The moral imagination, if it is to penetrate and transcend, must find the soul of place.
John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination
Part I: The Blue Ridge
I took a trip to the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia last month for an assignment for a graduate class. For most of the 1.2 million visitors to the park last year, this is what Shenandoah National Park looks like:
- But the story of how the park came to be is much more complex than that.
First, a history lesson, and then a comparison to my own story.
As the century turned over, there were millions of acres in the U.S. (mostly in the west of the country) being designated as national parks, and there was a wish to have a park east of the Mississippi, in the Appalachian Mountains. The Commonwealth of Virginia wanted to be the place where such a national park would be located, and started buying land about 60 miles from Washington, D.C. in order to donate the land to the newly created National Park Service, (NPS,) which was established as a federal agency in 1916 (Provence, 2011).
What would eventually become the Shenandoah National Park was authorized in 1926, by President Calvin Coolidge. However, it was the next two Presidents, Herbert Hoover, (who already owned land on the mountain that would then become part of the park) and Franklin D. Roosevelt, (FDR,) as well as George Pollock, owner of the Skyland Resort (a popular tourist resort located on land that Pollock would then donate to the future park) who became most credited (and faulted) for the creation of the park that exists today. (Provence, 2011)
“This is just what I want – (a) camp of retreat, far removed from the city environ (and) the confines of the White House.”Herbert Hoover, in a letter to his personal physician
(Quote taken from the exhibit at the Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center at the Shenandoah National Park.)
Image from the NPS website
An educational lesson plan about the park on the NPS website with the title: “Shenandoah National Park: Virginia’s Gift to the Nation” says this, “Because most of the United States population lived in the east, the desire for a large national park in the eastern United States, within a day’s drive of millions of people grew steadily in the early 20th century. Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, believed that people in the east (of the country) should have opportunities to enjoy a park similar to those that had been created in the west (n.d.).”
“The only problem? Unlike the sparsely inhabited wildernesses of the west, around 500 families lived on the targeted land, and the human presence was a problem in an area where nature was supposed to be the theme.”
From the very beginning there were critics of the park.
From Dr. Franklin Dukes, an environmental facilitator and mediator at the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia:
- “(There was a) perception that unlike other national Parks that sought to protect wilderness areas with spectacular natural features, the driver for Shenandoah National Park was the desire of some to have a summer vacation spot for the elite of Washington, D.C. and to make money (by providing lodging) while doing so.”
A national park at the top of the Blue Ridge was desired by many factions in the government and private enterprise, but there were already people living there, some for five generations, and so it was decided that they would have to be relocated for the park to continue (Thomas, 2004).
“We are unwilling to part with our homes to help a small part of our population to get their hands into tourist pockets.” H.M. Cliser, (a resident of Luray, Virginia,) in a letter to Herbert Hoover.
(Quote taken from an exhibit at the Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center at the Shenandoah National Park.)
In 1928 a teacher, Miriam M. Sizer, was hired to study the residents in several “hollows” (communities often based on geographic and/or clan location) and report back on the residents’ reactions to the impending move. Sizer focused mainly on three hollows, Weakley, Nicholson, and Corbin, although she was in Richards Hollow some as well (Engle, n.d.).
I will touch on this choice of these three hollows again later, but for now suffice it to say that these were the three poorest hollows on the mountain.
Sizer wrote many letters and reports from 1928-1932 that contained “sweeping generalizations” of the people on the mountain that both fed into the existing stereotypes of Appalachians by much of the rest of the country, and also bolstered the case for their removal from their land (Engle, n.d.).
Sizer had been teaching school during the”vacation” or summer period at a school in Weakley Hollow for only two months when she drafted a letter to William E. Carson, the Chairman of the Virginia State Conservation and Development Commission, which was the agency responsible to survey the land for the park and then purchase it. The following letter to Carson is taken from the National Park Service website:
“For two months this summer I taught a vacation school at Oldrag [sic], Virginia, near Skyland. Here I studied both educational and sociological conditions. To show that my education, professional experience, and background have been such as should enable me to form reasonably accurate judgments, and to reach faily [sic] intelligent conclusions, I will give you a brief summary of my preparation and professional career:
In 1924 I received from the College of William and Mary the B. A. degree; in 1928 (August 31st) I received from the University of Virginia the Master of Arts degree. While teaching in the Norfolk City Elementary School (1914-20), I conducted classes for the adult foreigners in an Americanization school. Special work in citizenship was given with satisfactory results. During one summer (1919), I taught in the Academic School at the Naval Base, near Norfolk. This was work with the illiterate and near-illiterate sailors. In both instances, I found the adults interested and teachable. Since 1924 I have been a high school teacher.”
