To clear the land for the national park in the 1930s, hundreds of mountain families lost their homes. Now, they’re being recognized.
The chimneys stand off trail, hidden by foliage. They go mostly unnoticed by the millions of people who visit Shenandoah National Park each year. But they are the crumbling sentinels of a centuries-old mountain culture. And they have a powerful story to tell.
“I’d started doing a lot of walking off-trail,” says retired teacher Bill Henry. “And one day, suddenly, there was a chimney. I didn’t understand why there wasn’t a house there—but it was a powerful experience that started something in motion in my head.”
His curiosity ignited, Henry looked into the park’s history, but found little to solve the mystery of the chimney he’d spotted.
Unraveling the Mystery
“Then I heard about Children of Shenandoah,” Henry says. “It was an organization of people whose ancestors had been moved off the mountain in the 1930s to make way for the national park. They held regular public meetings and had interesting guest speakers. So I started attending the meetings.”
Founded by descendant Lisa Custalow, Children of Shenandoah was formed to persuade the park to change park displays to present the mountain people with the respect and dignity they deserved.
It was at these meetings that Henry became aware of the anger that has descended through the generations. “It was palpable, and I didn’t understand what it was about,” Henry says.
“But as I talked to people and read and did research, it became clear that the way the government had handled the removal of the mountain people to make way for the national park wasn’t very considerate of them,” he says. It’s a classic example of government and politicians abusing the people, without consequence.
Forced From Their Land
Unlike Yellowstone or Yosemite—where largely unpopulated federally-owned land required little more than a presidential pen-stroke to become national parks—the proposed Shenandoah National Park would involve government land seizure under an overreaching interpretation of the right of eminent domain. Once they had taken the land, there was the equally despicable matter of removing the mountain people who lived on it.
To smooth the way, various state officials, park promoters, and business people—such as George Pollock, owner of Skyland Resort—deliberately misled the National Park Service, insisting that the scant few people who lived in the remote mountain ridges and hollows were lawless, ignorant hillbillies, cut off from civilization. They pushed the insulting notion that relocating these people was in their best interest.
In truth, there were some 2,000 people living “on the mountain,” as they call it, many on family homesteads dating back more than 200 years.
The anger many of the descendants felt wasn’t just about their ancestors being evicted from their homes and farms, or losing the only community, culture, and way of life they’d known for over two centuries: it was also about the stereotype that stigmatized mountain people.
“Yes, there were people living on the mountain who were uneducated,” says Lisa Custalow. “But there were also people who had college degrees. There were poor people who lived in cabins—and there were other folks who had nice two-story houses—just like anyplace else.”
Proud, Resourceful People
Indeed, when the Civilian Conservation Corps arrived to clear out the vacated homes, they found radios, store-bought shoes, fragments of 78 rpm records, military items, farm tools, and automobiles. There were villages in some of the hollows, complete with shops, churches, sawmills, grist mills, post offices, and schools. The people of Shenandoah were no poorer than most Depression-era rural families.
Land surveyor and cartographer Darryl Merchant is a descendant of the mountain people on both sides of his family. “There was also shame and embarrassment. The mountain people were proud, resourceful, and independent—but many were relocated to places where their skills and experience were of no use,” he says.
“Some, including my great grandfather, who had been a beekeeper, became wards of the state because they couldn’t get work,” Merchant notes. In many displaced mountain families, the subject was too painful to discuss. He was an adult before Merchant discovered his own family’s connection to Shenandoah.
Carrie Eheart, great-granddaughter of Joe Wood, the “mayor” of Sugar Hollow, says that because the government only wanted 50 feet of their land, her family was allowed to stay until the late 1940s. “My brother is angry because what should have been handed down through our family was taken away from us,” Carrie says. Her primary worry, however, is that the story of the Shenandoah mountain people will slip quietly into history, forgotten.
Henry recalls a conversation he had around 2011 with the county tourism director: “He’d met a woman in her 70s who remembered when she was a child and her family was evicted from the mountain,” Henry says. “He was amazed that the memory still brought tears to her eyes. He didn’t know the story, but he said to me, ‘I wonder if there’s something we could do to honor that story, get it out there so people know.’”
The idea stuck with Henry. “I talked to people I knew,” he says. “I thought maybe we could come up with some sort of monument to honor these people, that we now have this park to enjoy because of these people and the sacrifice they were forced to make.”
Honoring Mountain Families
Henry began speaking to community groups and working with county officials, tourism councils, and chambers of commerce, raising awareness and gathering support for a monument honoring the mountain people and their role in the creation of Shenandoah National Park.
“At one of these public meetings,” recalls Henry, “a guy came up and said, ‘Why have only one monument? Why not have a monument for each county?’ And we embraced that idea.”
In 2013, Henry established the Blue Ridge Heritage Project, dedicated to memorializing the families from the eight counties that border the park: Albemarle, Augusta, Greene, Madison, Page, Rappahannock, Rockingham, and Warren. Lisa Custalow joined the BRHP board and, after reaching an accord with the park, Children of Shenandoah has joined the BRHP and is focused on preserving the stories of the mountain people.
Today, only one monument, in Warren County, is awaiting completion. The stone chimneys honoring the mountain people and their role in the creation of Shenandoah National Park are a fitting, albeit belated tribute. They stand in testament to an almost-lost culture, invaluable to the fabric that is Virginia. BlueRidgeHeritageProject.com
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue.