The Effect of the Blue Ridge Parkway on Appalachian Farmers

Shawna Chesto

The Blue Ridge Parkway begins in Virginia and extends 469 miles through North Carolina connecting the Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountain National Parks. Along one section in North Carolina lies a small county, Alleghany, with a population of around 10,000 people. Since the introduction of the Blue Ridge Parkway many cultural changes have occurred. From the beginning, many farmers lost sections of their land, in addition to having rules and regulations set on the remaining land they owned. The Parkway has brought in more trade-specific jobs, as well as general labor and tourism to Alleghany County.

Small farms are currently on the decline and, although most believe there is no strong correlation between the decrease in small farms and the rise of Christmas tree growers, there is a correlation between the Christmas trees and the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway provides tourists with a view of the county, including the Christmas tree farms, field crops, country stores, and places to camp and lodge. One can see several Christmas tree farms along the parkway, and those visitors who go off the Parkway to explore Alleghany County are surrounded with views of Frasier firs. Many people come from as far as South Carolina to Alleghany to choose and cut their own trees, and wholesale dealers travel to Alleghany and surrounding counties to find the best lot of trees to pick up in late fall. Many of these customers use the Parkway to travel to these farms.

This study was done as part of an ethnographic field school in rural Southern Appalachia. Finding this field school over the Internet, I chose this particular culture to study because of my lack of knowledge about Appalachian peoples. Most of my "knowledge" came from TV shows, movies, jokes, and even comic strips. My particular area of study focused on the people who have undergone land ownership and farming changes through the introduction of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This study was chosen because of my unique situation living with a family that has been drastically effected by the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The next section is a brief history of the Blue Ridge Parkway, followed by a brief analysis of literature on changes in land ownership in Appalachia. Finally, I present three case studies. Although each case study family has had land taken away and has been effected by the Parkway in one manner or another, each case provides unique elements to the study of land ownership.

History of the Blue Ridge Parkway

In asking about the history of the Parkway, everyone I talked to knew of someone who had once worked on the Parkway, or that Congressman R.L. Doughton was mainly responsible for its presence. However, no one knew any specifics, but they did give me the name of a woman who did, Liz Berry (all names are pseudonyms). Liz has not only recently celebrated her 90th birthday, but one could say she is a walking encyclopedia because the history and memories of Alleghany County are forever "written" in her memories. In the next few paragraphs Liz gives a detailed history of how the Blue Ridge Parkway came to North Carolina and what it means to her.

Well, you're interested in the Parkway. It's been a godsend to this area, and of course we're all proud of it. When it first came up to build a Parkway from Virginia into Tennessee, they wanted to take it through Virginia and not through the mountains of North Carolina. I think Iggis was Secretary of Interior at that time. He was from Tennessee and he wanted it to go through the mountains of Tennessee. It would have gone down through Virginia and the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains from us. But my uncle, R.L. Doughton, was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee at that time. He was congressman from this area, this district. He especially wanted it to come through the mountains of North Carolina. And at this time the Social Security Act came up and he being chairman of the Ways and Means Committee had a lot of influence. He didn't think Social Security was the thing to have. He said it would make lazy people. And it has in a way; it has hurt some and helped many. He went to President Roosevelt, who was President at the time, and told him if he would influence Iggis to let the Parkway go through North Carolina, he would vote for the Social Security Act. So this was their agreement, and that's how we got it into North Carolina.

So of course it was surveyed from up to Virginia and down this way. And you've been up to the Bluffs Coffee Shop, you've gone along there where all the rocks have been. We had a neighbor man here who said "they can't ever make a road through there, they just as well pack up their tools and go home." Well you see that's been a long, long time ago. They didn't have the instruments and machines they have today, and it was a big job. But as you travel along the Parkway, you can see the rocks they took out of the mountain, and you see the rock along the side of the road, and that I think has added to the beauty of it. I have traveled it all... Of course, I know more about this area that's nearby and think it's by far the prettiest part of the Parkway, the view and all you get from it.

