Eight Virginia counties went under the microscope when the establishment of Shenandoah National Park was authorized by Congress in 1926. The lifestyles of many families who resided “in the way” of that colossal cultural experiment would become even more onerous prior to the Park’s official dedication in 1936.
Some affected landowners saw opportunity knocking and willingly sold their land to the State. Others fought the good fight to hold on to their private parcels, but the judiciary weight of eminent domain ultimately had its way with them. For tenants and renters, homes and a way of life were surrendered with no recourse.
Initial promises of lifetime rights for resident landowners were voided by subsequent administrations. Lifetime privileges eventually were allowed for a very small handful of the Blue Ridge’s elder residents considered as special cases, albeit with caveats. In Albemarle County, the recipients of that quietly accorded nod were Joseph Franklin Wood and his wife Winkie Belew Wood.
Like his parents, Alexander and Martha (Ballard) Wood, Joe Wood, born in 1871, was a lifelong farmer. He was a master handler of horses and a highly respected teamster. He was called upon to set the broken leg of one neighbor’s colt, and nursed another’s sick mule back to health. He could operate a blacksmith forge, understood the workings of a distillery, was an orchardist and headed up crews who worked the orchards for others. In 1920, Waynesboro’s News-Virginian noted that he was employed as Game Warden for the western district of Albemarle County when he released 1,500 young brook trout in Moormans River.
Although the Wood family lived in a seemingly isolated mountain hollow, a number of families populated that narrow glen. There were 3¾ rugged miles between the 18th-century Three Notch’d Road that crossed at Jarman’s (formerly Woods’) Gap, and the confluence of the north and south forks of Moormans River in lower Sugar Hollow. Coming together for pleasant enjoyments allowed brief respites for lives bent to the constant labor of subsistence living. They relied on each other for help with anything from midwifery and health needs to repairs and harvesting. Joe, a social individual, endeavored to know each and every one who passed through, neighbors and travelers alike.
Industry along the South Fork included a licensed distillery and steam-operated sawmills. Orchards, including the Wood family’s Bellwood Fruit Farm, covered the mountainsides. Cattlemen in the Shenandoah Valley herded their stock onto mountaintop pastures during the summer months. Bellwood School, near Jarman’s Gap, provided book learning. Its teachers routinely boarded with the Wood family, almost two miles distant.
Groups of campers arrived in the mountains, staying weeks at a time while adventuring, and relied on the locals to sell them fresh staples. Surveyors appeared in the ’20s, some to map out the Appalachian Trail, others measuring and marking boundary lines for each tract of land proposed for inclusion in the Park. Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees at White Hall improved mountain roads and bridges to better manage forest fires.
Extended family, neighbors, travelers, surveyors, campers, hikers—all came to know Joe and Winkie Wood. By the 1930s, however, drastic changes were evident in the mountain communities. Most families, willingly or by force, had departed the mountain heights.
Joe and Winkie’s daughter Louise Wood (Austin) (1909–1993), the youngest of the Wood’s seven children, reminisced on life in the mountains. She said, “When I was growing up practically everybody had moved away from here except for us.”
“Mayor Wood remains by special permission of the Federal Park Service,” the Waynesboro newspaper stated. “He reports that Park employees have already torn down and burned a great many shacks, old homes, and a schoolhouse [Bellwood] that stood in the Hollow. Mayor Joe [and wife Winkie] remains as the sole resident of this vast area and although his home is included in the Park area it is understood he has been asked to remain, an unofficial guide and host to all who seek the primeval beauties of nature in Sugar Hollow. Those who have visited Sugar Hollow can understand readily why the ‘Mayor’ desires to stay. Here is a veritable garden spot removed utterly from civilization.”
News editor Louis Spilman and Joe Wood became fast friends. Former mountain residents and A-T hikers returned with high hopes of finding “The Mayor of Sugar Hollow” at home. Spilman penned, in July 1933, “Sunday afternoon we poked the nose of Elizabeth, our pet Ford, up Jarman’s Gap Road toward Sugar Hollow. The road is rough and washed out in some spots by last Sunday night’s storm… Turning into Sugar Hollow there were cherry trees with an overburdening crop; there were cows, calves, horses, pigs, chickens, and four newly-born kittens. And then we arrived at Joe Wood’s home. Joe is the patriarch of Sugar Hollow; the only resident; the unofficial czar, and a pleasant one. We saw Dr. G.F. Hollar and Mr. and Mrs. Albert Austin. It was quite a Waynesboro gathering.”
Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record reported on August 29, 1939, “The southern section of the Shenandoah National Park, with its 31-mile link of the Skyline Drive from Swift Run Gap to Jarman Gap and the connecting 3-mile section of the Blue Ridge Parkway from Jarman to Rockfish Gap, will be opened to the public for the first time on Thursday.
“All minor approach roads to this section have been closed in accordance with the policy of the service to prevent unnecessary road development within any of the national parks… The roads thus closed include the Brown Gap, Black Rock Gap, Simmons Gap and Jarman Gap roads.”
In the fall of 1941, the paper reported, “Dr. Roy K. Flannagan and Wythe Davis, of Richmond, stopped in Sugar Hollow over the weekend to visit the Mayor there, Hon. Joe Wood. Dr. Flannagan expressed chagrin that on a previous trip over the Skyline Drive he found his way into Sugar Hollow blocked by a formidable log gate, so he passed on. He was not to be denied however, so he came through the lower entrance in Albemarle County only to find another log gate with three locks blocking his path.
“This time Dr. Flannagan ‘put his foot in the path’ as he had done many times before, when he used to live in this part of the world. Mr. Wood, Mayor of Sugar Hollow, has promised Dr. Flannagan that if he is informed of his coming, he will gladly let him into his domain without difficulty. Enforced inhospitality is the one grudge the Mayor holds against his Uncle Sam and the Shenandoah National Park.”
The final four years of Joe Wood’s life were spent mostly isolated from the friendly souls who once stopped by his home for a lively square dance, shelter from a surprise storm, or a drink of cool mountain spring water. All were welcomed, fed, and entertained. Joe Wood passed away in January 1944. Winkie (1873–1961), his bride of 47 years, moved off the mountain to live with family. Their mountain home was soon razed by the National Park Service.
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