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A Separate World More Glorious

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past, 
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, 
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow, 
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe, 
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight: 
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone, 
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er 
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan, 
Which I new pay as if not paid before. 
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end. — William Shakespeare

A mile and three quarters from the Pacific Ocean, one and a half from the reedy backwaters of the San Elijo Lagoon, and a mile from the nearest neighbor, the house I grew up in sat perched on a small rise in a narrow valley beneath two columns of ragged and chaparral-covered hills. Carved by time, worn by wind and rain, lacerated by the earth’s tremblings, the hills were a raw and aching frame to the soft meadow that draped the valley floor, a reminder that Earth is in eternal transition, rising up and being torn down in both gentle and violent ways, providing neither sure footing or constancy, though we have the illusion of both.

Our house and barn in the years before we bought it, still two-story

On the far side of the valley, a stream bed wound its way along the base of the hills like a skirt’s lace hem, tricked out with a border of sumac and elderberry that danced in the wind and sparkled in the sun. In the spring the stream ran with the rains before drying into a sandy, fern-banked path where I adventured lazily all summer, poking sticks in holes, kneeling to inspect animal footprints, crouching into caves the water had carved into its banks, always in solitary pursuit of something to stir my natural curiosity: the mangled carcass of a coyote’s last meal; the rusting husk of an old Model T Ford with an enormous pack rat nest spilling from the passenger window; a vibrant patch of poppies rising like spring from the streambank; the queer waxy coating that distinguishes ripe elderberries; or a lone and weary long-lost shoe poking through the streambed, telling me that in my aloneness there I was still bound to the world.

My grandfather had been the first to come here from the East, scouting what were then the wide-open spaces of California with an eye to moving the family to a new frontier. When he saw these hills and valley, he wrote home that it was “a magnificent panorama of unparalleled magnitude.” His eloquence was not wasted. From the top of the hill opposite our house, the place we called “the mesa,” a tapestry of sinuous peaks and valleys fanned out to the luminous Cuyamaca Mountains on the far horizon, a distance of around 40 miles. Dappled by the shadows of billowy white clouds, and reflecting blazes of light from their sandstone bluffs and granite outcroppings, the hills undulate like waves in a vast gray-green sea. A magnificent panorama, indeed. In the opposite direction, back across the valley, our house, only a quarter mile from the mesa, appeared insignificant on the land, temporary at best, an ephemeral presence that might be gone the next time you looked, like a speck of dust that settles briefly on a velvet coat before the wind whisks it away.

My brother Gary in front of our house

When my grandfather first found the house it wasn’t much to look at, a neglected board and batten box of five small rooms since some previous owner had cut down the second story, presumably, according to legend, because it was haunted by the ghost of an old sea captain who slipped a noose around his neck and swung as the last breath was choked out of him. Later my father would amend the house with an adobe offshoot tacked on one end, a massive living room with terra cotta floors and a large brick fireplace where we did most of our living.

A dirt lane wound from the house down through the valley until petering out a mile later at San Elijo Road, our connecting link to town. This was where the valley opened to broad fields where old man Wiegand grazed his cattle, and beyond that, to the marsh’s meandering streams and green pools where I sometimes fished for the puny bluegill that swam there. Looking north back up the valley from San Elijo, dusty fields of pale green lima beans stretched up to the base of the wild hills to the west. These valleys used to be cloaked in wide drifts of lima beans planted by German immigrants who came in the 1880s to scratch a meager living from the dry earth. Now this was one of the only remaining planted fields as those original farmers aged past utility and their children grew and broke off from farm life like ripe seed pods on the wind. One by one the fields were given back to their feral ways, the lima beans displaced by fast-growing intruders like tumbleweed, wild mustard, sweet fennel, and thistle. One day houses would replace those fields and a five-lane highway would overlay our lane, but in those early days it alone led to our secluded ranch house, ending at the rail fence my father built to define the point where that brazen sage- and buckwheat-filled landscape was allowed to advance no further. It was always a struggle to keep the wildness at bay; to hold back those primitive urgings of nature from our front door: the dust and stickers and ravings.

Coming up the lane, as you rounded the last field and reached our land, you caught the first glimpse of our house in the distance, crouching as it did beneath the looming 60-foot tall trunks of a eucalyptus tree behind the house. On windy nights we listened from our beds to the groaning of those trunks as their fibers stretched and popped within the wood, all of us silently wondering when a trunk or enormous branch would snap and crash down on the roof, crushing the house and us beneath as easily as I crush a dry leaf in my hand. This wind-borne disquiet was in contrast to more peaceful nights when we listened to what my mother called “my owl” hooting softly in the branches or the hushed rustle of leaves stirred by a gentle breeze. Lying in bed, waiting for sleep, the eucalyptus steered our spirits toward either anxiety or comfort in those last few minutes of the day, so directing the nature of our dreams.

My brother Ted and our dog That’un in front of the pepper tree

In front of the house was a rotund pepper tree, its thickset trunk rising extravagantly from the loamy earth into a veil of willowy leaves cascading so near the ground that it formed a curtain against the imposing sunlit fields beyond. At its back, furthest from the house, a curving line of virgin-white Natal lilies erupted in spring to meet the bowing branches and complete two walls of a cool and cozy room that I imagined for myself. Above, there was a wooden platform nailed securely in the crook of two branches where my older brothers played, imagining themselves inside a ship, a fort, a castle, a rocketship, a pirate’s den, or a teepee, all in their turn. My little sister, too, used to climb high into the tree, even though barely more than a toddler. The dogs, her constant companions, would follow her right up the trunk and into the branches. At the base of the tree an old, beat-up, one-legged swing set that my father hauled back from the dump one day was attached to the trunk, and I spent many hours in aimless and daydreamy contentment beneath the dome of leaves, swaying back and forth in the leather seat he fashioned for me. Nearest the house, the pepper tree’s branches arched over the roof, and on windy days the sweeping of the leaves across the tarpaper deck fashioned a tender tune that filled the living room below with its gentle rhythms. Occasionally my father climbed onto the roof to cut back branches that got too near the chimney; I still remember the pungent scent of the cuttings as he tossed them down for me to gather up. In summer pink pepper berries ripened and fell in bunches that carpeted the ground in a dappled sheath that crackled underfoot with every step. Sometimes I picked a cluster of peppercorns from the tree and peeled back the hulls to taste their sweet-peppery seed, or I gathered a handful for my mother to use in her cooking, though she seldom did.