The next piece of information about the Parkway comes from Sue and Tom Log. Sue and Tom are in their early 60s and are retired. Sue's father worked on the Parkway for a short period of time as did several other people that she and her husband knew. I met Sue at Linda and Larry Smith's (my host family) 50th wedding anniversary party. Sue is Linda's first cousin. I wanted to interview Sue because she had lived here most of her life, and I was fortunate that her husband was also present.

Two work forces were created by the government to help develop the Parkway and Alleghany County. The first, Works Progress Administration, or WPA, was a program developed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help "combat the Depression." The group was jokingly known by another name, We Piddle About. However, according to Sue, "most of the people, people I knew, were people that believed in a good day's work. They would get money, which they did not have. See that was a very hard time...They were glad to work."

The men who worked for the WPA were of all ages and came from many varied backgrounds. Some were teachers, artists, historians, writers, and brickmasons, that could not get work elsewhere. Most of the work that they did required skilled labor, such as the rock work that Liz Berry mentioned and the building of a school house in Sparta, that was torn down a few years ago.

The second group, Civilian Conservation Corps, was for young men roughly between the ages of 18-25. The CCC was organized more like the military. In fact, many of the young men lived on the Parkway while they were working, and they may have possibly had to wear uniforms, according to Tom. The main jobs they did were less skilled like clearing the undergrowth. The old CCC camp is now used as both the maintenance and park rangers' offices. According to one of the current head maintenance men, Ronald Stew, there were mostly men from the Alleghany County and surrounding counties that worked for both the WPA and the CCC in this area. Both groups soon dispersed after the beginning of World War II.

Landownership

In Appalachia, land is more than just property that provides subsistence. Like a mother to her unborn child, land gives nurture, support, and a foundation on which to grow. As Keefe points out, "Mountaineers come to know their land not as a generic but as a specific piece of earth with landmarks and bits of local history that give it meaning" (Keefe 1997:53). Land is like a photograph album for the people of Appalachia. They only need to look at certain landmarks, old homesteads, and abandoned barns, to see the "pictures" of history their families and they themselves have created. In Alleghany County, the loss of family land and the introduction of restrictions on land have created continuing problems with the Parkway. The fact that many farmers lost land that they would have inherited has left bitter feelings toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. As Patricia Beaver points out, "land is the most valuable resource for the rural community and thus the most controversial object of inheritance" (Beaver 1986:64).

In this paper, three case studies are used to illustrate the different factors that affect the way farmers look at their land and its use. As Beaver states, "While land was something to be used and developed to meet one's needs, it was also the foundation of daily existence giving form to personal identity, material culture, and economic life" (Beaver 1986:57). For some people in Alleghany County giving up their land to the Parkway brought jobs; to others it brought problems with transporting farm equipment and restrictions on their lands.

In 1983 the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force did a study that found:

...in 1980 three-quarters of the surface land rights and four-fifths of the mineral rights in Appalachia are in the hands of absentee owners, mostly large, private (and multinational) corporations as well as federal government agencies (such as the Park Service and Forest Service) (1983:14).

Susan Keefe sums up the difference between absentee ownership and that of local farmers when she writes, "while outsiders appreciate the southern highlands for aesthetic and economic reasons, mountain people have sacred attachments to the land that symbolizes family, livelihood, and ancestral roots" (Keefe 1997:53).

Methodology

My first ties to the community began with one of my classmate's host family. My host family, Linda and Larry Smith, were having their 50th anniversary party the weekend we came into the field, so I was moved into the same house as my classmate for several days. My situation gave me the unique advantage of getting acquainted with two families in the community. Throughout my four week stay, I wove myself into the threads of the community by attending the Smith's 50th anniversary party, church services, and two family reunions and by helping with household chores, such as farming, cooking, and cleaning, and attending two square dances.

My networking began with the Smith's 50th anniversary party as I introduced myself to their social and family network. I introduced myself as a college student studying their culture or way of life. Having great pride in their community and culture, several people volunteered to be interviewed. I formally interviewed four married couples, two widows, and three married men. The occupations of my interviewees were as follows: Christmas tree farmers, cattle farmers, waitress, school teacher, and maintenance men for the Parkway. I formally and informally interviewed the Smiths as well.

