Author Meredith Battle revives the layered history and traditions of the Blue Ridge’s forcibly displaced population in her recently published debut novel, “Go Down the Mountain.”
The 224-page book is believed to be the first fictionalized version based on the true story of the people whose land was taken by the state and federal governments in the 1930s to make way for Shenandoah National Park, formed from eight counties, including Greene, Madison and Rappahannock.
“I thought the most exciting part about writing this novel would be getting to hold the book in my hand, but it was actually hearing from descendants of the displaced,” said the 46-year-old writer, who lives in Loudoun County. “I have received so many messages thanking me for writing this story and photos of their family members from back in the 1930s before they left the park. It has been very moving.”
Though fictional, “Go Down the Mountain” is very much rooted in documented truth. It is set in mythical Lovingston Hollow, inspired by the real-life Corbin Hollow of Madison County. The book’s main character is a nervy mountain teen named Bee, whose father suddenly dies in a snake-charming accident, leaving her to live with an abusive mother.
In the book’s first chapter, “A Deal that Would Make the Devil Flinch,” they get a visit from a government agent intending to take their land.
“A state man called Rowler was the cause of it. He came by our place and said the state had given our land to Uncle Sam for a park. We were to be out in five months or be considered at odds with the law. Mama told him we’d sell. Our land was worth fifteen dollars an acre, she said. She made a big speech about how we wouldn’t take any less for it.
While she talked, Rowler looked me up and down and licked his lips like I was a slice of scrapple fresh from the frying pan. He was the kind of husky white man who had a layer of pasty fat on him from sitting on his ass in a desk chair, his cheeks flushed pink from sneaking sips of whiskey. His brown mustache twitched even when he wasn’t talking, until I thought it might jump off his face and scurry into a hole in the floorboards.
“He told Mama we wouldn’t get squat since Daddy’s people never filed papers with the county courthouse. I figured as much. Daddy always said the Livingstons didn’t need papers when a handshake and a man’s word would do. Seems like we didn’t need a deed when the whole goddamned Hollow was named for us,” Battle writes.
As a girl growing up in Fairfax, the author regularly visited Shenandoah NP and the mountains, calling it her “happy place.” Battle said she never once learned in school about the thousands of people who were displaced from its storied hollows or the hard path ahead they faced. As an adult, she came across stone walls and a bit of a chimney in her Shenandoah hikes.
“I was just shocked. I had no idea people had lived there. When I started to look into the story, I just couldn’t let it go,” Battle said.
The more she learned, the more she had to know. The author started digging into the history while living in California two years ago, when her husband was stationed there with the military. The research helped her feel closer to home and it was eye-opening, she said.
“The more I researched, the more I found these people could have been my people,” Battle said, mentioning her own father grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Alabama. “They look like my dad’s family, they lived like his family, I felt like I knew them and understood their stories.”
Digging deeper, the author was shocked at the notion of how the government took their land or purchased it for meager Depression-era prices. Some of the poorest hollow folks, Battle recounted, were taken to an asylum, and in some cases, medically sterilized without their consent, based in part on filmmaker Richard Knox Robinson’s first-person interviews.
The Charlottesville area filmmaker said in an email nearly a dozen Corbins were taken after they were moved from the Park (and later forcibly sterilized) to Amherst County, outside of Lynchburg, to a place known as “The Colony” or Central Virginia Training Center.
More than his interviews, Robinson said, it was court documents unearthed in the Madison County Courthouse that revealed the institutionalization of the Corbins.
"Aside from my interview of Mary Francis Corbin who was born in the Park, this was largely unknown even by former residents of the Park," the filmmaker stated. "The commitments and sterilizations have been confirmed by recently released documents at the Virginia Library and the 1940 US Census."
The sociologists and journalists who arrived to see the mountain people for themselves seemed singularly focused on the dirt-poor residents of Corbin Hollow, writes Battle in her afterword.
“In their book, “Hollow Folk,” sociologist Mandel Sherman and journalist Thomas Henry referred to ‘unlettered folk,’ living in ‘mud-plastered log cabins.’ They described them as ‘almost entirely cut off from the current of American life.’”
A letter from a visiting social worker was equally ill-informed, describing hollow folk as “steeped in ignorance” and “possessed of little or no ambition, little sense of citizenship, little comprehension of law, or respect for law, these people present a problem that demands and challenges the attention of thinking men and women.”
The misrepresentations helped the government market the proposed assimilation of these people into modern society as a humanitarian effort, Battle writes.
Rejecting this mischaracterization, the author got to know the real mountain people in her research, including listening to hours and hours of recorded interviews done in the 1970s through James Madison University. They talked about things like hog killing day and picking apples and all their traditions and way of life, Battle said.
“These people were intelligent, successful business people—some had large orchards earning thousands of dollars. They were tenacious people, beautiful storytellers with such a strong culture and families,” she said. “With this book, I hope I have been able to reclaim some of that for all of those who lost their homes.”
About 500 families—more than 2,000 people—were removed by the state of Virginia from counties spanning the future national park over a period of 10 years. In 2013, the Blue Ridge Heritage Project formed with a mission of establishing stone chimney monument sites in each of the counties where people were displaced. To date, seven have been established, including the first in Madison County in 2015. A committee is now being formed in Augusta County complete the last monument, according to Project Founder Bill Henry.
“At the time the Shenandoah National Park was proposed in the 1920s, more than 3,000 people lived in this part of the Blue Ridge. The mountains were alive with small communities—houses, farms, churches, schools dotted the landscape. Some of the families had resided in these mountains for over a hundred years,” according to Blue Ridge Heritage Project.
In addition to establishing chimney monuments, the Project aims to preserve the history and culture of the people of the Blue Ridge, Henry wrote in an email to the Culpeper Star-Exponent.
"We are beginning to organize and sponsor events that help the public learn the human history of SNP. Our Mountain Homecomings - annual pot luck lunches open to anyone - feature traditional music and displays of storyboards of family histories and photographs,: he stated. "Our monument sites, when completed, will have interpretive displays telling visitors unfamiliar with the formation of the Park how the land was acquired and will help give context to the chimney and the names."
In addition, a Mountain Heritage Book Discussion Group formed in Rockingham County focused on books related to the people who once lived in the Blue Ridge, an idea Henry said he hoped would spread to communities around the park. He punctuated the importance of preserving the stories of the mountain folk.
"If this story does not continue to be told it will very soon die out as those who learned it from their parents and grandparents pass on," Henry said. "The rich culture of the mountain people could quickly be lost as younger generations lose interest in the stories."
Knowing the backstory of Shenandoah National Park, he added, will give visitors from around the world a deeper understanding and appreciation of the park and its past, as well as providing some context for the artifacts, foundations, cemeteries, etc. that hikers find while walking the park trails.
Released Tuesday through publisher Mascot Books, “Go Down the Mountain” is also available at Amazon.com.