Today we’re going to tell you the story of the people who lived in the Shenandoah mountains traversed by the Appalachian Trail before Shenandoah National Park.
Today we’re going to tell you the story of the people who lived in the Shenandoah mountains traversed by the Appalachian Trail before Shenandoah National Park.
On the left - Russ Nicholson, grandfather of all the Nicholsons in Nicholson Hollow, Virginia (Library of Congress)
On the right - Untitled photo, possibly related to: Corbin Hollow ruins, Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia (Library of Congress)
Elizabeth Catte, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Ohio: Belt Publishing, 2018).
George Corbin, 4-20-1969, The Shenandoah National Park Oral History Collection, 1964-1999, James Madison University Libraries Special Collections Repository https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/snp/95.
Audrey Horning, InShadow of Ragged Mountain: Historical Archaeology of Corbin, Nicholson, and Weakley Hollows. Shenandoah Natural History Association, Luray, Virginia, 2004.
Audrey Horning, “Myth, Migration, and Material Culture: Archaeology and the Ulster Influence on Appalachia,” Historical Archaeology 36, no. 4 (2002): 130. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25617028.
Audrey J Horning, “Shenandoah’s Secret History,” Archaeology 53, no. 1 (2000)
Sara M Gregg, Managing the Mountains: Land Use Planning, The New Deal, and The Creation Of A Federal Landscape In Appalachia. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
Sherman Mandel and Thomas R. Henry, Hollow Folk (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1938).
Magdalene Mooney, 2-17-1999, The Shenandoah National Park Oral History Collection, 1964-1999, James Madison University Libraries Special Collections Repository https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/snp/127.
Ashley Palazzo, “The Poor Mountaineers: Why 1930s Media Viewed the Mountain Families of the Blue Ridge Mountains as ‘Backwards’” (2022).
George Freeman Pollock, Skyland: The Heart of the Shenandoah National Park(Chesapeake Book Company, 1960).
Potomac Appalachian Trail Club Archives
Katrina M. Powell, ed. 'Answer at Once': Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park: 1934-1938 (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2009).
Carolyn Reeder and Jack Redder, Shenandoah Heritage: the Story of the People Before the Park (Virginia: The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, 1978).
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Shenandoah National Park, VA - Dedication Address, July 3, 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidental Library and Museum, National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/archives/collections/utterancesfdr.html#afdr050.
Edith Samuels, 9-17-1979, The Shenandoah National Park Oral History Collection, 1964-1999, James Madison University Libraries Special Collections Repository https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/snp/31/.
Shenandoah National Park Souvenir Book 1930-1933 edition
Virginia Lee Warren, “Homesteads Desired by 352 Shenandoah Park Families,” The Washington Star (March 18, 1934).
Rothstein, Arthur, 1915-1985, photographer1935 Oct. Library of Congress Russ Nicholson, grandfather of all the Nicholsons in Nicholson Hollow, Virginia | Library of Congress (loc.gov)
FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: We seek to pass on to our children a richer land and a stronger nation. And so my friends, I now take great pleasure in dedicating Shenandoah National Park.
MILLS KELLY: By the time President Franklin Roosevelt made that speech in 1936 from a podium at Big Meadows in the middle of Shenandoah National Park, the Appalachian Trail was more than a decade old. And some of the oldest segments of the trail south of the Potomac River traversed those same ridges that Roosevelt could see from his podium. But the Shenandoah mountains looked very different from the park that now almost one and a half million people visit each year. Very different.
KELLY: Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly, and I’m your host.
KELLY: Today we’re going to tell you the story of the people who lived in the Shenandoah mountains traversed by the Appalachian Trail – people who had lived in those mountains for as much as a century before the trail arrived. It’s a story that could also be told of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Or of South Mountain in Maryland. It is the story of mountain residents who were removed from the lands they had occupied for generations to make way for recreational resources enjoyed by many millions of people.
KELLY: Of course, the mountain residents we’ll be discussing in today’s episode are not the only ones who inhabited these lands. We’ll be telling the story of the Indigenous people who lived in the Appalachian mountains before, during, and after the trail’s creation in an upcoming episode.
KELLY: Of the three or four million people who set foot on the Appalachian Trail every year, the largest number will do so in either Shenandoah National Park or the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Both parks are places where indigenous people lived for many centuries and then settler families lived for more than a century. Until somewhat recently, the National Park Service mostly erased the physical presence and the history of those prior residents, whether indigenous or settler.
