The Mountain People had settled in the Blue Ridge long before the United State gained its independence. They followed the Great Wagon Road from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to the Shenandoah Valley all the way south to Roanoke, Virginia—Big Lick as it was called back then. And they settled in the mountain hollows and in the valleys. Some took the Wilderness Road into Tennessee and Kentucky. Others continued south along the Great Wagon Road into the Carolinas and Georgia. They had brought with them a rich cultural tradition and lived somehow apart from the rest of the country. Their communities were woven tightly, almost clannish. They were staunch Presbyterians, many later becoming Baptists, who fought as patriots during the American Revolution, and were extremely distrustful of government. And then during the Progressive Era, five hundred families in Virginia were ripped from their land and placed in resettlement villages by the state and federal government. And the Mountain People would never forget.
The Mountain People:
Betrayed by Their Nation
by Charles McGuigan
You have to feel the mountains to know the mountains. See the mountains to love them. These Blue Ridge, these Alleghenies—the Appalachians. The very earth crumpled like the largest comforter in creation, as if all it would take is one mighty tug to flatten the creases, erase from the land every depression and elevation, iron out each ridge until the scape laid down like a great central plain of patchwork uniformity. Our mountains are sacred. Just before noon on this very late summer day, the first week of September, I stand beneath a cascade of foaming water dropped fifty feet out of the side of a mountain, gurgling, it seems, from a mouth of solid rock. And I swim in the pool under a thin curtain of water, swim until my heart freezes in my chest. These mountains, an endless sea of them, stretching, I know, from Maine into Georgia, are the vertebrae of the East. They’re unmovable and in their bare outcroppings you can read in the strata every geologic chapter of our world—ten thousand years of sediment to create less than one inch of a mountain that rises three thousand feet into the sky. To know these mountains, you have to crawl through these mountains, sometimes on hands and knees, scaling their flanks through a fur of trees and mountain laurel, clinging to each follicle of branch and vine and root as if you’re riding the hindquarters of some gigantic beast intent on throwing you. To know these mountains you must know their people. Those who settled here and scratched out a living in the rocky earth, planting terraced farms to cradle precious topsoil.
I thread my way through the mountains slowly, heading up to Blacksburg, frequently getting out of the car to hike a mountain trail, so when I arrive at the office of Katrina Powell, a professor of rhetoric at Virginia Tech, my shirt is streaked with mud and my Converse are caked with red clay.
Katrina tells me the story of The Mountain People. Just a little over 80 years ago, the most scenic drive in America opened to the public. It would eventually become 469 miles of asphalt and concrete, a continuous ribbon of roadway from the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. Some 20 million people drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway every year, making it the most visited of all the National Park Service’s holdings.
But not everyone celebrated the birth of that section of the Blue Ridge Parkway called Skyline Drive. There are more than a few Virginians who remember what happened back in the 1930s as the government took their lands, burned their homes, and forced them into resettlement communities.
“I grew up in Madison County which is one of the counties that donated land to Shenandoah National Park during the 1930s,” says Katrina. “I heard lots of stories about families who had been displaced during that time, they lost their homes in order to form this beautiful park. There were horrible stories about people losing their homes, homes being burned in front of them, being forced out, forced to live in places that they didn’t necessarily want to live.”
Government, when it’s up to no good, or when it‘s trying to hide something insidious from the public, has the twisted tendency of abusing language. To get its way, government does the unthinkable, it changes the very meaning of words. And all too often the new meaning is the exact opposite of the original meaning. Consider the word donate.
“Mountain families during the twenties and early thirties were asked to quote, unquote, donate their land,” Katrina says. “But some families who did not want to leave their homes, their homes had been in their families for generations or they had no means to leave. They did give some families government assistance through Farm Security Administration.”
But anyone who resisted the government’s desire was pegged as a sort of enemy of the state. “They were deemed not quote, unquote, a good citizen and they might not receive the assistance that was available to some other folks,” Katrina explains.
