Wash. Times: Redneck Ethnic Cleansing Recalled

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Washington Times, February 5, 2015

Redneck ethnic cleansing recalled

by James Bovard

Few things vanish from public memory more quickly than government atrocities. When I was growing up on a mountainside across from the Shenandoah National Park in the 1960s, no one spoke of the injustices committed against the mountaineers brutally expelled from their homes in the 1930s to create that park. Instead, all that mattered in Front Royal, Virginia, my nearby hometown and the northern entrance of the park, was that the tourists the park attracted were good for local business.

Now, almost 80 years after the park was opened, more attention is finally being paid to the redneck ethnic cleansing committed by both the state and federal government. “Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal,” by Sue Eisenfeld, a Johns Hopkins University writing instructor, beautifully captures the mountain people and the official vendetta that made them refugees from their own land.

The Shenandoah National Park was erected on a pyramid of lies. The original advocates claimed that the parkland was practically uninhabited — ignoring the 15,000 people residing within the originally proposed park boundaries. They claimed the land was undeveloped, near-virgin turf — despite its long history of timber harvesting, mining and beef cattle production. They also claimed the land was worth only a trifle of its actual value and thus would be cheap to acquire.

But the biggest deceits involved vilifying the mountaineers who inhabited what was then known as Virginia’s “Great Mountains.” Families had lived and worked on those ridges and hollows since the 1700s and flourishing communities dotted the landscape. But when they refused to vacate their land to satisfy a grand political vision, they were quickly tarred as know-nothing sociopaths.

Miriam Sizer, a social worker who reported to the state of Virginia, bemoaned that children in one hollow were “uncouth” and “tobacco-chewing.” National Park Service director Arno Cammerer derided some of the mountain residents as “scum.” Shenandoah National Park superintendent J.R. Lassiter denounced people living in the targeted area for suffering from a lack of “independence and resourcefulness.” But most of the mountaineers were doing just fine until they were plundered.

Families were paid as little as a dollar an acre for land worth ten times that much. Virginia’s ruling political machine was confident the new park would be a magnet for tourists, so it engineered a blanket condemnation. The land grab was spearheaded by William Carson, a wealthy businessman who orated that “there is no higher conception of duty than to feel we are of service to the State.” The government could have easily bought from willing sellers most of the land along the ridges and mountain crests where the Skyline Drive, the crown jewel of the park, was built. But politicians wanted vastly more land on both sides of the mountain range.

Shortly after taking office in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt visited a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the future Shenandoah National Park. While a CCC bugler played “Happy Days Are Here Again,” CCC torchbearers ignited a large effigy labeled “fear” and “Old Man Depression.” FDR cheered: “That’s right, burn him up.”

A few years later, CCC members were sent to burn down the homes of mountaineers who refused to vacate their land — a chilling example of how FDR’s “freedom from fear” required giving federal agents unlimited power. The Hoover administration had promised that the vast majority of residents would not be required to vacate, but the Roosevelt administration reneged. When I often hiked the park’s trails and back areas as a Boy Scout, I did not realize that some of the standalone chimneys I saw were lonely reminders of the CCC vendetta.

In one case, an unsubmissive homeowner and filling station owner was ambushed by four plainclothes sheriffs and deputy sheriffs and dragged off. Ms. Eisenfeld relates how the victim, 62-year-old Melanchton Cliser, “stood proudly in handcuffs and delivered a ‘quavering rendition of the entire Star Spangled banner,’ then delivered a speech about defending his rights, guaranteed by the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution” before being wrestled into a sheriff’s car.

The Archdeaconry of the Blue Ridge complained of the inhumane “wholesale depopulation of the park area.” Many of the displaced people were relocated into what Ms. Eisenfeld calls “an internment camp of sorts.” “Resettlement” communities were set up with boxy white houses, many of which did not include running water or electricity. And the one certainty was that the new homes lacked the million-dollar views that their tenants previously relished.