KELLY: Mountain residents lived in narrow valleys called coves in some places and hollows in others. Those coves and hollows were places where several to as many as a dozen families lived, farmed, hunted, and traded, creating small communities of their own. Newspaper reporters and later researchers and government officials liked to describe those communities as isolated and even removed altogether from the modern world. As we’ll see, there was often an agenda behind those descriptions. An agenda focused on seizing the land the mountain residents called their own.
KELLY: When the land was taken from the mountain residents in the 1930s to make way for the national parks, farms were bulldozed, stacked stone walls were removed, and all traces of the former residents except their cemeteries were destroyed. In only a few locations were the mountain residents’ homes allowed to stand as empty reminders of the people who once lived there. As a result, it’s no surprise that for people hiking on the AT the presence of the mountain residents is essentially invisible.
KELLY: In today’s episode we’re going to make the settler residents of what is now Shenandoah National Park visible again, if only for a little while.
KATRINA POWELL: I don't really remember a time of finding out about the displacement of families in the park, I've just always known that families had lived in the park and the family's lands were now part of the park. And so when I started talking to people who were not as familiar with the park, there was always a surprise that families had lived there that people had been displaced in order to form the park. And while there might be some general sense that American Indians might have been displaced from that area, or from any area that had become a national park, there was less of a knowledge about the white settlers and some African American families who lived in that area who would be forcibly displaced.
KELLY: That was Katrina Powell, a professor of rhetoric and writing at Virginia Tech University. Katrina has written extensively about the mountain residents displaced to make way for Shenandoah National Park.
KELLY: Throughout this episode we’re going to play recordings of the mountain residents for you. Some of those recordings are scratchy and a little hard to follow. In some cases the accents of the people may challenge you. But we want you to hear them speaking of the mountains in their own words. You can read transcripts of what they said in the show notes.
GEORGE CORBIN: Well, the Appalachian Trail people come here when I lived here and camped down on the river, that's, I get my drinking water down there. No purer water on Earth than that.
KELLY: That was George Corbin, a former resident of the mountains. That scratchy old recording, which you can listen to in full on the website of the James Madison University Library, was made in 1969. George and his interviewers were standing in front of the house he built decades earlier out of chestnut logs he felled and peeled himself. I know that cabin well because for five years I was one of the two caretakers of the old structure, maintaining what George built so long ago.
KELLY: The removal of the mountain residents from the Shenadoahs is a two-part story. The first part is the story of their lives and how it was that they were forced to leave their homes to make way for a national park. The second part of the story is how the very existence of the mountain residents was erased from the mountains now traversed by the Appalachian Trail.
KELLY: The Appalachian Trail arrived in those mountains almost a decade before the mountain residents were removed to make way for the park. Within two years of the formation of the Appalachian Trail Conference in 1925, groups of volunteers began scouting, blazing, and eventually building segments of the trail. The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club was formed under the leadership of a young attorney named Myron Avery. The club set to work building the trail north and south from Linden, Virginia, just east of Front Royal, a spot they could reach easily by train from Washington, D.C. and its suburbs.
KELLY: As they worked their way south into the Shenadoahs, they had a local ally, a man named George Freeman Pollock. Pollock was the owner of the Skyland Resort, located just a few miles west of that cabin George Corbin lived in. Pollock hosted PATC members during their expeditions into the mountains and was also part of a group of local businessmen and politicians who wanted to bring a new national park to the area. And, as we’ll see later on, he tried to profit from the removal of his neighbors living in the hollows below his resort, many of them people who worked at Skyland.
KELLY: Early on, Skyland wasn’t much. Magdalene Mooney worked at the resort from 1933 to 1935 and described what it was like during an oral history interview done by Gloria Updike in 1999.
MAGDALENE MOONEY: When Mr. Pollock first started out up there as I understood it, they used tents. They had to come up the back trail from Luray. There was no Skyline Drive at that time and there was a telephone on a pole at the bottom of the mountain there that if you wanted to go up to get to the top of Skyland, you had to ring that telephone and alert the person up at the top that you were coming up because only horses could go up and down that trail. And there could not be a horse coming down and a horse going up at the same time.
KELLY: Pollock and his guests were recent interlopers into those mountains. For a century or more settlers had been migrating up the slopes and into the hollows, establishing farms, some of them as large as 200 acres, clearing the land, and making homes for themselves. By the time the Commonwealth of Virginia and the National Park Service began discussing a park in the Shenandoahs, almost 500 families lived on the lands envisioned for the park.
KELLY: For those of you who have been to Shenandoah National Park, it’s hard to imagine that a large percentage of the land in the park was once open farmland.This is because the Park Service pursued a deliberate policy of erasing all evidence of the mountain residents once the land was given to them by Virginia officials. The Park Service bulldozed farms, scattered stacked stone walls that had taken generations to build, and planted trees in what had been pastures and gardens.