If you played ball with the government, you were called a good citizen, if you disagreed in any way with the government, they called you something else. “They were deemed uncooperative, argumentative, resistant by government officials,” says Katrina. “I did see one letter that referred to them as the worst class of citizen that exists.”
Most all of these people were of Scott-Irish descent, who’d began arriving in America en masse back in the early seventeen hundreds coming through Philadelphia and Dover, Delaware. They were the border people from Scotland who’d been transplanted by the British to Ulster in an attempt to wrest the land from the Irish.
In the United States the Scotts-Irish migrated to the west, to the hills and the mountains, and then south down the Great Wagon Road. For generations these mountain people lived full, creative lives that were family-centered. But then in the late 1800s the popular press began depicting them as something less than human—hillbilly became the word of choice in describing these people.
By the 1930s there was a movement afoot called eugenics. The objective of this pseudo-science, later embraced by Nazi Germany, was to socially engineer society, weeding out those who were deemed undesirable. It was a highly paternalistic attitude and was endorsed by institutions of higher learning. Eugenics was considered the wave of the future: It promised to bring the entire country a step closer to utopia.
“At that moment in history at University of Virginia there was a professor there who taught eugenics and one of his students was a woman who went to teach in the hills of Madison County,” Katrina says. “People thought she had just come to teach.”
In fact, the reason she was there was much more sinister. “She was conducting a eugenics study and her research was then used by sociologists to write a book called ‘Hollow Folks’, which was published in 1930 and described people in very derogatory terms but terms that were accepted in sociology at the time,” Katrina says. “Terms like feeble-minded and imbecile.”
Labelling the people who inhabited the mountains of Virginia—the hollow folks—as feeble-minded and subhuman gave the government the ammunition it needed to take their land.
In Katrina’s book, “Answer at Once”, there are many letters written by people whose world was about to change forever. The Corbins, the Nicholsons, the Lambs, the Davises, the Shifletts, the Jewells and the Jenkins, the Meadows and the Taylors, and scores of others. Reading the actual words of these families who were displaced, these pleading words, these carefully chosen words, would break the heart of a man made of stone. But they had no apparent effect on the bureaucrats who had a vision for the land these families possessed. And as their power grew, the bureaucrats changed the rules. They did it all under the guise of eminent domain, that crouching beast that seems set to pounce with increasing frequency.
“Families were misled,” Katrina says. “At first families who were told that they’d be able to stay there. Families got conservation easements along Blue Ridge Parkway. Their land would become government property, but they would continue to live there.”
Just after FDR was sworn into office, a new secretary of the interior was appointed, and everything changed in an instant. He viewed the mountain people as unsightly, blemishes on the landscape. “He decided all people had to be removed,” says Katrina. “This class of people had to be removed from Skyline Drive so people who came down from Washington to tour the park wouldn’t have to see the poor people. It was all because one man thought they were a blight on society, the way they looked, the clothes they wore, the fact that their children didn’t wear shoes, the fact that maybe their children’s faces were dirty.
It seemed that being poor had become a crime of some sort, and though some of these mountain people may have been poor, they were anything but impoverished. They’d carved farms out of the rocky soil, and had learned to subsist off the land. They picked huckleberries in season, pickled Jerusalem artichokes, tracked wild mushrooms, and hunted raccoon, possum and pleasantly fat ground hog. And they made moonshine, a perfectly legitimate pursuit until Prohibition came along. After Prohibition, moonshining became illegal, giving authorities yet another means of denigrating the mountain people.
“Well not a few years before that moonshining was not illegal,” Katrina says. “That’s the way families made their living and it was not illegal, and then suddenly it was illegal. And moonshiners were looked down upon as criminals.”
