The People before the Park

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This novel and the characters in it are entirely fictional, but they were inspired by actual events — a shameful and still somewhat secret part of America’s history.  In the 1930s, several thousand people who belonged to a now-vanished, Blue Ridge Mountain community had their homes and land taken from them by the governments of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States in favor of a national park.  Some of the most destitute of these mountain folk, portrayed by their own government as simple-minded hillbillies, were institutionalized and forcibly sterilized as part of the eugenics movement of the time.

Soon after the federal government announced it wanted to open a national park on the east coast, a group of Virginia politicians and businessmen recommended a site in the state’s Blue Ridge Mountains.  Uncle Sam liked the idea, and so the Commonwealth of Virginia stitched together Shenandoah National Park from a patchwork of hundreds of parcels, each owned by a different family, and presented the lot to the federal government.

When sociologists and journalists arrived to see the mountain people for themselves, they focused on the mountains’ poorest residents, only a portion of the overall population.  In their book Hollow Folk, sociologist Mandel Sherman and journalist Thomas Henry referred to “unlettered folk,” living in “mud-plastered log cabins.”  They described them as “almost entirely cut off from the current of American life.”

These misrepresentations helped the government market the proposed assimilation of these people into modern society as a humanitarian effort.  So it was with the support of the federal government and the American people that Virginia seized the homes of mountain families, many of whom knew nothing of the proposed park until they received a notice to vacate that ordered them to sell their land for meager, Depression-era prices — in some cases, as little as two dollars an acre.  Some residents were deemed squatters and paid nothing because they had never filed deeds with the county courthouse and couldn’t prove they owned their land.

The federal Resettlement Administration, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies, was responsible for relocating the communities to seven resettlement areas in three counties where families could continue to subsistence farm and try to otherwise make a living.  But resettlement housing wasn’t free.  Displaced mountain residents who didn’t have the money to pay could apply to the state welfare department for a loan, but those who lacked collateral or a steady source of income were denied.

According to filmmaker Robert Knox Robinson’s documentary, “Rothstein’s First Assignment,” and its first-person interviews, some of the poorest mountain people were taken to an asylum in Luray, Virginia and, in some cases, surgically sterilized without their consent.  Doctors at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded used as their justification the eugenics movement theory that the poor should be qualified as halfwits unfit to reproduce.  According to the film, more than 8,300 people were sterilized in Virginia.  It is not known how many of them were from the mountains.

There are nearly 100 million visitors to Shenandoah National Park annually.  Since early park rangers made a practice of burning homes and barns so the owners wouldn’t return, not much evidence remains that people lived in the mountains before the park.  But there are a few trails where hikers may come across the stacked stones of a forgotten chimney or an old foundation.  And organizations like the Blue Ridge Heritage Project are working to memorialize the mountain residents.

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