A story of ‘colliding passions’

Shenandoah National Park seeks to set the record straight on displaced families

The National Park Service has taken great strides to more accurately portray the stories of those families displaced during the formation of Shenandoah National Park. And to that end much of the credit should go to one Shenandoah National Park ranger in particular.

“I have very deep roots here,” says Claire Comer, an interpretive specialist at the park for more than 30 years. “My family has been here since the 1700s.”

Photo by John McCaslin
Comer points to some of the 20 books tiles and products in the Byrd Visitor Center that tell the story of the many families displaced during the formation of Shenandoah Park.

By “here” she means Shenandoah Park — or more precisely, the 940 acres that her great-great grandfather (his last name Long) and his cousin owned just south of Big Meadows. The Long family were Page County farmers who purchased the mountaintop land for summer grazing. Each spring they would drive the cattle to the mountain, where a home was also built, to take advantage of the cooler temperatures, fewer flies, and richer summer grasslands.

“I had looked for that property for a long time when I started doing research and I couldn’t find it,” Comer recalls in an interview at the Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center along Skyline Drive. “And finally some other folks who had been bushwhacking said come and look at this foundation. It was about 10 [feet] by 5 or 6, made of concrete, and it had a lip but no floor.”

Her curiosity piqued, Claire went home that evening to Page County — where her brother today is the 11th generation in her family to operate the family’s valley farm — and she described the foundation to her father.

“He said, ‘Get in the truck.’ So we zipped over to the farm next to ours and we went to this building and he opened the door and there was this exact same foundation. And it was a cattle scale! Then we went back to my great-grandfather’s leather-bound farm journal and we found where he had purchased two cattle scales — one for the mountain farm and one for the valley operation.

“So I knew then that I had found our property. And before he died I was able to bring my dad up here to see the property.”

If that’s not sufficient family roots inside Shenandoah, Claire’s great-grandfather proposed to her great-grandmother at Lewis Falls, also near Big Meadows (no doubt a memorable marriage proposal, given a “twisted-ankle rating” is given today to the steep trail leading down to the falls).

Comer began her career in Shenandoah Park in 1986, when “single and starving I needed a summer job” to supplement teaching in Page County, she says.

“At that time there was a huge interest in telling the cultural stories of the park,” she recalls, “and I fell in love with that whole aspect.”

She worked as a front line interpreter during the summers and continued to teach until 1998, “and then I got a permanent job [in the park], the focus of which was to help marshal through these five permanent [museum-quality] exhibits that we had on tap . . .

“I was really excited because here’s our chance to tell the [displaced] residents’ story,” she continues. “It was a huge wake-up call for me about looking at all perspectives. The story of the establishment of the park is thousands of stories, a compilation of all these stories. And if any of us leave any of these stories out then we’ve altered history, and more importantly we’ve altered our ability to face the future in a right way.”

Indeed, the permanent museum exhibit surrounding the park’s formation, including the painful timeline surrounding the relocation of several hundred evicted families, is of Smithsonian quality and should be experienced by everybody who has an interest in the events of those days.

Photo by John McCaslin
Byrd Visitor Center at Big Meadows.

“It was not only the story of the people who were displaced, it was a story of colliding passions — that these people who wanted the park were just as passionate about this really cool vision for the region, to not destroy the beauty through extraction industries, but rather to use this tourism as an industry. Their vision is pretty well realized,” notes Comer.

“In the 1960s, there were a lot of interpretative programs about the ‘folkways’ and we focused on how the families lived here. I started taking visitors to old home sites and really talking about the homestead, the displacement, and what actually happened. And our focus went away from those folkways and more into telling the story as it pertains to Shenandoah.

Photos by John McCaslin

“[Recent] interest spurred by Blue Ridge Heritage Project is so important because displaced residents and their descendants who care about that story need to tell that story themselves. I thought that the exhibit would do a lot of healing, and I think it did. I think it helped some people say OK, you’ve given us some information.

“I was naïve to think that would fix anything other than to fulfill those who felt we [the park] needed to do a better job of telling the story, and we did that. But I think part of the healing process is them telling their own stories. The park is telling the story. But to get as many perspectives as possible it is important that they tell their stories as well.”

Just recently, the National Park Service, with Comer’s assistance, updated approximately 100 wayside information panels throughout Shenandoah Park. “And we devoted quite a few of them to the story of the displaced residents, because not everybody stops at a visitor’s center, but almost everybody stops to read the signage along the Skyline Drive,” she points out.

In addition, with the input of Children of Shenandoah, an organization of descendants of the displaced, the Park Service recently revamped the Byrd Visitor Center movie, which is streamed every 30 minutes alongside the exhibit.

“It explains more about the displaced,” says Claire, “plus we fixed some things the former residents were not happy with about how they were portrayed.”

The Byrd Center’s modern bookstore also now has 20 or so different titles and products surrounding the displacement story, materials that can also be purchased online, she states.

“And something I’m really excited about, we have worked with two government teachers — one from Page County and one from Rockingham County — to develop an online curriculum that uses the story of the establishment of the park to teach the SOL, the standards of learning components, particularly about eminent domain.

“And one of these teachers is a descendant of former residents,” Comer reveals. “We’re putting the finishing touches on the online curriculum and we hope to launch in late summer. That will be on our website and a way for people to experience the [displacement] story without ever coming to the park.

“We will also have an interactive map where you can go in and conduct a search on your family name or tract number and it will take you to that tract and give you some basic information about that. We worked in partnership with North Carolina State on that.”

The Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center is located at Big Meadows (Milepost 51) along Skyline Drive. It is open 7 days a week from 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m.

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About John McCaslin 82 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.