KELLY: Because of that erasure it’s almost impossible today to visualize the lives mountain residents led. They were mostly farmers who planted crops, ran hogs in the forests, had orchards, and sold some of their production for cash in markets down the mountain. They also made and sold things like intricately woven baskets and furniture. And until the chestnut trees died in the 1920s, they cut, peeled, and sold chestnut trees to sawmills at the base of the mountains. The bark peeled from those trees was especially prized by tanneries because of its high tannin content and so chestnut bark was an important cash crop for the mountain residents. And many, especially the adult men, worked in those sawmills and tanneries that dotted the flat lands at the base of the mountains.
KELLY: Edith Samuels grew up on the mountain and described her childhood there in an oral history collected in 1979.
EDITH SAMUELS: We had big corn fields, we had two gardens, we had five or six hogs, and butchered around three or four every year, and had four and five cows, and two milk cows especially, and a lot of chickens. Well, we just had it wonderful.
KELLY: As they began building the Appalachian Trail, members of the PATC, had a lot of contact with the residents of the Shenandoah mountains. Among the club members, Dr. Frank Schairer, a prominent geophysicist, especially loved hiking up into the hollows to visit with the people who lived there. He danced, he drank a little moonshine or apple brandy, and came to know them on their own terms. Schairer was often able to enlist mountain residents to help with locating the best route for the trail and sometimes for clearing trees or rocks that were in the way.
KELLY: The relationship between the PATC and the local residents wasn’t always positive though. In at least one case, when PATC members began building a cabin on the ridge north of Thornton Gap, local residents would come by at night and tear down whatever the club members had built the day before. Eventually, the club had to hire a security guard – a man who had recently been released from prison for murder– to watch the site at night. The trouble stopped, but the relationship between the club and the folks who lived in the hollows below the cabin didn’t recover.
KELLY: At the same time that PATC members were blazing the Appalachian Trail south into the mountains, a group of businessmen in the Shenandoah Valley began lobbying officials in Richmond to establish a national park in the Shenandoahs. These men, including Pollock and the real estate agent Ferdinand Zirkle, believed that the arrival of a national park would have a tremendous economic benefit for the region. Pollock was especially interested in a park because his Skyland Resort was struggling.
KELLY: Here is Sara Gregg, a professor of history at Indiana University:
SARA GREGG: he imagined the creation of a national park as bringing a windfall to him. He imagined that the federal government would purchase Skyland and turn it into a resort and or the state would, or somebody would, and that his financial difficulties would be over. And that his legacy will be preserved through the impetus of state action.
KELLY: Sara’s book, Managing the Mountains, tells the story of the federal government’s involvement in places like Shenandoah National Park and of the interplay between local political and economic interests and the growth of the national park system.
KELLY: The other key player in this story was the government in Richmond. Led by then governor of Virginia and soon to be Senator, Harry F. Byrd, the state began lobbying hard for a large national park in the Shenandoah mountains. He knew that the Great Smoky Mountains were also under consideration for a national park and he wanted Virginia’s park to be first. Byrd was an arch segregationist and a leader of Virginia’s massive resistance campaign. Working with Zirkle, Pollock, and several other local businessmen, Byrd and his allies in Richmond convinced the Park Service leadership to move forward with what became Shenandoah National Park. Given Byrd’s devotion to segregation, it should be no surprise that when the park was created, it was a segregated park.
KELLY: Who wasn’t consulted about creating a national park in the Shenandoahs? The 1,000 or so mountain residents, many of whose families had lived there for generations. It’s not as though Byrd, Pollock, or Zirkle were unaware of the local residents. They saw those residents as an impediment to a much more important project – creating a national park that would boost the economy of the region and burnish Byrd’s image as a political leader.
KELLY: How was it that the mountain residents could be treated as impediments? Perhaps the thing that made it easiest to ignore the voices of the mountain residents was the fact that journalists, educators, and scholars had spent a good part of the past decade portraying them as somehow defective. The mountain residents were described in books, newspaper stories, and even in scholarly journals as living outside of the modern world. Outsiders wrote that local residents were disconnected from the regional economy, illiterate, and uneducated. And at a time when eugenics was verypopular, especially in Virginia, they were also portrayed as inbred and therefore defective.
