NATURAL BRIDGE — Victoria Ferguson pulled cattails off a hut and stacked them on the ground. The hut, which she had just finished building in September, had to come down.
The hut’s framing, made from branches no more than 2 inches thick, had buckled under the weight of a foot of snow in December. Ferguson wanted to save as many of the natural resources as she could, especially the dried cattails.
“Cutting cattails is no joke,” she said.
Ferguson created the Monacan village at Natural Bridge State Park with her husband in 1999. Monday marks the 20th season for the exhibit, where employees dress in native garb and teach families, schoolchildren and visitors the way of the Monacan Indian Nation, a federally recognized tribe based today in Amherst County whose ancestors lived in Virginia up to 10,000 years ago.
The village is a short walk from Natural Bridge, which the Monacans call “Mohomony” or the “Bridge of God.” According to Monacan legend, tribal ancestors once ran through the forest away from an attacking enemy tribe. They came to a cliff and as their attackers were approaching, they closed their eyes and prayed.
When they opened their eyes, the tribe saw a stone bridge had appeared across the chasm. The women and children ran across as warriors fought off the enemy. The story of Natural Bridge has been passed down for generations, and the bridge has since held a sacred place in Monacan culture.
It was for that reason Ferguson, who is a tribal member, volunteered to help the park when they reached out to the tribe to create the Monacan exhibit.
“Otherwise you’re turning your history over to somebody else,” she said. “We need the opportunity to say how our history is shared and the stories we like to tell.”
The Fergusons and members of the tribe helped to build every structure in the village before its opening season.
In 2014, the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund purchased the park in Rockbridge County and hired Dean Ferguson to direct the interpretative program and Victoria Ferguson took over managing the exhibit. The village had fallen into disrepair and the Fergusons rebuilt most of the buildings.
They re-wattled the fence with saplings, repaired the longhouse, built a new wigwam and built a new men’s work shelter. And every year since, they’ve made repairs to the buildings to ensure they are in top shape for opening day. In 2017, they started rebuilding the women’s work shelter, where interpreters demonstrate activities like sewing, basket weaving and pottery.
They worked on the structure as time allowed between visitors, and as they found enough natural resources to build it. Victoria Ferguson said it took two years to find enough cattails to cover the circular structure. They finished covering the women’s shelter in September and expected it to last for at least five years.
But the winter brought strong winds that rocked the fragile Monacan village. In early December, the region saw 12 to 18 inches of snow in a single day. The weight of the snow bore down on the women’s shelter — made of 1- to 2-inch saplings, thin cattails and mats.
The frames buckled and the roof sunk in.
“It was so heartbreaking to have that thing come down on us,” Dean Ferguson said.
Now, employees have set out to finish as much work as they can before Monday. This week they tore down the destroyed women’s shelter and repurposed most of the materials to recover the men’s work shelter. The saplings, which are called horizontals and uprights, were covered with bark which had begun to disintegrate.
On Monday, they ripped off the bark and thatched the men’s work shelter with cattails from the women’s shelter that collapsed in December.
“I am repurposing everything,” Victoria Ferguson said. “Our ability to go out and cut 5,000 cattails at one time is not even an option for us.”
The crew won’t have time to make a new women’s shelter, and instead expanded and repaired a different structure which they will use for their demonstrations. Other repairs, like the barrier fence, have become a higher priority. During the off season, visitors often stand on or try to pull apart the saplings of the fence to see inside.
Almost every year the front section of the fence is destroyed and needs to be redone.
And it’s not easy work. Ferguson and her employees try to keep the structures as historically accurate as possible. They study the archaeological records of the Monacans and try to replicate that with the materials and building methods, but are restricted by time, labor and resources available.
“Four hundred years ago, if they wanted to build wigwam, there would be 15 or 20 of them,” Victoria Ferguson said. “They had access to the natural resources, they knew what they were doing, they lived there. They would have it up in a week. We do the best we can with what we have to work with.”
She said the nearby forestlands have been severely reduced and the white oak saplings they use for the framing are nearly impossible to find. To harvest cattails, they reach out to pond owners who will let them walk through the thick mud and cut them down.
The archaeological record is specific, so they have to find just the right thickness of saplings so they will bend at the proper angles to recreate the circular huts.
“We take a lot of pride in saying that these are based in archaeological data, so when people come down they have a good feel of what it truly was,” Victoria Ferguson said. “For us, that’s a high level of authenticity that we’re pretty picky about. I have to be picky about it, I’m a tribal member and I want to stay true to the documentation and history of my ancestors.”
Once the season starts, the interpreters will see about 100,000 visitors pass through the village from April to November. Those visitors’ experiences are the priority above construction or repairs.
Jennifer Shanks, who has worked with the exhibit for about 13 years, said the buildings are such an important part of that experience. Just being in the exhibit can be an eye opening experience, and the construction itself is a lesson for visitors.
“I hope it gives them a better insight into how hard the natives had to work to survive,” she said. “It wasn’t as easy as just going to the store and getting what you need.”