ABC Evening News last week did a segment on the Virginia hills where I was raised. When I lived there, it was a Beef Cattle Research Station. Now it is a Smithsonian Conservation Center saving cuddly animals from extinction. The first part of the ABC video has a few snippets of the beautiful landscape. This 1937 postcard – from the period when the land served as an Army cavalry training center – captures some of the glory of that terrain.
Here’s some background on the rich history of that locale from Public Policy Hooligan:
I was raised on a mountainside a few miles south of a place formerly known as Helltown. The convergence of two forks of the Shenandoah River and a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains produced an “abundance of rough and wild mountaineers and river travelers who came into town looking for whiskey and women.” The town was eventually re-christened as Front Royal, a name more conducive to robust land values.
I grew up on a six-square-mile Beef Cattle Research Station that had previously served as an Army Remount center. After the paltry performance of the U.S. cavalry during the Spanish-American War, the military brass sought more full-time training facilities. The steep hills and mountains 70 miles west of Washington fit the bill. General “Black Jack” Pershing’s 1916 expedition to Mexico included horses trained at the Remount, but it wasn’t their fault Pancho Villa got away. During World War One, the Remount trained and sent thousands of horses to be slaughtered on the battlefields and in the restaurants of France. In the 1930s, General George S. Patton visited to oversee cavalry training. During World War Two, the Remount was occupied by Rommel’s Afrika Korps, remnants of whom arrived as prisoners of war and quickly won respect far and wide for their work ethic.
In 1948, the Army admitted the cavalry’s glory days were past and transferred the land to the Agriculture Department. Nine years later, my father was hired as a geneticist to research the impact of crossbreeding, feed additives, and other variables on a thousand cattle. Beef was hallowed in our household and vegetarianism was the one unforgivable sin.
Most of the beef cattle station’s infrastructure was leftover from the Army. The school bus stopped next to a square red-tile-topped granary that, when I was young, seemed as tall as the Empire State Building. Atop one of the most prominent hills was a quarter-mile, grass-covered race track next to a horse cemetery stocked with Kentucky Derby winners.
As a boy, I sauntered atop long stone walls built by Italian and German POWs. On one ridge was a glorious turret crafted from a colorful array of rocks that could have been plucked from a medieval castle. It offered panoramic views of the valley stretching towards Front Royal, the highway that replaced the Indian trail leading to Virginia’s Piedmont region, and pastures and forest and mountains as far as the eye could see….
Because the station was on the far side of one of the first Virginian mountains outside D.C., it doubled as a “continuity of government” backup site for the State Department in case the Soviets nuked the nation’s capital. A few buildings were chock-full of secret equipment. I didn’t pay much attention to them since foreign affairs didn’t interest me. Besides, those buildings were locked far more securely than others on the station. Atop one hilltop was a super-advanced microwave radio tower to maintain contact with the president and the Pentagon during a national catastrophe.
Once a year, a Chinook helicopter – with a long cigar-shaped body and propellers twirling from raised summits at both ends – landed in an open field not far from my house. A bevy of State Department officials tromped out purportedly to carry out their annual inspection. Instead, they raced to the basement of the station’s main office building and commenced partying like it was 1899. Seeing that helicopter arrive was almost as exciting as watching a UFO disgorge green-skinned Martians. It hinted of a life vastly more intriguing beyond the mountains….
h/t 522 Literary Lass