By Ryan McDonald
Virtually every Saturday, my girlfriend and I make the hour-and-change drive to Shenandoah National Park from DC’s suburbs, where we rent a townhouse apartment with three other cash-strapped graduate students. She and I each went half in on the $80 it costs to buy an annual national park pass and have used it so many times that our trips now feel free. A routine visit to our favorite refuge looks like this: we do a six to eight-mile hike; we drive down Skyline Drive; we eat dinner at the lodge in Big Meadows (My “treat” is a craft beer. Hers is blackberry ice cream pie); we catch the sunset. No matter what, we delay going back to the suburbs for as long as possible, but when we do, we return feeling re-nourished. However, over the past year, a certain inescapable voice with a New York City accent has been finding its way into my head.
I’ve been catching myself booking it down trails, eyes stuck to the ground, my mind consumed by imagined nationally televised debates between me and our president. Most recently, the topic of debate comes from the Trump Administration’s proposal to sharply increase entrance fees during peak months (essentially any non-winter month) at 17 heavily visited national parks including Shenandoah; to be fair, a period for public comment has been made available by the National Park Service and the proposal is indeed a conservation effort meant to help pay for $12 billion-worth of deferred maintenance in national parks. But entrance fees would rocket from the current rate of $25 to $70. On a recent trip as I hustled down the trail, thoughts rioted against the walls of my head: only the fortunate and well-off could afford that.
The president and I each stand at podiums on a blue-for-donkey and red-for-elephant adorned TV studio stage. I slam my fist on my podium and speak straight through the camera to the people, accusing Trump and his administration of constant affronts on the environment1 and people’s rightful ownership of protected public lands.2
He scoffs, “What a bleeding heart liberal!”
In reality, I know that I’d do an awful job in any debate. I freeze in moments of confrontation. I’m very nervous and inarticulate when it comes to public speaking. And I’m easily excitable; I tend to care too much about things. Caught up in my own futile echo chamber on the trail, I practiced impassioned speeches in defense of the true meaning and purpose of public lands anyways, faintly whispering so that my girlfriend couldn’t hear.
I had to stop and catch my breath.
At the Dedication of Shenandoah National Park on July 3rd, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt battened himself up tall before a crowd of 5,000 Americans, gripping the sides of a wooden podium on the stage of a temporary amphitheater. The structure was constructed just for the occasion in an expansive field that’s 3,500 feet above sea level up in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and known as Big Meadows. 3 It was mid-afternoon on an overcast day. Amidst the Great Depression’s infamous drought and a record-breaking heat wave, the crowd of 5,000 would have been sweating under their dresses and tilt hats and suits and fedoras, relishing every cool breeze of Appalachian mountain air 4 they felt.
Thirsty, sunbaked meadow grass itched at their ankles. Some people stood, the rest sat on logs of dead chestnut trees 5 arranged in a semicircle facing the stage, which was decorated with patriotic red, white, and blue colors and punctuated by a large bald eagle on the front. The core of FDR’s speech would focus on a relatively new concept to Americans: land could be something other than private property.
In attendance, there was one individual who most likely did not share the joyful feeling of the crowd. His name was George F. Pollock, a man often seen dressed something like Teddy Roosevelt on a hunting trip, a genteel outdoorsman, but short and bald. Of Shenandoah’s original 176,429 acres, he had once owned almost 6,000 encompassing the highest elevations in the park, the well-regarded Skyland Resort, which he had built up from the handful of tent sites he constructed in 1894, and the very grounds all these people had gathered on to watch their president speak. He was one of the original promoters of Shenandoah National Park’s creation as he was eager, if not desperate, to pay off outstanding debts he had. 6 With the invention of the automobile, his exclusively upper class clientele—mostly doctors, businessmen, and politicians from Washington D.C.—were taking shorter and shorter vacations at Skyland, having gone from spending entire summers there to only going for a week or couple of days at a time. Pollock had originally hoped that a national park would increase much-needed revenues.
