For those moved off the mountain, a memorial
Next Tuesday (June 7) at 6:30 p.m., a meeting of historical importance will be held in Sperryville, a meeting of the Rappahannock Steering Committee of the Blue Ridge Heritage Project. The mission: To launch full throttle into the process of erecting a “Chimney Memorial” to honor the hundreds of mountain people who were unwillingly moved to make way for the Shenandoah National Park. All are invited to attend.
A number of years ago, as a newly minted Rappahannocker, I was unfamiliar with the tragic history, 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: Whether in snow, or the lime green-leaved spring or the deep dark greens of summer, the trail is beautiful.
It’s also a place and holder of secrets, as one finds a cemetery halfway up the pine-needle-carpeted paths, an apparition that rises seemingly out of nowhere. It’s a beautiful cemetery, its graves surrounded and protected by a painstakingly reconstructed ancient stone wall. Graves are 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 the 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.
That lovely poem was written by Wayne Baldwin, who was born and raised in Rappahannock County, and who often writes poems of his family or his ancestors. Twice a year, the family gathers at Keyser Run to meet, 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 of Rappahannock, was forced to leave his family home to make way for Shenandoah National Park. 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 a memorial to honor the families that were displaced. This effort in Rappahannock County is part of a regional initiative known as the Blue Ridge Heritage Project that began several years ago. An informative article published in the Winter 2014 edition of Piedmont Virginian, by Kristie Kendall and Bill Henry, describes the effort: “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.”
The project wishes to build memorials in each county; indeed, Madison County has already erected the “Chimney Memorial” on the grounds of the old Criglersville High School. Memorials are being constructed from the native stones of the respective counties.
Says Missy: “The project hopes to accurately educate visitors about the people who lived in the mountains before the park; and through living history presentations, exhibits of photographs (many of which were generously provided by the Rappahannock Historical Society) and displays and demonstrations of the tools and utensils of daily living, we want to bring to life the world of those who gave up so much to make Shenandoah National Park possible. We are looking for a location to build the memorial, perhaps a donation of a small piece of land, and we will soon be able to accept donations in person or online to cover the cost of building this memorial.”
For the latest news about the Rapphannock memorial, upcoming meetings and information about how/when to donate, visit the Facebook page at facebook.com/groups/RappahannockMemorialBRHP
The steering committee will be meeting at a residence in Sperryville. If you would like to attend, please RSVP to Missy Sutton at email@example.com or 703-307-3630.