Blue Ridge: How Would I Like Eviction?

I did not set out to write a multi-part series on the Blue Ridge Mountain evictions, but as the original post became longer and longer, I decided to split it into parts, all of which I will post in upcoming days. Be sure you read parts One, Two, and Three, Four, and Five.

My Blue Ridge Mountain Home Eviction: Part 6

Blue Ridge longIn 1934, all 465 families who lived in the future Shenandoah National Park were evicted from their homes.

Many of my relatives were among them, including four of my great grandparents, and a great many uncles, aunts, and cousins, the McDaniels, Turners, Colliers, Meadows, and Mericas. But this part of the story is about the Colliers.

Florence Collier Merica, Annie Collier Harris, Emma Collier Merica at mother Mary Meadows Collier's home, Jollett Hollow VA, c.1920Durrett and Mary Collier gathered up their belongings, walked out the door of their mountain home for the last time, left their garden and orchard and the springs and brooks that had sustained them, and went on down the mountain to start all over somewhere else.

They used the settlement cash from the government to buy  a house at the base of Green Mountain in Jollett Hollow, set about building a new life, and there the family stayed for another 60 or so years until the last of them, a great grandson of Durrett and Mary, Kenneth Meadows, died.

I don’t know who owns the land now. Perhaps Kenneth’s children. Or perhaps that land fell out of the family. I was not offered the chance to buy it from those third cousins, who would not remember ever meeting me or even recall that I exist. Still, a bit of me belongs to that place, for the times I visited, the stories my mother has told me, and the blood ties I shared with its inhabitants.

My great grandparents and their community of neighbors missed their mountains. They didn’t move to the valleys; they built their houses at the edge of the new park, where their homes clung like barnacles to the sloping mountain bases.Emma Collier Merica, Jollett Hollow

There are mountain people, and there are valley people, and I guess you know who you are. If clinging to its base was as near as they could get to their mountains, so be it.

Some of them moved on with their lives, but some could not let go. Eviction is a powerful tool, and should never be used lightly. That’s why our courts have set up stringent requirements before evictions can be initiated, in any case.

And that’s why some mountain dwellers’ cases went all the way to the highest courts, where the government itself was put on trial and made to justify its case. The mountain peoples’ claims eventually failed, but the courts agreed there was enough at stake for our loftiest judges to hear their claims.

Can I blame Roosevelt and the others who wanted a national park? Not for a minute. What more beautiful place is there? We have Yosemite and Yellowstone with their grandeur. The Everglades and Redwoods with their irreplaceable wildlife and habitat. Zion and Bryce Canyon with their awesome geological formations. Rocky Mountain and Olympic Parks with their pristine alpine meadows.

They’re all beautiful, and all different. The Blue Ridge had to be added to that noble family of wild American places. It was inevitable, nearly preordained by the mountains’ singular beauty.

That my grandparents and 464 other families were made to leave, I am sorry. I try to put myself in their place, because I am not so different. I grew up in a place whose beauty eventually led to its ruination, Southern California, before the crowds.Elsie Watson Dean - Maggie Collier Watson daughter

We had a small ranch two miles from the ocean. Ours was the only house in the valley, and we children ran free as wild horses, either in the canyons and mesas or down to the ocean.

To me it was just where I lived, and I didn’t know until I left my parents’ home when grown that it was special, that other places weren’t like it. As a child, I loved where I lived, but I knew it was not normal: Other kids lived on streets, where there were other kids to play with, and stores to walk to.

Today I cannot even drive through the area without a sense of profound sadness at what was lost, a lump in my throat over what it has become. I could no more live there again as I could drive over my grandfather’s grave every day.

Now I live in an equally ruined place, but at least it isn’t that place; it is not a reminder of the distance I have fallen from that Wonderland.

But what if someone wanted to evict us from our home back then to make a park? Would I have given up a few years of living there in exchange for the preservation of our valley, the wooded canyons and seasonal streams, the flowered mesas and bird-filled marshlands, and the seashore? From today’s perspective, absolutely, positively, unequivocally yes.Thomas A. Merica c.1960

I would feel lucky, honored. It would be affirmation of the specialness of our home place, and assurance that it would remain that way forever. Today I would be able to visit it and feel the specialness, walking the river bed after the storm rains recede, seeing a pack of coyotes running through the field on a moonlit night, wandering up to the shadowed clay hill to see it covered in shooting stars in early spring, or hiking to the mesa to see an ocean of lupine and cornflower covering its meadows.

Like the pristine forests of the Blue Ridge, these singular places need to be preserved, they need to be experienced by more than a few lucky souls.

What I would want in return is more tricky than the choice to give my home up for its own preservation. After all, it was my home. I would want to be relocated somewhere just like it, and back then there were several places that could have been possibilities. Not exactly the same, but maybe close enough.

Couldn’t that have been done for the 465 families of the Blue Ridge, or at least the 197 of them who were homeowners? A sympathetic government could have worked harder to find comparable locations for those who insisted on mountain life. Even if most of them eventually walked away of their own accord, none of them should have had to walk away bitter. They were treated as if they were in the way, not as if they were being asked to do something unnatural to our instinct to put up house and nest. The government should have, and could have worked harder.

Francis Meadows barn Swift Run Gap VA 1750-1800.2.bwBut for the tenants, I’m not so sure. I lived many years in rentals before buying a home. Renters have few rights, no matter where you are. That’s simply the way it is, dehumanizing as it may be.

What was lost by those forced to move was a terrible lot: Their homes, their community, their very way of life. But they are not the only ones who lost. The government lost a chance to honor the mountain residents, even as they forced their leave. But more so, the world lost another of its unique cultures, and that is a loss to us all.

You can find Part Seven of My Blue Ridge Mountain Home Eviction here. Or access the whole series here. To make sure you don’t miss the next installments, go to the “Subscribe” form at the top of this page.

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