Sperryville column for Feb. 2

Why the mountains are blue

An event is soon to take place in Sperryville that arguably overshadows Rappahannock County film openings, theatre showings, art exhibits and fire hall breakfasts.

On Saturday, February 11, we will see the first stones selected for the “Chimney Memorial” to commemorate the hundreds of mountain people who were unwillingly moved to make way for the Shenandoah National Park.

Local stones  — symbolic of what remains of long lost homes — will be transported from a farm in Sperryville to the Thornton Orchard property on Route 211, where a stone mason will work to erect the memorial upon a parcel of land generously donated for the project. Thornton Orchard is located on 211,  across from the Hearthstone School, just outside the park boundary.

The memorial is part of a surrounding eight-county effort known as the Blue Ridge Heritage Project celebrating the lives and losses of many local ancestors.

Photo by Chad Heddleston
A cold tree ghost looks out from the gray enshrouding the Bolen Cemetery along the Little Devil Stairs hiking trail loop.

A number of years ago, as a newly minted resident of Rappahannock, I was unfamiliar with the tragic history of the formation of the park, until I explored the woods and trails astride my beautiful Frisian Madeline. Horseback riding up the Keyser Run Fire Trail is a wondrous trip. The forest is lush, deep and green, reminiscent of the German forests enchantingly described in the tales of Hans Christian Andersen.

The trail is well-manicured and beautiful: in snow, in the lime-green-leaved spring, or in the deep greens of summer. It’s also a place and holder of secrets, as one finds Bolen Cemetery halfway up the pine-needle-carpeted paths, an apparition that rises seemingly out of nowhere.

It’s arguably a haunting cemetery, given the history, the graves surrounded and protected by a painstakingly reconstructed ancient stone wall. Each is marked with field stone and granite, including the small headstones of little ones, bereft of inscriptions, from bygone days when life was harder, even for those who’d spent only months on God’s green earth.

One can dismount to explore the site and come upon a plaque inscribed with a poem — a soulful ode to those who lost their homes, displaced by government force, to make way for a  national park. The poem, “Why the Mountains Are Blue,” reads in part:

To tell of a people who once resided on this land, who toiled, labored, loved, laughed and cried, having their lives altered by a ‘plan’ . . . Out from the protection of the hollows and vales, out onto resettlements or to properties that their pittance procured at sales, looking over their shoulders with tears in their eyes, pitifully departing their old homes among the skies . . . Leaving familiar sights, their homes and their burial plots, most left begrudgingly for some low country spots. The blue of the mountains is not due to the atmosphere, it’s because there is a sadness which lingers here.

The poem was written by Wayne Baldwin, who was born and raised in Rappahannock County, and who often writes of his family and ancestors. Twice a year, his clan gathers at Keyser Run to mow, clean and manicure the cemetery that holds moms, dads, cousins, uncles and aunts.

Missy Sutton grew up not knowing the history of her Rappahannock ancestors. It wasn’t until a relative attended a family event and brought along two large binders filled with family histories, primarily of the Pullens and Rutherfords, that Missy discovered her great-great-grandfather William Jackson Rutherford was forced to leave his family home. Like many families, discussions did not openly take place about the turn of events — over which many still harbor great anger and resentment.

Those who visit the park must wonder about the planted cherry trees, the remains of cemeteries and stone chimneys standing quietly alone, without a home to warm. All reminders of a people who once lived, loved and thrived there.

Missy, along with her cousin Wayne, now sit on the steering committee involved in building this memorial to honor the displaced families. The Rappahannock County effort began two  years ago. An article published in the Piedmont Virginian points out:

“To honor the sacrifices of these mountain families, and to celebrate their culture, a grassroots effort has begun, in eight counties surrounding the park where these displaced families were relocated almost a century ago.”

Madison County has already erected its “Chimney Memorial” on the grounds of the old Criglersville High School,  and Albemarle’’s memorial is also complete. Each memorial is constructed with the native stones of the respective counties.  Greene County is scheduled  to complete it’s memorial in the Spring, and efforts are currently underway for the remaining counties.

Says Missy: “This Rappahannock Memorial is meant to honor those in Rappahannock County who were displaced when the Park was created. The memorial’s location, just shy of the park/boundary/entrance on Route 211 in Sperryville is important because the memorial will be very visible to those passing as they enter/leave the park and will serve to educate about the sacrifices that were made by our ancestors in order for visitors to have the park to enjoy.”

Rappahannock native Bill Fletcher is funding the construction of the memorial through his foundation. Russell Jenkins, who owns the Thornton Gap Orchard, generously donated the land for the memorial. Once completed, the memorial will be turned over to Rappahannock County. Perhaps as the construction begins, so too will the closure for so many.

It promises to be a moving event. Snacks and beverages will be provided (that’s always a draw when offering a bit of physical labor). Folks will initially gather at the HeadMaster’s Pub at 11:00 a.m. and travel to the local farm together — and all are welcome to help out, lift a stone, or simply observe.

Volunteers are encouraged to dress warmly and in layers, and the event is  weather dependant, so please, check out the Facebook page http://facebook.com/groups/RappahannockMemorial/JBRHP/ or call Missy the morning of  at 703-307-3680.

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