Although Sizer had a Master’s Degree and as such was much more educated than most teachers at the time, she had somehow obtained the ear of, but more importantly, had influence on powerful people, including the Secretary of the Interior, Director of the National Park Service, and the Governor of Virginia (Engle, n.d.).
A letter written by Sizer was then sent to the New York Times.
“This one-room school [Old Rag] was in session three months last winter [1927-8] and two months this summer, making a total of five months. With approximately seventy children of school age, thirty seven were enrolled in the vacation school with an average daily attendance of nineteen.
Some of the causes of non-attendance are: conditions that make it unwise to enforce the compulsory education law; the ignorance of the parents to such degree as to render them practically non-responsible for their children’s training and education; the idleness of the men that throws the burden of labor on the women and children; inadequate school equipment and teaching force; and sometimes, the incompetency of the teacher….
The school has instilled in the children no sense of citizenship; there is no school flag, and neither children nor parents, until this summer [due to Miss Sizer] had ever heard “America” sung….
Descendents [sic] of the original settlers, cut off from civilization by environment, neglected by the State – the population of the proposed park area, several thousand in number, represents a static social order. These mountaineers have aptly been called “our contemporary ancestors.” They are a modern Robinson Crusoe, without his knowledge of civilization. Steeped in ignorance, wrapped in self-satisfaction and complacency, possessed of little or no ambition, little sense of citizenship, little comprehension of law, or respect for law, these people present a problem that demands and challenges the attention of thinking men and women….
The attitude of the people toward the park acquisition by the Federal Government is one of passive acceptance. They say that what is going to happen will happen…. The taking over of this area means the uprooting of a whole population permanently attached to the soil, an event unique in the history of America [Native Americans not considered by Miss Sizer]…. It means the scattering of a people who have a primitive comprehension of what law means and who have little sense of the responsibilities of citizenship. It means the casting abroad of men largely a law unto themselves, a majority of whom donot [sic] have the habit of work, who gamble and above all, who know how to make alcoholic liquors. It would seem that if these people are sent out without some preparation, a majority may become either paupers or criminals….
If the Government can spend its wealth to save a race of trees [the chestnut], can it not spend its wealth to save a race of man?
Should you be interested in these questions, and should you desire further information setting forth conditions, I believe I could secure such data….”
And secure data she did.
Sizer invited two sociologists, Mandel Sherman, from the University of Chicago, and Cora Keys to the area to collect data on the people in the hollows, and in 1933 Sherman and journalist Thomas Henry published a book, Hollow Folk, (whose title could be construed in several ways,) and which signaled the end for the residents’ homesteads on the mountain (Engle, n.d.).
The front of the book says this:
“Down in the secluded hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains – yet within a hundred miles of the National Capital – lives a folk for whom life and civilization have stood still. This firsthand study of their community forms ‘one of the most interesting pages of American history’ – in the opinion of an eminent anthropologist.”
Hollow Folk was based on data collection done by Sherman, Sizer and Henry primarily in the Corbin, Nicholson and Weakley Hollows of the Blue Ridge (Provence, 2011).
George Pollock, owner of the Skyland Resort mentioned earlier, had featured the residents of Corbin Hollow as “an example of the mountain culture in a brochure (for the resort). . . (and) then he said they had to be saved, and he used Corbin Hollow as an example of their poverty,” (Robinson, as cited in Provence, 2011.).
The book described the people as having:
“…no community government, no organized religion, little social organization wider than that of family and clan, and only traces of organized industry.” The residents are also existing “…at the lowest level of social development and are culturally backward. Social evolution presumably still goes on but so slowly do groups go forward under their own power that no movement can be discerned through generations.”
“The mountain folk are generally helpless and would be terminally so were it not for the help of outside missionaries and traders.”
They were also seen as:
“…unlettered folk, sheltered in tiny mud-plastered log cabins and supported by a primitive agriculture, in communities which were almost entirely cut off from the current of American life.”
From: Hollow Folk, by Mandel Sherman and Thomas Henry (1933).
Audrey J. Horning, an historian for the National Park Service, wrote that, unfortunately for the Weakley Hollow residents, there was no mention in the book that they in fact had “…a post office, two stores, two churches, and a school by the twentieth century” (2011).
