StoryCorps in the Valley: Children of Shenandoah

Jul 13, 2021

Bill Henry and Lisa Custalow

As part of WMRA’s partnership with StoryCorps in the Shenandoah Valley and Central Virginia, we’re sharing a conversation between Lisa Custalow and Bill Henry about the formation of the Children of Shenandoah.

Lisa beings the conversation discussing her family being forced out of the national park.

Lisa:  One of my earliest my memories was thinking that everybody came to Charlottesville and everybody came from the mountains and the government came and made everybody leave the mountains and that's how everybody came to live in Charlottesville. That was one of my earliest memories.  But in my family growing up, it’s is not something that we really talked about. There was always with my mother, this sense of overwhelming sadness.  And I was always curious and I wanted to know more about my family's history there and what my family's experience was.  But each time, I would go to Mom and try to open that conversation, tears would come to her eyes. But what I did eventually find – a lot of the families filed court hearings. Some of them were physically removed and I wandered did my family do that?  Did they have to physically remove them out of the house. And Mom says no, and I finally asked her that.   I said, how did grandmother and grandfather respond when they got this notice they had to leave? And I said, did they fight? Did they put up any fight? And I guess I wanted to hear that they did. And again, this kind of sadness came over my mom and she says, no, we didn't fight. She said, when they told him to leave they left.

Bill:  It sounds like this is a very emotional thing for your family and I'm sure for many of the other people.  You still have ancestors that are buried in what is now Shenandoah National Park. You went there last year to visit. What was it like for you to do that?

Lisa:  Words can't describe it - seeing the gravestones there.  And it kind of made me feel good to think it's its own little entity, and it's something there that's in the mountain that's in a way still ours. 

Bill:  I know a lot of the families have had similar stories about the pain that they felt when they were removed from their homes and their land. And I remember the first time that I came across a chimney that was standing in the woods, it wasn't by a trail, it was off trail.  I really didn't know why that chimney had been there. Why there wasn't a house there with it. And since then I've learned a lot through research and talking to people and everything. And one of the ways that I learned quite a bit about the story of the people who were removed from the park was attending meetings of a group that you started or help to start talk about that a little bit.

Lisa:  The way the former mountain residents were portrayed as though the people were abusing the land up there, and the park had come in to rescue the land, kind of like the hillbilly stereotype – illiterate.  And I think at that time they characterized them in a very negative way, maybe to try to push the agenda for the park.

Bill:  To make the outside people feel better about saving these people and giving them the benefits of civilization.  But the reality of that was that there were plenty of people in the park that were educated and probably no less educated than the average people living somewhere else in the United States in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Lisa:  Yes. And I was at work one day and co-workers of mine were saying the same thing, and I finally stopped and I said, you know, you're talking about my mother. That was kind of the gist of starting the Children of Shenandoah.  But we wanted a more accurate presentation of the human history of the park, the way of life of people that live in the mountains and to stop the negative portrayal of everybody who used to live there.

Bill:  So I remember going to the Byrd Visitor Center and the orientation film made it sound like the people that were living in the mountains there thought the park’s a great idea. So we'll just give you our land. And so I can see where that would really upset people who knew the other side of the story and had experienced it through their family's history.

Lisa:  We really do appreciate all the progress that park has made, and today I feel we have a really good working relationship with the park.

Bill:  The former tourism director was talking to me one day and he told me that he had been speaking with a woman who told him when she was a child that her family had been removed. And she remembered that.  He was like, I wonder if there's something we can do to honor these people?  And one of the thoughts that came up was a monument. And so we ended up creating the Blue Ridge Heritage Project. Today, we have seven of those monuments completed.

Lisa:  And it’s significant too that the monuments are also in the shape of the chimney.

Bill:  Right, the chimney was to me a symbol.

Lisa:  And so that's what the Blue Ridge Heritage Project has done for so many of us it’s brought about healing. 

Bill:  Well, I was afraid that as the generation that grew up with the stories that their children would not necessarily have the same connection and then in one more generation, the stories would be lost. And so the project has helped keep those stories alive. So we're really happy that we've been able to do that.

Lisa:  And that phrase that you have – if there’s no monument, things will be forgotten.