This episode of America’s National Parks was written and hosted by Jason Epperson with narration by Abigail Trabue.
Just 75 miles from the bustle of Washington, D.C., is an escape to recreation and re-creation. Cascading waterfalls, spectacular vistas, and quiet wooded hollows – 200,000 acres of protected lands are a haven to deer, songbirds, the night sky. But the history of this land is also the history of the people who gave up their homes for a great national park in the East.
On this episode of America’s National Parks, Shenandoah National Park, and the livelihood of the people who called the mountains their home.
Introduction to Shenandoah National Park:
The drive to establish a large national park in the east dates at least to meetings held in Washington in the first years of the 1900s between Virginia and Tennessee Congressmen. Although a bill to establish a park was drafted, nothing came of this early effort.
The concept languished until 1923 when National Park Service Director Stephen Mather approached Calvin Coolidge’s Secretary of the Interior and former Colorado psychiatrist, Hubert Work, with a request to establish a national park in the southern Appalachians. Work asked Congress to authorize an unpaid Southern Appalachian National Park Committee. The committee developed and published a broadly distributed questionnaire inviting public input into suggested sites for the new park area.
The timing of the establishment of the committee could not have been more advantageous for Shenandoah Valley boosters. In early January 1924, businessmen in Harrisonburg, Virginia, had put out the call for a convention to be held on January 15 to rally their resources together in a program that would tell the world of the scenic, historical, industrial, and other values of the Shenandoah Valley. Whether the timing of this event was serendipitous or based on a knowledge of Work’s congressional proposal is unknown, but almost 1,000 delegates attended the convention, representing thirteen Valley counties. The delegates established a regional Chamber of Commerce, Incorporated, and elected a thirty man Board of Directors, composed of the most influential businessmen, bankers, and politicians. The first Board meeting passed a resolution calling for the creation of a new national park in the Shenandoah Valley on lands owned by the Forest Service and private parties but to the west of the future Shenandoah National Park.
By June 1924, George Freeman Pollock, owner, and manager of the well-established Skyland Resort located in the heart of the future park, along with Harold Allen, Criminal Investigator for the Department of Justice, and George H. Judd, owner of Judd & Detweiler Publishing Company, filled out the questionnaire, advocating the creation of a national park along the Blue Ridge spine with a central focus on Skyland.
Between September and December of 1924, the members of the committee visited the proposed park sites individually and in groups. The business boosters from the Valley and Skyland had been busy in preparation.
“We have already ridden several hundred miles over the area, we have seven towers built upon high points, several trails blazed the whole length of the Blue Ridge… and we have the whole country-side aware to the fact that the Commissioners [sic] are coming.”
Shenandoah Valley, Inc. Spent over $10,000 in their campaign to sell the Blue Ridge site, and in December, the Committee presented their report to the Secretary of the Interior. The report recognized that the Great Smoky Mountains were the most picturesque of the visited areas, but felt that the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia had the greater advantage of accessibility to the 40,000,000 visitors within a day’s drive of the area. They noted:
“The greatest single feature, however, is a possible skyline drive along the mountain top, following a continuous ridge and looking down westerly on the Shenandoah Valley… and commanding a view [to the East] of the Piedmont Plain…. Few scenic drives in the world could surpass it.”
Congress passed legislation on February 21, 1925, allocating $20,000 for the survey and evaluation of proposed parks in the Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave (Kentucky legislatures would not support the bill without this inclusion), and Shenandoah National Park. The authorization envisioned Shenandoah as a park of 521,000 acres, a figure soon reduced to 400,000, and with a stipulation that Virginia purchase the land and present it to the federal government.
Congress to that time had established parks only on government land or on land donated for park establishment – it was not about to break prior precedent.
On July 7, 1925, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and Shenandoah Valley, Inc., formed the Shenandoah National Park Association, Inc. in Charlottesville for the sole purpose of collecting funds and donated land for the proposed park. The Association set as its goal the raising of $2,500,000, a figure estimated to be the cost of purchasing 400,000 acres at $6.00/acre. By April 1926, $1,249,154 had been pledged, and the committee felt confident enough to recommend that Congress authorize Shenandoah National Park. The bill passed on May 14 and was signed by Calvin Coolidge on May 22, 1926. Shenandoah would become a reality when Virginia donated a minimum of 327,000 acres to the federal government.
