Tuesday, November 1, 2016

VA - Booker T. Washington National Monument: A Reconstruction Landscape

On my way home to Pennsylvania from South Carolina this week I stopped at Booker T. Washington National Monument in the Piedmont hills of Hardy County, Virginia. It's an interesting park to roam around, especially for reading the layers of landscape that portray an historic, commemorative, and conservation chapter in the American story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. 

Booker T. Washington

This is hard-scrabble farm country. The Virginia Piedmont hills and a long history of working the land hard, mainly for tobacco, stripped topsoil and nutrients from the ground. Clay and hard pan peeks up from overused areas and paths not covered in tarmac. Out on the pastures, a small mixed herd of livestock drops manure that revives, in a small way, some pretty tired land. "The livestock have only been around as long as the park," Ranger Betsy, park manager, explained. "Before acquisition  by the park service, this was quite a busy little tourist attraction. Before that, from when the farm was sold by Mrs. Burroughs after the Civil War to NPS acquisition, it was run-down, neglected, and very scrubby."  A small post office was constructed over the site where a slave cabin may have stood, where Booker was born into slavery in 1856. They issued commemorative stamps and minted coins to sell to visitors. "It was a booming attraction - but a lot was lost because of the lack of conservation concern. Hopefully we're making strides to correct a lot of those problems."

Tobacco hanging in the reconstructed drying barn.

I took a hike around the park, following the farm paths and then wandered down through a wooded valley on a mile-long loop trail. There are several open fields and a few meadows that at the time Booker was a boy, would have all been in tobacco. A hungry and labor-intensive crop, tobacco feeds heavily on the soils where it grows. It doesn't take long, less than a decade, for tobacco lands to show nutritive exhaustion. Considering that tobacco was grown through the Virginia Piedmont and Coastal Plain since the 1700s, this would have been some very tired land. Still, it was a cash crop that - in a good year - could make the farmers a decent dollar. In a bad year, when insects, drought, or blight got the better of a crop, families like Booker's worried that their masters would sell one or more of them off to cover the loss of tobacco earnings.

Tobacco in the demo garden.

Booker's family was owned by the Burroughs family who also owned the land they farmed. Land ownership was an important source of social position and wealth, a carry-over from colonial times thanks to the English concept of the estate, landed gentry, and social status. Even small holders gained a certain amount of prestige and respect from their community for owning land, and even after American won its independence from England, this very English system of class and position lasted well into and beyond the Civil War. But what didn't transfer quite as well as the class system, as an environmental student from Roanoke pointed out on our hike, was the idea of land care. "Every minute of the day, nearly year 'round, time was given to the tobacco crop or preparing the ground for the tobacco crop or curing the crop or weeding the crop. Setting time and effort aside to address issues of soil exhaustion, especially for small holders with limited labor forces - it affected the bottom line."

Slave cabin reconstruction.

At the time of the Civil War, scrubby, washed out edges of tobacco fields might erupt in pioneer stands of white pine or red cedar. These grew quickly and were certainly harvested as the wood was needed. A white pine sapling stand of a hundred trees could provide enough 8" round logs to build a cabin. The red cedar splits from trees less than a decade old could shingle its roof. 

Burrough's family home.

Today the site is a pleasant mix of fields and woods. Some of the wooded valley exhibits maturing stands of oak but there are signs of the nearly constant change that has defined this valley since early settlement. The small creek that starts at the livestock barn as a spring bubbling up from the meadow, descends into a valley where it begins to widen and meander. Here you can see up to four feet of soil atop a rough layer of weathered rock on the creek bed. This is washed away soil from the field upstream - two centuries of lost soils laid across a wide creek valley where a neighbor's cattle graze now.

Four feet of rich topsoil layer the valley.

Further along the loop trail the small creek joins a river. The trail leads through several open glades where high flood waters deposited berms of soil several feet high and almost block the view of the river. Hillsides show evidence of caving and scouring where floods impacted the high ground. Without forest cover upriver, or protective ground cover of any kind, naturally occurring flood cycles must have been dramatic during spring rains and hurricane season in fall as rivers ran thick with washed out soil.  By some accounts,  18th century to 19th century Virginia Piedmont lost two feet of soil when the land was nearly cleared of its forests and tobacco was King.

Former tobacco field, now meadow.

The eroded soil in the creek bed banks and the high flood berms along the river were some clues, but there were others. Looking up the hill at the high ridge of maturing poplar forest, interspersed with old pine and tulip poplar, I could see gullies running straight downhill from what would have been cleared land at the top. Hillsides too steep to plow were often left as scrub and when the farm was sold and later neglected, this scrub land released the next generation of forest. 

Maturing forest of white oak, tulip popular, and maple.

The woodlot where Booker and his family spent their precious free time, usually Sunday afternoons, offered wild berries in season, plenty of mushrooms sprouting from timbered ground, and some game hunting. Even a scrappy old woodlot provided a wide variety of forage food from second growth hickories, sumac, and walnut. This was a landscape of constant disturbance where the pioneer stage of a forest and its shaggy succession stages were most common.

Old field gullies are now thick with forest

My walk didn't take too long, but I spoke with some students about landscape history and we were back in the woods for over an hour. We heard downy woodpeckers, a red-bellied woodpecker, a pileated woodpecker. A red-tailed hawk wheeled overhead in a game of chase with a crow. We watched as the crow first dodged the hawk, then the pursued became the pursuer and the crow chased the hawk. Booker loved the woods and wrote often about  his time when he was a young boy on this land - watching nature, enjoying his time watching birds, insects, collecting leaves and flowers. As a father, he raised his children on a steady diet of nature study. The nature study movement, an important part of our conservation and education history, influenced his work as head of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Nature was always a powerful influence and inspiration for Washington throughout his life and in the work of his students. 

