Saturday, August 21, 2004

Life in the Old South

You have probably heard of the Old South. If you’ve not spent much time here, the term probably conjures up images from “Gone with the Wind” where women are wearing hoop skirts, men are decked out in riding breeches and panama hats, and their slaves are out in the field picking cotton.

But let me tell you, it still exists. I live in Bland County, Virginia. Its history actually traces back to the days leading up to the Civil War. Just before voting – for the third and last time - on whether to secede from the Union, the Virginia legislature passed a law in 1861 creating the county of Bland. So it goes way back.

My home was built on property that was once owned by a Captain in the Confederate army. Before the war, he was a miller. Both his mill and his home are still standing in the valley below my house.

And there are other tangible links to the Old South, if you’re willing to look for them. Raleigh Grayson Turnpike, the road that leads to my place, was carved out of the local landscape in the 1840’s. It snakes around my property and works its way up the mountain, across the ridge, and, twelve miles later, down again. An old fella in the area once told me that when he was a child (he’s in his 80’s), the turnpike was the only route from the village of Bland to the nearest town, Wytheville. He told me about the special day-long journeys his family would make over the mountain in the mule-drawn wagon in order to buy supplies. I’ve traveled this route. In places, high up on the mountain, the passage narrows. It is sometimes so narrow that if you stray off the road at all, you’re faced with a precipitate drop of hundreds of feet. I get a little nervous riding this road on my ATV. They made this trek in the old days in a mule drawn wagon.

I’m told the turnpike was built with slave labor. And oxen were used for the heavy lifting. There is evidence readily seen, all along the route, of boulders that were cleared from the roadbed and dragged to the side. Massive boulders. How the slaves must have worked at it. How many years it must have taken them.

I’ll let you in on a well-kept secret. The road was still in use until 1972 when the state of Virginia opened up the last section of I-77, an interstate highway that will take you from Cleveland to Charlotte and beyond. The last section involved a tunnel cut right through Big Walker Mountain, my mountain. Here’s the secret. When I-77 was completed, the state of Virginia abandoned that portion of the old Raleigh Grayson Turnpike that runs from my property to the mountaintop and along the ridge. It’s still there. But it hasn’t been upgraded in years. It is as it was. The roadbed is in poor condition. It’s probably not much worse than it was a century ago but it’s still a rugged ride for someone with a weak stomach. It was never paved. Truth be known, much of it is dirt. The more luxurious stretches contain a layer of rocks, most of which are the size of a dinner plate. The only vehicle traffic on the pike now involves the occasional logging truck and lots of hunters on all-terrain vehicles

It is here on the pike that the Old South comes alive. A walk up the mountain is a journey into the past. On any given day, if you keep an eye out while you labor up the old trail, you can find treasure lying in the roadway. This Spring Paula and I were walking back from a hike up the mountain when suddenly she noticed, half buried in the dirt, an old horseshoe. Paula pulled it out of the road and immediately noticed that it was too big to have come from a horse (most folks here in the mountains didn’t own large draft horses; Belgians and the like required too much forage in an area where grazing land was at a premium). It had to be a mule shoe. One’s imagination runs to thoughts of Colonel Toland’s Yankee raid that came up the pike in 1864. It could have come off of one of their pack mules. It's also possible that it simply came from a mule belonging to one of the local residents a long, long time ago. We put the mule shoe back where we found it. It is again making history.

We have found plenty of other treasure along the turnpike. Included in our cache are pieces of harness, lots of pottery shards, pieces of plates and cups (some with beautiful design patterns), a belt buckle, and a few shotgun shells from more recent times. The area where many of the artifacts can be found is right at the base of the mountain, which would lead one to believe that the remains are some of the loot confiscated from local villagers by Yankee marauders 160 years ago and discarded - in an effort to shed heavy baggage - when the soldiers involved saw the climb they were about to face. We haven’t come upon any gold coins yet but I keep looking.

The best part of the story is that it will always be as it is, as it was. I’d invite you to take a journey into history with us but first I have a warning. Be careful. There is a saying that I heard a number of years ago. If you come to our tiny corner of the Old South to walk the Raleigh Grayson Turnpike, “take but a picture; leave but a footprint.”