Governor Harry F. Byrd established the Virginia Conservation and Development Commission in April 1926 to take over the management of funds collected for the park. The new Commission was headed by William Carson, Byrd’s former campaign manager, and had a mandate to survey, appraise, and purchase the estimated 4,000 properties within the authorized boundary. As time passed, landowner resistance mounted, and actual property values became more evident or inflated due to government purchase. Carson convinced the Commonwealth legislature to enact a blanket condemnation law. The legislation was passed in Virginia in December 1927, survived Commonwealth Supreme Court challenges in October 1929, but was not finally resolved until the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case in December 1935. On December 26, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes officially accepted the legally cleared deeds.
Because of the unresolved legal status of the park land, National Park Service planning and development of Shenandoah from 1931-1935 was confined to three primary locations: the narrow 100′ right-of-way for the Skyline Drive, purchased from willing landowners happy to see modern road access to their adjacent properties, the more than 6,000 acres at Skyland and White Oak Canyon owned by booster George Pollock, and the lands purchased by the Commonwealth at Big Meadows.
From 1931-1933 Herbert Hoover (intimately familiar with the park area because of his fishing camp within the park boundary) supported the expenditure of significant sums of public works funds to build the initial 32 miles of Skyline Drive connecting his camp, Big Meadows, Skyland, and Thornton Gap.
After F.D.R.’s inauguration in 1933 and the establishment of six Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Shenandoah by the year’s end, construction and development exploded – primarily as highly visible public relations efforts to bolster Roosevelt’s campaign to fight the negative psychological impacts of the Great Depression.
There was no official master plan behind the development of Shenandoah at the time. The Commonwealth of Virginia and business interests sought to have a national park because of the economic stimulus it would provide; George Pollock naively thought that he would retain his Skyland, and many of the commercial lodging and mineral-rights owners of park land thought that they would share in a harvest of greatly inflated land values. And no one seemed to have given serious thought to the 400-500 mountain families that had no desire to move from their homes.
Hard Scrabble Mountain life was the closest tie to the pre-civil war days America had at the time. Their life in the years before the National Park had grown exponentially harder, as their primary source of income was forbidden by constitutional amendment.
Importance of Liquor to the People of the Region:
Reed Engle, former National Park Service Cultural Resource Specialist, explains the importance of liquor to the people of the region in his essay “Thoughts on Whiskey.”
The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, establishing the prohibition of “intoxicating liquors,” would not have been ratified in an earlier age. Although there had been vocal forces in the 1830s advocating prohibition, the population of the United States was then too rural and too agricultural to support a movement that threatened a significant element of farm and homestead economy.
By 1920, the majority of the electorate was no longer dependent on radically shifting agricultural market economics, the transportation system had improved, and the national taste for the so-called “demon rum” had changed, although not abated.
Alcoholic beverages were the coffee and cola upon which the frontier was tamed.
Tree fruits were grown primarily to drink, frequently to feed hogs, and only incidentally to eat. “Our…forebears were prodigious drinkers of a great variety of liquors, fermented and distilled,” read Stevenson Whitcomb Fletcher’s 1951 book “Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life.” “They viewed waters, for drinking purposes, with deep suspicion if not aversion….The requirements of a family were from ten to fifty [31.5 gallon] barrels [of cider] annually.”
In almost every farm home, a barrel of hard cider was constantly on tap. Foaming pitchers were brought to the table at every meal. When milk was scarce small children drank diluted cider.
And apples and other fruit were not the only source of the liquid staple.
For nearly a century, a considerable proportion of the corn and rye produced in Pennsylvania was marketed as whiskey. This liquor was the almost universal beverage of men, women, and children. There was little or no moral or religious sentiment against it then.
Lest it be thought that Pennsylvanians had an unusual habit, a 1785 letter from John Joyce to Robert Dickson should set the issue to rest:
“As to the Drink chiefly used in this colony [Virginia], it is generally Cyder, every planter having an orchard; they make from 1000 to 5 or 6000 [gallons] according to their rank and Fortune… the very meanest and hilly Lands are proper for the Peachtree, every planter almost having an Orchard of these trees, the Brandy made from that Fruit, I think, is excellent, and they make it in sufficient quantities.”
The Carter family of Nomini Hall typically consumed 560 gallons of rum and 150 gallons of brandy in a year.
Habit and custom, however, were also driven by simple economic forces. Agricultural commodity prices were tremendously variable in the 18th and 19th centuries: good crop years were often rewarded with declining prices in a time before Federal price supports. Thus alternative and derivative products were made, such as distilling rye flour.