“It was a series of sociological studies imposing Dogpatch history on the Shenandoah National Park region, that succeeded in fostering widespread support for the removal and effective disenfranchising of residents”
(Horning, as cited in Provence, 2011).
“Dogpatch” history is a reference from the 20th century comic strip, Li’l Abner. Written by Al Capp, he describes Dogpatch as being “an average stone-age community nestled in a bleak valley, between two cheap and uninteresting hills somewhere.” From a website dedicated to Li’l Abner, “Dogpatch exceeded every stereotype of Appalachia. The hillbillies in Li’l Abner’s town were poorer than poor. The houses were hopelessly ramshackle. Most Dogpatchers were dumber than dumb. The remainder were scoundrels and thieves” (lil-abner.com, n.d.).
Also in 1933, while the country was in the grips of the Great Depression, FDR authorized the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which was tasked with creating jobs for unemployed young men, “related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state and local governments” (Salmond, 1967).
The very first CCC work camps were established in what would become the new park. There were ten camps in or adjacent to the new park land. The men were set to work making the land accessible for the rest of the country to visit the new park (Heinemann, n.d.).
“The President took a whirlwind tour through the Shenandoah Valley and along the developing Skyline Drive to bolster public confidence in his public works programs. Followed by ‘three newsreel photographers and a corps of newspaper cameramen,’ Roosevelt ensured that the uplifting image of Shenandoah’s CCC camps was flashed around the world. Shenandoah National Park, long before it was born, was officially baptized by the Civilian Conservation Corps.”
During the Great Depression, people needed employment. In my opinion, FDR was a forward-thinking president who was passionate about both the welfare of his constituents and also the conservation of the land. I was always taught that the New Deal policies he helped to institute (including the CCC) were supposed to benefit the whole of the country. However, did those policies actually benefit the mountain residents or were they sacrificed for “the greater good” for the rest of the country?
“In no State did the CCC make a greater or more lasting contribution to the well-being of its citizens than it did in Virginia.”
Ronald L. Heinemann, professor of history, Hampden-Sydney College citing the final Virginia CCC report from the federal government in 1942.
In October of 1935, a 20-year old photographer fresh out of Columbia University named Arthur Rothstein had just been hired to take photos of the residents of the mountain. For his first assignment, he’d been contracted by Rexford Tugwell, an economics professor from Columbia University and the brainchild of the “Resettlement Administration,” (RA), a newly established federal New Deal agency. RA was created to resettle poor families from land that the agency deemed unfit or “agriculturally used up”starting in April 1935 until December 1936 (Weiser, 2015). It was immediately unpopular in Congress, (partly out of a fear of socialism.)
“Realizing the battle for public opinion (for the RA) had begun, Tugwell hired his former student Roy Stryker to lead the Historic Section within the Information Division of the RA. In order to build support for and justify government programs, the Historical Section set out to document America, often at her most vulnerable, and the successful administration of relief service.”
From: Photogrammar website, Yale University and the National Endowment for the Humanities http://photogrammar.yale.edu/about/fsa_owi/
Over the objections from Congress to its programs, and with the help of the photographs that Stryker delivered, the RA (which morphed into the Farm Security Administration in 1937) was still able to resettle many rural and urban poor families (I have seen figures ranging from 75,000 to two million people) throughout the country to other communities designated by the government as being more suitable, including the residents of the Blue Ridge (Wikipedia, n.d.)
“In 1935 the country was on the ropes and (Rothstein) was supposed to photograph it.”
C. Thomas Anderson, “Arthur Rothstein: American Portraits,” (2014).
Rothstein was interviewed in 1964 about his time with the Blue Ridge residents and said this about gaining their trust enough to be photographed:
“I went out there and lived in a cabin on the top of a mountain for a few weeks, walked around and became acquainted with these people. At the beginning they were very shy about having pictures taken, but I would carry my camera along and make no attempt to take pictures. They just got to know me, and finally, they didn’t mind if I took a few pictures.”
However, according to Richard Knox Robinson, who in 2011 released a documentary entitled Rothstein’s First Assignment, before Rothstein got to the mountain he met with Sherman and Henry, the authors of Hollow Folk, (Provence, 2011).
“It seemed clear Rothstein picked the poorest mountain families to be photographed. . . it’s widely believed his images were used to justify moving people out of the park.”
