Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Walking the Blue Ridge’s Appalachian Trail, 1932

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In September 1932, Louis Spilman and family spent the night near the Appalachian Trail at Simmons Gap in Greene County. Smith Morris allowed the family of trail explorers to set up camp on his property and use his spring. Neighbor Luther Morris remarked to them that automobiles were a rare sight on that mountain. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images Collection.

In the summer of 1932, a trek along the evolving Appalachian Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia was not necessarily recommended for the faint of heart. Nevertheless, the siren song of even a temporary respite from that era’s socioeconomic conundrums enticed more than a few to lace up their rough shoes, strap on some leg gaiters and give the fledgling path a try.

That June, Louis Spilman, the publisher and editor of the Waynesboro News-Virginian, printed the first of a series of “reports” under the pen name of “The News-Virginian Hiker.” After each of multiple treks with his young family in tow, Spilman related stories to entice his readers to discover for themselves the less-traveled asset that passed close-by their front doors. He stated, “It is beautiful. It is healthful. It is pleasant… but if you’re timid about walking downtown to work in the morning… don’t try the Appalachian Trail.”

Sugar Hollow’s Joe Wood was a familiar, yet imposing, figure in 1930s downtown Waynesboro. For Mr. Wood, a master horseman and teamster, it was just a typical horseback ride into the city from his home on the South Fork Moormans River Road in western Albemarle County: 16 miles or so, round trip, and 1300’ of elevation change, both going and coming. Courtesy Larry Lamb.

Indiana natives Theodore Louis Spilman Sr., his wife Emily (Moon), and their first three (of eventually six) children (Susan, Mary Emily and Billy) arrived in Waynesboro in 1929. At the height of the nation’s terrific economic woes, the aspiring newspaperman purchased and consolidated two local papers and set about, with seemingly boundless energy, to encourage his adopted citizenry to be all that it could be.

The first hiking foray selected by the ruddy WWI-era infantryman and veteran flyer of the U.S. Aviation Corps was the 7.5-mile hitch northeast of Waynesboro between Rockfish Gap and Jarman Gap. In company with ten-year-old Susan and eight-year-old Mary Emily, the first piece of A.T. encountered by Spilman, which he described as “a little rough,” yielded experiences somewhat removed from that encountered by present-day trekkers.

Louis Spilman Sr. (1899–1986) arrived in Waynesboro in 1929. He purchased and consolidated two local newspapers, and established the Waynesboro News-Virginian in November of that year. The community-minded publisher and editor used his newspaper in 1932 to encourage local citizens to access the “new” Appalachian Trail that passed through their region. He also participated in its maintenance as a member of a local trail crew. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images Collection.

It led them through the clutches of barbed wire fences and across open pasturelands, all while under the watchful eye of resident cattle. Rocky cliffs allowed views of Frederic Scott’s nearby stone castle at Royal Orchard, as well as panoramic scenes of Albemarle’s Piedmont, Nelson County’s Rockfish Valley and the great Valley of the Shenandoah in Augusta. “You seek in vain for water,” he noted. “You praise the good Lord for much wonderful and invigorating air, and pause to doubt the mercy of a Divine Being after hooking your ankle against a concealed rock in the high grass.”

As with his personal allegiance to his townspeople, Louis Spilman’s involvement with the Appalachian Trail evoked his commitment. Including locals Tucker Cook and Stuart Coiner, the threesome was charged with the responsibility to keep A.T. trail markers, both painted blazes and tin markers, clearly visible to hikers. Their range of responsibility in 1932 extended from Swift Run Gap at U.S. Route 33 in Greene County to the north, all the way south to White’s Gap at U.S. Route 60 in Natural Bridge National Forest (present-day George Washington N.F.)

Three Waynesboro men, l-r, Tucker Cook, Lewis Spilman and Stuart Coiner, were given the responsibility in 1932 to keep the Appalachian Trail clearly marked along the stretches north and south of Rockfish Gap. In the early days of their assignment, the trail was identified mostly with painted hatchet marks on trees, tin A.T. signage still being a rare commodity. The trail-marking crew paused for this Kodak moment at the base of the Forest Service’s lookout tower on Bald Mountain. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images Collection.

A unique aspect for those section hikers and maintenance volunteers accessing the A.T. prior to the establishment of Shenandoah N.P. was the option of using rustic local roads that had crossed the summits since the days of old. The Spilman family’s third A.T. hike commenced with a drive up the mountain directly to Jarman Gap. On their inaugural trip into storied Sugar Hollow, they met up with its “Mayor.”

“It was our first trip to Sugar Hollow,” he wrote, again in June, “although we have heard of it innumerable times, and we knew Joe Wood [1871–1944], sole resident and Major-Domo of all its activities. We stopped for a cool drink of water at Joe Wood’s, getting it from a pipe that has served his home since 1869. We met and talked with Joe Wood himself. Sugar Hollow is replete with scenic beauties, cherries, and inspirations. Health and happiness lie in ‘taking to the mountains by foot.’”

Early A.T. surveyors often used existing mountain roads instead of blazing a separate trail nearby. In July, the Spilmans drove to Grottoes where they urged their 1930 Ford sedan up the mountain to Brown’s Gap. “[There] we picked up our old friend the Appalachian Trail. The car was driven a mile and a quarter along the ridge to the home of Leet [Moletus and Sarah Jane] Garrison. The Garrison’s home overlooks the eastern side of the Blue Ridge, into Sugar Hollow and out into the Piedmont. From Garrison’s we walked [southwest] to the peak of Black Rock Mountain and saw the rocks and the wonderful view from there.”

Moletus Garrison with his two youngest, beside the spring below their Blue Ridge Mountain home. The Appalachian Trail passed directly alongside their house, adjacent to the garden and cabbage storage pits. The Garrison family’s house, condemned and razed by the state for the establishment of Shenandoah National Park, was located nearby present day Skyline Drive milepost 84.1. Courtesy Rosie May Garrison Keyton.

Leet and Sarah Jane (Frazier) Garrison raised their family of nine children at this place until forced from their mountain home and farm by the Commonwealth of Virginia’s exercise of eminent domain and blanket condemnation of lands for the proposed national park. In early planning for Shenandoah N.P., a provision was considered that would have allowed mountain landowners to live out their lives on their property. A later administration rescinded that option. The first decade of Appalachian Trail users had the distinct privilege of meeting and interacting with some of these families whose generational roots reached deep in that special place.

In late September of ’32, culminating a summer-long series of Sunday afternoon hikes with family members and various others, Louis Spilman reached Swift Run Gap. He wrote, “This walk gave ‘The Hiker’ the distinction of having stepped every bit of the way along the top of the mountain and through Sugar Hollow from Swannanoa Gate to the southern end of the completed part of the Skyline Drive—a distance of 39.08 miles by the Appalachian Trail.

“Work on the Skyline Drive has progressed to the point that traffic is possible from the Spottswood Trail [U.S. Rt. 33] to Lee Highway [U.S. Rt. 211] at Luray, but the Federal Government has gates at the end of the road to bar motorists, as it is unlawful, they say, for a government constructed roadway in a proposed National Park to be publicly used until the Park itself is turned over to the National Government.
“No restrictions hover about the hiker, however… No recreation matches walking, if the walking is done with a purpose and on a planned basis. Join in some Sunday and learn to enjoy the Blue Ridge.” 

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 © 2003–2021 Phil James 

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