All of my informants, with the exception of one, are distantly related to the Smiths. Contact was made with the informants by word of mouth through outside resources, such as my instructor, Dr. Keefe, to inside resources, such as Linda and Larry Smith. All interviewees were contacted by me personally either by telephone or by visits to their places of work.

The field methods incorporated in my study are the following: kinship charts, informal interviews, participant observation, and formal interviews. In my formal interviews, some of the questions varied depending on what occupation the person held (for example: Christmas tree farming, waitress, park employee) but the following were the basic questions I asked all interviewees:

  1. How has your land undergone change since the introduction of the Blue Ridge Parkway?
  2. What is your opinion of the Parkway?
  3. How has the Parkway brought in tourism?
  4. What is the effect of tourism on Alleghany County?

All my interviewees have lost some land to the Parkway, and all of them expressed both positive and negative viewpoints. Everyone agreed that the Parkway has brought in tourism to various degrees, because to them this area is the most beautiful and has the best sites to see. Nobody expressed any negative opinions on tourism in Alleghany County, although some believe that problems, such as higher land taxes and crowding, are starting to show up and will continue to grow.

Case Studies in Landownership Along the Parkway

Megan and Chris Wood

Both Megan and Chris Wood have put in over 20 years of service to the Parkway. Megan is still employed on the Parkway but Chris has retired and now works on their farm. They are childless and are in their mid 60s. Megan and Chris's involvement on the Parkway has been a positive one, as it has provided them both with jobs, a home, and fond memories.

Megan's homestead is a two-story white house that rests right on the edge of the Parkway. The house belonged first to her grandfather, then to her father. She moved in with her three older brothers at the age of six. The family raised their own food and existed on a mostly non-cash economy. Cows, sheep, hogs, chickens, turkeys, and a garden produced most of their subsistence needs. Selling or trading of livestock and vegetables allowed them to obtain other items including lamp oil, sugar, and flour.

The trend of out-migration was one of the factors that has moved Appalachia to a more cash-based economy. Moving to the north not only provided factory jobs for people, but moved a culture that had once been totally self-sufficient to a culture that was reliant on wage income. The Depression rolled the out-migrants out even faster as the demand for livestock and produce came to a complete stop. As the Depression hit, many farmers found that without the exchange of livestock for either goods or money, they lived a bare existence.

Many families from Alleghany County migrated north to Maryland to find factory work in its cities and towns. One man was quoted as saying "There was a joke around here that there were only 46 states left in the country because North Carolina had gone to Maryland, and Maryland had gone to hell." Having grown up in the Depression herself, Megan had her own view of the economy. "We just barely had enough to buy what we needed at the store - lamp oil, sugar, and flour. Everybody had their own chickens, hogs, and a milk cow for milk and butter." In addition, water was taken from a nearby spring and vegetables were dried, canned, or kept in the root cellar for later consumption.

As mentioned in the introduction, the Blue Ridge Parkway was one of the methods used to generate jobs. Megan believes that the Parkway is not only responsible for employing her father, siblings and herself, but it also prevented her own out-migration to the northern cities. Megan said that if it weren't for the Parkway her family probably would have moved away or she would have spent the 47 years that she has worked for the Parkway, working in a factory job. When the Parkway idea was first proposed, the people of Alleghany County had their doubts, for having a new road meant losing land and the loss of land meant the loss of their household economic subsistence base.

"People were worried at first when the Parkway came through. They worried if they'd have enough land left to grow the corn they needed to feed the sheep, hogs, and horses. But they got jobs and they bought the corn instead." This quote is significant as we look at a community which is slowly shaping into a more tourist-oriented county. The quote still fits the train of thought today as the small farmers are slowing moving their dairy and livestock farming toward farming Christmas trees. Although every farmer I interviewed agreed that the Blue Ridge Parkway is not outwardly responsible for the decline in small farms, one cannot help but wonder if the loss of land, and the rules and regulations put on farmers and their equipment by the Parkway, did not at least have a minor hand in the process.

