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Blue Ridge Heritage Project Memorial Chimney dedicated this Saturday

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The Warren County monument awaits the plaque bearing the names of 68 county families known to have been displaced; below, a proof of the plaque scheduled to arrive this week in time to be inserted for Saturday’s dedication. Photos/Roger Bianchini – Courtesy Graphics/Blue Ridge Heritage Project


Just two months after breaking ground with descendants of mountain families relocated to facilitate creation of Shenandoah National Park, Warren County’s Memorial to those families whose lives were sometimes unceremoniously upended for a greater national good will be unveiled.

That unveiling is slated for this Saturday afternoon, October 13 at 1 p.m.  Displays from Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Heritage Project on the memorial and its impetus will be on view from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.  The community is invited to come and share in the dedication of the chimney memorial and the history it commemorates.

The Blue Ridge Heritage Project site, donated by the Town of Front Royal, is on the walking path along Happy Creek just north of Criser Road, adjacent to Burrell Brooks Park and the current Criser Road Bridge replacement project.  Due to the bridge replacement project the site is currently accessible only from the west on Criser Road coming off South Royal Avenue past Ressie Jeffries Elementary School and Samuels Library.

Hosting the event will be local project committee Chairman Darryl Merchant.  Phase One to be dedicated Saturday is a 2-foot x 5-foot x 9-foot stone chimney memorial with a bronze plaque holding the family names of county citizens who lost their land to allow establishment of a pristine national park that is now a major regional tourism and economic asset.

As they were during the August 11 groundbreaking, descendants of some of those relocated families will be in attendance for the dedication ceremony.

Descendants break ground on August 11

Warren County’s Blue Ridge Project Memorial will commemorate the sacrifice made by what is now counted at 68 local families who lost their homes and land as part of the federal effort to create an eastern equivalent of western national parks for the enjoyment of all Americans for generations to come.

Merchant said that number has risen from an originally-cited 32 families.  But he has observed that initial number was based on park service archives that only included those families who had legal title to their land taken for the park.  As Royal Examiner has noted in previous coverage, those 32 families were the lucky ones – they were compensated with money or property to rebuild their lives off the mountain with those already settled in the valley. Read here:Blue Ridge Heritage Project breaks ground on Warren County memorial site

Faces of the county’s displaced

Two more phases are to come before the Blue Ridge Heritage Project Memorial site will be completed.  Phase two will add a 16 x 22-foot concrete patio and phase three, two benches, a flagpole and informational kiosk.

Total cost of all three phases is estimated at $25,000, with phase one priced at $12,000, including $9,000 for the stone chimney and $3,000 for the bronze plaque bearing the displaced family names.  Merchant says $12,936 has thus far been raised covering phase one costs.  Pledges for an additional $4,500 toward phase two’s $9,000 cost have also been made, if not yet received.  Donations can be mailed to the: Warren Blue Ridge Heritage Project, PO Box 1508, Front Royal, Va. 22630.

A plan to primarily use stones from the remains of the Robert McKay House, formerly believed the oldest surviving home in the county circa 1731, which was destroyed by fire several years ago, had to be partially altered, Merchant told us.

“We used some of the McKay stones in our chimney foundation.  Most of the rocks left at McKay were rubble, and really not suitable for our use.  Some of the stones in our chimney were from the mountain locally.  We also purchased some from Frederick block and stone,” Merchant says of the finished project.

Some of the stone from the Robert McKay House, circa 1731, were used in the Warren County monument foundation

History remembered

Last year Warren County joined the seven other Virginia counties that Shenandoah National Park runs through in a joint effort to shed light on an often-ignored part of those counties’ collective histories.  And while federal officials heading the national park service may previously have been lax in acknowledging those histories, Merchant noted they are now active supporters of the Blue Ridge Heritage Project effort to bring that story to the forefront in the communities that were impacted.

