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Long and winding road

The messy history of an Appalachian treasure

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Super-scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History
by Anne Mitchell Whisnant
UNC Press, 464 pp.
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The "almost magical effect" on those who drive the Blue Ridge Parkway today, Anne Mitchell Whisnant notes early in her book, Super-scenic Motorway: a Blue Ridge Parkway History, shows how "the thoughtfulness of design and the love of the mountains and the outdoors that underpinned much of the Parkway's planning are palpably evident."

Not bad, for a massive public-works project of an often-denigrated federal bureaucracy, constructed entirely on a modest, non-earmarked, non-pork-barreled budget.

To explain how such a thing could happen calls for context. And context is what Whisnant's book supplies, in spades. With a calm, non-specialist prose, she goes about organizing a whole vision of the politics behind this "beguiling and historically opaque" landscape aesthetic that "almost mysteriously conceals its history." Hers is not the History Lite of roadside markers, but the heavy stuff, the often overlooked griminess, the abuses and intrigues that affected the important questions, all which can be subsumed under one: How was the "public good" defined in the goal-setting of this project, and who defined it?

Well, guess.

It wasn't the poor, rural Appalachian farmers, long mythologized in the pop-sociology models of the day—like Horace Kephart's Our Sourthern Highlanders—as anything from rough "Anglo-Saxon stock" to "primitive mountain folk" to unmitigated "hillbillies," and on whose supposed behalf much noise was made concerning the Parkway's benefits. Instead, the limited-access and right-of-way policies of the National Park Service meant poorer residents were not only inconvenienced, but saw farmlands permanently divided by off-limits rules. Sometimes they were forced to sell out and remove themselves altogether. The poignant, handwritten complaint that small-time N.C. farmer S.A. Miller wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 summarized the plight of the not-well-connected whose land lay in the surveyor's path: 70 acres split in half, uncompensated ecological damage and resource extraction, restrictive covenants into perpetuity, and an offer of only $5.50 an acre. "Will you please write to me," Whisnant quotes Miller, as he beseeched America's Depression-era savior, "and tell me if I am wrong. And what for me to do."

If no response to Miller from the "Poor Man's Friend" has ever surfaced, the answer is implicit in Whisnant's record of other, more famous conflicts over the Parkway: Miller should just have transformed himself into a N.C. Supreme Court justice/ resort developer, or maybe into the scion to a family fortune/ inheritor of a soon-to-be-developed mountain tourist attraction. Highly pedigreed landowners, Whisnant shows, could not only adjust routes, manipulate right-of-ways, and exact higher prices for lands seized, but could also define the terms of the debate, arrange statewide news coverage in their favor, and create for themselves a new mythology—if not history—as self-serving as an outgoing Republican's farewell address to a K Street convention.

Author Anne Mitchell Whisnant spent 15 years researching the history of the Blue Ridge Parkway. - PHOTO BY DAVID WHISNANT
  • Photo by David Whisnant
  • Author Anne Mitchell Whisnant spent 15 years researching the history of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Charlotte politician and high court justice Heriot Clarkson, a major Democratic party figure, once-leader of red shirt rallies for disfranchisement of the "illiterate negro," and developer of the exclusive Little Switzerland summer colony, for example, went from being one of the Parkway's strongest tourism-based advocates to a harsh antagonist when his property was condemned. Clarkson demanded almost $600 for each of his eminently domained 88 acres, on the pretext of damages to parts of his estate that would, he claimed, be left undevelopable. Using the now long-tested class warfare technique of conflating his private interests with the public's, Clarkson co-opted the rhetoric of the small landowners, concocted "grassroots" support out of thin air, availed himself of newspaper inches to imprint his arguments on the debate, and "mobilized existing discourses to depict his crusade as a contest of good and evil," Whisnant observes.

It worked, too. Finally awarded $25,000, or 52 times the value of one of S.A. Miller's acres, Clarkson paid off his lawyers and most of the colony's debt and secured the future of his whole enterprise. Tellingly, the public good was bent to private design in this 1939 case as surely as the Parkway itself was brought to the entrance gate of Little Switzerland's main lodge. "Clarkson thus transformed," Whisnant writes, "what was mainly a personal quest to wring from the state a generous payment for his resort property into a holy battle on behalf of American liberty, private property, and economic progress and stability."

At least he had the decency to recuse himself when the issue reached his N.C. Supreme Court.

The genius for manipulating public perceptions to enhance private interests saw its fullest flowering, however, in the person of Hugh Morton. His battle with the National Park Service began with a shotgun-packing confrontation with surveyors in 1955 and wasn't concluded legally until 1968, and, due to technical roadblocks, wasn't concluded in reality until the opening of the Linn Cove Viaduct in 1987, when the final piece of the Parkway was finished, 54 years after its November 1933 inauguration. Whisnant's account of how the avuncular, personable and persuasive Morton—widely hailed as protector of Grandfather Mountain, proto-environmentalist, inspired nature photographer and friend of governors, senators, newspaper editors and university presidents, but keeper of the common touch—manipulated the rhetoric of the day, denounced the "socialized" depredations of a NPS aiming for "an empire of Government-sponsored tourist facilities," and led the charge against the very idea of Parkway tolls as "a moral ... breach of faith" (this from a man who bulldozed a "toll" road to the top of his private mountain) has to be read to be believed.

The key problem, Whisnant points out, lay in the nature of the project itself. A public works job, spearheaded by business/ tourism boosters and collaborating state governments, yet built on an intrinsically socialist schema of federal financing and non-commercial access for all, "the Parkway project was from the beginning rent by internal tensions that have always been difficult to resolve."

Altogether, the history here is abundantly documented and deployed with an analytic sharpness and contemporary insight that will be hard to challenge. By showing how it came about out of a stew of conflicting purposes, Whisnant has given all the Parkway's partisans a welcome and almost subversive redefinition of the meaning of one of the biggest, most drawn-out, most visited, most underfunded, most contentious and most profoundly beautiful projects ever undertaken in the spirit of the New Deal. One that despite everything succeeded. One that endures for us all.

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