Megan's family personally had no adjustment problems toward the cash economy. Her father was a park warden (now called a park ranger) up until his death at age 46. All three of her brothers have worked on the Parkway at some time or another. Unlike some farmers, they did not lose much land, which may account for their smooth transition from a self-sufficient subsistence to one reliant on wage labor. Although Megan could not give me the precise number of acres lost, she estimated that as a whole her family probably only lost 10 acres out of 180. Her father's land, which she still lives on today, had no easement on it and although the Park Service tried to get them to sell their house, they refused. Her family homestead, which is probably only 400 feel from the road, is one of the only houses that remains close to the Parkway. The house that Megan and her husband, Chris, live in today is also on the Parkway. Directly across from her homestead, it stands on a hill, far away from the road but still visible as one drives past.

Megan does not literally work for the Park Service. She works for the National Park Concessions, which is a food company that services national parks all across the United States. She has worked there for 47 seasons, six months out of the year. Her career as a waitress began when she went to college at the age of 18 in High Point and became homesick. Her house was only five miles away from the Bluffs Coffee Shop, so she went in there and asked for a job. The Parkway not only provided her and her family with employment, it also brought her husband into their lives. A native of Kentucky, Chris was working on the Parkway one summer in the maintenance shop when he met Megan. After a short stint in the military, Chris and Megan married and Chris began his 28-year old career as a maintenance technician for the Parkway.

Megan has seen a lot of physical changes on the Parkway during her 47 years. The road has been repaved two to three times, and the land that was once just grass with a few trees has developed into a forest that "...most of the government owns because they want it to go back to nature." She has also seen what she sees as boom to the economy. Since the Coffee Shop has gotten computers, they now keep an end-of-the-day count of customers that go through. The most the shop has had has been 1,300 people in one day. On an average weekend, they can get as few as five to as many as 800 customers that come in to get a drink or to eat. This year has been extraordinary for tourists that come from other countries, such as France and Germany. However, Megan says, they do get their share of North Carolina locals who want to take a day off and sightsee, picnic or camp, from Charlotte, Sparta, Elkin, and North Wilkesboro.

When I asked Megan if there were any negative aspects to the Parkway, she admitted that maybe the farmers might have a reason to be a little "teed" off. The Parkway did take their land, and they told them what they could and could not plant and build on the land they kept. In addition, the Parkway forced the farmers to take side roads when they hauled their merchandise to the market. In fact, even today, farmers are not allowed to carry anything, such as livestock, wood, and hay on the Parkway. However, she said, "the Parkway has gotten a little more lenient for, in some areas, they can use the road to carry their supplies, and they are allowed to haul their cattle to pasture over the road."

Heather and John Smith

Heather and John Smith were introduced to me at Larry and Linda's 50th wedding anniversary; it was at the party that I asked if I could interview them on their views of the Parkway. Heather is a school teacher and assistant principal at a nearby elementary school, while John is mainly a Christmas tree farmer, with several other crops on the side. They are in their late 40s and have children. Heather and John's view of the Parkway is a little more slanted on the negative side as their farming has been effected more by the road than Megan and Chris.

Heather and John Smith own almost 2,000 acres of land. Their land has been acquired through inheritance and real estate purchases. All of the land they inherited or bought has in one way or another been effected by the Parkway. John first began our interview by telling me about the 120 acres he inherited from his grandmother. The total number of acres taken by the Parkway was 50 from the original 170. Included in part of the remaining acres are small strip sections, some averaging about 30 feet in width narrowing "off to nothing," while others average 400-500 feet in width. "Which we always thought was a bad thing, they should have took it all or left enough to do something with." The Small Bear farm, another farm they purchased 67 acres of, had an estimated number of 167 acres before the Parkway took approximately 25-30 acres.

Over the years they have bought little parcels, totalling 160 acres, all over Alleghany and Ashe County (where their home legally lies). On the Parkway, they also have accumulated 30 acres, including the little strip sections that the Parkway for one reason or another chose not to buy. Thirty-five acres of their land is used for tobacco, while 125 acres is covered in Christmas trees. On some of the land that surrounds the Parkway they have herbs growing for the first time this year, as they try and move away from tobacco farming to a healthier, more socially accepted crop.