A dozen yards beyond the pepper tree and as different from it as silk to canvas was a dense thicket of prickly pear, Opuntia littoralis, a cactus species native to Southern California’s coastal sage scrub. True to its name, the prickly pear was covered in sprays of sharp spines bursting from thick paddle-shaped pads. The prickly pear patch was home to any number of wrens, quail, rabbits, squirrels, garter snakes, and lizards who were safe within that fortress from the coyotes that preyed on them. In summer the cactus produced dozens of bright crimson fruits covered in sharp, barely visible hairs. You could remove them by dipping the fruit in boiling water or searing it over an open flame. The fruit’s flesh is ruby red, its taste similar to an extra-sweet melon. Mexican families used to knock on our door and ask if they could harvest the fruit and pads of the cactus, called nopales, which they ate fried.

To the south of the prickly pear was a small flattened hill where our barn stood, an enormous structure of unpainted, deteriorating wood where my grandfather lived in a small apartment he built into one side.

The barn before my father and grandfather bought the ranch and fixed it up

The other, larger part of the barn sheltered his lone cow and various unused farm tools, as well as hordes of field mice and brown bats. The central part of the barn, with gabled roof, hay loft, and a large wagon door, supported smaller “wings” on either side, their sloped roofs falling away from the main barn. It was no doubt once the pride of the ranch, but was old and falling down, as was the tall silo, by the time our family arrived. As a child, I used to walk up the hill to visit my grandfather there, and I remember how he taught and drilled me in Spanish, perhaps anticipating that one day our neighbors to the south would retake California. When he wasn’t teaching me, he played with me, taking my arms and swinging me back and forth beneath his legs, calling out, “high ho the derry-o!”

My grandfather raised laying hens. I loved gathering the yellow, peeping chicks around me.

He ate his dinners with us, and on Sunday nights he joined us to watch College Bowl, a TV show where teams of the brightest students a college could muster competed with each other to answer questions like “What was the name of the Secretary of State responsible for the 1899 ‘Open Door’ policy toward China?” Or “Take the number of tales in The Arabian Nights, add the number of gables in Hawthorne’s famous house, divide by the number of characters in The Fourposter, and give me the answer,” or “What Shakespeare line follows ‘The quality of mercy is not strained?” My scholarly grandfather sat intently in a straight-backed chair directly in front of the television, shouting out the answers as fast as he could, which was often faster than the TV contestants. The rest of us sat mutely on the couch and watched him as much as we watched the show, the questions and answers being far over the heads of any of us.

Just outside the rail fence that surrounded our house was a wide and fertile meadow that reflected the subtle seasons of Southern California. Frost-covered in the early mornings of winter days, the meadow turned to brilliant green with dots of blue lupine and golden poppy as watery and delirious as a Monet garden all through spring, then dried to textured waves the color of wheat and honey, like a Van Gogh countryside, in summer and fall. I liked nothing better on warm spring days than to lie in the cool grass, gazing first at the dream-like sky above me, as brilliantly blue as a peacock’s chest, then turning to peer at eye-level into the miniature world beneath and within the grass, where ladybugs, bees, beetles, ants, stinkbugs, flies, and caterpillars marched and hopped with business-like intent after emerging from their cold-blooded winter lethargy to be warmed by the sun, and so feel the urges of hunger, sex, web-weaving, nest-building, cocoon-shedding, or egg-hatching. I watched as ants crawled to the end of a stork’s bill seed pod and then would balance on their four hind legs and wave their two front legs wildly, twisting this way and that, searching for the way forward, which wasn’t there, and so turn resolutely and hurry off back from where they came to find another forward route. Beneath them, shiny black stinkbugs, the low-riders of the meadow, would wander randomly over pebbles and debris in search of food, heads down and tails up, their antennae gyrating to no discernable rhythm. When disturbed, the stink bug throws his tail as high as he can and shoots an unpleasant scent as a warning to all on-comers; my father, though, always said he liked the smell; it reminded him of kicking up the decomposing leaves of a forest floor. Once summer arrived, there would be no more idle lazing in the meadow. Not because of the sun’s heat, which was considerable, but because all the lush grasses and flowers turned dry, the stork’s bill coiling into spirals to more efficiently burrow into the soil, an animal’s fur, or my clothes; the grasses developing horned burs to do the same. After a walk through the summer meadow it could take half an hour to coax all the hitchhiking seed pods from my clothes, and still not get them all.

Behind the house, a small field slanted up to the hills on the west side of the valley. This was where the town of Cardiff came to an abrupt halt, just over the ridge, which was traversed by Crest Drive. Those houses had paved streets. They had mail delivery. They had quick access to a grocery store, doctors, a fire station, neighbors who visited, and children all up and down the streets who could play at each other’s houses or in the quiet streets themselves. Our house, only a quarter mile distant, was part of a separate world, one that was more glorious, if more challenging.

Fire was a constant threat down in our valley, where the chaparral came practically to our front door and was as combustible as gunpowder. In California, fire has its own season, fall, when the brush is at its driest, parched by summer drought and autumn’s fierce, dry Santa Ana winds, and when any errant spark, no matter how insignificant, can set the world aflame. Fires were often left to burn through chaparral and grasslands where backcountry houses were few and far between, turning highly flammable terpene-laden manzanita and greasewood, sage and scrub oak into enormous torches. As the flames swept through, they left dark swathes of scorched earth and the charred and ghostly skeletons of trees and brush. The land is resilient, though; by late winter green shoots were breaking through the ashen crust, and by spring the once-barren and black slopes were blanketed in vivid green grass and an explosion of wildflowers, the charred remains of shrubs like chamise and manzanita resprouting buds from deep within their subterranean stumps. We were lucky. In the 60 and more years our family lived in that remote house, fire never came closer than a mile or so. Still, the knowledge that it could sweep through the valley at any time and evaporate the safe womb of my childhood impressed in me an undercurrent of unnamed dread. I was not an anxious child, but I was watchful.

The Santa Ana winds came each October and blew intermittently until February. Hot, dry, and strong enough to blow trees from their moorings, these so-called “devil winds” siphoned moisture from every living thing, reducing leaves to curled, scorched tinder for the inevitable fires, blowing dust from the dirt lane and tilled fields into a brown cloud that infiltrated your eyes, your teeth, your hair, and every minute crevasse or opening of the house, where it came to rest in thick layers on our tables, floors, inside cupboards and our beds.

