Sometimes when you linger on a trail while hiking in Shenandoah National Park, you almost hear children’s laughter carried on the breeze. At the next bend, you leave the trail and stumble upon a crumbling log cabin with a tall oak growing out of it like a ship’s mast. If you get the feeling that you’re trespassing, some folks around here would say you were.
There’s a reason you feel ghosts in the park. Less than a century ago, these mountains were home to hundreds of families, some of whom had been there since before the Revolutionary War, and the ridges and hollows were dotted with houses, barns, stone walls and orchards.
During a recent walk up what used to be Hull School Road, Kristie Kendall, a stewardship coordinator with the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) and descendent of a Blue Ridge mountain family, stood tall in her sneakers as she observed, “Just standing here, you can feel the layers of history beneath your feet.” The park was created in the mid-1930s by obtaining swaths of land on both sides of the Blue Ridge from eight Virginia counties, including property owned by about 167 families in Rappahannock.
Many locals whose lives were forever disrupted by these events may now accept the park. However, their jaws still tighten when they recall how outsiders often misrepresented the lives of these families prior to their removal. While there were some subsistence farmers on these lands, many other families owned extensive land holdings, fine homes and prosperous farms. Descendants of the families believe they never had a forum to correct these misconceptions, but that’s about to change.
The PEC and the Rappahannock County Historical Society are co-sponsoring a special free event called “Rappahannock’s Mountain Heritage” from 10 to 4 on Saturday, April 11 at the Thornton Gap Primitive Baptist Church on Old Hollow Road in Sperryville. The third such event in the region supported by PEC, it is part of an eight-county initiative called the Blue Ridge Heritage Project.
The project, begun first in Greene County, was created to dispel misconceptions about the people who used to live in these mountains and to honor their sacrifices during the creation of the park. Therefore, in addition to the public, the organizers specifically invite members of local families whose forebears lived on land now located in the park — people, in Rappahannock’s case, with names like Woodard, Burke, Atkins, Dodson, Woodward, Jenkins, Weakley, Dwyer and Bowen — to tell their stories and display photographs and mementos that chronicle what is in most cases a vanished way of life.
The event is hosted by the seven-member congregation of the Thornton Gap Primitive Baptist Church. In addition to telling the stories of some of his ancestors in the mountains, Deacon Wayne Baldwin will speak on the history of the church.
And what a history it is: Starting out in a log building in 1787 on land donated by ancestors of William Jennings Bryan, the congregation chose a tough German immigrant named John Koontz as its first pastor. Ordained in 1776, Koontz was a famed Baptist minister on both sides of the Blue Ridge who was often beaten for his faith. In the 1830s, the church divided into the current “primitive” and “regular” congregations that still exist today over issues such as missionary work, temperance societies and Sunday schools. Baldwin ancestors, starting with William B. Baldwin, who rented a farm in Old Hollow from the Bryan family, have been involved with the church from the very beginning. Not surprisingly, the church served as a center of life for generations of the local families who were later displaced by the park.
Another featured speaker will be Jim Lillard, a retired bridge engineer from Rapidan and descendent of French Huguenots, including Capt. Benjamin Lillard, his five-times-great-grandfather, who settled on more than 400 acres in the mountains before fighting in the Revolutionary War.. During his presentation entitled “Mountain Memories,” Lillard will use local photographs, contemporary statistics, a little humor and stories from his own family to try to set the record straight.
“I heard so many horror stories about how the mountain people were. People acted as if they had done them a favor getting them out of the mountains. But my mother was 13 when her family moved out and talking with family members, I knew the horror stories were wrong,” he said. “There were poor people, of course. There were subsistence farmers and even [had] a barter economy. But there were many families up there who were prosperous. And during the hard years of the Depression, almost all of them lived much better than the people in the cities. At least no one was going hungry.”
Lillard has kin in Rappahannock; his mother was a Woodward raised on a farm adjacent to her grandmother’s 300-acre spread on the Hughes River at Rocky Run. The property contained a large orchard and was left to her by her father, Merriman Dodson. When the property was purchased for the park, the family bought a 216-acre farm near Leon in Madison County.
The transition from living on the mountain to resettlement was not so seamless for some members of Ruth Dwyer Kiger’s and her sister Jean Morris’ family. They were upstairs last week in the historical society conference room with RHS executive director Judy Tole and Wayne Baldwin for a meeting of the Rappahannock County Committee for the Blue Ridge Heritage Project. Calling the project “a wonderful first step and a project of love,” they were discussing a proposed commemorative plaque which would list the names of local families displaced by the park, including their own Bowen ancestors who lived in an enclave along Hull School Road.
“For generations, living together was all they knew,” Ruth explained. “While my family was able to stay on 100 acres of land that were just outside the park boundary and thus remain in Rappahannock, many of my cousins were dispersed to the four winds in search of jobs and a new life. Most of them never returned to the county.”
And they, too, come from families with illustrious ancestors who had deep roots in the mountains. Between their Dwyer, Bowen and Atkins ancestors, the sisters count five veterans of the Revolutionary War, including one who was with George Washington at Valley Forge. Another, William Bowen I, had a grandson who died during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Some of them were well off, too. Ruth showed a photo of a fine wood-frame home with eight outbuildings that had belonged to her great grandfather, Joseph “Joe Billy” Bowen and his wife, Annie. He owned two enormous orchards that produced, according to family lore, all the apples sent to American troops in Europe during World War I. At his death, he owned enough land to give 200 acres to each of his four children.
So what drew English, Irish, German and Welsh settlers, both wealthy and poor, to these mountains, where the steep ridges made farming more difficult? The sisters and Wayne Baldwin believe it was their strong Baptist faith that led them to the isolation and safety of the mountains. They worked hard and they prayed hard during a time when, both before the Revolution and afterwards, being a Baptist could get you arrested. After living in the mountains for generations, the land became a part of them.
“People were the mountains and the mountains were us,” Ruth said. “And now with this event and others in the future, descendants will be able to go to the site of their grandfather’s or great grandfather’s house and to walk in the steps where their families lived for so long.”
In addition to family history displays and featured speakers, artists will perform music beloved by the mountain families: gifted mountain dulcimer player and singer Madeline MacNeil and Evergreen Shade, a duo made up of John Tole on guitar and banjo and percussionist Anne Howard. Moreover, a shuttle bus will take interested attendees to the edge of the park to hike a mile or so on a self-guided tour of old home sites adjacent to the old Hull School Road.
Thornton Gap Primitive Baptist Church is on Old Hollow Road, one mile from U.S. 211 on the left. Rappahannock families who wish to tell their stories and set up displays should call Kristie Kendall at 540-347-2334 (ext. 7061) or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parking for the event will be off-site, so all attendees should preregister by visiting the event website at pecva.org/events, or by calling Kristie Kendall.