Some of the problems that have interrupted the smooth flow of farming for the Smiths are: trouble transmitting equipment and goods along the Parkway, having to get permission to build necessary buildings for farming products, and not being able to develop the land in a manner that is not related to agriculture. When asked about the limits these put on them, the Appalachian characteristic of avoiding conflict came out. John replied, "Pshy - you're going to get us in trouble." Although he later on discussed the issue, he did it in a neutral manner by giving me both sides of the issues.

"There's good things and bad. We're a little prejudiced because we can't run trucks up and down the Parkway, we're limited to cars which can only be used for recreational purposes." He goes on to say that they are limited as far as not being able to build houses or any kind of commercial development except for agricultural buildings. This "suits them fine," but hinders many people, for example, people who don't have children to take the farms over, or people who just want to do something with their land. The regulations on the land reduces its value and limits their rights to use the land in the way that they would like. Being neutral again, John points out that it preserves the traditional non-commercialized way of life.

That way of life, he feels however is slowly fading away, as Alleghany County is following in the footsteps of Boone and Blowing Rock, NC. He reflected on the birth of tourism as he explained that more and more people are coming through this area on vacation, some making permanent summer homes in the surrounding area. The problems he sees facing Alleghany County are: higher taxes, more problems with septic tanks, water supply, and, in general, just more people. John, however, believes that by looking at the towns that preceded them, they can find answers to some of the problems, and perhaps they can even find new answers.

The two biggest problems that have directly effected John and Heather are the restrictions on the land and the use of the road. Several years ago they wanted to build a barn that was necessary for the survival of their livelihood. The process that they had to go through proved to be a long drawn out one which involved the cutting of much red tape. Having to correspond with Asheville, where the headquarters for the Parkway is located, it took them a year to prove that the barn was essential for agricultural purposes. John describes it as a long and drawn out process because of the legality of the issue and the different people they had to go through before obtaining permission.

Larry and Linda Smith

Larry and Linda Smith were the two people with whom I lived for four weeks. Linda is a retired third grade teacher, while Larry is a retired sawyer and farmer. They own a Christmas tree farm on which they both work. They are in their mid-60s and have four children. Larry and Linda have a negative viewpoint of the Parkway, for Larry's family has suffered many misfortunes since it was built and up to the present day.

The Smith's land has been in their family since 1864, when Larry's grandfather, John Smith, came to Ashe County as an immigrant from Germany. Using land grants from the federal government, John Smith obtained 2,000 acres which he later gave to his 15 children, one of which was Larry's father, Rob Smith. Rob Smith used his portion of the land to raise cattle, sheep, hogs, hay, and vegetables. His family, which consisted of 15 children, had very little income, bringing in less than $100 a month.

When the Parkway first came in, Rob Smith sold 47 acres to the Parkway, receiving probably $4,700 for his land ("if that much," Linda remarked). The family sold their land to the State of North Carolina, which later sectioned it off and gave it to the federal government to use for the road. Four of Larry's brothers worked on the Parkway, and although Larry was only 15 years old, he too was employed by the Parkway. Larry would sell cigarettes, which his parents bought wholesale from a friend, and magazines to the men working on the Parkway. Although his family did gain some income from the Parkway, several events occurred that have left both Larry and Linda with bitter memories.

Rob Smith, who was ill at the time, had to go to Sparta to contract off the last segment of land to the government. While he was at the courthouse signing the papers, he suffered a stroke, which later caused his death in 1938. All the time of the settlement, Rob agreed to let the government buy his land with the condition of an easement on the land. Larry's family was violently against the selling of the land, and argued that because Rob was ill, he was incompetent to make any legal agreements and therefore the contract should be void. The court disagreed and the family hired two young attorneys who settled with the state. Their settlement said that in exchange for the land, the easement would be taken off.