My sister Ellen on her horse, Banner

The horse in his corral turned his back to the onslaught, skittish, his haunches quivering, his head hung low and mane and tail whipping into knotted tangles. At night we sat indoors and listened to a beastly cacophony of the wind bellowing and whistling, branches breaking from the eucalyptus and hammering onto the house, the dogs with their heads thrown back, howling into the spirited darkness. Still, for all their devilry, there were things I liked about the winds, as they brought warmth to the cool days of fall and winter. As a teen, I went to the beach on those days, where the off-shore blow snapped shape into the waves, the better for surfing, and blew a salty spray backwards from their peaks, where it caught the light and sparkled like iridescent wings in the sun.

The water which allowed us to live in this dry place issued from an old well in back of the house. A creaky, aluminum-bladed windmill spun in the wind at the top of a rickety wood tower, powering a pump that drew water up by way of a piston to a redwood tank on a high platform. With no electrical pump to encourage pressure from tank to house, the water ran by force of gravity alone, and turning on a faucet inside produced a thin stream of water that would fill a sink if you waited long enough. A narrow wooden walkway circled the water tank about a dozen feet from the ground. When I was six or seven, I used to climb the shaky ladder and edge my way around the meager platform, pressed against the tank, feeling the coolness of the water within on my back and the warm sun on my face, shuffling my feet forward a few inches at a time, goading myself to a bravery I didn’t feel so high up. When a year or so older, I sometimes challenged myself to climb the dry and splintered windmill, but never summoned the courage to reach the platform at the very top. Occasionally my father had to be lowered on a rope into the well, or climb to the top of the windmill to fix some problem, sending me into fits of anxiety for his safety.

Just beyond the well were two apricot trees which produced the most extravagant fruit I have ever tasted, orangey-pink, tantalizingly sweet, and as juicy as a peach. The tree was already old when my family moved to the ranch, and by the time I reached five or six it had run its course and begun a slow descent to dust, its limbs bare and crumbling. Just south of the apricot, growing from a sandstone bank, the mulberry tree was equally mythical. Its deep purple fruit grew as long as my finger, and in summer I climbed into the tree with my grandmother’s old colander to pluck the juicy berries, their blood red juice staining my hands and arms like I had been fending off the attack of a wild puma. The leafy heights of that tree gave me a charming place to wile away a summer afternoon, away from the hot sun and cooled by the breezes that fanned through the broad leaves.

My mother, sister, and I visiting old Mrs. Lux

I would often pick enough for my mother to bake a pie, or to take to our neighbor, old Mrs. Lux, a mile down the lane. My mother and I walked there a couple of times a month to visit, mother carrying the baby on her hip. When I got a little older, I filled pint baskets with mulberries and my father would drive me down the lane to the paved road, where he would set up a little table for me under the shade of the Lux’s big walnut tree to sell mulberries to passing cars. In those days, I might see two cars an hour passing by on their way from Rancho Santa Fe or Olivenhain to Cardiff by the Sea.

Now our ranch is gone, and in its place is being built a blight of a dozen or so million-dollar homes. The pepper tree is gone. So is the big eucalyptus that stood behind the house, and the grove of eucalyptus my grandfather planted on the north side of our property. The barn is gone, and the windmill, and finally, the house. Our lane is paved, though it still carries our family name, Berryman Canyon Road. There is a tennis club where our south-side property line met the lima bean fields, and an art museum and historical center too. A five-lane road, El Camino Real, runs through the valley, stop lights punctuating its length as side streets emerge from new housing developments that were built on the mesa and beyond.

Sweet memories are all that remain of that enchanted place and time. Some days, when the tender wildflowers bloom or the winds bristle, or when the summer air is thin and dry, a warm nostalgia fills my chest with, not memories, but a precious essence that feels like home.

Posted in 20th Century, Berryman, California, Encinitas | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Echos of My Blue Ridge Ancestors

Green Mountain, Jollett HollowOctober is peak tourist season in Shenandoah National Park, when the forest puts on a dazzling show that never fails to delight.

The trees are decked out in their royal colors: crimson, gold, and purple, a palette of shimmering color that stretches from far horizon to browning fields below.

Winged seeds fly on the wind, leaves too, falling to let their trees’ bare bones bask in misty sunlight through the winter.

Tourists flock to the mountains, their cars a slow-moving chain along Skyline Drive, cameras like attachments to their faces clicking every adorned vista.

Hikers scuff through the woods, their irreverent voices ringing through trees, their hiking boots crackling leaves underfoot.

Here and there they come across an old mossy wall, the rough foundation of a home long gone, or a graveyard barely visible through the bramble.

Each of those are testament to a time forever lost, a time when the mountains rang with voices of a different kind, the voices of people whose homes and barns and cemeteries these were. People who tended gardens, pastured their cattle, built schools and churches, and lived full lives in these mountains, most for generations.

In the mid-1700s they started to come, traveling south on the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania to Shenandoah. Settlers were quick to take up the fertile bottom land of the Valley. Latecomers of necessity moved further and further up the mountain, laying claim to every bit of clearable land and making do with what they could find.

P1000731For 200 years those generations eked out their living from the rough soil and rugged mountains.

Now they are all gone, the forest abandoned to its wild ways and the few intrepid hikers who venture from their cars into those deep woods.

In 1934 they began to leave, some of their own accord, others not, when government used the power of eminent domain to clear land for Shenandoah National Park.

Some walked down the mountain without a glance back, never to return. Others were dragged away, literally thrown from their homes, their doors barred by police against any thought of coming home.

It was a nasty business, and one the bureaucrats were loath to take on. But they had jobs to perform, objectives to achieve, and the mountain people were unfortunately in their way. That was the cold truth.

At one time tens of thousands lived in those mountains. But when the thin topsoil was spent, the trees harvested and hills nearly bare, many left.P1000917

By 1934 only about 7,000 remained in 250 square miles. But seven thousand is a lot of people to relocate, especially considering nearly all had
to be coaxed or moved reluctantly from their homes, some kicking and screaming.

This is the dark past of Shenandoah National Park.

A few who were evicted are still alive, although they were mere children then, their memories foggy now, unreliable in the details of their stories, but clear enough to tell of heartless government agents, and of negative depictions that painted them as slovenly, mentally deficient, sub-normal.

There are others who were not yet alive back then and heard the stories from their parents and grandparents. Some of these descendants are encyclopedic in their knowledge of the evictions. Others have distilled their families’ stories down to pure resentment, discarding details and facts, leaving only anger. The bitterness is carried down from father to son, mother to daughter, and in many, it is still palpable today.

