In attendance were the Keysers, Clatterbucks, Finchams and Fletchers, Aylors, Atkins, Baldwins and Bolens, Dodsons, Estes, Quaintance and Whartons, Woodwards, Swindlers, Clarks, Armentrouts, Pullens, Rutherfords, Kendall, Jenkins, Sisks and Settles to name but a few. They came to seek closure and perhaps solace, to publically acknowledge and recognize the lingering sorrow of a people who once resided peaceably in the Blue Ridge Mountains, upon the hallowed grounds claimed in the name of eminent domain by the government to create a national park.
While smiles and laughter abounded, lively conversation and stories of lore were enjoyed, and family members discovered new family members; tears were ever-present as well. Memories of times gone by were shared, of land forsaken, families torn asunder, of beloved homes left to burn amid smoldering embers, only chimneys remaining, like the carnage of a buzzard’s abandoned carcass.
For some, according to Missy Hall Sutton, a decision was made not to attend the dedication, the anger remains raw, living and breathing in their hearts. A memory so alive, one descendant present during the ceremony was overheard to whisper, “I still have nightmares of people coming to take me away.”
As Pat Giles, on the day of the dedication relates: “A hiker named Bill Henry had a dream and his dream became real in Rappahannock County today.”
Bill has spearheaded the eight-county effort — Greene, Rockingham, Albemarle, Madison, Augusta, Page, Rappahannock and Warren — known as the Blue Ridge Heritage Project, to build chimney memorials in honor of the families who lost their homes, many their livelihood, and most their pride. Three memorials are now complete and five are underway.
Missy Hall Sutton, descended from the Rutherfords of the Shenandoah Mountains, heads up the Rappahannock County efforts. Her presentation was eloquent and heartfelt, her thanks to myriad selfless and generous volunteers and donors received with ardent applause. Folks like Wayne Baldwin, who did everything from moving stone to sharing his great historical knowledge of the families to coordinating Mary Bolen Burner being with us on Saturday; to Carl Clark and Wayne Pullen, who donated money, materials and countless hours of labor to finish the memorial site (Wayne and Carl are not only descendants, they’re also cousins and friends for life); to Bill Fletcher, who donated not only time, but $12,000.00 as well; to Russell Jenkins, who provided the land upon which the memorial sits as well as site construction services and money for the construction of the stone sitting wall. To Kristie Kendall, whose writings and time were so appreciated, to the folks who moved stone, and donated stone, to all manner of donors, to county officials, the sheriff’s office, and local businesses who provided services from gravel to flowers and trees, to make this “Labor of Love” a realized dream.
Arousing perhaps the most emotion was the unveiling of the plaque inscribed with family names and photos, an honor given a woman, who throughout the dedication, sat quietly with grace and dignity upon the country crafted dais.
Mary Bolen Burner is 96 years old, and she lived and made her home upon the Blue Ridge Mountain land before it became the Shenandoah National Park.
I had the honor of meeting Mary several years ago, along with her sister Beulah, now sadly passed. They shared how they lived upon their mountaintop in an eight-room farm home, raising cattle, pigs and horses for work and pleasure, and making cheese, planting vast orchards and vegetables and all sorts of crops.
They eventually moved to Luray, and Mary speaks of the beautiful farm on the river her dad bought, a place she came to love. “What about here, this mountaintop?” I ask.
“Yes,” she answers, “I loved my daddy’s farm in Luray, but we all want to come back home.”