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.
My Blue Ridge Mountain Home Eviction: Part 4
When things are our own, they tend to become a little more valuable, a little more beautiful, a little more precious. Just like we believe with our whole heart that our team is better, even if the score shows different, and we will defend them, and our belief in their superiority, to the end.
This would be key, of course, when the men from Washington came calling on my Blue Ridge ancestors with their bags of pennies and chewing gum, thinking a few treats for the kids, a few dollars for their parents, and a rational appeal would lure them from the land.
They thought it only logical that these people would want to be upwardly mobile, to move to a newer home on more fertile land. But they would be wrong. It would not be that easy.
Mountain living isn’t for the lazy or unspirited. Up there the winds howl louder, and colder. The ground is nearly impenetrable, the few inches of soil stony and too young to be nutritious to non-native plants, and at any rate little more than highly acidic ground leaves or needles.
Temperatures fall about 5.5 degrees for every 1,000 feet higher in elevation, making growing seasons shorter and crops smaller.
Water is a constant source of worry, whether from solid bedrock that makes a dug well impossible, life-giving springs and streams that occasionally run dry, or life-sucking drought. Winters are cold, sometimes bitterly so, and neighbors and supplies that must be bought are, for better or worse, miles away.
I’ve read that the Scots-Irish and the Germans took to the Blue Ridge because the lower, more fertile land was all taken. If bottom land was available, it was at prices these mostly poor immigrants couldn’t afford.
So they came to the mountains, where only the hearty would thrive, and who were more hearty than the Scots-Irish and Germans? They carved their homes from the mountainsides and began life anew in the Blue Ridge, and after a few years or a few generations, could not even imagine living anywhere else.
Work on a mountain farm is constant, as it is on any farm. But the results are more meager. Our ancestors could grow little past what was necessary to feed the children, though some years there was enough for a pair of new shoes for each of them.
Maybe the mountaineers didn’t work harder than we do. Everyone I know works hard. But the mountaineers’ work was more desperate. If my friends don’t work hard, they can’t afford $200 dinners once or twice a week. If the mountaineers didn’t work hard, they wouldn’t bring in enough food to last the winter. If my friends don’t work hard, they can’t afford their $400 shoes. If the mountaineers didn’t work hard, they couldn’t afford any shoes.
But to the hearty souls who carved into Green Mountain or Piney Mountain or Grindstone Mountain, this was not dispiriting. My grandmother, Florence Collier Merica, spoke of how hard she and her sisters worked on their parents’ farm on the mountain above Naked Creek.
They, as I’ve written elsewhere, “hoed corn all day and danced all night.” They looked forward to “visiting day,” when neighbors from over the mountain, or from the next hollow up, would come a’visiting. Each family put out food, for every guest to those homes, invited or not, must be offered food. It was the Blue Ridge way. You never knew who would come. They’d stay a while, catch up on news and gossip, then move on down the trail.
Yes, there was time for dance, and fun, and love, and they did all that. A cousin related at several points by both blood and marriage, Bela Lam, who went on to record his music in New York and Richmond, played music at their parties, as did others in this music-loving neck of the woods.
One year my grandfather cooked up the idea of a Halloween party to keep the kids from going out and getting in trouble, and asked Bela to play. It worked. A different cousin collected folk song sheet music and lyrics, and had a vast store of them in an upstairs bedroom of my great grandmother’s home. I wish I knew what became of them when she died.
On Saturday nights neighbors would come to my grandparents’ home because they had the community’s first radio. It was in the parlor, and my grandfather took chairs from the dining room and set them around.My grandmother put a couple of straw mattresses and blankets in the corner, and that’s where the children sat.
Later in the evening, after Amos and Andy, and well into the Grand Ole’ Opera, the children drifted off to sleep. After the show was over, their parents gently picked them up and carried them home. My mother’s mother let her sleep there the entire night sometimes.
Their home was farther out from the mountain’s base, down Naked Creek and around the bend at Fleeburg. This is where Florence Collier and Thomas Merica built their home when they got married and came down from the mountain.
Even before the park evictions, most of the homes were not high up, they were in the greater valley, or gathered at the lower elevations, inside the hollows that cleave the mountains, the houses clustered there as if they all slipped down the mountainsides and came to rest nearly on top of each other at the bottom, dotted on opposite sides of a rough trail, or better, a streambed.
Even deep within the mountains, most residents lived in the hollows: Hensley Hollow, Weaver Hollow, Turner Hollow, Crow Hollow, Allen Hollow, Fox Hollow.
Around them, these farmers planted crops and gardens in the more fertile topsoil that flowed down from the mountaintops with every creek and cloudburst.
But whether on the mountain or in the hollows, they raised corn and beans, planted orchards of apples and plums, raised their families and buried their old, and often their young too, in cemeteries just a few steps away. Midwives delivered babies, herbalists consulted on medicine, and occasionally, the fortune teller up in the woods near Waynesboro read nervous young women’s futures.
My great grandmother used mustard plaster for colds, wild cherry bark for coughs, baking soda for stomachaches, and a little brandy in hot water for winter’s chill. To this day, I use cherry cough drops, baking soda in water for stomachache, and warm brandy (without the water) for a deep chill.
The mountaineers supplemented their diets with food gleaned from the forest. Chestnuts, berries, morels, venison, squirrel, raccoon, horseradish, sassafrass. I think of horseradish as a relish or lightly-applied sauce, but my mother told me of a young poor girl she saw who had nothing but a bag of wild horseradish to eat for lunch. She never forgot that girl, and now I don’t think I will either.
In some ways my Blue Ridge ancestors and their neighbors lived their lives nearly free from outside contact. That wasn’t unusual for many communities, mountain or not, before rail or the automobile. But changing ways was inevitable once the auto started to become popular.
That kind of progress can’t be stopped, and neither can the change that comes with it. Even if the government didn’t take their lands, change would have started happening more and more rapidly for my Blue Ridge ancestors, and maybe their culture would have been lost by now just the same. We’ll never know for sure.
What we do know is that hindsight is everything. Even the Park Service wishes now that the men and women who came to record how these Blue Ridge people lived would have had more respect for their customs and folkways; would have preserved the way of life as best they could, because now it is irretrievably lost.
But the park builders had their deadlines, and so we can never go back to see our great grandparents’ homes. But the shiny side of that coin is that today we can see the mountains as they were when our fifth and sixth great grandparents first saw them and decided, “Here we will live.” And, oh, did they ever!
Who else can say that?!
You can read Part Five of My Blue Ridge Mountain Home Eviction here. Or access the whole series here. To make sure you don’t miss any installments, go to the “subscribe” form at the top of this page.