KELLY: Here is just one example of dozens of the kinds of lies told about the mountain residents by those who wanted to cast them as disconnected from the modern world. In 1934, Virginia Lee Warren wrote in The Washington Post:
MELISSA CANNAROZZI READING VIRGINIA LEE WARREN: For more than a century a little colony of white persons has dwelt within 100 miles of the Nation’s Capital, living what is probably the most primitive existence in all the United States…The people speak a language that sounds foreign. They have no church. The winter is the first time they have had school with the exception of short terms in the summers. All the adults are illiterate…
KELLY: It wasn’t just journalists who purveyed these tall tales about the mountain residents. Miriam Sizer was a school teacher who came to teach in Nicholson Hollow just north of Old Rag Mountain. Hoping to make a name for herself as an educational reformer, Sizer invited the University of Chicago sociologist Mandel Sherman and the journalist Thomas Henry to investigate the living conditions in the Shenandoah mountains. Sherman and Henry, both eugenicists, subsequently wrote a lurid book called Hollow Folk that cast the mountain residents in the most unflattering terms possible. Their book gave scholarly support to those who wanted to move the mountain residents from their homes and communities.
KELLY: Audrey Horning is the Forest D. Murden Professor of Archaeology at the College of William & Mary and has studied the archaeological and cultural history of the mountain residents for decades. She explains how this happened.
AUDREY HORNING: The 1933 book Hollow Folk is really responsible for a lot of the negative portrayal. So, Mandel Sherman, a University of Chicago sociologist, and very much eugenicist himself, teamed up with a journalist, Thomas Henry, who was a big park booster, and they used research by a woman named Miriam Sizer who was worthy of a podcast on her own. I actually have the book in front of me. So I think I'll let it speak for itself, with a quick quote:
“The dark interior valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains are realms of enchantment here hidden in deep mountain pockets to all families of unlettered folk of almost pure Anglo Saxon stock. Sheltered in tiny mud plastered log cabins and supported by a primitive agriculture. One of these settlements has no community government, no organized religion, little social organization wider than that of the family clan and only traces of organized industry, the ragged children until 1928 never had seen the flag or heard of the Lord's Prayer.”
HORNING: It was tremendously influential. Because it was coupled with a lot of negative articles in various local, regional and national newspapers, something like lost communities have no intelligence found in the southern mountains, you know, it would be laughable if it wasn't so damaging.
KELLY: You can hear the eugenic thinking in that “Anglo Saxon stock” comment.
KELLY: Of course, the picture painted of the mountain communities wasn’t true. While many of the mountain residents were poorer than their neighbors “down the mountain,” they weren’t living in squalor or engaged in primitive agriculture. They owned homes, businesses, and in some cases cars. They worked at sawmills, tanneries, stores, and other enterprises off the mountain. They purchased goods from mail order catalogs to furnish their homes. In short, they weren’t as prosperous as some other small farmers in Virginia, but they weren’t living outside of modern American society.
KELLY: But if the people of the mountains were indeed living in such primitive conditions – as journalists and scholars insisted – it only made sense to outsiders that they should be moved out of the mountains for their own benefit. The expectation was that they would be better off living in resettlement communities with running water, electricity, and public schools than they were living in the mountains.
KELLY: In the early 1930s the Commonwealth of Virginia began a comprehensive survey of the mountain communities and along the way state officials promised the residents they met that they would be allowed to live on their farms for the rest of their lives, even if they sold the land. Of course, that’s not what happened. Instead, in 1934, the state began condemning their land, forcing them to sell and move to relocation settlements being run by none other than Ferdinand Zirkle and financed by New Deal funds.
KELLY: As the evictions began, Pollock tried to take advantage of the condemnation process to claim ownership of as much as 5,000 acres of land he didn’t own. What he didn’t anticipate was that his neighbors in the mountains would hire attorneys and fight him in court, ultimately winning the right to sell their land to the state for their own benefit, not his. He did manage to get at least some of what didn’t belong to him though.
HORNING: Well, George Freeman Pollock, the owner of Skyline basically cheated Aaron Nicholson out of I think about 170 acres, and I could trace that in the county courthouse, how he had done that, and then has the gall to go on to describe Aaron Nicholson, as this larger than life squatter.
KELLY: Here is Sara Gregg.
GREGG: Obviously, for the families who were displaced by the creation of the park, this was a life changing experience. Those who had been landowners who were deemed um rehabilitatable (haha) were, you know, provided sort of a an entree into Valley homes and farms. But most of those people the anecdotal evidence suggests didn't stay for long on those subsistence homesteads in those seven communities, on both sides of the mountains, the families who did not receive any sort of buyout, basically were, evicted and fend left to fend for themselves.