The stories resonate. There was Lissie Jenkins, five months pregnant, who sat her rocking chair and would not move, and so was dragged out, rocking chair and all. I’ve imagined her fear of the unknown after most of a lifetime on that mountain; how losing the security of that place may have been more than she could emotionally bear. We are not all adventurers. We do not all look at an unknown future with the optimism of opportunity, but instead, cling to our chosen rocking chair as if it alone holds us to this earth.P1000733

I’ve thought of John Mace, who watched the police stack his furniture in front of his house and set it all afire, his soul no doubt smoldering as the flames engulfed all the physical evidence of his life.

What could he have felt but seething fury at such an act? And what could his neighbors feel but fear and distrust, knowing they would be next if they did not cooperate? Of course with such acts the government became the enemy to many.

I’ve thought of John Nicholson, who was accused of theft after taking the windows from his father’s home, a home that was set to be torn down.

Of Lillie Herring, also accused of theft from her own home, who wrote with proud indignation to officials, “I am not lieing on no one and I’m not telling you one ward more that you can prave and I am living up to what I say.”

And of of Elmer Hensley, who made the simple request to take down his cabin, one log at a time, so he could rebuild it on land outside the Park boundaries. The simple request was denied, with no explanation given.

These acts stink of the meanness and arrogance of some agents, and form the mythology that surrounds the evictions, that they were indeed historic criminal acts by a tyrannical government.

Were they?

My great-grandparents as well as countless cousins, aunts, and uncles were P1000712among those summarily tossed out. William Durret Collier and his wife, Mary Meadows Collier, lived up the mountain from Jollett Hollow.

They owned nearly 500 acres of land, harvesting chestnut tanbark each spring and hauling it by horse-driven wagon down the mountains to the tannery in Elkton.

They kept fruit orchards, managed the farm of a wealthier neighbor, and raised six girls and a son.

When the men from Washington came around, they knew they had no option but to sell, and did not protest. They used the money to buy a home at the base of their mountain, outside the future park’s boundaries, close enough that they still walked up to their old orchards to pick apples years after that place was abandoned.

They were happy with what they got, and the stories my family passed down are that most others were happy with what they got too. But maybe that is just my family. After all, this is vastly different from the stories I’ve read about, of Lizzie Jenkins and John Mace and Elmer Hensley and the others who did not want to leave their mountain homes.

P1000792Then again, simple satisfaction is nothing we remember in detail, as we do outrage. The blood doesn’t boil, the adrenaline doesn’t rush with something so ordinary as satisfaction.

That is nothing we commit to stories, or create mythologies around.

Satisfaction does not bond people together as outrage does. It does not inspire rallying cries that cross generations.

Only outrage and its related emotions do that. And so that is what is remembered. It is why family feuds endure across generations. Why hostilities between two groups can last so long that no one is quite sure why they are hostile anymore, but only that they are.

My ancestors became lost to history, while Lizzie Jenkins and those others became standard bearers for the protesters of government oppression.

Yes, there were authentic tragedies and injustices associated with building the Park. Lives ruined not just when the government threw them from their homes, but decided they were so inferior that they needed to be taken from their families and institutionalized. Lives were wasted, and many literally wasted away in the cold corridors of institutions.

They were victims of the “Progressive Movement” that swept America in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when do-gooders roamed not just the Blue Ridge and Appalachia, P1000713but all through the cities and countryside looking for pockets of poverty to eradicate.

They believed that people of the lowest classes should be either “fixed,” or marginalized, and so set about sorting people into the “deserving” and “undeserving” classes. “Social progress is a higher law than equality,” wrote one reformer.

In Virginia alone, more than 7,000 people were forcibly sterilized. About half of those were deemed mentally ill, the other half mentally “deficient.”

Some women were put away, sterilized, or both because of “loose morals.” Children were taken from their parents because they were “feeble-minded.”

Many of my fellow Blue Ridge descendants have ancestors who were thus locked up for the sin of poverty.

It was a dark time in America. The “fixers” thought they were “doing good.” They were very, very wrong.

We as a nation recognize that people were wronged. We have institutionalized this memory in textbooks and schools. I remember studying the movement and its repercussions in college, and the teaching emphasized the injustice that was done. By remembering, we can hope it will never happen again.

But what we remember must resemble the truth of what really happened, not the hopped-up inaccuracies that continue to fan the flames of anger.

Some descendants are angry that their Blue Ridge ancestors were lied to, told they could stay on in their parkland homes forever.

Yes indeed, this was the plan at one time, to let people stay. There were many early plans that did not come to fruition, and numerous reasons why this one did not happen.

Early on the Park was planned to include nearly 400,000 acres. Because that much acreage would have encompassed too many economically vital farms, and because the Depression was causing contributions from donors to dry up, the planned acreage was drastically reduced to 163,721 acres.

Reduction of the acreage required a new bill from Congress, and a rider was attached promising that current homeowners would be allowed to stay so long as they did not hamper the park.P1000721

However, Arno B. Cammerer, a lifelong bureaucrat and future Director of the National Park Service, wrote a report stating, “This particular class of mountain people is as low in the social order and as destitute as it seems possible for humans to get…. It is not known how many squatters of similar degree of intelligence, of lack of intelligence, are within the park area proper, but, every one of them being a potential beggar, it is not considered a practical proposition to authorize their retention on lifetime leases within the park.”

Those are harsh words, and hard to read without feeling anger at their writer for such judgment. He deserves condemnation for making such a report without knowing the people about whom he is writing.

Though a few no doubt would turn to begging, Mr. Commerer accused and convicted the entire mountain populace. It is because of this man’s report and influence that the act of Congress granting lifetime tenancy was discarded, the people forcibly removed. But was the original plan to keep residents in their homes a lie? No. An abhorrent act and reneging of a stated plan, yes. A lie, no.

Some descendants claim, too, that their ancestors were cheated, not given fair value for their homes. I have tried to prove that this is true.

I have searched every document I can find, spent many hours looking for evidence of underpayment. I wanted to find that they were cheated, so as to give justice to the people today who still feel so wronged.P1000799

But instead, I found just the opposite. Everything I have seen points to the mountain residents being compensated generously for the enormous disruption to their lives of having to leave their homes.

I found that comparable mountain land sold for an average of $5 per acre before the Park. Indeed, Herbert Hoover bought 164 acres right on the Rapidian River for $5 an acre even as Shenandoah National Park was being planned.

