The other day I had the pleasure of driving through Sperryville in Rappahannock County with my 2 daughters and my son.
We stopped for ice cream and I was chatting with another dad who had just come down off the mountain with his family.
“You should head up. It’s free for the weekend in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the founding of Shenandoah National Park.
My oldest daughter looked over at me. “Please Dad. Can we go for a hike?”
“Sure.” I said.
We rolled through the familiar gate at the entrance to the park and I was handed a map and a newsletter. My family and I have for the last 15 years spent many happy hours in the park and we have a collection of these things. I waved goodbye to the ranger.
“Big Meadows. Let’s go to Big Meadows.” My oldest daughter said.
We turned south.
75 years huh? When it was opened the country was in the midst of a great economic crisis. Fitting I supposed that we celebrate it now.
“Where’d all the houses go?” Asked the back seat.
“Houses?” I asked.
“Along the road. All I see are trees.”
As we rolled along at 40 miles an hour I explained that we were in a national park and that people didn’t live in national parks.
“Oh. So no one ever lived here?”
“Well people did live here.” I told my daughter.
“Why,” she asked as she looked out over the Virginia Piedmont, “would they leave? It’s so pretty.”
“They were forced to leave.” I said.
“That stinks.” Bella said.
I didn’t go into the detail of what happened. 75 years ago the federal government forced roughly 450 families that had lived on the Blue Ridge for generations to move to the lowlands and into government planned communities.
Such a fate was unacceptable for many of the fiercely independent mountain folk and they refused to leave the land that they owned, had worked, and raised their families on.
When the families refused to leave government agents forced them out of their homes at the point of a bayonet.
In one case an older man, John H. Mace, who refused to submit, was taken from his home in the chair in which he sat. He was then put out in the front yard to watch as the Civilian Conservation Corps burned his home to the ground.
There were many other stories like this one, and it is a part of history that is nearly forgotten.
We have forgotten these stories because those “relocated” were largely poor and powerless. All they wanted was to be left alone to live their lives as they saw fit. Rarely did they even ask for the services of a sheriff. Yet despite their simple requirements for life, the government still saw fit to take what little these people had for the “greater good.”
How would you feel if a man in a suit showed up at your door and told you that the government now owned your home because it just happened to be in the way of a park?
I’d be just like Mr. Mace, sitting in my chair, until they moved me out and burned everything I owned.
To this day there are checks at the US Treasury made out to the victims of forced relocation that have never been cashed. Even though the land that was taken from them constituted their only wealth, some of folks refused to take the “compensation.”
So as we celebrate the 75 anniversary of Shenandoah National Park, and as we hike the ridgelines, and marvel at the poplars, let’s not forget the people who once lived on the mountain, for whom the opening of the park was not cause for celebration.