The following is a review of Sue Eisenfeld’s new book about the hearty mountaineers who lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains before creation of Shenandoah National Park, and who were evicted and moved from their homes to make way for the Park. Eisenfeld is a resident of Arlington, VA, and a frequent visitor to the Park. Her book is available for order and immediate shipping now, but will not be released to book stores until February 1, 2015.
Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal
University of Nebraska, $19.95
The forces of history sometimes meet with such violence that they are not easily forgotten. It can happen in monumental ways, such as the clash of North and South in the Civil War. Or in entirely small ways, as when the country’s attempt to create a national park in the Eastern United States, led in part by Northerners, met with a group of irascible residents of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
In the mid-1920s the Federal government wanted a national park within easy distance of the crowded urban centers in the East and determined that the Blue Ridge was the ideal location. The fact that it was inhabited land seemed no more than an afterthought to be dealt with at a later time with tactics not yet determined. There was no precedent; no national park had been cobbled together with private properties before. The thirteen previously designated parks were created from lands already held by the government.
What ensued was a nearly decade long battle involving state and federal courts and legislatures, private boosters, public bureaucrats, three presidents, two governors, and 465 Blue Ridge families. In the end, we know, Shenandoah National Park was built, a grand expanse of some of the loveliest mountains and forests in the world, visited and beloved by millions, and an economic mainstay for Virginia during the Great Depression and afterward. What few people know, though, is that those mountains and forests conceal the forgotten vestiges of private lives that once flourished there before the evictions of eminent domain forced them out.
Of course, if you’ve been inside the Park’s visitor center at Big Meadows and paid attention at the exhibits, you know something about the former residents. The gift shop, too, carries a range of books that tell stories of the displaced families. Add to those Sue Eisenfeld’s new book, “Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal.” Eisenfeld is neither conservationist nor anthropologist, (although she was formerly an environmental consultant) but instead an experienced Park hiker whose book nurses a long-held fascination for the bits and shards of human history that rest hidden there. Though this is her first book, Eisenfeld is an accomplished writer with bylines in publications ranging from The New York Times to Virginia Living.
“Shenandoah” is Eisenfeld’s simple love song to the Park, the place she clearly loves to be, and to those feisty mountaineers who did not go gently when told they would have to leave for the sake of returning their mountains to a pristine, uninhabited state. In the book’s prologue she says her aim was to “quell [her] growing discomfort of enjoying this misbegotten but beloved park.” She wanted “to know the people who once lived here and the men who determined their fate, and to discern for [herself] the justice of what happened here.”
What happened there has been well documented, particularly by Darwin Lambert in his 1989 book, “The Undying Past of Shenandoah National Park,” and Audrey J. Horning’s archeological study, the results as published in the journal Archeology in 2000 and in her 2004 book, “In the Shadow of Ragged Mountain.” Indeed, the cultural anthropology of Virginia’s Blue Ridge has been well studied ever since publication of “Hollow Folk,” a 1933 somewhat shocking sociological study describing Blue Ridge dwellers as “unlettered folk, sheltered in tiny mud-plastered log cabins and supported by a primitive agriculture,” living in a place “almost entirely cut off from the current of American life.” Even before that study, social worker Miriam Sizer wrote that the mountain people were “steeped in ignorance, wrapped in self-satisfaction and complacency, possessed of little or no ambition,” stating further that having “little comprehension of law, or respect for law, these people present a problem…”
Those views bolstered public opinion and bureaucratic action when it came time to oust residents from their lands to create the park. Organizers spun a story that rather than being evicted from their homes, the mountain folk were being saved, moved from their primitive mountain homes to more civilized regions of agriculture and industry. The eviction plan coincided with relief efforts undertaken by the federal government to assist farmers across the nation in actions deemed necessary after the duel disasters of historic drought and the Great Depression struck farmers hard. Many of the Blue Ridge orchards and crops had died, leaving farm families destitute and in some cases starving. According to a 1934 survey, approximately thirty percent already received welfare aid. Even so, the “hollow folk” were loath to leave, whether because these were their ancestral homes dating to the mid-1700s, they preferred their hardscrabble but independent mountain way of living, or they just did not possess the imagination to picture life elsewhere. For sure, by 1930 the sons and daughters of the Blue Ridge were already moving from the mountains, leaving a preponderance of elderly residents who would likely anywhere be adverse to moving.