The commandeering of 176,000 acres for the park provoked court battles that helped establish politicians’ right to seize private property for any purpose they proclaimed. In the subsequent decades, the same legal doctrines sanctified expelling more than a million urban residents from their homes. The dictatorial creation of the Shenandoah National Park is a warning that government cannot ravage property rights without ruining lives far and wide.

• James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” (Palgrave, 2006) and “Lost Rights” (St. Martin’s, 1994).  For more  of my experiences in the Shenandoah National Park and that neck of the woods, see Public Policy Hooligan.

* Unfortunately, I could not find any drawings or photos of C.C.C. boys carrying torches. Below is another CCC poster and one from its sister program, the Work Progress Administration (commonly referred to as “We Poke Along”).  I’m not sure which font that poster is using but…

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19 Responses to Wash. Times: Redneck Ethnic Cleansing Recalled

  1. John M February 4, 2015 at 7:24 pm #

    Great review! Not a whale of a lot of difference between the CCC and the Reich Labor Service, when you get right down to it…

  2. Brian February 7, 2015 at 7:45 pm #

    For 1-1/2 years I worked as a contractor at SNP Hdqtrs in Luray VA organizing some of the historical papers of the Park and describing them in a WordPerfect file. Nothing terribly scandalous to report from materials I worked with but I will say that most all parties involved — US Govt, people displaced, opportunistic people, people coming to “help” after the relocation of the people living in what became the Park, and others — come off with some dirt on their hands. J.R. Lassiter, first Park superintendent, did not pull punches when moving people out. Many residents of the future Park were not landowners but essentially squatters (or renters) with not claim to property. George Pollack Freeman of early Skyland fame comes off as a man who wanted business for his enterprise as much as anything. Someone should write a study or book on the formation of the Park and tell the story from all sides. One wonders how it went in what became the Smoky Mountains NP — possibly similar experiences?

    • Jim February 7, 2015 at 8:23 pm #

      Thanks for your comment and insight, Brian. Ms. Eisenfeld mentioned that some of the residents were also victimized because the land records were in court houses that had been burned down during the Civil War. She didn’t mention that it was the Union Army burning down the court houses, but….

      George Freeman Pollack comes across like a conniving rascal in Eisenfeld’s book.

      The book contains good details on the severe restrictions imposed on the smattering of people who were permitted to remain on their homesteads within the park.

      The space limit for the Washington Times review was 800 words. I may write more about the book – both its strengths and weaknesses – in some other venue in the coming months.

    • ewv July 18, 2015 at 3:21 pm #

      Whatever the residents and owners did along the way that you found less than ideal, there is no question that they were defending themselves in an impossible situation caused entirely by the National Park Service, the politicians and the insider cronies who got the the power for NPS, all of whom bear the full moral responsibility for this travesty. Owners, whether of land or homes, and renters or other “squatters” who lived there were all victims of exercise of power destroying normal lives and which never should have been permitted, especially in this country.

      Pollock wrote his own account in “Skyland: The Heart of the Shenandoah National Park”, 1960, in which he reveals himself as a promoter and manipulator who shared the other elites’ condescending demeaning attitude towards the people. Like many other of the unprincipled businessmen he didn’t care one whit about sacrificing the people for his plans and using the power of government to do it. But the quintessential crony insider didn’t have influence he thought he did: he was stunned that he lacked the influence to prevent condemnation of his own Skyland resort, which he had arrogantly expected to keep. None of this was good, but at least that was a form of poetic justice.

      Most books on Shenandoah NP are repetitious touristy hiking “guides” whose authors could care less about how they got the land, but there are other books and articles on the background of the people at Shenandoah, including Darwin Lambert’s “The Undying Past of Shenandoah National Park”, 1989, and Dorothy Smith’s “Recollections; The People of the Blue Ridge Remember”. They show that the whole area was in fact populated by self reliant, mostly good people, with a history back to the original settlers and sporadic Indians before that, contrary to the myths denigrating them as inferior subhumans not worth worrying about, but Eisenfeld’s is the best on the government atrocity and how it impacted people’s lives.

      Yes the same thing happened at the Smoky Mountains, thousands of decent people enjoying their lives in the mountains thrown out by the cynical maneuvers of elitist wealthy insiders. See especially Durwood Dunn’s “Cades Cove: The Life and Death of A Southern Appalachian Community 1818-1937”.

