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New museum in Madison honors families displaced for creation of Shenandoah National Park

The items on display at the new Mountain Museum in Criglersville include dishes, hand tools and lots of family photographs.

There also is “horse stuff,” said Max Lacy, president of the Madison County Historical Society: a horse muzzle, which prevented the horse from eating the corn while plowing, and equipment used for shoeing horses.

“An assortment of things,” Lacy said, that would have been part of daily life in the mountains. The museum specifically tells the story of mountain residents who were displaced — some unceremoniously — to make way for the establishment of Shenandoah National Park in the 1930s.

Based on the interest of those who turned out for the grand opening last weekend, the “main attraction” is a map, Lacy said. “They were really looking at that.”

The 1932 map, mounted in a custom-made chestnut frame, shows the area of Madison County that was proposed to become part of the park — the land that became the park was carved from eight counties — with the name of landowners on each plot of property. The names were not only familiar to other residents of Madison, but also actual family.

Last Sunday, at the grand opening of the museum that is housed in what once was a home economics cottage on the grounds of the former Criglersville School, 99-year-old Essie Nicholson wielded the ceremonial scissors to snip the blue ribbon to mark the occasion.

“She was so tickled to be able to do that,” Lacy said.

Nicholson was 13 when her family moved from its home in the mountains to make way for the park. Lacy said Nicholson told him government officials were supposed to move her family to “a nice little cottage, but it wasn’t near as good as what we had.”

The history of how hundreds of families were forced from their homes to make way for the park has been revived in recent years by the Blue Ridge Heritage Project, a grassroots, nonprofit organization whose mission is to honor and memorialize the families who had to leave their homes.

The commonwealth of Virginia used eminent domain to acquire private property that would be turned over to the federal government for the park. Landowners were compensated, at least modestly, but renters received nothing. After residents were evicted, authorities burned homes to the ground to discourage residents from returning or squatters from settling in.

I’ve written several pieces about the project and its goal of creating a monument site in each of the eight counties — Albemarle, Augusta, Greene, Madison, Page, Rappahannock, Rockingham and Warren — that land for the park came from.

Freestanding stone chimneys — representative of what was left of the many abandoned and burned-out homes on park land — have come to be the iconic symbol of the organization and the monuments. On each memorial chimney, a plaque displays the surnames of families and landowners displaced from the mountains in that county.

“If you go up in the park today, you’ll find quite a few chimneys still standing,” Bill Henry, who founded the Blue Ridge Heritage Project, told me in 2017. “The first chimney I came across in the backcountry was a very powerful experience. I didn’t know the whole story back then. It was like, ‘Wow, somebody lived here.’”

“Once I learned about the people being evicted and the houses being burned … the chimneys left standing really had a lot of meaning to me,” said Henry, a retired school teacher in the area who grew up in Fairfax County and regularly visited Shenandoah National Park as a child, but has no personal connection to the displaced families. “The chimneys show the determination and spirit of the mountain people.”

So far, monuments have been built in seven of the eight counties. The first memorial was erected in Madison County in 2015 on the site of the old Criglersville School, along the old Blue Ridge Turnpike on the way to Graves Mountain Farm and Lodges, a popular destination. Madison is also the first to have a museum dedicated to the effort started by the Blue Ridge Heritage Project, the Madison County Historical Society having talked the county into letting it use the old cottage a few steps from the chimney memorial.

With the help of volunteers and donations, the historical society has replaced the windows, put in an accessibility ramp and generally fixed up the place.

“That’s the only way we can operate,” Lacy said of the society, which also runs a museum in the town of Madison and charges admission at neither. “Through donations.”

Lacy, a retired postmaster and Madison native, grew up knowing the history of the displacements, but said it wasn’t really talked about much in the general population until Henry, an outsider, began holding community meetings and pushing for the monuments.

“People knew it, but mostly the families that were affected are the ones that were doing the fussing, but, of course, nobody heard them,” said Lacy.

However, some of their anger was heard by Shenandoah National Park. After complaints from The Children of Shenandoah, a group of descendants, about the way the park was telling the story of its beginnings, park officials worked with the families to overhaul the exhibits and videos at its visitor center, focusing considerable attention on the experiences of the people who were displaced.

The more truthful telling of the past was needed and is appreciated, said Lacy, who hopes the museum continues to shine a light on the people whose lives were upended.

He described the big turnout for the grand opening as “gratifying” — at least 200 people showed up — and the museum that will be open on Sunday afternoons and otherwise by appointment is off and running. It’s also still growing.

Several people brought additional artifacts to donate to the museum, including one man who presented Lacy with a bell from the desk of his grandfather, who had been a teacher at a school that was on land that is now part of the park. A spot will be made it for in the museum, Lacy said.

“That’s the kind of stuff we really like,” he said.


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