(Robinson, as cited in Provence, 2011).
But reality is usually more complex than we think. In the same 1964 interview that C. Thomas Anderson documented, Rothstein says this about the purpose of his photographing the soon-to-be-dispossessed residents of the mountain:
“The purpose of the project was to photograph these people who were going to be moved out and photograph them in such a way that you had some idea of how they lived and what they did, because their entire way of life was going to be destroyed. They were going to be taken out of this environment and moved into shiny new houses where they would no longer have the picturesque quality that they had living in the hills.”
Arthur Rothstein, (as cited by Anderson, 2014).
And some of Rothstein’s photographs also served to contradict both Miriam Sizer’s and the Hollow Folk authors’ paternalistic stereotypes of the mountain residents. Photos of churches, post offices, schools, well-kept properties, learned men, industrious peoples – his photos seemed to show at least some nuance complexity in the mountain residents’ lives.
However, the captions that Rothstein would put with his photos could be problematic, or even offensive, even though I acknowledge that the language that was used in the 30’s to describe human beings is different than today. In the photograph below, Rothstein calls this little boy a “half-wit.” I wish that I could find his real name.
Or the caption for the photo below: “Drying apples, one of the few sources of income for the mountain folk.”
According to the Park Service research, there were various sources of income on the mountain such as selling woven baskets, and the goods at the General Store and the Old Rag village “operated commercial sawmills, gristmills, and distilleries”(Horning, n.d.).
It’s also ironic that the poverty of the mountain residents was somehow proof of their inability to take care of themselves. The country was in the depths of the worst Depression in its history, and millions of people were desperately poor. I can’t imagine that the folks on the Blue Ridge were any worse off than the folks suffering through the Dust Bowl in the Midwest (which would become Rothstein’s next assignment), or many other places in the country.
“After the official establishment of the park in 1935, CCC activities were expanded to include the entire expanded acreage. Except on the few dozen properties where residents were given life estates, the charge of the CCC boys was to remove all evidence of human occupation (in spite of official policy that some of these homes were to be preserved and restored for interpretation). Houses and outbuildings were dismantled for salvage materials, for resettlement community structures, or were burned, fences were removed, gardens and orchards were obliterated, and the work areas were replanted, seeded, or sodded.”
All that is left now are ruins.
Part II: Ohio Appalachia
I grew up in rural northeastern Ohio; way out in the country.
Surrounding me was coal and steel country, where the glacier made mountain-like hills and valleys. Where Italians, Irish, Polish, Greeks, Serbians, Ukrainians, English, Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Slovaks, Russians, Lebanese, Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, African-Americans, Armenians, and Croatians made their homes on top of Native American lands.
Our collars were blue.
On September 19th, 1977, the Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel plant closed most of its plant. That day is still referred to as “Black Monday.” Very soon after, almost all of the steel plants in and surrounding Youngstown closed. According to Robert Bruno, the area lost “40,000 manufacturing jobs, 400 satellite businesses, $414 million in personal income, and from 33 to 75 percent of the school tax revenues.”
We were already Appalachian, and we then became Rust Belt throwaways.
I still remember the way government cheese tasted.
Home. There was endurance required, but there was also a profound quiet; felt, not heard.
Are my photos that much different than the ones I posted from the Blue Ridge? Aside from the fact that mine, 30 or so years later, are in color, and they were taken in different states, there are still similarities. I’m not claiming that my community’s poverty matched the poverty of the hollows in Virginia during the Great Depression- I cannot claim that. But my father knew what it meant to be unemployed, and I have a memory of church members one time leaving bags of food on our doorstep.
I am also an Appalachian, and I have felt the sting of stereotype. I am part of a people who have been labeled as “hillbillies.” Poverty, however, doesn’t mean that you are uneducated and stupid. It just means that you are poor.
I left Ohio when I was 18. Ironically, I now live in the Shenandoah Valley, and have taken advantage of the beauty of the Shenandoah National Park. It has also been “home” to me for almost twenty years now. But I also understand what that means much more now that I’m older. When I travel back to Ohio for holidays, I almost always want to pass my childhood home, and my grandparents’ old homes. These are the places that I need to see. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know who lives in these houses anymore, I just need to see them. I need to see the landscape, I need to remember. They are where I played. They are still home.
And like the former residents of the park in Virginia, my Ohio community also has ruins.
