Secrets of the Blue Ridge: The Plight of a Proud Mountain Clan

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Bob Via rests with youngsters in his apple orchard during harvest time in upper Sugar Hollow. Courtesy of the Via Family.

The unforgiving heights of the Blue Ridge mountains were once harnessed by people of great resolve. Whether residents by choice or by birth, two precepts were understood: 1) daily living there was a rugged thing, and 2) to not only survive but to thrive required the strength and resources of community.

The Via families and married relations were just such a people who lived on and farmed the mountains’ upper slopes drained by the north fork of Moorman’s River in western Albemarle County’s Sugar Hollow. The path to the head of that hollow, for this extended family of French Huguenot descent, began in 17th century Tidewater Virginia. By the late 18th century, they were enhancing the population of Albemarle County, and Revolutionary War Patriot William Via, b.1761 in Albemarle, already was residing on Moorman’s River.

The special 1880 Federal Census included details of the “Productions of Agriculture” for farm families. A study of three Via families (there were many other allied families nearby) revealed how the strength of their days was spent on those steep lands bordering the banks of the Moorman’s headwaters.

Robert H. and Mary E. (Mace) Via (top row), with his parents Christopher Columbus (1850–1906) and Melinda Angeline Marshall (1848–1921) Via, and their grandchild. Courtesy of the Via Family.

The three households included the families of Ira Howard Via (1819–1897), his wife Amanda Shiflett, and their household of ten, including three of their children still at home, a daughter-in-law and six young grandchildren; Christopher Columbus Via (1850–1906) (a son of Ira, aforementioned), his wife Melinda Marshall, and six children aged seven to a two-month-old; and Chapman White Harris (1831–1901), his wife Angeline Via, and their eight children, ages 22 to two years of age.

Collectively, during the year 1879, these three families tilled 260 acres of stony mountain soil and took care of 24 horses (that also worked for a living) and 68 beef cows. Their 11 milk cows produced 630 pounds of butter in addition to the daily gallons-upon-gallons of whole milk. Fourteen sheep provided 44 pounds of wool. They raised 30 hogs. In their chicken houses, 67 chickens laid 190 dozen eggs. They harvested 95 bushels of buckwheat, 650 bushels of oats, five bushels of rye, and 850 bushels of Indian corn. Sorghum planted on an acre and a half boiled down to 55 gallons of molasses. Twenty acres of apple trees produced 1,500 bushels of apples. If this accounting has the reader thinking that those days must have been packed full to overflowing, realize, too, that these numbers accounted for only a part of the families’ day-to-day tasks—and lest we forget, there was no electricity, running water or motorized conveyances. If it wasn’t around the house, neither was it just around the corner.

Time moved on, and the 20th century generation continued with the tried-and-true patterns of their mountain elders. They expanded the orchards, shipped their prized Albemarle Pippins to England, licensed a brandy distillery, and built up a saw mill operation. Those complementary enterprises, in turn, provided seasonal jobs for some of their mountain neighbors who opted to work out as hired hands in addition to taking care of their own family farmsteads.

Ira Howard Via (1816–1897) of upper Sugar Hollow in western Albemarle County was patriarch of a large family, some of whom had their mountain homes and farms condemned for the establishment of Shenandoah Park. Courtesy of the Via Family.

The passing decades also altered the patterns of those in the more progressive lowlands and rat-race cities. By the early 1920s, prosperity brought every-day Fords into closer reach of every-day folks. When the Good Roads movement gave those motorized masses the itch to get out and explore on their own, it became apparent to many that most of the popular national parks were ’way Out West. That realization soon spelled unsettling news for many inhabitants of the secluded hollows in the mountains of Virginia.

The National Park Service was created in 1916. During 1923, the idea of establishing park lands in the East was floated by NPS Director Stephen Mather. His concept quickly gained traction, and in September 1924, a park search committee took a look-see at a section of the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia between Front Royal and Waynesboro. That fall they returned for a closer-up inspection. One month later, a report was drafted to the Secretary of the Interior stating, in part, “The Blue Ridge of Virginia… constitutes in our judgment the outstanding and logical place for the creation of the first national park in the southern Appalachians.”

Robert Henry “Bob” (1883–1958) and Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Mace (1883–1962) Via at home in Pennsylvania surrounded by their children. Courtesy of the Via Family.

However, there was one small caveat. Unlike the western parks carved from government-owned lands, this “outstanding and logical” proposed tract that would encompass hundreds of thousands of acres, had, for ages, been home to generations of United States citizens—and for this proposed new “national playground” idea to work, those citizens would have to sacrifice all they had ever known. Those inconvenient details were left to the state to work out. The Department of the Interior, in order to bestow the unique privilege of hosting said park, required that the lands they had chosen be gifted to them, sans all cumbrances and unfortunate residents.

By this time, Christopher Via’s son Robert Henry “Bob” Via (1883–1958) was 41 years old, with nearly as many years of mountain labor and experience under his belt. Growing up in his father’s footsteps, he knew intimately the mountains, its people, and the tough business of running a farm, along with a commercial orchard and accompanying fruit distillery. Bob treasured his Blue Ridge heritage, he loved his family, and he was ready and willing to defend those interests against any threats. His marriage to Mary Elizabeth Mace further bolstered his standing in association with that venerable Rockingham County family long-established on the west side of the mountains’ crest.

Daniel Christopher (1877–1930) and Minnie Garrison (1883–1982) Via lived in the home served by this noble stone chimney near the headwaters of the north fork Moorman’s River in Sugar Hollow. Many such sentinels continue to bear silent witness to the family homes seized through eminent domain by the Commonwealth of Virginia for the establishment of Shenandoah National Park. Photo: Phil James.

Anticipating the strong will of the Federal Government when given free rein, and the ever-extending reach of state and local governments giddy with visions of public coffers flush with tourism dollars, Via and his neighbors braced for the inevitable impact. For nearly a decade, the wheels of eminent domain ground slowly and indiscriminately. The lesser-valued upper mountain properties were the first condemned and their occupants evicted. By the time the lowland tracts were under consideration, property compensation funds had waned, and officials became resigned to the reality of a narrower park than once hoped for.

In December 1933, the state of Virginia officially seized Bob Via’s mountain property and orchards. Defiantly, he refused to cash the compensation check and, instead, in concert with John J. Mace and Charles M. Mace, took to the courts in late-1934 to challenge the legality of the government’s actions. His case had its supporters in each of the eight counties affected by the state’s condemnations. That legal wrangling ended unceremoniously in defeat at the U.S. Supreme Court in November ’35. Titles to the new park lands were officially signed, sealed and delivered on the day after Christmas, 1935. That night, hundreds of families still residing inside the new park’s boundaries went to bed realizing that their last remaining hope of life as they had known and experienced it was lost to the ages. 

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 © 2003–2022 Phil James 

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