Stepping into the Past: the Blue Ridge Parkway Part 2, USA

Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway VA USA

Mabry Mill
One of the most photographed sites on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the charming Mabry Mill dates back to the early 1900s.

Steering the car off the turnpikes and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway is like stepping back in time.

One has to slow down instantly: the posted speed limit is never higher than 45 mph (72 kph), and the winding mountain curves ensure slower speeds in many sections. For the 469 miles (755 km) that snake through the valleys and passes of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there are trees and mountain-tops stretching into the horizon. The few homesteads or townships that can be seen in the valleys below are rendered idyllic by their very distance.

Appalachian frontiersmen – like Daniel Boone – were glamorised for their ruggedness and self-sufficiency. However, life of old in these mountains was far from romantic. The beauty of the environment has to be balanced against the relentless physicality of the lifestyle. Early farmers struggled not only against the harsh terrain and environment, but also against unfair taxation and lack of state funding for infrastructure development. Even in recent years, poverty indicators have remained high, and isolated pockets still exist without electricity or running water. 

The Appalachian Scenic Highway, as the Blue Ridge Parkway was originally called under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, sought to preserve some of the history and culture of the hard-working mountain people who carved a life there, and to protect the flora and the fauna indigenous to the region. This is the land of bluegrass music, cornhusk dolls, intricate woodwork, and stunning patchwork quilts. 

The first stop for my husband and myself after entering this “National Scenic Byway” at its northernmost point at Rockfish Gap, Virginia (Mile 0) late last spring, was at the Humpback Rocks Farm Visitor Center,;where we were able to appreciate how how hard these pioneers had to work (see: Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway Part 1).

Outbuilding - Humpback Rocks Farm, Blue Ridge Parkway VA USA

Outbuilding – Humpback Rocks Farm (Mile 6.1)
Early settlers used ingenuity and the materials around them, building over creeks and using stone foundations for cold-storage areas. The cabin homestead and outbuildings at Humpback Rocks Farm all date to the 1800s, and were collected from the surrounding area as representatives of the self-sufficient 19th century farms in the region. (iPhone6)

White Tailed Deer, Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

White Tailed Deer (Odocoileus Virginianus)
As well as readily available building materials, enterprising settlers had plenty of game in the woods, …

Wild Strawberry flowers, Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

Wild Strawberries
… and wild fruits, nuts, and vegetables all around them.

Wild Turkey, Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

Wild Turkey
Native American wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) still roam here. I just caught this one from the car window before s/he moved off into the woods.

View of pastoral lands from a car Window, Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

View from the Window
Unlike the roughly-hewn farms of old, the modern farming operations we pass are tracts of very tidy flat ground. (iPhone6)

Tulip Tree Flowers, Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

Tulip Tree Flowers
The open farmlands are interspersed with expansive National Forests. One of my favourite trees was the exotic Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), a native in these eastern North American Appalachian cove forests.

Mabry Mill in Spring, Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

Mabry Mill in Spring
It’s a picture postcard: an old wooden mill, backed by stone bridges and wet spring Virginia woods.

Mabry Mill in Spring, Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

Mabry Mill  (Mile 176.1)
Some time before 1905, Ed and his wife Lizzie Mabry, together with their neighbour, Newton Hylton, started building a wooden gristmill, waterwheel, …

Water Flume, Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

Water Flume
… and lengthy water supply system – all with local woods and hand tools. 

Water Flume, Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

Water Flume
Ed Mabry understood using water for power. In the late 1800s, he had a water-turned lathe, which he used to make chairs.

Bridge in the Green, Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

Bridge in the Green
The National Park Service purchased the mill and property from Lizzie Mabry in 1938, and finished the restoration in 1942. Today, visitors can wander around the gristmill, sawmill, and blacksmith shop.

Duck on the Lawn, Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

Duck on the Lawn

Rhododendron Buds, Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

Rhododendron Buds
The mill’s surrounds are beautiful; but one can only imagine the daily unremitting physical hard work …

Mabry Mill in Spring, Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

Mabry Mill
… against the gorgeous backdrop of the changing seasons. For a while, the mill was very successful: “…people from as far away as eight miles were bringing their corn to be ground.” But, Ed injured his back in the 1920s, and sporadic rainfall in the 1930s made running the mill unpredictable. When Ed died in 1939, the property was in disrepair.

Tapestry in the Mabry Mill Center, , Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

Mabry Mill Tapestry
Today, the area is popular with tourists all year round, but especially during peak seasons, when old-time craft demonstrations take place. This tapestry is a eye-catching example of the artistic quilting that is a highlight of the region.

Puckett Cabin and its signboard, Blue Ridge Parkway, VA USA

Puckett Cabin (Mile 189.9)
Puckett Cabin on Groundhog Mountain is a visual reminder of another great Appalachian
character: Orlean Hawks Puckett. Alternately called Orleana, Orlena, Aulina, or even Pauline, Orlean was born in 1837 and married at 16. The story is that she gave birth to 24 children between 1862 and 1881 – many were stillborn and none survived more than a day or two. It is not clear why all her children died; while it has been suggested that she or her husband murdered them, it is more likely that she had some disease that infected the baby, like Rh hemolytic disease. Without any formal education, and starting when she was almost 50, she reputedly went on to help deliver more than 1,000 babies without losing a single mother or child. She continued to work as a volunteer midwife almost until her death in 1939 at the age of 102.

View through a windscreen over a rainy Blue Ridge Parkway

Rain on the Parkway
Every mile …

View through a windscreen over a tree-lined Blue Ridge Parkway

View from my Window
… and every hour … (iPhone6)

View through a windscreen of a stone road bridge, Blue Ridge Parkway

Stone Bridge
… as we wound our way from Virginia into North Carolina

Endless Mountains from the Blue Ridge Parkway, NC USA

Endless Mountains
… we could look out over the forests and the mountains and imagine them going on forever as they did in the past. 

NC Highway 23/74 off the Blue Ridge Parkway

Back in the Modern World
Then, unlike the hardy pioneers, we pulled off the Parkway every evening, and re-entered the modern world for the night.

I guess highways and roadworks are part of the price we pay for our modern creature comforts.

It was a very different world for those early Appalachian mountain people – and still is for the communities even now living deep in the woods and mountains … 

Text: Happy Rambling

Until next time,

Happy Rambling!

Pictures: 25-27May2016

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