The ruins of the Jeannette blast furnace in Youngstown’s Sheet & Tube Brier Hill plant. Image by: coalcampususa.com “Rust Belt”
When the residents of the Blue Ridge were evicted from what became the Shenandoah National Park and their homes, barns, stores, churches, and schools were razed, they lost the opportunity for the residents to see and remember home.
An Attempt at a Conclusion
This post kept expanding as the complexities of the circumstance, the geography and the time period kept revealing themselves to me. There is still so much more here that could – and should – be written about.
- The segregation of the park
- The use of propaganda to move families off their lands during the Depression and using the photograph to accomplish it.
- New analysis of the New Deal policies as not just assistance for a hurting nation, but sometimes wrapped in a paternalistic and patronizing package.
- Possibilities for more storytelling by the former mountain residents’ descendants themselves and what that would mean to future generations.
- A fuller picture of the eugenics movement unleashed on the mountain residents and the continued trauma generations later.
- Further analysis of “grievance” leading to anti-government sentiment and if those grievances are addressed, would that anti-government sentiment cease (or be much reduced?)
- Much more study could be done on how these concepts drove the park conflict: power, class, money, and regional and geographic identity
- Acknowledging the harms done to the residents: dignity violations, character assassinations, etc. How should the Park Service make amends?
- We need to write about this country’s history of pitting ethnicities against one other. Case in point:”Mountaineers were stereotyped as subsistence farmers, clannish (Scotch-Irish), inbred, reclusive, and backward, a distinct group from the independent, frugal, German Valley settlers and the rest of Virginia.” From: http://southernspaces.org/2004/shenandoah-valley
- I’m interested in writing more about photography and other documenting methods, and how they both empower and disempower the population that is being documented.
- How are current government policies working from the same narrative of saving poor people from themselves as in the 30’s?
- What would happen if the descendants of the dispossessed mountain residents would be in solidarity with other residents of the world’s parks, camps, occupied lands? How could we empower that to happen?
- The need for more nuanced analysis of the real poverty that did exist in the hollows and how that did affect their lives on the mountain. Some of those folks were indeed desperately poor and cut off from society. But any analysis of that needs to be balanced with the harm that was done to them in the documenting of their lives and their removal from their homes.
The Park Service is doing some of this particular study already:
From the NPS website: http://www.nps.gov/shen/learn/historyculture/displaced.htm
“The emerging portrayal of 20th-century life in Nicholson and Weakley Hollows, where residents owned farms and businesses, went to church and school, listened to the radio, visited with neighbors, and journeyed afield in their own automobiles, provides an indisputable refutation of the claims of the 1930s scholars. While this revised portrait of Blue Ridge life has been well-received by descendants and park staff alike, weaving tales about the archaeology of the recent past remains a challenging exercise. Within the dizzying array of available sources are the very individuals around whom our tales revolve. No matter how responsibly drafted, our versions often do not gel with the remembered past, personal histories, and present-day concerns of those individuals whose history we struggle to present. As informants, these people provide singular insights at the same time that their involvement with the research raises thought-provoking issues of ownership, agency, and the validity of multiple histories.”
“Now that the pendulum has finally swung towards presenting a more positive view of pre-park life in the Blue Ridge, few are interested in the evidence of slavery, discord, and economic inequality in the hollows unearthed during the course of the Survey of Rural Mountain Settlement, or necessarily wish to explore the possibility that some truth may lie within the 1930s reports. Clearly much of the language in works such as Hollow Folk are derivative of studies and local color fiction focusing on the Appalachian region, yet there must be some truth in the images presented at the time of park creation.”
“By eschewing more traditional agriculture in favor of wage labor and craft sales at Skyland, inhabitants had little to fall back upon when the Depression hit and the already rocky financial fortunes of the resort plummeted. The resultant poverty in the hollow made it a convenient photographic subject for park promoters, and by his own admission, Pollock paraded potential Park supporters through Corbin Hollow: “I knew that without actually visiting these people in their homes one could never conceive of their poverty and wretchedness.” Pollock also hired schoolteacher and self-styled social worker Miriam Sizer, encouraging her to join up with his Washington acquaintances to perform the study of Corbin Hollow, carefully timed to coincide with the debate over the removal of park residents. The poverty in Corbin Hollow spoke for the entire park , as stark photographs circulated through the media and politicians were dragged to the hollow to gawk at the dismal condition of the natives.”
All exiles are like deep breaths, imperceptible in uninhabited landscapes.
Marjorie Agosin, Always from Somewhere Else
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