Corbin Hollow Boy
Last week I spent a couple of nights camping in Shenandoah National Park. Late summer wildflowers were in bloom and a touch of autumn color was beginning to creep into the trees on top of the mountain. In the park one enjoys nature seemingly undisturbed, but the natural beauty that we enjoy now came at a human cost.
The park was authorized in 1926, and in the following years hundreds of families living within the boundaries of the newly created park were moved off land that, in many cases, had been lived on for generations going back to the 18th century.
Children of Charlie Nicholson who is being resettled on new land
In order to justify relocating these mountain dwellers, they were often depicted as barely civilized, ignorant, illiterate squatters isolated from the progress of the 20th century. Park promoters, journalists, photographers, psychologists and other “outsiders” focused their attention on the most disadvantaged inhabitants. In the October 19, 1930 edition of the New York Times, a headline declared “'Lost' Communities In Blue Ridge Hills: Centres Where Intelligence Practically Is Missing Reported by Psychologists.” Sensational and often inaccurate articles such as this did little to win public sympathy for the mountain people. More recent archaeological and documentary evidence suggest that the reality of life in the Blue Ridge was richer and more complex than the contemporary accounts allowed. It was a time of sadness and heartbreak for families forced to leave their home.
Russ Nicholson peeling apples
Over the years, the mountains have returned to a wild state. Pasture and corn field, garden and orchard have been reclaimed by forest. Houses and outbuildings collapsed in decay and some were destroyed by forest fires. Today, few traces of the mountain folks existence remain.
There is certainly a case to be made that the creation of the park and the displacement of the mountain inhabitants was for the best. Surely their way of life would be doomed by the extraordinary changes that came about after World War II and continue to this day. It is against those changes that the Shenandoah National Park stands, preserving a mountain environment and protecting it from developers. There will be no shopping malls along the Skyline Drive. For that, we remember the people who sacrificed their homes and their way of life.
(All photographs were taken in October, 1935 by Arthur Rothstein and are archived in the Library of Congress. Captions are from the LOC catalog.)