Whatever about the land that lent happiness and optimism to FDR and the 5,000 people in attendance appeared in part as a missed opportunity and a source of bitterness to Pollock. He was successful in helping create the park and took pride in that, but most everything else didn’t go as planned: the government eventually decided not to let him maintain ownership of Skyland and his 6,000 acres, forcing him to sell his property for a sum of $30,000. At the time of the Dedication of Shenandoah National Park, Pollock still owed $67,107.22 (~$1.2 million in today’s dollar) to banks, investors, friends, and family including his wife who he married largely for her wealth (they separated by 1920 and she eventually left him nothing in her will).
His drive and desperation led him to do just about anything to get the park established, often flat-out lying and twisting the truth. Twelve years before the dedication, the very first lie he made was in his formal proposal to the government that the area surrounding his mountain resort become a national park; he stated that there were no people living in the area when in fact there were more than 450 families of people known as “hollow folk.” After his proposal was accepted, park officials quickly discovered the hollow folk there and came to terms with the fact that they’d have to do something about them. They told the hollow folk that if they sold their deeds, roads would be built nearby and they’d get employment at the park as rangers, maintainers, and such. The hollow folk were still frightened, so Pollock wrote to them not to worry: “You will probably not have to leave the farm which you sold the government.”
In 1930, Pollock arranged a stay at Skyland and tour of the proposed area for the governor of Virginia, the assistant director of the National Park Service, several members of the Conservation and Development Commission, and a member of the Southern Appalachian National Park Commission. On horseback, the party set out for a three-day inspection of this land, which was all privately owned, trying to deem its monetary value. Facing the issue of gaining public approval, the politicians and park officials were also trying to decide whether or not to practice eminent domain to buy up land as well as whether or not the hollow folk should be allowed to stay. Notoriously, Pollock insisted that the party take a “side trip” to Corbin Hollow because, in his own words, “I knew that without actually visiting these people in their homes one could never conceive of their poverty and wretchedness, and for most of the five miles, I rode next to the Governor telling him tales of the Hollow folk.”
The Corbins worked wage-based jobs as chefs, maids, janitors, trail builders, and other odd jobs at Skyland and also sold “authentic” Appalachian souvenirs, mainly baskets and moonshine, to guests. They lived in a steep hollow that wasn’t suitable for growing crops, whether crops to sell at the market or to use for their own subsistence, which meant that they depended on cash to buy food at stores ten miles away and order any material items like blankets and clothes through mail-catalogs like Sears Roebuck. When times were good, they did fine. They even owned a Model T. But as the Great Depression hit Skyland and Pollock hard, Pollock knew the Corbins were hit harder, no longer offered employment by him and left with no other means to support their lifestyle.
Pollock guided the party to a small log cabin belonging to Fennel Corbin, the elderly father and grandfather of 29 of the 40 Corbins in the hollow. Pollock yodeled to announce their arrival. As old age had weakened his body and eyesight, Fennel slowly emerged from his home, his knees and hands shaking, and made out the several well-dressed men on horses looking at him. He recognized Pollock, who offered Fennel a few bucks if he told the Governor the tale of when he killed a man from another hollow. He and his family were starving so Fennel readily agreed to the deal.
It’s true that Fennel Corbin murdered a man named Clark Dobson with a shotgun. It’s true that the party would have noticed that the squalor the Corbins were living in, that the Corbins did not have indoor plumbing, that some of the children were illegitimate, that a few Corbins had lazy eyes, and that several of the Corbins were squatters. The issue was that the Corbins were not at all representative of the other hollow communities where people largely made a living on small and large family farms, orchards, and distilleries, and had schools and churches,7 which is precisely why Pollock continued pushing politicians, park officials, and reporters towards Corbin Hollow.
In 1933, after staying at Skyland and touring five hollows, sociologist Mandel Sherman and journalist Thomas Henry published a book titled Hollow Folk that focused on the poorest one they found, Corbin Hollow. The study was widely acclaimed in national newspapers for its accuracy despite grossly sensationalizing and characterizing hollow folk: “Here, hidden in deep mountain pockets, dwell families of unlettered folk, of almost pure Anglo-Saxon stock, sheltered in tiny, mud-plastered log cabins and supported by a primitive agriculture.” In 1934, the government and park officials decided that all hollow folk within the park, whether they had sold their land or not, would have to leave.