      Likewise at Acadia in Maine — not the “gift of the Rockefellers” the myth tells us to believe. See The Story of Acadia National Park, an autobiographical account by the leader George Dorr, who in an intended favorable account of himself nevertheless revealed quite a bit. The publisher described it (1985 edition) as “a forest of political intrigues, favors called in, land speculation, the rebellion of the ‘locals’, an the unlimited use of reputations, power and money”. Dorr’s campaign took him “into the parlors and dining rooms of America’s elite, through the halls of Congress, and finally right into the Oval Office itself.”

  3. StarvinLarry February 8, 2015 at 9:54 pm #

    Heck,the NPS did the same thing in less obvious ways when the Cuyahoga Valley National Park between Akron and Cleveland Ohio was formed in the 1970’s-homeowners had no choice about keeping their property-it was sell it to the park for what they deemed a “fair market price” when they made their offer-or have it taken by eminent domain type proceedings later-and get pennies on the dollar for the property.
    Families were allowed to remain in their homes until they passed away-but the park got everyone’s land.
    farmers lost prime bottomland to the park. Homeowners who had homes with nice views of the valley lost their homes,and no one had a choice in the matter-it was sell your land to the park-for what the park is offering-or we will take it and pay you next to nothing for it.
    Many of the homes the park forced people out of just sit as they are-rotting away.
    The NPS did the same thing when most of the national parks were created,the USFS took a lot of people’s land in W. Va when the George Washington and Monangahela national forests were formed-my great grandparents lost hundreds of acres to the forest service-land the family settled in the late 1700’s.
    It would make great reading if someone were to write a book detailing all the .gov inc. land theft in the 1900’s. People would think they were reading about the USSR, Stalin, and a communist country-taking land “for the good of the people”.

    • SemperFi, 0321 February 9, 2015 at 12:14 am #

      Look up Grand Teton NP and Rockefeller Parkway, lots of early pioneers and ranchers were displaced to make room for fedgov.
      Rockefellers have some choice property inside the park on a lake, public not allowed.

    • Seasoned_Citizen February 9, 2015 at 6:16 am #

      starvinLarry is correct!

      Thousands of acres between Cleveland and Akron were involved in this huge “land grab.” I was there from day-one.

      Now–get this–the Feds are “allowing” people back onto the land to “farm” or “raise animals” on it to show what the original inhabitants were doing. INSANITY!

      The Feds literally evicted and kicked out the true owners in short order to have some “jewel” in their crown of parks, only to see that Americans value their heritage. They want it back! Not stolen by the heavy hand of government and then leaked back to them through some propaganda-laced “colander.”

      The Feds are out of control. At every levels–alphabet soup agencies up the wazoo; courts; secret star-chamber outfits.

      What did Abe Lincoln say about despotism and tyranny?

      “When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

      Hummm…compare Putin to the outfit current occupying “The People’s House.”

      • GenEarly February 9, 2015 at 1:16 pm #

        BLM doing the same in the western states right now. at Bundy Ranch, NV. citizens resisted.

      • ewv July 18, 2015 at 6:32 pm #

        The National Park Service mass depopulation at the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area between Cleveland and Akron was documented in the 1982 PBS Frontlines documentary by Jessica Savitch, “For the Good of All”. http://www.landrights.org/VideoGoodOfAll.htm

        An earlier 11 minute documentary, “In Condemnation, The Cuyahoga Valley” which won an amateur film award, can be seen at http://www.landrights.org/VideoInCondemnation.htm

        The National Park Service internally published in 1992 “A Green Shrouded Miracle: The Administrative History of Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, Ohio”, further revealing the ongoing arrogance:

        “[Superintendent] Birdsell believed that ‘if you are going to manage it, you have to own it.’ It was a position which local landowners used to vilify him. One of Birdsell’s colleagues responded:

        “‘People were screaming about it, but had Bill not taken that aggressive posture on land acquisition, I am convinced that this park never would be what it is today. I for one have been really sick and tired of hearing ‘Birdsell bashing’ because it is the thing to do. I think some day people, if they understand, will thank Bill Birdsell for that very aggressive stand that he took to get what he could get while the getting was good.’

