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Shenandoah's Secret History Volume 53 Number 1, January/February 2000
by Audrey J. Horning

[image] American Gothic comes east in this portrait of Ephraim and Patsy Nicholson, who in fact owned a prosperous 97-acre farm. (Courtesy Shenandoah National Park) [LARGER IMAGE]

Beginning in the 1920s, the Commonwealth of Virginia had set about acquiring what would eventually total 196,000 acres in northwestern Virginia for the new Shenandoah National Park, which would feature ridge-top Skyline Drive and address the recreational needs of millions of Depression-weary Americans living within a day's drive. Although the lands earmarked for the new park were covered with homes and farms, there was little public outcry when inhabitants of the nearly 5,000 individual land tracts were expelled, their lands presented to the federal government. After all, the Blue Ridge dwellers were not only different from the mainstream of American society, but, according to one contemporary journalist, their existence in the dark hollows represented "about the limit of destitution at which human life could be sustained." Park promoters and government officials publicized the fact that "these people will be moved to more civilized regions of agriculture and industry." The creation of the national park propelled these backward mountaineers into a world they had previously eschewed.

When archaeologists found a toy ray gun in the rubble of Corbin Hollow, they knew these were not people "cut off from the current of American life." (Andrew Edwards/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation) [LARGER IMAGE][image]

Or had they? From the first day of the survey in Nicholson, Corbin, and Weakley hollows on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge, formerly home to three communities with eighteenth-century roots, it was obvious that some observations about the region were flawed. Automobiles, Coke bottles, Bakelite toys, cologne, hair tonic, and hot-sauce bottles, even a half-torn 1931 cellulose card calendar featuring the artwork of Maxfield Parrish, all shattered the accepted image of backward hillbillies eking out an existence that was "completely cut off from the current of American life."

Audrey J. Horning is a research fellow in the department of archaeological research at Colonial Williamsburg. She divides her time between Shenandoah, where she has directed the Survey of Rural Mountain Settlement project since 1995, and Jamestown (see "Journey to Jamestown," March/April 1998). The author wishes to thank the National Park Service and, in particular, David Orr and Reed Engle, for the financial and philosophical support of this project. The hard work of all Colonial Williamsburg, National Park Service, and volunteer team members is also gratefully acknowledged, while an especial debt of gratitude is extended to all those who shared their stories about "life on the mountain."

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America