Anger in Appalachia
Researchers Fighting to Open Records on 1930s Shenandoah Park Resettlement
By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 6, 2000; Page B01
MADISON, Va.The government forced Harold Woodward Jr.'s grandparents from their mountain cabin in Virginia's Blue Ridge.
|Like hundreds of other families rooted in
the land that was to become Shenandoah National Park, the
Woodwards were ordered off their 198-year-old farm in the
1930s to make way for the new tourist destination.
Most visitors to the sprawling 196,800-acre park are unaware of the pain and resentment caused by its creation. Families that could prove ownership of their property were paid an average of $6 an acre and were unceremoniously moved off the mountain, their houses and chestnut cabins burned or torn down to make sure no one returned. The few who declined to leave were dragged from their homes, according to newspaper accounts.
For 60 years, memories of the controversial resettlement have haunted the foothills of the Blue Ridge. The lingering enmity might have died with the last of the aging mountain folk but for a simmering dispute over access to the park's historical archives. That feud has reawakened the grief of a community that has long distrusted government and sees this latest battle as another trampling of its rights.
"It's awkward and it's sad," said anthropologist Nancy Martin-Perdue, a scholar in residence at the University of Virginia who, with her husband, Charles, has spent two decades researching the Shenandoah resettlement. "There is so much anger and bitterness. Anything that happens seems part of this ongoing struggle--first over land, and now over history."
|At issue is a collection of more
than 360,000 items--property records, personal histories
and artifacts--from the park's earliest days. For decades
the collection languished in boxes stored around the park
and at its Luray, Va., headquarters. Most of the material
was available to the public, but the files were
disorganized, impeding research.
Worried that the material was disappearing and being damaged by careless, unsupervised users, park officials cut off public access in 1997 and began cataloging each item in a formal archive kept in Luray. Today, 38 months later, the archive remains closed. Lacking $50,000 a year for a full-time archivist, the park has not set an opening date for the archive, and officials concede it could be years away.
That doesn't sit well with some scholars and people whose history is tied to the mountains. They argue that the public is being denied access to an important historical collection and are demanding that it be reopened immediately.
Woodward, for one, thinks park officials have a less-pure motive in keeping the lid on the archive: He thinks they are trying to limit what is written about the park's origin and who writes it. Park officials disagree, arguing that the restored archive eventually will give the public better access to the park's history.
Park Superintendent Douglas Morris says he's sympathetic to the "anger and emotions of the past," but said the park would be vulnerable to even more criticism if it allowed access to the materials without proper safeguards. Over the years, about 10 percent of the collection has been lost or stolen, he said.
"This is a very legitimate concern on [the public's] part," said Morris. "But the greater concern is that that archives be preserved and be used in an appropriate way."
Since the files were declared off-limits, Morris said, staff has made copies of documents for those with simple requests.
Woodward, the owner of a sporting goods store and a former Madison County supervisor, stumbled into the archives roadblock a year ago while researching a book on his and three other mountain families. The author of four Civil War histories believes that park officials want to suppress new narratives on how people were forced off the land to create the park.
Woodward, 40, visited 11 libraries and courthouse record depositories--including the National Archives in College Park--and three historical societies before tackling the Shenandoah archives, where he planned to spend several days browsing through documents and photos of the mountain families.
But, like others before him, he was denied access to the collection until it's in order. When that would be, park cultural resource specialist Reed Engle couldn't say.
Engle has since come under criticism from scholars who say he is using the archives for his articles and books while denying others access. Morris, Engle's boss, said writing books is part of Engle's job and also raises money for the park.
After being denied access, Woodward contacted a lawyer, who suggested he file a Freedom of Information request with the park. The reply was swift: He was told he could have what he wanted from the archive, but it would cost him $92,000.
Months of wrangling followed. Eventually, the park agreed to provide 88 pages, a fraction of what Woodward sought. He's now redrafting his request.
Standing behind the counter of his cluttered shop here, where hunting knives and fishing lures are displayed alongside the violins and handmade dulcimers that are his passion, Woodward walks a visitor through the thick file he keeps on his dealings with park officials. Every phone conversation. Every letter. Every thought, noted in his neat script.
"The park wants to wipe out the memory of these people," he said in his heavy Virginia twang. "They're afraid I'll shed a bad light on the way people were treated."
Martin-Perdue agrees: "I think the Park Service does have things to fear from tales . . . about how people were treated. A first-person story is always more powerful."
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