The production of shoddy history continued so to gain more public support. To help justify the Resettlement Project, in 1935, the government hired a twenty-year-old photographer named Arthur Rothstein to document the conditions of hollow folk who were being relocated. The young man had already ever left New York City in his life. It was his very first assignment. Rothstein solicited the advice of the authors of Hollow Folk before going, targeted Corbin Hollow, and his photographs were published in the Washington Post alongside an article titled, “Blue Ridge Hillbillies get a Transfer—from 19th to 20th Century.” Rothstein stayed at Skyland.
In total, the government spent $2.3 million (~$43 million in today’s dollar) to purchase Shenandoah National Park’s original 176,429 acres. One-third of that money came from surplus tax dollars, the rest of it from private donations.
Some of the removed families chose where they relocated to. Many were relocated by the Resettlement Project to plots of land in the nearby valley, which included a house with indoor plumbing, a small barn, and at least enough land for a garden. Others had to be forcibly removed, their homes burnt down so they wouldn’t come back. The worst fate belonged to several children in the Corbin family who were institutionalized and sterilized at the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in Lynchburg. Later in life, in a memoir titled, “Skyland: The Heart of the Shenandoah National Park,” Pollock expressed that he still felt that he had done a good thing: “Poor old Fennel! I was sorry for him but I felt pretty certain that a better day was coming for the members of his family when the Shenandoah National Park was established and they would be moved to a civilized community.”
In the oral histories that have been collected, many of the hollow folk stated that they felt misled, misrepresented, and wished they could return to the mountains, their homeland. They almost never fail to mention their hatred of Pollock.
This is what Shenandoah National Park offers today: untapped nature open to all for recreational use.
Throughout this past October at Shenandoah, my girlfriend and I along with roughly 250,000 other people have been enjoying the crisp autumn air and a brilliant display of red, orange, and yellow fall foliage. About eighty percent of those visitors are day-trippers like us, most coming from the suburban sprawl of DC 75-miles away, many of whom can’t afford to stay at the park overnight or choose not to. Sure, the huge amount of visitors at Shenandoah during October means that I’ve seen more glamorous photo shoots at roadside overlooks than I care too. And yes, I think I spent over thirty minutes hiking in a back-to-back, single-file line down a half-mile path to a waterfall (the trail opened up afterward). But, despite the hordes of tourists, everybody there appears to be feeling what would normally seem like a frighteningly high level of happiness, save cranky and tired children. Especially during this time of year, a weird thing happens at the park: people like each other.
Most visitors look bright-eyed and giddy; strangers greet each other like over-friendly neighbors, stopping where their paths converge to ask each other where they’re from, what they’re doing that day, or just to acknowledge the incredibly beautiful day up in the mountains. It’s gross, but admittedly pleasant.
There’s an awful irony in that people today of similar socioeconomic means to the hollow folk most likely wouldn’t be able to afford the proposed $70 entrance fee. In theory, all Americans equally own public lands. We don’t have to compete for the land because it’s off the market. That means little if the land can’t be accessed by everyone.
I don’t know the right answer for how our country should fund the maintenance of public lands. We don’t seem to have John D. Rockefeller’s gifting fortunes as he did to help create Great Smoky Mountains National Park or Kennedy’s handing over huge lots of personal property as they did for Acadia National Park. We don’t seem to have Pollock’s—as flawed and selfish as he was—or government bodies promoting public fundraisers. All I know is that public lands mean something.