Governments cringe when certain groups of people are fiercely independent. In autocracies and other totalitarian forms, the military is employed. In democracies and republics, law is leveled against the nonconformist. And bureaucrats, armed with their functionary power, take aim. The objective is to make the independent become submissive and dependent. That’s what happened in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
“And in controlling people’s lives that way, certain political agendas are arrived at,” says Katrina. “One day they were free to wander the mountains with their sort of agreements with their neighbors. You can have my dead wood on my land, if I can come pick your berries. Whatever kind of bartering agreements people made with each other. Then suddenly that became illegal. From one day to the next people didn’t change, how they lived, and how they would subsist didn’t change, but this law made it illegal to do the things that they would normally do. It’s an enormous kind of power to have over people, and if you take away their independence, and you take away their ability to take care of themselves, if they couldn’t grow their potatoes anymore because suddenly that’s against the law, then they become dependent on the government, and then they become looked at as not worthy citizens because they depend on the relief.”
An entire society that had thrived for more than two centuries was destroyed for good and all in a matter of a few years. In some cases the mountain people were moved into “resettlement housing”. Resettlement was the same word Hitler would use a few years later when he transplanted European Jews. Even with resettlement housing available to some of the mountain people, there were no guarantees. And their local economy was permanently turned on its ear. Things would never be the same again.
“Well there were seven resettlement communities formed where the federal government bought land out in the surrounding communities and built tract housing,” Katrina says. “But, if you didn’t meet certain financial requirements, which a lot of them didn’t because they were subsistence farmers, then you were not able to get a federal loan and move into resettlement housing. And there were a couple of cases where someone was able to get a resettlement home so they lost their home in the mountains moved into a resettlement home, but were in fact not able to keep up the loan payments to the government and lost that home as well.”
In very short order, almost five hundred families were uprooted from their communities, communities their forbears had settled over two hundred years before. In some cases their homes were burned as they watched. Katrina Powell tells me about one photograph that captures the spirit of this displacement. It was taken by federal agents to document the stubbornness of the mountain people.
“There’s this photograph of a woman named Leslie Jenkins who was Walter Jenkins’ wife and they were being forced from their home and she refused to leave as some people did,” says Katrina. “And in the photographs two federal agents are carrying this woman. You can see that her feet are off the ground, her feet are behind her, and her home is in the background. And the story is that they burnt it to the ground. And some furniture is out and you can see furniture out in the yard and they burn the house right in front of her. And you can’t really tell in the photograph, but I learned later by interviewing some of her grandchildren and great nieces that she’s seven months pregnant in that photograph.”
Eighty years ago, no one came to the defense of the mountain people. They were on their own, a people without a voice that could be heard in Washington. What’s more, the government silenced them and caused them to feel shame when they did resist. Katy tells me about that small woman who stood up to feds, planted her feet in front of her home and stood defiant as a mountain. Leslie Jenkins. The woman who refused to leave her home.
“When I interviewed her family members they told me they had driven her up to the park’s archives and asked that they not let anyone else get a copy of that photograph because she was so ashamed of it,” says Katrina.
The heroic actions of Leslie Jenkins were reduced to something like common criminality. She was portrayed as an enemy of the public good, as were others who challenged authority.
After the interview, I drive up the Shenandoah Valley and make my way to a place called Ida Valley. It’s a Saturday night, late, when I finally settle in for the night. It’s not a campground but a thick woods at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, on the bank of a creek where tall sycamores grow, their bark white as bleached bone. I fall asleep listening to crickets and something that could be a coyote. All night long, filtering in and out of my dreams, I keep hearing that coyote, and when my eyes open in the darkness I can see moonlight on the white bark of the sycamores.
After breakfast, I come upon three men who are rolling out an old tin roof with metallic paint. One man wears a silver work shirt the same color as the roof with a tag stitched on the pocket that says John. There’s another man, lean and much younger than John, probably in his fifties, who has rust red hair and the features of a hawk. And the third man, the one who owns the house, is dressed in a white shirt and tie and dark slacks supported by suspenders. It is, after all, Sunday. This man named Carson Cornelius Aleshire has watched the sun rise over the Blue Ridge Mountains and set over Massanutten every day of his life.
“I was born and raised about a mile west of Stanley at the bottom of Zion Hill,” he says. “I was born February the twelfth, twenty-three.”
