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New play memorializes former residents of Shenandoah National Park

House at Nethers.jpg
Library of Congress
A house near the Old Rag area of the park land, documented by a government photographer in 1935.

A play premiering in Harrisonburg this December tells the story of the people who once lived in what is now Shenandoah National Park. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[The Carter Family singing "Can't Feel at Home"]

I hear the voice of them that I have heard before, 

And I can't feel at home in this world anymore …

The song "Can't Feel at Home" lends its title to a new play that debuts at Court Square Theater on December 1st. Written by Dr. John Glick, it memorializes the more than 450 families who were forced to leave their homes, as they lived on the land that became Shenandoah National Park.

Randi B. Hagi
Marty Pavlik (right) runs lines during a rehearsal.

In 1928, the General Assembly passed the Public Park Condemnation Act. Over the next 10 years, the state seized the park land through eminent domain, and evicted homeowners and tenants alike. Some left voluntarily; others resisted.

In the play, Douglas Alan Diehl plays a mountain resident named Wren Lamm, and Marty Pavlik plays Sheriff Bob Hansborrow.

LAMM: [shouting] You know it ain't right!

HANSBORROW: It ain't right, Wren, but that ain't got nothing to do with it! It's coming, and we can't stop it. Does killing me make it right?

LAMM: I ain't walking away from here. This is our land! Our home!

HANSBORROW: Wren, it belongs to the state now.

Randi B. Hagi
Douglas Alan Diehl plays a mountain resident who resists relocation.

LAMM: By whose consent!? Not mine! Since when can they take away a man's home?!

Bobby Wolfe is one of the play's producers, and a good friend of the playwright.

BOBBY WOLFE: John Glick was a physician in the Elkton-Shenandoah area, and he treated many of the patients and their families that were displaced from the mountain to create Shenandoah National Park. They told him stories and he condensed all the stories into this wonderful play called "Can't Feel at Home." He originally wrote it in 1998.

His co-producer is Joe Appleton. All three men went to Harrisonburg High School together.

Randi B. Hagi
Joe Appleton is one of the play's co-producers.

JOE APPLETON: We have the good fortune, for people who knew Glick and Phillips, which were together for a long time in a comedy music act in the area – Steve Phillips is in the show. So we're thrilled to have him. And then we have a number of folks in this play who have not done theater before, but came and auditioned because their families were displaced, and they wanted to be involved.

The show has been so highly anticipated that its entire first run is sold out – but luckily for those listening, Wolfe and Appleton have arranged for a remount January 27th - 29th.

The Children of Shenandoah is an organization made up of descendants of the displaced. It was founded by Lisa Custalow and her late husband.

Lisa Custalow
Lisa Custalow is the co-founder of The Children of Shenandoah.

LISA CUSTALOW: My mother was born inside of what is now Shenandoah National Park – Rockingham County, on the Hightop Mountain. … My Dad was from Madison County. His family was not displaced, but my mother's family was – my grandmother and my grandfather and my Mom was displaced when she was an infant.

Dr. Glick came to one of their meetings nearly 25 years ago to tell them about the play, which he'd then just written. Custalow said she and the other descendants were a bit skeptical at first. Outsiders' portrayals of the mountain residents have not always been fair or positive.

In 1933, a D.C.-based researcher published a book called "Hollow Folk," which seemed to cherry pick the very poorest of the mountain residents to study. As Katrina Powell writes in the book, "The Anguish of Displacement," [quote] "the written images of poverty in Hollow Folk, together with Farm Security Administration photographs taken in the 1930s, had a lasting effect on the country's assumptions about the mountaineer."

CUSTALOW: So there was a vested interest in the people who were determined to have the park there to depict people as negatively as they could to kind of justify what was going on.

Randi B. Hagi
Director Stanley Swartz working with actors during a rehearsal.

But "Can't Feel at Home" proved to be different.

CUSTALOW: When I finally read the script, it is just – I am in awe of how … it's like he was right there. … I really think God is in control of this.

As Wolfe put it –

WOLFE: He wrote it for the community to be healed – both the people that were displaced, and the people that displaced them.

Tickets for January's shows are available at courtsquaretheater.org.

[The Carter Family singing "Can't Feel at Home"]

Oh I have a loving mother over in glory land

I don't expect to stop until I shake her hand

She's gone on before just waiting at heaven's door

And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.