Old red cedar on the edge of a pasture.

Looking around the woods we decided that most of the forest type we observed was transitioning from pineland to hardwood. Old pines stood sparsely among the canopies of maple, oak, poplar, and hickory. Few young pine trees can survive in dense shade, so as the hardwoods grew through and over the pine woods, young pine were shaded out. We noted that most of the young pine we saw were along the sunnier trail sides as we returned to the main farm site. I wondered out loud how long it would take for an abandoned meadow or pasture to revert to pine. One student from the area laughed and said "Don't blink!" White pine was the predominate sapling pine along the trail, but we also found pitch pine, shortleaf pine, and a few loblollly pine - all mature with a few saplings nearby. It was fun to teach students how to tell the species by the needle bundles!

An old loblolly pine in the dense woods

After saying goodbye to the students I continued my walk around the park, poking my head in the reconstructed cabins, barns, and outbuildings. These places are used for living history and program activities, so they are open, cool, and uncluttered. The tobacco barn smelled sweet and I stood under a low rack of drying leaf, remembering my Uncle Mack who smoked his own homegrown tobacco in thick cigar-like "fingers." There were, in fact, so many things in and around the log buildings that reminded me of my late uncle and aunt who lived in a cabin near the Shenandoah, that I got a little teary-eyed! I remember helping to string beans, thread apple rounds, smoke venison, and care for bees who lived not in a box hive but in a "bee gum" - a hollowed out black gum log on end with a slab of wood for a roof.

Beans on the string. 

Two holer and a smoke house.


Red cedar "bull walls" to keep large swine in.

A friendly heritage breed sow.

The theme of the park seems to focus on the idea of reconstruction both in the physical appearance of the place and in the period of time that the end of slavery would usher in. Although some of the farm's former slaves stayed in the area and negotiated for paid farm labor with area land owners, Washington's family decided to move to West Virginia where Booker worked in a salt packing plant and later, in a coal mine, before enrolling in a school (and continuing to work full time in the mine!).

"Snake fence" typical of Mid-Atlantic farms 1760 - 1880s.

The Reconstruction is - in my opinion - one of the most understudied period for environmental history, a period I hope to sink my teeth into a some point. From the end of the Civil War to the days of Jim Crow and the onset of World War One, there was so much social change that we can barely parse it out as it is. From the perspective of rural America, both North and South, however, women were empowered to stand up for more representation.

The Burroughs lost all three sons to the war. Only Billie is buried in the family cemetery.

It was on the farms and in service jobs once held by men who had gone off to fight, that women proved that they were smart, tough, and resilient. Former slaves, free at last to claim their own futures, worked for wages, built and graduated from higher education, and took positions once only the domain of white men. It wasn't easy for either women or African Americans during Reconstruction to claim and protect new economic and political ground. Owning property was no longer a requirement for upward mobility but both groups fought hard against institutional discrimination and racism that sadly we still deal with today. Just listen to the rhetoric of today's election cycle!

Pines along the edge.

After the war, the federal government under Andrew Johnson confiscated and redistributed agricultural land to encourage black farmers to settle and work on forty acre parcels. Named the "Sherman Reserves" these lands were given then - in a spectacular turn about - returned to former owners who worked to reinstate the plantation system in the share system.  The possibility of Southern land reform slipped away as disenfranchised land owners attempted to recover what they had lost by rebuilding a private land ownership system that closely resembled what had existed before Emancipation. Federal policy-makers were split on how to appease angry land owners and prevent what many believed would be an insurrection among freedmen farmers. White land owners were warned that they could not coerce freedmen back into an exploitative labor situation, but that they could contract with them to work those forty acre parcels as sharecroppers. Land, power, status, fear, and a new brand of terror ensued.

The bell that rang freedom for the slaves owned by the Burroughs family.

The ideas of Reconstruction and failed land reform floated around the farm as I ducked into one building then another. I tried to imagine former slaves working for wages on this land and surrounding farms. I could feel the tension and fear of intimidation and threats, even violence, that white landowners brought to bear against former slaves. Though the reconstructed farm site looks quaint, even peaceful today, we can't really get a grip on what happened after that bell rang. Fearing the retributions of their former owners, the Washington family headed west to live with Booker's stepfather who had escaped the farm years before and waited for them there. I wondered, though, what happened to the others who elected to stay. Their stories are not as well documented as Booker's. 

My head was spinning. Maybe fall allergies? Maybe overwhelmed by all the possibilities for future research into Reconstruction environmental history? I walked back to the park visitor center and sat with Betsy for awhile. She helped me regain a little balance. She agreed that landscape studies are all but non-existent for what came after the freedom bell rang on the Burroughs farm. The students from Roanoke College were just leaving, reflecting on all they had learned. It was a great afternoon of hiking, exploring, and asking lots of questions for which there are - for now - few answers.

Hey, Ranger Betsy!


Booker T. Washington National Monument
History page

A really nice NPS publication I bought from Betsy, The Reconstruction Era, I took with me on my hike to read and reflect upon. It's available here and through the online bookstore (Eparks) at (the most excellent) Eastern National, an interpretive and publishing organization that supports our Eastern National Parks. http://easternnational.org/

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