        “‘The reason the park was created was because it was going to be eaten alive. After all, the Congress just said, ‘Here is a boundary.’ That was easy. Bill had the tough part. He had to come in and save what was within that boundary. There was only one way to save it and that was to buy it.'”

        In chapter 11 on the Cuyahoga homeowners rebellion NPS tries to portray itself as the victim. The focus on the plight and rights of homeowners in the Frontlines documentary “For the Good of All” is said to be “highly biased and provocative” because it was about the acquisitions. NPS does not to this day acknowledge the condemnations, which is typical for parks across the country. Older parks like Shenandoah and the Smoky Mountains are too well known to be evaded, and are treated like they are too old to matter.

        Cuyahoga was only one of many such travesties across the US, especially throughout the 1970s, following the 1965 Great Society Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) authorizing spending up to $900 million a year for land acquisition, subject to Congressional appropriations. Cuyahoga differed only in that it was caught on film but is typical of the arrogance of the National Park Service. The acquisition binge was greatly reduced during the Reagan administration only by curtailing funding.

        The National Park Service and its private lobby arm, National Parks and Conservation Association, planned to pick up where they had left off with heavy media promotion and lobbying for another massive expansion in the National Park System Plan of 1988. It was largely stopped because enough people had caught on by then, but most of the public has no idea what the National Park Service has been doing and what it intends to do in the future. NPS typically has a positive image associated with the emotion of the scenery, hiding its abuse and corruption behind the scenery. Some of the 1988 targets are still being pursued, e.g., in rural Maine where they want millions of acres.

        LWCF is up for re-authorization this year and the park pressure group lobbyists are continuing to push for converting it into an off-budget guaranteed entitlement of at least $1 billion a year for acquisition, bypassing Congressional appropriations in perpetuity and making it even more difficult to stop National Park Service expansionism. A $3 billion annual entitlement almost became law in the late 1990s. The mentality of Shenandoah and the Smoky Mountains is not just “ancient history”.

  4. NC Redneck February 8, 2015 at 10:09 pm #

    Interesting read, however…

    Yes, the Appalachians were settled in the 1700’s, of which I’m a direct descendant.

    Yes, the Revolutionary and Civil War were lawless times.

    All I have to say to the feds is, git off our land.

  5. BillMiller February 9, 2015 at 2:36 pm #

    Look at the CCC poster and then look at the style of posters produced in national socialist Germany during the same period. The resemblance is striking.

  6. Dave February 9, 2015 at 6:02 pm #

    They did the same thing a couple of decades ago when they built Lake Jordan, whole villages just vanished underwater, they took several hundred acres of my farm for pennies on the dollar. Right now the national Rails to Trails org is stopping railroad land from going back to the landowner that leased the easement to the railroad. This is just a facade to keep rail or highway corridors for the state.
    Stop paying your lease (government taxes) on your land and see what happens to it. The myth of land “ownership” is
    laughable. The government owns everything, including you. We are just servants of the realm and we serve at their pleasure.

  7. Richard Williams February 10, 2015 at 10:00 am #

    There’s a great documentary about this topic produced by a local PBS (yeah, I know) station. It is quite enlightening and moving. Watch this emotional clip here: http://youtu.be/pkWH3iqL_gQ

    My wife and I both had ancestors who were forcibly removed from land to make way for the Blue Ridge Parkway. There’s a family cemetery that borders the BRP with one of our common (I’ll pause here for the jokes) great-great grandfathers is buried. He fought for the Confederacy. We still have family that live on land bordering the BRP and the park.

    • Jim February 10, 2015 at 10:03 am #

      Thanks for the comment, Richard Williams. PBS stations have done some great documentaries over the years.

      • Richard Williams February 10, 2015 at 10:25 am #

        They absolutely have, which I find somewhat ironic. Thanks for the review. After reading it, I immediately went to Amazon and purchased a copy.


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