Looking through the National Park Service’s records of payments, it appears that the average compensation was well above that $5 appraised average. My own great grandfather, W. D. Collier, received $4,295 for his 452 acres plus three structures, one a two-story 18′ x 32′ house and another a 14′ x 22′ barn, plus another 13′ x 13′ building.

His per-acre compensation was $9.50 an acre for the forest land that he used to harvest tanbark in the spring. It was not the most valuable land, which would be tableland, but it was productive, income-generating land. He would feel that loss of income and have to seek his livelihood elsewhere.

The median home value in America in 1934 was $2,278, and no doubt far less in the Blue Ridge. But using that figure, Durret Collier would have been able to replace his home and buy approximately 400 acres, about what he lost. Indeed, my great-grandparents bought a house and land, and felt they made out well in the deal.

P1000709Did others make out financially as well? Looking at the evidence, I have to say it seems most did.

Fannie Lamb received $3,400 for her 5.9 acres, which must have been prime land. Lloyd Spitler received $200 for his two acres.

John Eppard received $2,074 for his 172 acres. Old Rag United Brethren Church got $1,000 for their quarter acre plus church. The Old Rag school got $800 for their half acre plus schoolhouse.

On the other hand, Allegheny Ore & Iron got only $1.98 an acre for their 1,434 acres, and Bessie Keyser received only $334 for her 102 acres. Most others fell in between those extremes.

It’s easy to see why some might feel their ancestors were cheated when looking at those prices. But it’s helpful to remember that $1,000 in 1934 was the equivalent of $17,763.51 today because of inflation. That is almost a 1,700 percent rise in prices since then, an incredible amount of inflation. I hope this puts some perspective on the prices our ancestors received for their property.

Of course, there is no denying that most mountain people would have far preferred to stay in their homes rather than move off the mountains. Eminent domain is a nasty business, when the state decides that its interests are more important than those of the individual.

Many people believe there is no justification for eminent domain under any circumstances. These are mostly Jeffersonian Republicans who believe the greatest threat to liberty is posed by a tyrannical central government.

That party, the Jeffersonian Republican party, is dead today, but its traditions live on, mostly in the South. For those with that view, the Shenandoah National Park will always seem an illegitimate place, born of the gross injustice served on our ancestors.

Old wallFor them, only this point is relevant. Many of those ancestors were versed in the Constitution and believed the Park to be unconstitutional. They described it as “federally occupied territory.”

I am more moderate. I believe that there are occasions when “the greater good” is served by self-sacrifice. And as one who also believes that the most majestic, beautiful, and sacred places in America should be preserved for all generations, I believe that creation of the Shenandoah National Park was an injustice to a few for the greater good of the many.

That my ancestors were made to sacrifice, I am sorry. I can only hope they also saw the greater good of the Park’s creation, and felt justly compensated. In fact, from family stories passed down, I know this to be true. But for the descendants who believe the individual reigns supreme over the state in every or nearly instance, eminent domain is one of the grossest injustices. No other circumstance matters.

This exercise in examining the evidence in development of the Shenandoah National Park was illuminating. I am satisfied in what I found regarding the one big missing piece of information I sought: that mountain residents were indeed compensated fairly.

But I also learned something about those who are still bitter over the park. Only now have I come to appreciate the power of some descendant’s political beliefs in their opinion over whether their ancestors were treated justly. Politics just had not occurred to me, but now it makes complete sense.

The bitterness is not because they think their ancestors did not get fair prices, as I thought. It is not even per se that their ancestors were made to move. It is, instead, that they believe the government has no right to forcibly take an American citizen’s land, no matter how much the compensation.P1000732

This is about liberty, and an individual’s rights over the rights and privileges of the government. It was for the ideal of individual rights and liberty that America was founded, and they believe no government has the right to infringe on those rights. Eminent domain is one of the most egregious usurpations of rights.

It is true that the depiction of mountain residents was unnecessarily pejorative, and it was unfortunate that many were swept up in the national movement for social engineering.

It is a pity that the plan to allow residents to stay for their lifetimes was undermined by one man. These are all important elements of the mishandling of the Park’s development process.

Would it go more smoothly if done today? It’s hard to say. Government is messy. Two-party democracy is especially messy. (Winston Churchill once said, “democ­racy is the worst form of gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried.”)

I cannot say that all of the mistreatment can be attributed to the ways of that time in history, though I believe that the slanderous accusations and social engineering experiments were of that time in history and would not be repeated today.P1000786

America has the greatest system of national parks in the world. Writer Wallace Stegner called them “America’s best idea.” I may not go that far, but I am proud of them and thankful for them.

As our country gets more and more crowded, there will be a time in the not so distant future when these will be our only places of pristine wilderness, which we all need for the health of our bodies and souls. For me, that is the greater good that made Shenandoah National Park necessary to create.

One only has to visit those peaks and woods during October to see why they were worth preserving. To walk among the tall trees and thick underbrush, through sun-warmed meadows and along cascading streams, stirring up that musty forest floor scent with every step, moving through rays of autumn light that slant through the bent and crooked branches.

This is a quiet beauty. Even the flaming autumn colors blend to a muted tapestry that folds over those soft-rolling and time-worn mountains. I hear echos of my ancestors deep in those woods, their voices riding on the wind like phantoms of the past.P1000839

Four generations of my families lived and died there, names like Markey, Meadows, McDaniel, Collier, Tanner, and Breeden still today rising up from hallowed Blue Ridge ground on grave markers that remained behind when the living left.

Today the Blue Ridge belongs to all of us. And for that I am grateful.

Posted in 20th Century, Blue Ridge Mountains, Collier | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Grandmother I Never Knew

I know only wisps of my grandmother’s life, those parts that came to me in stories told by my mother, or from the occasional times our family made the 3,000 mile trip from Southern California to the Virginia farm where she spent 64 years, her entire adult life.

Florence Merica, Shenandoah VA c1959I know she was a gentle woman with a sweet smile who spoke quietly and was of few words. She was not effusive with her emotions, but through her actions made it clear to her family that they were loved and to her guests that they were welcome.

To her, a bountiful table and a clean home were signs of love, not duty, and in these acts she never faltered. Big country breakfasts and Sunday chicken dinners could be counted on. So could Saturday chores and Sunday church, all of which gave her family a sense of order and stability that allowed them to flourish within those boundaries. She was the hub of the family with her quiet strength, and all were devoted to her.

