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Finding Grace and Beauty in Shenandoah Park's Darker Past

Since it opened in 1936, Shenandoah National Park has welcomed an average of well over amillion and a half visitors each year. Many of them may not know of the park’s painful past. One avid hiker who researched and wrote about that past calls her book a “broken-hearted love song to the park,” as WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

SUE EISENFELD: I'm a hiker, I love the park, but I'm devastated about what happened. How can I live with myself being a hiker in that park?

Northern Virginia resident and writer Sue Eisenfeld says her 2015 book, titled Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal, actually tells three stories: How Virginia and the federal government created Shenandoah National Park, what happened to people who had been living there, and her own “journey of discovery and understanding.”

EISENFELD: In some ways I really was looking for grace, because I want to keep hiking there. It can't be all bad, and it isn't all bad. It's this beautiful preserved place that millions of people enjoy every year.

Eisenfeld spoke last week to a crowded room at James Madison University, a guest of Special Collections, which houses some of the documents Eisenfeld used in her research. Already there were many books about the park, but as an avid hiker there for years, she came across many artifacts like pottery shards, farm equipment, engines, wagon wheels, and more. She felt she had to make sense of the history for herself.

EISENFELD: If we had to create this park by throwing out thousands of people and dispossessing them, what kind of people do that? And what kind of people do that in the way it was done, i.e. handcuffing people, physically dragging them away, burning down their homes. This actually happened to some people in the park. Others took the money that they were paid and left, and some were okay with it. Some were happy to move into the lowlands, so I don't want to say that everyone was dispossessed, but what kind of people did this?

[See a map of the changing boundaries of Shenandoah National Park, courtesy of SNP and Cindy Olson]

To research, Eisenfeld hiked to cemeteries, old foundations of homes and barns, orchards. She interviewed descendents of park residents, studied maps, deeds, National Park Service records.

One force behind the creation of the park was William Carson, who Eisenfeld calls “a big guy in Virginia history.” Eisenfeld felt she had to get to know this man, whose work to create something so beautiful caused so many people so much pain.

EISENFELD: For me the complete turning point of the writing of the book happened because I found one sheet of paper. It was one letter that kind of changed everything for me in terms of William Carson.

She explains that letter, and its effect on her, in her book.

Eisenfeld’s research also led her to JMU’s Special Collections interviews with former residents, like this one from 1978, in which Mattie Yager talks about her father:

MATTIE YAGER: She said she had seen my daddy dance all night long, every dance that would come up. He was a powerful dancer right up until he died, and he was 80 years old then. He danced a dance that didn’t wear you out. A flap to the floor dance. He didn’t go up high.

[Harmonica playing by Mattie Yager]

Virginia Taylor was among those in the audience at Eisenfeld’s book talk. Afterward, she said her grandfather Glenn, then age 17, was among those evicted from park land in 1936.

TAYLOR: He always had a pretty surly attitude about what happened.

She said his family had farmed the land there for about 200 years. That sense of longevity helped draw Eisenfeld into the park's story:

EISENFELD: This was my first exposure to people who had been here for generations, who had fought in the Revolution, in the War of 1812, the Civil War, and I guess I just had never known a lot of people who had been here that long. And I really came to feel attached to them and felt like I cared about their families as if they were my own.

Eisenfeld said that for many descendants of the park’s former residents, especially those that still live nearby, the pain of the loss continues.

EISENFELD: It has not diminished for them.  They feel raw emotion as if it happened yesterday and not 80 years ago.

The government’s use of its power of eminent domain in the establishment of national parks is not unique to the history of the Shenandoah National Park. It has played a role in the formation or expansion of Rock Creek, Mammoth Cave, Great Smoky Mountains, and Everglades National Parks, as well as Big Cypress National Preserve, the Redwood National Forest, and more.

For author Sue Eisenfeld, researching and writing about the Shenandoah National Park’s painful past led her to the grace she was looking for as a hiker on sacred ground.

EISENFELD: I was looking for a way that I could feel like it was okay to be here, and both from my research and also just meeting people, I felt like they were saying to me, it's okay to be here.

Christopher Clymer Kurtz was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.