Of course, a complete inquiry into the “justice of what happened here” necessarily must address the constitutionality of eminent domain, which Eisenfeld does. In 1929 Washington stipulated that no federal funds be used to acquire land for the park, and so that task fell to the Commonwealth of Virginia. It was first proposed that the state outright purchase lands from their owners, but that route was deemed too difficult, as any one landowner could hold up the entire project by refusing to sell. The state decided instead to pass a Public Park Condemnation Act that allowed the purchase of land at fair market value by right of eminent domain in a blanket condemnation of the 3,000 privately owned parcels. A number of lawsuits were filed, with one making its way first to the Supreme Court of Virginia, and finally up the ladder to the US Supreme Court, which upheld the state’s right of eminent domain.
Descendants of the park evictees still express their continuing anger today, much of it directed at what they believe was the unconstitutionality of the evictions, as well as the negative stereotypes used to portray their ancestors. For them, the Supreme Court was not the final arbiter; history will be. Organized groups such as Children of Shenandoah and Blue Ridge Heritage have actively sought to revise the unflattering historical accounts of their ancestors and shine a light on the heroic but in the end futile battles fought to save their land.
Eisenfeld could have used these numerous sources to discern the justice of what happened in the Blue Ridge, but she chose a more intrepid way, diving deep into the Park to find her own evidence. It is unclear what concrete or tangible evidence she was looking for, but what she found amounted to little more than a rusted washbasin here, a stone wall or barn foundation there, and a handful of former residents’ stories, only a few of which were first-person sources. But while her ambulatory searches produced scant payoff, her inner search progresses unspoken with each page of her book. Her transformation from mountaineer apologist to her more nuanced understanding of both builders and mountaineers unfolds so subtly that it is hard to discern until the final pages of her book.
The reader is invited to join Eisenfeld on her trip to that understanding. This is her story of discovery, of how she came to know and love the people of the future park and their descendants, as well as the cemeteries, cabins, and crumbling homesteads they left behind. Spending years hiking there before realizing there was a cultural side to the Park, once discovered, she decided that, “The story, as it seemed to me, was that a bunch of urban, privileged men in suits simply swooped in and muscled a few thousand self-sufficient farmers, orchardists, lumbermen, millers, and mountain tradesmen off the land against their will.” This is the attitude that starts her book and makes it understandable that she must take that journey. For if the Park’s creation was so cut and dry an act of human destruction, how could she love the Park as she so clearly seems to? This is the moral journey of “Shenandoah.”
Where the author excels is when recounting her treks through the towering poplars and wretched brambles of the Park. Her prose is spare and unsentimental, yet evocative of the hardscrabble lives whose ghosts lie beneath the decomposing leaves of the forest floor. Eisenfeld kicks them up as she goes, raising a forgotten cemetery here, a lone headstone there. “Nothing,” she writes, “takes down a burial ground faster than nature’s demolition services.” She describes a forgotten dry-stack stone wall as “moss and lichen covered, like liver spots on an aged hand” within this “de-peopled and re-wilded park.” At times you hear the crackle of dry leaves underfoot or feel the cold creeping into your fingers as you read about her park hikes, taken mostly in fall and early spring.
In 1930 the author Wallace Nutting, in his book Virginia Beautiful, observed that “sometimes we hesitate to provide far enough in the future. Now [Shenandoah National Park] may seem a vast area to segregate and pay for. But fifty years from now the grandchildren will bless us for every square mile thus forever secured.” We’re eighty five years on now, and not all the grandchildren are yet blessing those park founders, but Sue Eisenfeld is, it seems, satisfied. Indeed, the last sentence of “Shenandoah” proclaims that “…it almost seems that the long, hard eternal price for it all was worth it.”
“Almost” implies that her journey to understanding is not yet complete, which means that we can hope for further books from Sue Eisenfeld.