When the Parkway Came
Part of FDR's "New Deal," the Blue Ridge Parkway was envisioned as a 1930s-era economic development tool that would pump both life and dollars into the Appalachian Mountain Range between Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks. But the long and winding road with the fantastic vistas also took a good deal of life out of the landscape as the farms that stood in the path were razed and the families forced to move off.
In their latest book, When the Parkway Came, historians Anne and David Whisnant have produced a historical fiction for children that describes the hard times of the Depression, the hard choices forced upon families who lived in the way of the Parkway, and the treasure that was given to the nation through its creation. Led through the pages by the recollections of 8-year-old Ginny, the story is one of hardship, heartache, and rejuvenation.
Finally, a check for our twenty acres arrived in the mail. It was for $600.00 -- a lot more than we had expected, but still not much for what all we had to give up. For that little bit of money, they cut the middle right out of our farm. And of course it wasn't just our farm -- some of our neighbors were talking about what was happening to them, too.
Maggie cried the day they tore down the barn; I cried, too, but I didn't let anybody see me. Daddy said he couldn't stand to watch, so he went off to work while the construction crew at our place toppled it over and trucked the wood away.
Some pages later, Ginny sees the Parkway in a new light.
Before long they opened a section of the Parkway near us. As soon as Daddy go a day off, he and Mama packed us a picnic lunch and piled us all in the truck to go take a look. Hard as it had been for us, it was like Mr. Brown had said. We were driving in the clouds. "I've never seen the mountains look like this," I told Mama.
We pulled over at a few spots where they had cut out the trees so you could see the blue hills rippling out like the sea. I looked out and felt my chest swell like the waves. Maggie and I counted the license plates on the other cars -- Georgia, Virginia, North and Sount Carolina, even as far off as Pennsylvania.
Released in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the book is heavily illustrated with photographs pulled from across the road's history: A sleepy farm reminiscent of those that existed before the road came through, newspaper headlines announcing the coming of the Parkway, photos of construction, picnic spots that sprang up to cater to the motorists, and, of course, some of the surrounding communities of the day that would be impacted by the massive construction project.
"The story is fictional," says Dr. Anne Whisnant, "but based on a 1937 letter from an Ashe County, North Carolina, farmer to FDR. Many of the associated events in the story (e.g. the importance of Asheville in the Parkway's history, role of R. Getty Browning, the unloading the train at Galax, the opening of Cumberland Knob park, etc) are true."
Having previously written Super-Scenic Motorway, A Blue Ridge Parkway History, Dr. Whisnant already had tackled the massive task of examining the project with the eye of an historian. She came to this project, however, feeling a need to present that history in a more digestible fashion for youngsters.
"We heard a lot of discussion of how 'future generations' needed to learn to protect the Parkway and the national parks, but, as parents, we were shocked to find that with all that talk, there had never been any book about the Parkway written for children!" she says. "And it seemed that Parkway history wasn't really reaching children (certainly 95 percent) of the audiences that have come to hear the more than 55 talks I've done about the Parkway are over 50.) The curricular materials that the Parkway takes out to regional schools, furthermore, are almost completely science-based. So there was definitely room for something dealing with Parkway history for children. And we hope the book might teach parents and grandparents something too, or open conversations between generations about their Parkway memories."
The decision to approach this book as fiction came from that 1937 letter Dr. Whisnant previously had uncovered while researching Super-Scenic Motorway.
"The story had stayed in my head, but I knew I didn't know enough about the family to build an entire story on what I knew," she says. "But since the letter had set out what I knew were *common* issues that many landowners shared, I thought we could use it to build a story that would contain many truths even though some details about the family of the central narrative were fictional."
Working with her husband, David Whisnant, a fellow historian with a raft of books on Appalachia to his credit, the couple crafted a story that captures an important slice of American history for younger generations to learn from. It's a book that, hopefully, will teach them to appreciate both the sacrifices made by those families who were moved off their farms, and the value of the Blue Ridge Parkway itself.
"We thought that a story of having to make a decision about disrupting someone's home so that Parkway could be built would be a good way to introduce the idea that building the Parkway was really hard, that it involved sacrifices that sometimes weren't fair, and that you can have something very beautiful that also caused some people great sadness," Dr. Anne Whisnant says. "The tension between what is 'mine' (my property, my home) and what should be 'ours' (society's) is also something we thought that this story would help us bring out.
"Presenting children with these complicated ideas is, we think, important to their development as future stewards who can think about 'both-and,'" she continues. "'Saving the Parkway' (or any national park) is not going to be accomplished by simple-minded thinkers . . . the world isn't simple, and the parks certainly aren't. We thought we could use this Parkway story to show that in almost any situation, there may be many sides that must be considered. This kind of thinking, we hope, will help create future park caretakers who understand the wrenching and challenging decisions that may be involved in re-visioning and protecting the Parkway for the next 75 years."
During the Depression of the 1930s, a mountain farmer sat at a small table and on lined paper torn from a child's school notebook wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, complaining that the Blue Ridge Parkway was going to go "right through the middle" of his farm. When the Parkway Came is based upon that letter. This story tells how the building of the scenic mountaintop road affected the family of eight-year-old Jess Miller.
Driving on the parkway many years later, Jess shows his granddaughter where the road runs through what used to be his parents' land. "I'm glad we had our farm while we had it," he tells her, "and that we had a part in building this road through our mountains." "I wish this land was still ours, Papa Jess," she replies. "It still is," he assures her. "Yours, mine, and everybody's. And it is still so beautiful."
This book helps young readers understand why and how the most visited site in our national park system came to be built, the differing views of people affected by it, and the tradeoffs that were necessary along the way. The beautiful color photographs capture the enduring beauty of the parkway, while the historical illustrations help readers appreciate the vision and hard work that brought it into being.