Some children and grandchildren of removed hollow folk, as members of a now-defunct group called the Children of Shenandoah, stated that, in the end, they were glad Shenandoah National Park was created. Other powerful threats could have come in and taken over. One cited private companies in West Virginia tarnishing the natural beauty with ski resorts and condos. They didn’t approve of how Shenandoah National Park was created—many of them mentioned their hatred of Pollock too—but the park may have protected what their families loved so much about their home up in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Speaking into a microphone that broadcasted his voice on the radio and over speakers, across Big Meadows, down the mountainside of the Blue Ridge, and well beyond, FDR spoke of preservation: “Through all of them we are preserving the beauty and the wealth of the hills and the mountains and the plains and the trees and the streams.”8 To Pollock, listening from somewhere amongst the crowd, these natural features were lost capital.
FDR ended his speech on a goal and a gift: “We seek to pass on to our children a richer land — a stronger nation. I, therefore, dedicate Shenandoah National Park to this and succeeding generations of Americans for the recreation and for the re-creation which we shall find here.” The crowd of 5,000 applauded; the Marine Band put their lips to their brass instruments and blew; a catered picnic commenced, offering olives, pickles, celery, asparagus, tomatoes, potato salad, Virginia Fried Chicken, Smithfield Ham, Dolly Madison ice cream, and iced tea.
Not wanting to give too little or too much credit, or forget to give credit to someone who deserved it, FDR deliberately chose not to reference any names of private individuals involved in the creation of the park. Perhaps Pollock felt slighted.
It doesn’t matter. The people filled their plates.9
The view from my girlfriend and I’s bedroom is the canopy of a dogwood tree. It has a pleasant yellowish-white bloom during springtime. When its leaves fall in autumn, we see the opposite row of townhouses, the pavement between each row, and everyone’s parked cars. I work most days in a closet-sized basement room in our apartment. Through a little window, I can see the insides of a storm gutter. It’s a slight improvement from the windowless cement English Department building I work in on other days. So we go in search of better sights.
Late in the month last November, after President Trump was elected, we witnessed a Hudson River School painting at a clearing along a trail called Dickey Ridge. There, my elevated gaze captured just a swallow of Appalachia, the distant silhouettes of West Virginia mountains along the horizon, the Blue Ridge where we sat, and the valley farmland below. The chiaroscuro of the painting told a story.
Not thirty minutes before we arrived at the view, a wool of grey clouds was pulled over the ridge and brought cold air with it, harbingers of winter that dropped the temperature roughly fifteen degrees. The cloud butted up against a distant and fleeting blue sky of bygone warmth. The border dividing grey and blue shined, draping graceful prisms of crepuscular rays. In a nook within the red and orange hillsides that fingered into the valley towards us, just one singular field of green and yellow remained fully touched by sun.
We sat there a while. My eyes felt enveloped in a conversation with the very last irradiated farm. What I saw seemed less representative of our world’s grandeur or vastness, and more of what little can make a world in of itself. I could run my hand across this land. That gave me comfort. It felt that if this moment was going to be the valley’s and our last breath of true warmth and light before enduring a long and uncertain winter, then it wouldn’t be a gasp. It was a deep inhale and steady exhale.
1 The Trump Administration—which, as I’m sure you know, includes many climate change deniers—has removed Obama-era carbon emission regulations. See endnote #4.
2 For example, the Trump Administration wants to free up that protected land in Utah so that local farmers and ranchers, but also large oil companies can harvest the resources. It’s both a troublingly unprecedented affront on public lands and a very precedented affront on the five Native American tribes that co-manage the land with the federal government.
3 Around 3,000 years ago, Natives of the Woodland Tradition began lightly burning the area now known as Big Meadows to clear and stymie undergrowth, especially briars and shrubs like mountain laurel, which helped make way for blueberry bushes and grass. Annually from May to October, natives climbed up to Big Meadows from their settlements in the more agricultural valley below. They used it as a hunting camp. They hunted the deer that came to the vulnerable open area to eat the grass. They harvested the berries. To this day, the park staff sets controlled burns to prevent dangerous wildfires that could happen if the grasses get too tall, turning Big Meadows black.
