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NPS Shenandoah Tragedy Monuments

leah kirk

By BILL LOHMANN Richmond Times-Dispatch

Sherman Shifflett’s father was a true mountain man: rugged, resourceful and resilient. Born in a log cabin on top of a mountain in Rockingham County, Harvey Shifflett wasn’t what you’d call book smart — he didn’t attend school past the second grade and he could barely sign his name — but he was plenty sharp. He could do math without pencil and paper, and he kept his family fed, even in the leanest times. He was brainy in the ways of living, and when he put his mind to it he could figure out how to do just about anything.

However, he could never quite come to grips with living off the mountain. His was among the hundreds of families forced from their homes in the 1930s to make way for Shenandoah National Park as state authorities used eminent domain to acquire private property that would be turned over to the federal government for the park. After leaving Rockingham in 1933, the Shiffletts settled in the foothills of Albemarle County, but Harvey Shifflett’s heart never relocated.

Decades later, still bitter at the way his family had been treated and still longing for his mountain home, he would have his children drive him to the park on weekend mornings where he would sit for hours on one of the stone walls along Skyline Drive — not far from his old home place. The old man spent the time whittling, watching the tourists drive by and soaking in the beauty that once was his.

“My dad wasn’t upset about the money. He was upset about the way they were treated; he said they were treated real ‘shabbily,’ ” said Sherman Shifflett, 74, who was born after the family moved to Albemarle, though his four oldest siblings were born on the mountain. Shifflett’s father was told later their home had been burned to the ground, a common practice to discourage former residents from returning or squatters from settling in.

“Several generations had been up there on top of the mountain,” said Shifflett, now retired after a career in teaching and administration at Louisa High School, old family photographs scattered about his kitchen table during an interview at his Louisa home. “They were fiercely independent. They worked hard. They eked out a living.

“My dad never stopped talking about it. He was really hurt. He never got the mountains out of his system.”

The story of the people who lost their homes in the creation of Shenandoah National Park was largely untold or poorly told for years and is now fading from view altogether as the youngest of those forced from the mountains are well into their 80s. The Blue Ridge Heritage Project is breathing new life into the story of displacement — although Sherman Shifflett says his father never used the term “displaced” to describe his experience, believing “evicted” better captured the feeling — by promoting the development of a monument site in each of the eight counties where land was acquired. The monuments will recognize those who were displaced and educate visitors about the lives and culture of the people who dwelled in the mountains.

The first monuments went up in Albemarle and Madison counties. The Rappahannock monument will be dedicated in April, while ones in Page and Greene are in the works with Augusta, Rockingham and Warren to come. The monuments are being developed by committees within each county that will oversee site selection, design and fundraising. The monuments will differ slightly in terms of materials and construction, but the focal points of each will be a stone chimney. The symbolism is quite intentional, said Bill Henry, who founded the nonprofit Blue Ridge Heritage Project.

“If you go up in the park today, you’ll find quite a few chimneys still standing,” Henry said. “The first chimney I came across in the backcountry was a very powerful experience. I didn’t know the whole story back then. It was like, ‘Wow, somebody lived here.’

“Once I learned about the people being evicted and the houses being burned … the chimneys left standing really had a lot of meaning to me. The chimneys show the determination and spirit of the mountain people.”

Henry, a retired school teacher, has no personal connection to the displaced people. He became interested in their story when he began attending meetings of The Children of Shenandoah, a group of descendants of the displaced that was formed in 1994. Their mission was to preserve the heritage of their ancestors, in part, by encouraging the park to more fully tell their story to visitors in a way that wasn’t demeaning, which they felt was the tone of earlier narratives.

Henry, who grew up in Fairfax County and regularly visited the park with his family, went to the meetings because he was interested in learning about the park’s history.

“I started going to hear the speakers, and then I got to wondering why all these people were so damn angry,” he recalled.

Lisa Custalow, who co-founded the descendants group with her husband, Curtis King Custalow, acknowledged there was considerable anger. Her mother was born on High Top Mountain and she was not even school age when her family had to leave their home. Custalow’s grandparents rented their home, so they weren’t compensated for their trouble.

“I remember as a young child I would ask my mom, ‘Why did you have to leave the mountain?’ ” recalled Custalow, who grew up in Charlottesville and still lives there. “She would become quiet. She would have tears in her eyes, and she would say, ‘When the government tells you you have to go, you have to go.’

“That was my signal to be quiet because you don’t want to make Mama sad.”

As she grew older, Custalow would stop at the Harry F. Byrd Visitor Center, where the exhibits put the most positive spin on the story of how the park was created, but in doing so cast a negative light on the mountain people.

“What we were angry about was the truth wasn’t being told,” Custalow said. “You can’t take the park back. We could never move back. But at least we wanted the truth to be told about our families and how they lived.”

The Children of Shenandoah got the attention of park officials, and the two entities worked to revamp the exhibits and videos, focusing considerable attention on the experiences of the people who were displaced. Depending on your perspective, those who developed the park might not come off looking so swell. Claire Comer, an interpretive specialist for the park assigned to the visual media department, said The Children of Shenandoah was “a fantastic partner for us to get that perspective.” The collaboration, she said, was part of an ongoing effort by the park to tell the story “very comprehensively and objectively.”

“We wanted to just present the facts … and let people draw their own conclusions,” Comer said. “It’s made for wonderful discussion for school groups and visitors alike: What is the greater good? What about eminent domain? Is it a good or bad thing? Is the end result of the park worth the heartache of those people who were displaced?

“This is really a story of colliding passions,” she said, noting that on one side were those who wanted to preserve the beauty of the area while establishing a viable economy that was not an “extracting” industry, namely tourism, while on the other were the people who called the mountains home.

Comer brings an empathy to the story as her family also was touched — though in not such a dramatic way: Her great-grandfather had to sell his mountain land that he used for grazing cattle in the summer. He had to give up a cabin, though not his family farm, which was nearby but not on land that became part of the park. Still, she understands the sense of place and loss that infuses the feelings of descendants of the displaced. That’s why she considers her work incorporating a more complete account “a really fulfilling part of my career. Having come from the local area, it was really a great thing for me to have the opportunity to tell that story,” she said.

Custalow is “extremely pleased” with how the park responded, but said her group’s biggest accomplishment might have been inspiring Henry — someone without a personal stake in the issue — to take an interest in their efforts and carry it forward.