Thomas Jefferson, ever one to experiment in his agricultural and horticultural activities, brewed beer, and in 1792 saw the value in liquid grains. As he wrote to George Divers:
“As I propose to purchase a still here for the use of my plantations, & understand there is a good deal in the size, proportion & number of the vessels, I take the liberty of requesting you to inform me what particulars I had better provide. I make this appeal…proposing nothing more than the distillation of my own grain & fruit.”
Divers responded to Jefferson that he “would advise you to purchase One Still and a Copper Kettle of Sixty Gallons with which you may make from 70 to 80 Gallons of whiskey per Week & feed 60 or 70 Hogs on the spent mash.”
Fresh vegetables and fruit were rarely grown for the markets of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Market reports carried in the newspapers of the day often noted prices for dried fruits (particularly apples and peaches), but consistently reported the price of hard cider and peach brandy. Liquid grain was an economic staple, according to Fletcher’s who wrote:
“There was a time…when whiskey was the one commodity that had a standard value and all the mediums of barter and exchange, such as corn, salt, tobacco, etc., were valued in accordance with the amount of whiskey they could fetch. When coin was almost unknown…a whiskey still was as necessary as a grist mill…Nearly every fifth or sixth farm had a copper still.”
The third driving force for the production of whiskey, brandy, and hard cider was the limitations imposed by transportation. Roads in rural areas then, and in some areas, today, were not supportive of significant agricultural commerce. Whiskey was the only farm product that it would pay to transport over the Alleghenies to Philadelphia and Baltimore. A pack-horse could carry twenty-four bushels of rye as whiskey but only four as grain.
A typical horse or mule-drawn farm wagon typically held thirty bushels of apples, weighing 1440 pounds and occupying 141 cubic feet of space. Pressed as cider, the weight was reduced to 502 pounds, the volume to 7.6 cubic feet. As distilled applejack, the original wagon load yielded 11.4 gallons weighing about 100 pounds, a reduction to 1.1 percent of the original space, and 7 percent of the original weight. Transportation of the distilled product was both practical and economically advantageous.
Although much of America had improved roads by 1920, when the 18th Amendment passed, most deeply rural and mountainous areas remained, overflowing with the driving economic and social forces of the 18th and 19th centuries. A world where the copper boiler still turned bulky crops into liquid gold.
The actual number of residents in Shenandoah will never be precisely known because many moved before December 1935. The issue of the forced resettlement of 465 families between 1935 and 1937 represents a classic case of bureaucratic ineptitude. Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of the Interior, Ray Lyman Wilbur, long had expressed the Washington policy that park residents would not be disturbed unless they were in the direct path of development. Then on February 1, 1934, the new Director of the Park Service, Arno Cammerer, stated that all inhabitants of the park lands whether landowners, tenants, or squatters, would have to leave. At first, officials in Washington attempted to dump the entire problem on Virginia officials, but a flood of letters to the White House prompted action. The Department of Agriculture’s Resettlement Administration purchased 6,291 acres in seven locations bordering the proposed park to establish resettlement homestead communities.
By the spring of 1938, 42 elderly residents had been given life estates, 175 families had been relocated to resettlement communities, several families had been physically evicted, and their houses burned, and the majority of the mountain residents just left the mountain on their own.
Visiting Shenandoah National Park:
Shenandoah National Park today approaches 200,000 acres. Forty percent of the area is congressionally designated wilderness.
The park museum collections include several beautiful copper stills of varied forms, along with the corresponding copper “worms.” Earthenware jugs and stills were used in the past as “humorous” display objects to ridicule the “moonshining mountain folk,” but in reality, they represent the final chapters in a centuries-old American agricultural tradition.
Shenandoah National Park is a hiker’s paradise with over 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
You can drive or bike Skyline Drive, which runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and is the only public road through the park. It takes about three hours to travel the entire length on a clear day.
The speed limit is 35 mph, so you can roll down your windows, feel the breeze, and experience every curve and turn of this beautiful drive. There are nearly 70 overlooks that offer stunning views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the rolling Piedmont to the east.
RVs, camping trailers, and horse trailers are welcome, but be prepared to shift into low gear. One tunnel just south of the Thornton Gap entrance has a height restriction of 12’8″.
Deer, black bear, wild turkey, and a host of other woodland animals call Shenandoah home and regularly cross Skyline Drive in their daily travels. Watch carefully for these animals who may dart across your path without warning.
Check out the operating hours and seasons, so you know what it is open in the Park before you arrive. Facilities tend to be limited during late fall and winter.
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