4 Air that has since been filled with sulfur dioxides from coal-fired power plant and other industry in Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, greater amounts of nitrogen oxides from greater amounts of car owners driving near and in the park, and manmade ozone, which is not the good kind. The quality of the air doesn’t have the same rejuvenating kick as what FDR and those 5,000 Americans breathed; on bad days, it is more harmful than good. It’s damaging the lives of all plants, animals, and habitats in Shenandoah. Especially during summer days smog has significantly reduced how far we can see from the park’s mountaintops to about 20 miles. Those at the park’s dedication who took the time that day in 1936 to climb to the peak of any of the several nearby 4,000 footers like Hawksbill or Stony Man would have been able to make out major buildings in Washington D.C., some eighty miles away. If they focused while gazing over the eastern horizon, they could see the obelisk that is the Washington Monument.
5 The “boys” of the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps had collected and hauled the dead chestnut trees from the forest floor, where nearly all chestnut trees in America had come to lay after being killed by a blight fungus disease introduced to the US likely from imported Japanese chestnut trees. They used to account for 30 percent of Shenandoah’s forests.
6 Pollock inherited his property from his father, who bought it with other partners in the late 19th century after speculators found copper ore in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Though there was copper down under his land, it was too deep to be mined. After a young George F. Pollock suggested using the land to develop a vacation resort, he and his father bought out the other partners and established a company called the Blue Ridge Stonyman Parks Preserve Lands. With the buyouts accumulating more debt after the land never produced any revenue from the onset, George F. Pollock began his career in tourism deep in the red. Often taking out loans to pay off other debts, Pollock actually never truly owned Skyland Resort and his 6,000 acres.
7 In all, the hollow folk of Shenandoah National Park produced apples, pears, cherries, corn, grain, chestnuts; the wood of chestnut trees, oak trees, maple trees, poplar trees and others used for construction and burning for warmth as well as burning in iron furnaces, and tannin extract from tree bark; deerskin for leather, weaved baskets, whiskey, brandy, and assorted service at Skyland. Some families were wealthy enough to have once owned slaves.
8 Unlike much of Appalachia such as in the Great Smoky National Park, which was reaped by northern logging companies, especially in the the south where there was more valuable fir and spruce lumber, the forests of Shenandoah National Park were spared for the most part as much of the land was too steep to provide railroads access. Though enough damage was done to cause frequent forest fires, from which Pollock spent a lot of time and money fighting to protect Skyland. Compared to the 1 percent of old growth forests in the east that was left untouched by white settlers, the estimated 30 percent of old growth remaining in Shenandoah made the land especially appealing to conservationists.
9 Picture the park like a book with Skyline Drive being the binding as it runs along and hugs the crests of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the park’s boundary being pages as its contents linger down the mountainside no further than 8 or so miles on either side until they reach haphazardly ripped ends that define the park’s saw-tooth border. In those pages, there are 1,400 species of plants, which the park likes to brag is “more than all of Europe”; some 200 species of migratory and resident birds; eastern brook trout, smallmouth bass, perch, and other panfish; roughly twenty-four species of amphibians and twenty-seven species of reptiles; mice, squirrels, chipmunks, deer, bobcats, and the mascot of Shenandoah, black bears. There are 75 road-side overlooks and numerous parking lots that lead to horseback riding, trout fishing, bird watching, mountain biking, backcountry camping, and 500-plus miles of trails for hiking, including the 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail that runs through the park. Choose your adventure.
Engle, Reed. “Historical Overview.” nps.gov, https://www.nps.gov/shen/learn/historyculture/historicaloverview.htm
Horning, Audrey J. “When Past is Present : Archaeology of the Displaced in Shenandoah National Park.” nps.gov, https://www.nps.gov/shen/learn/historyculture/displaced.htm
Pollock, George Freeman. Skyland: The Heart of the Shenandoah National Park. Chesapeake Book Company, 1960.
“Skyland.” nps.gov, https://www.nps.gov/shen/learn/historyculture/skyland.htm
Whisnant, Anne Mitchell et. al. Shenandoah National Park: Official Handbook. The Donning Company Publishers, 2011.
Ryan McDonald grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Northern Virginia. He is an instructor and MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at George Mason University.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. "Schoolhouse at Corbin Hollow. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1935 Oct.