Florence Elizabeth Collier was born on a cold winter day in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, just up the ridge from Jollett Hollow, on the edge of the Shenandoah Valley. She was the daughter of Mary Margaret Magdalene Meadows Collier and William Durrett Collier, both of whom were also children of those mountains. It is likely that their home was hewn of rough wood, the gaps filled with clay mud and stones, and with packed dirt floors, as were many mountain homes in the early 1900s. The family had a large fruit orchard, fields they farmed, and nearly 500 acres of woodland from which they harvested chestnut tanbark in the spring.

Her mother was known as a healer, and used potions of mountain herbs to treat the patients who came to her for care. I’ve been told by people who knew Mary that mothers brought their babies to her when they suffered with thrush, believing that her breath, blown into the baby’s mouth, could heal the child. This was a gift believed to be bestowed on those who never met their fathers, as Mary was.

Florence did not attend school past the first few years, telling her mother that learning to read and write scared her, and she did not want that power. She preferred to stay at home, working in the fields and garden instead, helping her mother, preparing for the life of a farm wife. The work was hard, but she was undaunted. As a teen, full of life and promise, she “hoed all day and danced all night,” to use the phrase she told my mother years later.

IThomas_and_Florence_Collier_Merica_wedding.2.rt was no doubt at one of the area’s frequent barn dances that she met her future husband, Thomas Austin Merica. She was 17 when they married, and so small around that her young husband, tall and strong, could put his hands around her waist, making her blush with secret delight. That delight never left, and even years later her cheeks flushed when her husband spoke affectionately to her, especially when he called her Sally, a pet name.

One evening when my mother, then a teen, was getting ready for a date, she heard her father say to her mother, “They go somewhere and park.” Florence answered, “We were young once.” On another occasion Tom told his beautiful teenage daughters, Ruth and Annie, that neither one was as pretty as their mother. Far from being hurt, the girls were delighted at his love and loyalty.

A photo of my grandmother as a young woman of 22 shows that she was indeed a beauty. Her features are delicate and well-proportioned, and though there is no trace of a smile in the photo, there is tenderness in her full lips, and in the ever-so-slight tilt of her head. A great pile of brown hair is twirled loosely atop her head, Florence Collierwisps falling about her neck and ears. The story goes that her thick chestnut hair fell below her waist until a bout with pneumonia thinned it.

Her high-necked blouse, pleated at the breast and cinched tightly at the waist, is that of a plain and modest woman, as I know she was. The blouse appears to be of the same pattern as the one she wore in her wedding photo, and she no doubt made them both. In this picture a ribbon is wound several times around her neck and clasped with a round cameo broach, perhaps the same one as in her wedding photo. I wonder what ever became of that broach.

She was close to her sisters and her mother, and visited them regularly. Sometimes on a Sunday she asked her son Jesse to drive her and the younger children to visit her mother at her home on Naked Creek in Jollett Hollow, where Durrett and Mary moved after the government bought their former farm to make way for Shenandoah National Park.

Jesse hooked up the big horse, Pet, to the wagon, and off they’d go on the seven mile journey, stopping at the Meadows store on the way to buy mackerel, which Mary would cook up into fried cakes for lunch. Sometimes Mary’s other daughters came visiting too, and the mother and sisters, Florence, Annie, Emma, and Minnie, would talk the afternoon away while the children played by the creek.Florence Collier and sisters, Jollett Hollow VA, c.1920.r2

Once the family got a car, a sturdy Model T Ford, Jesse would also drive his mother and sisters to visit Emma, who lived in Newport News, 175 miles away. Tom seldom made the journey.

The introduction of the automobile was an exciting event for Florence. Unlike some local people she was not afraid of riding in cars. My mother tells the story that Uncle Hunter, Tom’s brother, drove Florence and some other women up Grindstone Mountain to pick berries. On the way down the car began to go faster, frightening the other women to where they jumped out. Florence came home and laughed about the event with her family.

Maybe it’s not love that I feel so much as longing for my grandmother. Longing to know this woman whose blood runs in my veins, this woman who gave birth to my mother, who in turn gave life to me. When I was younger I was too busy to think about her. She was many miles and another world away. Now, 45 years after I watched my grandmother breath her last breath in her own home on a snowy winter night, her family around her, have I come to sense what a loss it was not to know her better.

She died in the same Virginia farmhouse where she spent her entire adult life; the farmhouse where she lost twins shortly after birth, but raised eight children to adulthood. Where she grew roses along the white picket fence and lilacs outside the parlor window, a big kitchen garden and orchards in the back. Where she cooked on a wood stove and did her business in an outhouse until her death in 1969, never having seen the point of modern technologies.

Where she fried dried apple turnovers for her children, baked coconut cake for Christmas, sewed quilts to keep her family warm, cooked enormous meals for the men who came to help at harvest time, listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the parlorFlorence and Thomas A. Merica, Shenandoah VA c.1945.r radio, and lived a just and satisfying life, relatively free of drama or pain.

I wish I could say more about my grandmother, but these are the only memories, and the only bits of knowledge passed to me by my mother, that I have. They will have to do.

Posted in 20th Century, Blue Ridge Mountains, Collier, Meadows, Merica, Old Photos, Shenandoah | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Book Review: “Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal”

CoverThe 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

Sue Eisenfeld
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.

 

Posted in 20th Century, Shenandoah | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Into the Unknown: Our Intrepid German Ancestors

We are nearly all the descendants of immigrants, those hearty people who risked everything to start again in a new land. Their bravery and fortitude made our country what it is today, made each of us what we are today.

Immigrants leaving homeTo emigrate in the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century was to leap by faith alone into the unknown, leaving behind home and family, familiar neighborhoods, routines well established, even loved ones they never wished to leave behind. All to begin again from scratch with little more than a few precious dollars and enormous stores of energy and faith.

Most of us fortunate enough to have been born in America will never know the immigrant experience. We’ll never know those forces of poverty, oppression, or persecution so strong that Leaving home on ship sepiathey drive emigrants to leave their homes and venture into the unknown. We’ll never know their particular kind of hope and fear mixed with regret and relief, the concoction of emotions that has driven immigrants to our land for nearly four hundred years, and continues to drive them today.

Hope, fear, regret, and relief. What recipe is this? It is when we leave anything once loved behind in order to better our lives. A lover, a spouse, a job, a home, a town, a country. We hope for better lives, but fear the unknown. We regret that our lives didn’t work out as planned, but feel relief at being free of untenable circumstances. We feel nothing as simple as a single emotion, but a mixture so foreign that we can’t put our fingers on it. And so the emotions churn about and we describe it physically, as feeling numb, or having a reeling head or a pounding heart.