The Blue Ridge Heritage Project is a non-profit, 501-c 3 founded by Greene County resident .  Of the eight-county project, the organizational literature states: “To establish a memorial site in each of the eight counties where land was acquired for Shenandoah National Park (Albermarle, Augusta, Greene, Madison, Page, Rappahannock, Rockingham and Warren) to acknowledge the sacrifice of involved families in those communities.

“In order to recognize their contributions and their losses, each site will contain a memorial to the people from that county whose land was acquired for the park.  Through educational displays, cultural displays and demonstrations the project hopes to accurately depict the people’s lives and to help preserve their lifestyle, crafts, music, and traditions,” project literature states.

The Merchant family was among those displaced

“The ultimate goal, as of the broad study of history itself, is to give visitors to this particular series of memorials a greater appreciation for the impact the park had on individual lives in general and for that particular community. – Altogether, the eight sites will create an understanding of life in the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

What better way to spend a late-morning, early Saturday afternoon than by becoming part of a celebration of a long-ignored but important part of the history of our community?

Online, one can access additional information, including on fundraising and project assistance, at either the Blue Ridge Heritage Project Facebook page and website www.blueridgeheritageproject.com – click the “Warren County” tab – and a new local Facebook page, the “Front Royal Warren County Blue Ridge Heritage Project”.  County project Chairman Merchant may also be reached at (540) 683-6878.

A brief history of SNP

For those not prone to click to “linked” stories, to further pique your interest we will recount here the 14-year process resulting in a “forced resettlement” later described as “a classic case of bureaucratic ineptitude”:

Stone chimneys were often the last sign of the homes that once stood throughout the mountainous area taken for Shenandoah National Park

Literature handed out at the groundbreaking documented the creation of Shenandoah National Park (SNP) as a process stretching from 1924 to 1938.  That process involved federal and state officials, as well as a private-sector businessman and his associates.  Most prominent on that list were President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the back end and Virginia Governor Harry F. Byrd and summer resort “Skyland Lodge” owner George Freeman Pollock at the front:

  • “The idea for the SNP began in 1924. The federal government decided that the east coast region of the S. needed a park similar to Yosemite or Yellowstone out west.
  • The owner of Skyland Lodge, a summer resort (located at what would become Skyline Drive mile post 42) for wealthy clients and politically-connected residents of Washington, D.C., thought a national park would bring visitors to the Shenandoah Valley.
  • That resort owner, George Freeman Pollock, recruited guests and business friends to nominate this area of the Blue Ridge Mountains as a potential site of the eastern national park.
  • Government specifications required the proposed park to be visually stunning and have amenities like fishing and hiking, access to roads; and essentially be a wilderness – in other words “FREE OF HUMANS”.
  • However, the selected site was not free of humans; it was home to over 500 “mountain families”.
  • Public and pseudo-science stereotyping of those somewhat isolated “mountain families” as backwards and in need of a push into “normal” society was used as justification for their removal from their mountain homesteads. Later sociological studies concluded that those “mountain folk were no better or worse off than the valley folk” they were said to need social integration with.
  • In 1926, during the presidency of Republican Calvin Coolidge, the S. government approved the proposed eastern national park site.
  • In April 1926, Virginia Governor Harry F. Byrd established the Virginia Conservation & Development Commission, headed by William E. Carson of Front Royal. The commission was created to acquire the land for the park, which would then be transferred to the federal government.
  • Carson convinced the State Legislature to enact a blanket condemnation law, which was promptly challenged and not resolved until 1935 when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
  • Originally, many land owners were told they would be allowed to remain in the park. However, that changed on February 1, 1934, when a new commission director decreed that “all inhabitants must leave.”
  • Federal officials initially tried to dump the relocation problem on state officials, who resisted taking on the final step in a politically-volatile matter they had helped create. Eventually responsibility was transferred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Resettlement Administration.
  • By 1938, some 175 of the estimated 500 impacted families had been resettled to over 6,000 acres of land purchased by the S. government for use as resettlement communities.
  • As the relocation continued, as quoted by Nancy Martin-Purdue – “And people came in and moved them out. Burned their house down in some cases. Took their things and carried them off to some other place.”

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