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 the Shenandoah National Park as state authorities used eminent domain to acquire private property that would be turned over to the federal government. After leaving their homeplace 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 longing for his mountain home, he would have his children drive him to the park on weekend mornings. There he would sit for hours on one of the stone walls along the Skyline Drive. The old man spent the time whittling, watching the tourists drive by and soaking in the highland beauty.
“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 downhill, though his four oldest siblings were born on the mountain.
Shifflett’s father was told later their home had been burned, a common practice to discourage former residents from returning, or squatters from resettling.
“Several generations had been up there on top of the mountain,” said Shifflett, now retired after a career in teaching and administration at Louisa County High School, with old family photographs scattered about his kitchen table . “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 people who lost their homes for the Shenandoah National Park’s creation was obscure for years and is steadily fading. 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 mountain counties where land was acquired.
The monuments will recognize those who were displaced and tell 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 County monument will be dedicated in April, while ones in Page and Greene counties are in the works with Augusta, Rockingham and Warren counties 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 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 national park to help them tell their story to visitors in a way that wasn’t demeaning, like they felt was the negative 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 The Children of Shenandoah with her husband, Curtis King Custalow, acknowledged the considerable simmering 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 financially 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 overshadowed 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.
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 modern-day 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.
Having sensed the pain that was still palpable among descendants, Henry thought more could be done to honor the displaced. He began working on the idea for the Blue Ridge Heritage Project in 2012 — asking Custalow to serve on the board — and eventually proposed a single site with eight monuments. Later, a monument in each county was suggested, making the logistics more complicated but the final result more compelling, he said.
“One of the things I’ve learned is it’s not just one story, but it’s thousands of stories,” Henry said during an interview on a cold, blustery day at the Madison monument next to the now-closed Criglersville Elementary School on Old Blue Ridge Turnpike, which in the days before the park was a main thoroughfare over the mountains to the Shenandoah Valley. “They had different experiences, and they had different ways of dealing with it. Everybody’s family saw their part of it, and quite often they don’t know how big this was, which is one thing that’s really great about having eight counties with eight sites.”
Jim Lillard led the effort for the Madison monument, having picked out the fieldstones that went into the building of the chimney. His family goes back centuries in the area, several of his ancestors having fought in the American Revolution, and his grandfather had to abandon his 154-acre farm. It made Lillard feel better when he searched the records and discovered his grandfather had been offered $1,700 by the state, held out for $2,117 and wound up buying a 216-acre farm with a two-story house elsewhere in Madison for $2,000.
Asked if he was gratified to have the first monument in Madison, he replied, “I surely am.”
Depending on your evaluation, those who developed the park may not seem purely admirable or high-minded.
As one of the first national parks in the East when it was established in 1926, Shenandoah presented challenges the park system had not encountered in the open spaces of the West on land already owned by the government — namely, residents.
Taking land by such an authoritarian governmental process seems harsh today, and such a seizure would be unlikely or unsuccessful in our contemporary political climate.
Yet Harry Byrd, who commanded Virginia’s arch-conservative political machine for decades, avidly supported the park project as the state’s governor and U.S. senator.
It wasn’t entirely the park system’s doing. Local promoters of the notion of a national park in the Blue Ridge, including a local businessman who operated the Skyland Resort (in what is now the park), touted the economic benefits of a national park in the majestic Blue Ridge. Park advocates described the mountain land as “pristine and uninhabited.”
In truth, the area was far from uninhabited. A census taken in 1934 showed approximately 435 families needed to be relocated before the park was dedicated in 1936, but the NPS’s Comer said no one is sure of the total number of people who were displaced in the decade between when the park was authorized and when it was dedicated.
County records show landowners were paid for their property, but those who were tenant farmers or migrant workers or simply didn’t have a legal deed — as those who had lived for generations in a remote area might certainly not have — were not.
Some sold willingly, while others resisted. A few older residents were given life estate rights to live out their days in their homes. Everyone else was ushered out, sometimes with eviction notices and a visit from local law enforcement.
The people scattered. Some traveled a few miles into the foothills to settle, while others relocated in farther-away places such as Baltimore, where jobs were more plentiful.
The government established resettlement communities in several counties, charging a monthly rent in a sort of rent-to-own arrangement.
Larry Lamb, who helped get the Albemarle monument constructed and also serves on the Greene monument committee, has family ties to residents displaced in four counties.
The Blue Ridge Heritage Project is important, he said, because most people who visit the park today have no understanding of how it was created or the lives it adversely affected.
“It lets people know that part of the story,” he said.
Lamb, 65, who retired as a service engineer in the University of Virginia radiology department and lives in Albemarle, said he has been visiting the park since he was a child. “I’ve always loved it,” he said.
The question lingers in the mountain air: was displacing mountain families wholesale worth what was achieved?
Today’s park, nearly 200,000 acres, preserves and protects vistas that are world-renown. In addition to the economic benefits of tourism, the Shenandoah National Park is also an expansive environmental preserve.
But some families paid a tremendous price for such a high-minded creation.
Lamb has often hiked into the backcountry, visiting family gravesites and the remains of a log building at the farm where his great-great-grandparents lived.
“When you get up there, it’s unbelievably beautiful,” he said. “Those mountain people knew how to pick sites to build their homes. They were very smart.”