the form of time-honored recipes lovingly refined in an ancestral kitchen. The vegetable or flower garden might yield an heirloom variety carefully preserved and passed down to faithful stewards.
However, the world in which we live exacts change, too. A hand-wrought log structure and the era that it represented is covered over and forgotten in needed expansions. A Corinthian-columned edifice that represented the hard labors and resulting prosperity of one generation is razed for a parking lot required by the next. Progress is seldom a respecter of persons, nor, by its very nature, is it often a protector of the past.
The Commonwealth of Virginia in the 1920s and ’30s exacted a terrific price from hundreds of its citizens, old and young alike, living in the eight counties where a proposed national playground was to be established. Today, relatively few of Shenandoah National Park’s millions of visitors who strain at the speed limit imposed on its Skyline Drive realize that the forests lining that roadway conceal countless vestiges from other eras.
Scattered across 311 square miles of wooded hills and hollows are decaying gateposts and hewn log remnants, magnificent stone chimneys and moldering stove parts. Forged hand tools, decorated ceramics and children’s toys lie nearby once-protected springs of drinking water, each remnant bearing a silent testimony to the futility of the U.S. Department of Interior’s intent to remove all evidences of human habitation.
While pressing ahead with the expulsion of then-current residents, little consideration was assigned to other touchstones of history entrenched in those hills. There also existed pre-European traces of Native Americans and their sacred burial places, evidences of commercial interests that helped build and fuel a growing nation, scars left from wars fought across its blue ridges, and the now all-but-forgotten homes, schools, churches and cemeteries of those simply brushed aside.
History is local, and it has been made in mountaintop gaps, at railroad crossings, and all along rural roadways. But Virginia’s story is our nation’s story, and there is much more to that saga than a quiver full of U.S. presidents. Goodwin and Rockefeller envisioned a day when a restored Colonial-era Williamsburg would pass along important lessons to another generation.
At Mechum’s River Depot, only a partial stone foundation and adjacent watering trough survive to whisper the stories of an important gristmill and busy turnpike at that place. In Brown’s Cove, there exists a former movie theater established by Randolph Louis White (1896-1991), founder of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune, a newspaper that served the African American community 1954–1992.
The c.1814 Ficklin-Wayland House at Pleasant Green in Crozet is a true touchstone for that town’s beginnings. Benjamin Ficklin’s association with tobacco cultivation and his son’s involvement with the legendary Pony Express were followed by the Wayland family’s legacy of propagating the renowned Albemarle Pippin apple, a culinary delight of the Queen of England. Jeremiah Wayland had a business relationship with Colonel Claudius Crozet, the town’s namesake. Jere Wayland’s son Abram was instrumental in the establishment of the village and advancement of its early business district. A potential developer of Pleasant Green and surrounding property recently stated to the Crozet Gazette, “… if there’s something to be preserved there, I can assure you that it won’t be treated like other homes in the recent past.”
Each C&O railroad station from Charlottesville to Waynesboro (there were eight of them) had an adjacent hotel, advertised locally and promoted regionally by the railroad. Nineteenth-century railroads opened up the country for any who could afford a ticket to ride. Progress. Affordable automobiles in the early 20th century promised unfettered independent travel to all who could pay cash for a few gallons of cheap gasoline. Many of those new drivers then rode right past their little country mercantiles en route to the electric lights in town. Progress, yes, but at a terrific cost to the self-sufficiency of their old neighborhoods.
Today, many of the small railroad towns of old exist in name only. Depots and hotels gone. Post offices closed. Family-run stores repurposed, or gone. Good farmland has raised its last crop, houses. Inevitable progress, so they say.
As time moves on, so do our elders. The legacies, remnants—and responsibilities—of those lives pass to another generation, just as the previous ones passed down to them. Quilts and straw hats, souvenirs and real property. The prudence of choices made today will be weighed upon the scales of posterity. Drive slowly.