The second problem for the Smiths was the issue of an electric line coming in over the Parkway to their house, which was on land facing the road. Although most of Alleghany County had electricity since around 1938, the Smiths' home did not become electrified until 1948. The reason for this was that the Parkway thought that the power lines would ruin the ethnic character of the quaint, old fashioned farm lands. The Smiths finally became the first family on the Parkway to get electricity when they changed their dairy farm to Grade A. The Parkway was willing to let them put the lines in because Grade A dairy farms not only needed electricity to process the milk but it brought the farms more money.

Another problem occurred when the Smiths wanted to build a road that would lead from the edge of the Parkway to their house. Larry's mother originally signed a special use permit, giving the family permission to build and use the road. However, she legally was not the owner of the land since the title was still in Rob's name. Twenty years later, in the early 1960s, the permit had expired and Larry was told he would have to renew the permit. Larry refused to sign the new permit because he believed that his mother's signature was invalid and they never should have had to have a special use permit on the land. The Parkway subsequently put posts on the road blocking the entrance.

Currently the Smiths are very suspicious of the Parkway. A couple of years ago an article was put in the local newspaper by the Parkway saying that they wanted to obtain 20 more acres of land in certain areas of the Parkway. The article did not name landowners but showed a map of the lands the Parkway wanted, one of which was a plot owned by the Smiths. Since then the Smiths have had even more resentment again the Parkway, because in their mind the Parkway is trying to sneak up on them and take their land. In the past few years, the Smiths have opened up a campground on the land that faces the Parkway in order to show the government that their land will not be taken away and that it is still valuable to them economically.

Conclusion

People have their own definition of land ownership. For Megan, the Parkway is not only a physical road she travels on, but also symbolically a path to a better life, allowing her family to buy corn instead of growing it, providing her with a job, a husband, and the opportunity to remain in the county that she quit college to live in. When I asked Megan about the negative aspect of the Parkway, she had this to say, "Yes, I've heard a lot of negative things but I've put them out of my mind because I was positive it brought a lot of money to people who lived here, brought a lot of tourists here. It's been really good for Alleghany County."

One interesting issue is the fact that Megan's father was employed fulltime on the Parkway, thus making his farming a part-time occupation. Unlike the two Smith couples, Megan's family only lost roughly 10 acres of land and seemed to have no immediate conflicts with Parkway officials. Of course, as a park warden, Megan's father had a position which Linda and Larry would say "gave him a power over the rest."

The people in the last two case studies were used to growing cash crops in order to feed their families. In addition, because both couples have children, it is already common knowledge that their children will inherit their land. Although Alleghany County has historically had a cash based economy, the way that people earn their incomes varies. For Megan's father, it was working a government job; for the two Smith couples, their livelihood comes from their land. The book Who Owns Appalachia makes this point.

...tourism and recreational growth has been a mixed blessing. Other studies indicate that the loss of agricultural land, inflated land prices, increased pressure on local services, dislocation, and destruction of local cultures have all been negative side effects of recreational development (1983:12).

When one has had land in the family for centuries and they have been able to use it as they please, it is not hard to understand why the government's intervention changing land boundaries and uses has caused mixed feelings in Alleghany County. For many of the people who live in Alleghany County, freedom to own and farm their land as they please is the reason why many of their ancestors came to America. Land is the essential life force in their existence, and when changes upset the balance between the people and their land, resentment, anger and distrust will arise.

References Cited
  • Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force
    1983 Who Owns Appalachia? Landownership and Its Impact. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
  • Beaver, Patricia D.
    1986 Rural Community in the Appalachian South. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland.
  • Keefe, Susan E.
    1997 "Appalachian Americans." In Many Americas: Perspectives on Racism, Ethnicity, and Cultural Identity, Gregory R. Campbell (ed.). Dubuque, IO: Kendall/Hunt.

Please consider donating to the Department by selecting "Other" and designating your gift for one of the following funds:

Anthropology Speaker Series
Anthropology Loucks Fund
Anthropology Weller Fund 
Anthropology Keefe Fund
Anthropology Foundation 

Your gift is appreciated and allows us to achieve even greater success with our amazing students! 

Physical Location

The Department of Anthropology is located in Anne Belk Hall. The administrative office is located in Room 342 and all of the faculty offices, classrooms, and labs are located on the 3rd floor.

QEP Global Learning


Advanced