When I ask him about the resettlement village he nods his head, then points to the mountain behind him. “They burnt them all out of there and built this Homestead over here,” says Carson. “You need to talk to Ora Meadows.”
Ora Meadows lives not more than half-mile away in one the tract houses the government built when his father’s land was stolen. Carson tells me Ora’s father came from so far up a hollow that the Presbyterians there handled snakes, and the lone Episcopalian spoke in tongues.
Ora’s house is a brick rancher that sits on a hilltop surrounded by farmland. His daughter Betty invites me in and I take a seat in their living room next to a man whose eyes are the color of a bright autumn sky. When he tells me his age I am fairly in awe.
“I am one hundred and two,” Ora tells me. “And I grew up in Madison County up by Syria—the first big hollow over in Syria. My dad lived at the head of that hollow. They taking everything down a quarter of mile below us. Tell you how nasty and dirty they were they picked his nicest poplar. Cut it all down.”
Ora tells me one story after another about what it was like growing up in the mountains before the time of displacement. He tells me that even when money was scarce a family could eke out a living.
“We’d pick huckleberries,” he says. “They never did get cheap, even during the Depression, a dollar and a quarter a gallon. And back then you could catch coons, possums and things like that and get right much money out of them. That’s the way the old man would get money for to buy a coat for their children. Possum, coon and a bear would go through once a while. And wild hogs. You wouldn’t find a wild hog in that mountain now. Yes, sir, boy, it was dangerous too. I shot one for my uncle that weighed three hundred and twenty pounds, I think. He had plenty of meat and he sold the lard and the meat to a man in the mountain and the man who bought that said the lard never did get hard.”
He talks about other meats that were once plentiful in the hollows. “Possum’s good meat,” he says, then, smiling, adds, “But ground hog. Yes, boy. Only get him in the fall when he’s real nice and fat and you take a ground hog he’s just fat as he can be around September and October and you boil him until he’s tender, then take him out, put him in a bread pan, dress him off like you would a roast, and brown him up real nice and take the fat and trim it off. Ground hog’s the best meat.”
Ora Meadows also learned how to make moonshine, clear as mountain water, from his father.
“When we couldn’t get no work nowhere, nearly everybody in there had a still for whiskey,” Ora says. “I got pretty good with it myself. I used to sometimes haul a whole car load down around Somerset and Orange. I never could do no good with Culpeper.”
“You made it yourself,” I ask. “You made whiskey? Or white lightning?”
“Moonshine, moonshine,” Betty says as she brings us two glasses of iced tea, sweetened.
Ora then gives me the recipe for some of the best moonshine ever made.
“The way I made it, I had to take six bushels of corn and grain at a time, and put down two big hogsheads,” he says. ”You had to cook it. Wheat and corn made an awful good drink. You cooked the corn first, then after that cooked good, you hardly ever got the wheat into after dinner.”
“Then you heat it up again and put cornmeal in it and then you’d have to cool that down, you had to use a thermometer then, I always took it down to about fifty-five degrees.”
“What do you do after you’ve got that mash?” I ask.
“Well, it sets two to three days, sometimes a week and you run it and you had to run nine stills full before you could double it,” he says. “Half of the people used plain raw sugar. I didn’t use no sugar.”
We drink tea together, while Betty is making dinner. He remembers when the federal agents pushed the people out of their homes and then set the homes on fire while the people watched. It all happened so quickly, no one could believe it. “You never see the front of anything until it’s too late,” says Ora.
“I don’t guess they ever trusted the government again,” I say.
“Nope,” says Ora. “And they ain’t to this day.”
As I’m leaving their home, talking with Betty at the front door, Ora calls out to me. “The Indians were treated the worse of any people that’s ever been in North America,” he says. “Don’t you think so?” And I nod.
I head over the mountain to Wolftown, and park my car at the end of a road that runs parallel to the headwaters of the Rapidan River. What Ora had told me earlier, what Katrina Powell told me the day before, was a chapter of the New Deal that I’d never heard a thing about. It was a raw deal for the hundreds of families who were uprooted from communities settled before America gained its independence. What happened to them amounted to a kind of cultural genocide.