For our Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century ancestors who left their fertile Rhine River Valley homeland in Germany to seek better life in America, Religious warthe need to leave was acute. Their country had been the finest in Europe, a land of noble heroes and spectacular scenery, of majestic castles and cathedrals and prosperous farms and orchards. But forces conspired to make life difficult for our ancestors there.

Traditional inheritance practices in Germany meant that land was divided equally between all children, which meant that farms were made increasingly smaller, and land hunger drove the people to search farther afield for suitable property. More important, Germany was torn by nearly ceaseless war, its once mighty empire in now in fragments, its people desperate and hungry.

The Holy Roman Empire of Germany during the Middle Ages was the wealthiest and most powerful in all Europe. Art and science flourished there. Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type, which made possible the Enlightenment and the spread of knowledge throughout the civilized world. Germany’s prosperous farmers and skilled craftsmen were hailed as the finest in all Europe.De_stadt_Maastricht,_door_den_prins_van_Parma_(Alexander_Farnese)_met_storm_verovert,_den_29_july_des_jaars_1579_(Jan_Luyken,_1679)

Then in the early 1500s Martin Luther translated the Bible into German and gave his people not only direct access to the word of God, but the language of literature and poetry. Luther didn’t stop there, though. He went on to publicly question the very tenants of the Catholic Church, leading others to do the same and sparking one of the greatest revolutions of all time, the Protestant Reformation, and leading the way to the Age of Enlightenment.

But the road to Enlightenment was full of terror and violence. And thus was ushered in one of the most destructive and longest wars in European history. The Holy Roman Empire was fragmenting. War after war raged through the land. The Thirty Years War, the Seven Years War, the War of the Grand Alliance, the War of the Spanish Succession.

One after another they crashed like tidal waves against the people, wreaking more destruction each time until carnage covered the land and Martin Luther church doorthe countryside and its people were in ruin. Religious hatred and political divisions pitted Catholic against Protestant, Hapsburg against Ottoman, north against south, prince against prince, and in their armies, peasant and farmer against peasant and farmer. The devastation was enormous, the taxes oppressive as local leaders sought more and more money to wage war.

The country’s population was ravaged, falling from thirty million to twelve million as the Holy Roman Empire fought for its very existence against the rise of Protestantism. As in any war, the common people suffered disproportionately. Some fled. Many died.

Unpaid armies and bands of mercenaries roamed the countryside pillaging and plundering, villages left burning and their people dead or without sustenance. And then the winter of 1708 came, the coldest in 100 years. Birds, it was said, froze in mid-air, men mid-step. Farms and their farmers perished in the cold, and the people cried, “Enough!” Those who could, left.

William Penn handbillMany fled to Switzerland or the Alsace region of France. After the end of hostilities some went home, some stayed, but many came to America, mostly to Pennsylvania. A generation before, William Penn visited Germany to spread the word that Pennsylvania would welcome them.

Some were old enough to remember the handbills passed out by his agents throughout the country proclaiming a land of milk and honey; a place where the climate was temperate, the fertile soil nearly free, kings and princes unknown, and religious and political tolerance the cornerstones of society. A place where Germans could prosper and thrive, free at last. If only they could get there.

And so our ancestors pleaded their case to England’s Queen Anne, saying,

“We, the poor, distressed Palatines, whose utter ruin was occasioned by the merciless cruelty of a bloody enemy whose prevailing power, some years past, like a torrent, rushed into our country and overwhelmed us at once; and being not content with money and food necessary for their occasions, not only dispossessed us of all support, but inhumanly burnt our houses to the ground, whereby being deprived of all shelter, we were turned into open fields, there with our families to seek what shelter we could find, were obliged to make the earth our repository for rest and the clouds the canopy for covering.”

The sympathetic queen thus invited the beleaguered Protestant Germans to sail to America on English ships, Ship Sally carrying Palatinesoffering them passage and land in exchange for bonded labor.

By the thousands, they packed their meager belongings and headed for the promised land. From May to November of 1709 nearly thirteen thousand passengers left their desolate homeland and sailed the Rhine to Rotterdam, and on to England. By June there were one thousand immigrants passing through Rotterdam every week.

Of those, there were 2,257 Catholics who were sent back. The enmity between the two was far from over. One historical account written in 1897 quotes a contemporary diarist who wrote, “Thursday, 29 September [1709]. The Popish Palatines who came hither, were ordered to go home, having passports for the same.” Catholic vs ProtestantQueen Anne knew exactly who she wanted to populate her colonies. She was designing her ideal New World.

After arriving in England, from there our ancestors traveled on to Canada, Australia, Ireland, or America. Once in America the Protestant Germans who answered Queen Anne’s offer were required to pay off their price of passage by working in camps set up for that purpose along the Hudson River.

After that tour of duty, which typically lasted five to seven years, they were finally free. Free to practice their religion. Free to find and homestead land. Free to join in building a new country that was free to all.

Many of the immigrants made their way to William Penn’s land, which had been given to that quirky Quaker by England’s Charles II in repayment of a debt to Pennsylvania NY NJ map 1751Penn’s father, one of the largest land grants awarded an individual in all history. Penn wished to name the land Sylvania for its vast forests of trees, but the king wanted to name it in honor of Penn’s father. They compromised, and the land became known as Pennsylvania.

Lutherans, Reformed, Swiss Mennonites, Baptist Dunkers, Moravians, Quakers, and Amish all flooded into Pennsylvania’s wilder regions. A second wave of immigrants began in 1727, and from then to 1775, around 65,000 Germans landed in Philadelphia and settled in Pennsylvania.

These are our ancestors, the ones who survived war and religious persecution to find their way to America and once here, to build strong frontier families that made their way without the aid of anyone excepting their nearest neighbors, who were also a hearty stock of immigrants. They cut their homes from the forest and built their farms with blood and sweat. They survived and thrived and raised their families well, which led, in the end, to you and me.

So when you think on your German ancestors, think of the historical times in which they lived, the history-making events they endured and helped to shape, and the hope, fear, regret, and relief they felt to the depths of their being in coming to America. We can be proud of such character and strength that brought them here. And remember, those genes reside in us, too.Pennsylvania settlers color

 

Posted in 17th Century, 18th Century, Germany, Pennsylvania | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Born to Run

I’m on a work project with no time to write, so I am posting this oldie but goodie. Enjoy!