HORNING: So how did it impact people? I mean, it was horrific, people lost everything, they lost their farms, their homes, when they were compensated. And of course, they were compensated, it was on the basis of depression era prices, okay, which is clearly a big problem. And they also received their payments, before they were forced to leave. But in that interim period, which could, in some cases was several years, they were not allowed to plant, they were not allowed to repair their homes. And so they're basically spending their compensation money on just getting by.
KELLY: The Park Service archives contain as many as 300 letters from mountain residents who were trying to get permission from the Park Service to pick apples from what had been their trees or dig potatoes from what had been their gardens. Katrina Powell read all these letters and interviewed many of the descendants of their authors to get a better sense of the authors and the context of their appeals. What she found was that those letters were often quite sophisticated.
POWELL: Some other people writing to ask for requests would say, I have never give the park no trouble. You know, I'm a cooperative citizen. I've done everything you've asked and never gave the park no trouble. So can I have this thing, whatever they're requesting. And I found that really interesting, because this was one of those counter stories to the ways that mountain families were often seen, is uneducated and not able to take care of themselves or not understanding how the quote unquote real world works, or the more developed industrialized country was working. They were quite savvy rhetorically,you could tell that they understood what was going on around them
KELLY: With the mountain residents removed from their farms, the Commonwealth of Virginia was able to transfer the newly acquired lands to the federal government for the building of the park. Almost immediately, workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps began building Skyline Drive. As we discussed in our very first episode of the podcast, the building of the drive had enormous ramifications for the Appalachian Trail – be sure to give it a listen when you have a chance.
KELLY: The park authorities went to work erasing all evidence of the former mountain residents except their cemeteries and the buildings in Nicholson and Weakly Hollows. These were left as archaeological points of interest for hikers in the new park.
GREGG: There was an attempt, I think, primarily on the part of the Park Service to remove the remnant settler landscape in order to create this appearance of this more permeable nature in the park. But obviously, the construction of Skyline Drive was the principal driver of landscape change in some really significant and I think interesting ways in terms of like these ideas about the wilderness that you see from through the windshield of a car.
KELLY: Or, one could say, from the middle of the Appalachian Trail.
KELLY: Today as we hike through Shenandoah National Park on the AT, it’s really impossible to visualize the mountains as they were when Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1937. Farm fields have been replaced by forests. Stacked stone walls that took generations of labor to build have been scattered. Homes, barns, and sheds were all burned. Only the cemeteries remain. And in the early summer, you sometimes see tiger lilies growing in random places back in the forest, mute floral reminders of where a house might have stood 100 years ago.
KELLY: For the descendants of the mountain families the memories of their ancestors’ lives in the hollows and on the ridges are often quite strong. And their feelings about the park and its history are mixed.
POWELL: While there is some resentment and bitterness about the whole thing and the way it happened, and the loss of land, there is an enormous sense of pride that I found in talking to families whose ancestor's lands were taken for the park have a sense of pride that their family is connected to the park. That has always really struck me as saying how just intimately tied to the landscape we are and how landscape figures into our sense of identity.
POWELL:And so even if one is angry about how it happened, there's simultaneously this sense of pride of, you know, my family belongs to that land, and I belong to that land, you know, and I've heard that over and over again, like that park is mine, or that land, that cemetery where my family is buried is mine. And, and I also really feel like, the parks history reveals to us this, the way that as human beings, we can have both this sense of like this thing was founded with unjust methods, and yet also really love the park at the same time and want to be in it and want to hike in it and be a steward of it. And that complexity of how a human can hold those multiple feelings at the same time or those multiple feelings at the same time, as it says a lot about how intertwined identity and landscape are.
KELLY: And so, the next time you hike on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park, or any of the parks where residents were removed, it’s worth remembering that there are people who have a strong sense of ownership of that landscape, ownership rooted in generations or centuries of their history, not ours.
ASHELY PALAZZO: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today’s episode was produced by me, Ashley Palazzo. Jeanette Patrick is our executive producer and she did the sound design for this episode.
PALAZZO: A special thank you to all our guests for this episode: Katrina Powell, Sara Gregg, and Audrey Horning. And to Melissa Cannarozzi for reading Virginia Lee Warren’s piece from The Washington Post. We also want to thank the James Madison University Library. Their collection of oral histories of the mountain residents was an invaluable source for this episode.
PALAZZO: Our original music is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia, and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia.
PALAZZO: Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you soon!
Professor of English and founding director of the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies at Virginia Tech.
Ph.D, Columbia University, associate professor of History. Work focuses on environmental change, agricultural history, and land policy.
Forrest D. Murden Professor William & Mary. Previously led research in Shenandoah National Park.