The sky is blue and cloudless. Cicadas still ratchet, clinging to summer. And the leaves haven’t flushed with fall yet, but they’ve lost their green vibrancy. They seem to have given up, and are on their way out. They look dry. They look spent, as if they’ve lived too hard and too fast. Heat and passion will do that sometimes.
I’ve still got four hours of sunlight left. Maybe a little more. I hike uphill with a sleeping bag and a back pack, carrying bare essentials. These woods are old and at times the canopy so thick the sun can’t penetrate the shield of foliage. I follow the course of the Rapidan until I find its source high up in the mountain.
I take a trail that descends into a valley and then up another mountain. This hike is almost straight up. When I reach a flat spot, I sit on a boulder, drink water and look out on the mountains that surround me like a frozen sea. From this altitude the ridge lines are a radiant blue. As I continue upward I pass through a long tunnel created by mountain laurel that must be a hundred years old. I cross a small stream and wade in the icy water, then scale an almost sheer bluff at the top of which I find Jones Mountain Cabin.
It is two-story of log with a large stone chimney and a porch on the front elevation. The sun is close on setting and the sky turns velvety blue. Even before the sun has completely departed far to the west, the stars begin coming out and the moon, full and silver, very old-looking, cratered and creased, rises with the speed of a helium balloon.
Because the door to the cabin is locked I sleep on the porch. I have a small Coleman lantern and a flask of bourbon. I don’t drink the bourbon neat, I mix it with water. Here I am truly alone with my thoughts that crowd in on me like stars filling the night sky.
I know this about the cabin: it was rebuilt in the early 1900’s by a moonshiner named Harvey Nicholson. When he took possession of the cabin all that was left of it was a stone chimney. And this, too: the Jones cabin was the only cabin that wasn’t burned down by government agents when they cleared the mountain people out of their homes to make way for Shenandoah National Park. The only reason the cabin wasn’t burnt was because it was so remote the government people couldn’t find it.
I know too that before this mountain was settled by Scott-Irish immigrants in the 1720s it had been home to successive tribes of American Indians for 12,000 years.
Those are things I know. Facts.
There is no wind, nor insect sound, only the night and the stars and moon.
Here’s what I know: Dispossession is part of the very nature of our universe. I am witnessing, in the sky, right this second, a star burning out like a cinder and with it the planets that once followed it, clung to it like children.
One religion dispossesses another. One is overpowered by another until the old one slips into myth status. God knows what we’ll believe in ten thousand years from now.
Cultures displace one another, sometimes in the comparative blink of an eye through extermination, other times slowly through assimilation.
And one generation dispossesses another. Almost as soon as our children are walking, they begin displacing us, steadily but surely. We all become irrelevant as the relevance of the next generation exceeds our own. The earth becomes theirs as we near the time when we return to the earth.
And within our own lives we displace ourselves. We may be one thing when we’re in our twenties, and something entirely different a decade later. Sometimes we displace ourselves rapidly, three or four times a year, leaving behind the former self like the discarded husk of a crayfish. Other times the change is slow as the mineral displacement of petrified wood. At the end of it our former self is no more. Yet that former self is not gone entirely. Something still remains.
I don’t drift off until three in the morning as I’m eyeing the leaves of the trees overhead that frame the stars in a sort of filigree. Dispossession is inevitable. All of it. And knowing this I understand that every moment counts for something, each memory, no matter how small. And that our actions can be tempered with compassion. Again, each one, no matter how small. This is what I’m thinking as I fall asleep on the porch of a cabin that escaped displacement, though its inhabitants weren’t so fortunate.
In the morning, my eyes open wide to a bright sun as a breeze sifts through the leaves and rattles them. The leaves are spent. You can see that. And then one leaf, perhaps unwillingly, snaps away from a twig. Just one leaf, and it drifts down through air that is now decidedly cool.