I have lots of photos of my father’s mother. Portraits of her as a child. Portraits of her as a young woman. Portraits of her with her twin babies. Then snapshots of her with family, with friends over the years. A full chronology of my grandmother’s life.

But I can count the photos of my grandfather on one hand and still have a finger left over. He wasn’t camera shy. He just didn’t stop for the camera. In the first photo he is a boy of ten. It’s 1890 and he is with his family before their very large Ohio farmhouse (I count nine windows and four doors on just the two sides I can see). It looks to be late winter and this yard is no doubt beautiful in summer with its overhang of leafy trees and long views, but here it is a mess of mud and melting snow, a hazard for the ruffled skirts and high heel boots of his sisters. Grandaddy is in knee-high leather boots and holding the harnesses of two yearling calves, an odd prop for a family photo, and amusing given the formality of the other family members. He looks like he was just passing through and the photo’s subjects stepped aside to make way for him, he stopping for a moment before moving on. He was always headstrong, so more likely he insisted on including two calves he was raising himself.John H. Berryman Family 1890The next photo is a good 20 years later. My grandparents lived in a big two-story Colonial on Glen Road in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. Granddaddy commuted across the George Washington Bridge and into Manhattan each day. In the photo his suit coat is off and tie is loosened. He is holding his baby boy in the air, gazing at him as if in sheer wonder. Or perhaps sheer fear, because these new twin boys were conceived bittersweetly three years after my grandparents’ darling daughters, one six and one six months, died of then-incurable disease, my grandmother deciding she would never again have children. Her own father had to intervene to persuade her that she could love other children, but that’s another story for another time. Granddaddy waited patiently, as was really his only choice, and now I have this photo of him cautiously holding this precious bundle of baby that was my father. Or uncle. I can’t tell.RF Berryman and Baby Ted BerrymanSometime during their Woodcliff Lake period he decided to invent a better kind of running shoe. He had been a track star at Oberlin College and held the “Big Six” record for the fastest two mile. Only fragments of the running shoe story remain. The soles were made from tires, or tire rubber. To prove their superiority he ran in them from Woodcliff Lake to Passaic (20 miles) or Lima, Ohio (625 miles), I forget which. That’s all I know. There is no photo commemorating his accomplishment. In fact, I have no other photo of him until about 40 years later.

Peg and Bob Berryman, Elizabeth and Waldo Berryman, r to lIn that photo he is an elder in his 80s, standing next to his brother and behind my grandmother who finally, after a life more nomadic and in all ways unsettled than she ever wanted, was sitting in the lap of luxury at her Leucadia, California home, the gleaming Pacific to one side and an endless panorama of rolling hills to the other. Granddaddy lived in that lap of luxury too, but it was luxury he did not want and did not take to with ease. The febility of old age frustrated his need to put one foot in front of the other toward some fanciful goal.

As a boy Granddaddy was a prodigy. I have it on numerous family authorities that he flew through high school in one year and graduated from Oberlin College in two years. He was  fluent in English, Spanish, French, Greek, Latin and Portuguese. As a recent graduate he accepted a one-year position to teach school in the Philippine Islands, where he became fluent in Tagalog. On coming back he went to work for a Wall Street Bank as an interpreter. A few years later he moved his family onto a commune called The School of Living in Suffern, New York, founded by the noted utopian, Ralph Borsodi. After a few years of that he scouted the Land of California, writing home that it was “a magnificent panorama of unparalleled magnitude.” That impressed the family, and as soon as my dad was home from WWII, off they went.

They weren’t following history, though. California’s greatest population booms followed the Great Depression and World War II. In the 1930s thousands of Americans, left destitute by the double whammy of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl drought, went west in search of work. By that time my grandfather’s brother, Waldo Berryman was already moving his growing auto aftermarket company from Ohio to Palo Alto. He eventually moved it to Encinitas, California, though I don’t know if that was before or after my branch of the family moved there.

After WWII thousands more Americans moved to California after GIs had passed through there on their way to the Pacific Theater. They came home, grabbed their wives or sweethearts, and headed for the promised land of sunshine and opportunity. By the time my father was home from war the family’s bags were packed, furniture all shipped, and car gassed up and ready to head west and join Granddaddy in the Berryman family’s new-found home upon that “magnificent panorama of unparalleled magnitude.”

In the last photo I have of my Grandaddy he is an old man walking, stooped and gnarled by Parkinson’s, but still, as he always was, moving forward and deep in thought.

I recently went hunting for photos of him online. Surely, with all he had done, there were photos of him in some college yearbook, newspaper, or historical archive. I know he was a track star in college, so I Googled “Robert Fulton Berryman” and “two mile,” his specialty.

Nothing.

I tried the search again with “R. F. Berryman” and bingo, I landed on the Oberlin College yearbook of 1905. (Thank you www.archive.org – you always come through!) I found the yearbook photo of the Oberlin track team. But…argh! The team members were not named in order of the photo. There was no, “Named, left to right.” In fact, there were more young men in the photo than names to the side. This wasn’t going to be easy. After studying each face, looking for my grandfather’s unmistakable upside-down pear shaped head, I settled on just one possibility. He had to be the confident looking young man sitting in the bottom row, second from right. Technically he’s seated in the second row, I suppose, but also technically his is the second head from bottom right.

R.F. Berryman Oberlin 1903 team

I still don’t know for sure if this is Robert Fulton Berryman, Oberlin Class of 1905. But I’m going to believe it is. Because he was almost certainly in the track team photo and no one else is a close match. Because the head shape, ears, and eyes match the photo I have from 1960. And because the only photos I have of this man I loved so dearly are blurred, dark, or from his back or side.

R.F. Berryman 1903 and 1960I take this from these few scattered facts or semi-facts: Robert Fulton Berryman always ran towards, never from. The whole world was that magnificent panorama of unparalleled magnitude. He raced through college and then ran (not literally, I must point out) to the Philippines to see the aftermath of the Spanish American War. He got an inheritance and so ran to Oklahoma to start a sheep ranch (fine occupation for an academic prodigy!). He ran from Wall Street to a commune, and from there to California. Whether he got comfortable in California and so decided not to explore further lands I don’t know. I do know that as I age, changing my life gets harder. I would like to move someplace completely different than coastal Southern California, but so many ties tether me here. After a while in one place it gets like that. But that’s another story for another time.

Grandaddy didn’t have time for cameras. But he had time for me. No camera can capture that.

Posted in 20th Century, Berryman, Old Photos | Tagged , | 5 Comments