Sunday, November 25, 2012

A walk in the gorge

Had a big crowd of folks at the groaning board on Thanksgiving Day. We ate turkey and a wrap-cooked ham, Martha B's spectacular cornbread dressing and squash casserole, and Frannie, still cooking at 90, whipped up two great pumpkin pies.  Here are the satisfied diners:
Three generations: Front row, Jack B., Carol Strickland, Anna Palmer, Mary Minor Betts.; Second row, Xan Palmer, Jack Palmer, Frannie Strickland, Martha B.; third row, Karen Johnson, Bill Strickland, John Betts, Juta Geurtsen

The day after Thanksgiving we took a walk down the Rock Castle Gorge, a national recreation area that runs from its head in the Blue Ridge to its foot in the western Piedmont. They call it the Rock Castle because of the stupendous rock fall about halfway down the Gorge, where some folks think it looks like a tumbled-down castle with massive crystalline rocks.  Hard to see 'em in this little picture, though.

 It was a lovely stroll of perhaps 5 miles from the gate at the Rocky Knob Housekeeping Cabins operated by contractors for the Blue Ridge Parkway and the National Park Service, down to a parking area near the old Civil Conservation Corps camp not far from Virgina Route 8.  Back in the 1950s my parents took us on a long trip up the parkway, and we stayed at the Housekeeping Cabins, just a few miles from where we live now, one night. I hear the Park Service is looking for a new vendor to run the cabins but is having trouble finding one -- and that the cabins might not be operating unless some infrastructure improvements can be made. That would be a shame.  But the hiking in the Gorge will always be good.
Juta and John

Martha B., Juta, Mary and ye olde Ink Stained Wretch. Photo by JBIII

We passed, by my count, at least eight stone chimneys on the way down, indicating the narrow gorge has been occupied by a number of families over the years, and crossed the Rock Castle Creek at least three time by dancing across on the rocks.

 Crossing the creek were Mary Betts, John Betts and Juta Geurtsen, who we're turning into a farmhand back at the Rocky Knob Tractor & Yacht Club, starting with the short course in Tractor 101:
Juta tractoring along in the high field, with an academic adviser clinging to the three-point hitch

Ready to plant something, or mow it, or put down some  postholes....

Meanwhile, back in the woods, down near the bottom of the Rock Castle Gorge lies a handsome house that once belonged, according to an account I found by our Meadows of Dan, VA neighbor Leslie Shelor, to Sam Underwood and his wife, Addie Belcher Underwood.  I had heard years ago that the National Park Service had bought the land but granted the owning family a life tenancy in the house. I don't know if that's true, but Leslie Shelor's account of the Gorge and the Underwood house, still looking good after all these years, is worth reading. Her words, written for a website called Blue Ridge Gazette in 2006, follows this.  I hoped to learn more but did not find a Part Two on the website.

From Leslie Shelor:
Part One: Rock Castle Gorge

Image: Edith Underwood and Ruby Underwood in Rock Castle

Ruby Underwood was born in 1913 in a little hollow of the Blue Ridge Mountains known as Rock Castle. She was the sixth of eight children born in a time of large families and small communities of subsistence farms. Her life spanned seventy-nine years of great change in the mountains that she called home.

Ruby's father, Samuel Henry Underwood, descended from Pennsylvania Quaker stock, independent thinkers that were churched for various reasons and left Pennsylvania for the freedom of the mountain frontier. Her mother, Addie Belcher, was of solid German descent. The Belchers were some of the first settlers in the Rock Castle community, with early deeds showing their presence shortly after Patrick County was formed.

Rock Castle, now known as Rock Castle Gorge and National Park Service property, possibly was named after the quartz rocks that are found in the area. Some think that "Rock Castle" is a corruption of "Rock Crystal". Others think that the name came from the bare rock cliffs that show in the side of the mountain; looking up at them a fanciful nature might think that they looked like stone castles. The community was large enough in 1861 to appear on a railroad map printed at the time, while other communities, including Meadows of Dan, were left off. Oddly enough, there was no railroad through the area, but the 'main road' on that side of the mountain, a steep wagon trail winding up the mountain, went through Rock Castle.

Ruby grew up in a community of farmers that were nearly all related to her; those families not related had lived side by side for generations. Stories of life down in Rock Castle reveal a close-knit community. Gatherings at the Bear (or Bare) Rocks, a large tumble of huge boulders that thrust out of the mountains, included picnics for the entire community, singing, exploring of caves and a little courting while children scrambled over stones and into crevices with an abandon unknown in today's world. There was a cave somewhere in the rocks, or nearby in the mountains, where the local explorers wrote or carved names and quotations. There was the "Potato Hill" named for its shape or the fact that potatoes grew well there. Rock Castle Creek tumbled down the mountain, usually in sight of the main road.

Sam Underwood's two story frame house stood above Rock Castle Creek, surrounded by gardens, pastures and outbuildings. A Delco plant provided electricity for lights in the house and a large stone chimney with fireplaces and cookstoves provided warmth. Ruby and her sisters helped with the cooking, tending the chickens and gardening, while her older brothers got out early to tackle heavier chores. All of the children helped with getting in the hay, and Ruby, as the smallest, was sent atop the haystack to stamp the hay down as it was pitchforked up. The hay had to be stacked with particular care, and Ruby remembered how itchy and hot the job was, clinging to the pole in the middle and marching around on top of the slippery hay as the stack rose higher beneath her bare feet.

Apple orchards also surrounded the houses and apples were stored in cellars, along with potatoes and onions, or dried for the winter. Before the chestnut blight devastated the mountains and robbed the settlers of the rich bounty of the chestnut tree, the children were sent out to gather the chestnuts to be sold for cash money for necessities that couldn't be obtained on the farm. The money for Chestnuts provided sugar, coffee, and shoes for the children to wear to school in the winter. Thousands of pounds of chestnuts were shipped from Patrick County each year to markets in the Northern states.

Family was important to the people in the mountains, who still count kin as far away as fifth or sixth cousins. Ruby's large extended family included uncles and cousins that lived down in the mountain as well as more distant kin in the surrounding hills. Ruby's grandfather, Reed Belcher, was a Civil War veteran. When she was small Addie and her sister took turns caring for the old man, bringing him up and down the mountain with the seasons. Ruby remembered them sitting him up in his rocking chair in the farm wagon to transport him from house to house.

Reed Belcher's story was one that is remembered by the family. He and at least one of his brothers went into service with the Confederate army, but their father kept one or two of the boys at home, either because he needed the help or he felt that he had risked enough with sending the boys that had gone. There are conflicting versions of this tale, but Ruby's story is partly supported by documentation. A Confederate conscription force came through Rock Castle "hunting for Belchers", according to the Confederate captain's diary. They found the old man at home but the boys had fled into the rhododendron thickets and were well hidden. One version of the tale has the mother of the children flinging a dipper of water in the captain's face when he demanded refreshment for his troops. Most versions agree that when the troops couldn't locate the elusive Belcher boys, they 'strung up' the old man from a tree in the yard by his neck. Apparently they just pulled him up in the tree to strangle, rather than actually hanging him and breaking his neck. The boys were nearby and with their mother were able to rescue their father.

Image: Alfred Underwood family, including Sam Underwood

When Reed heard the story, he was so disgusted he quit the Confederate army and went to Ohio, joining up with the Union force. It's said that there was some family feeling about the situation. Reed received a small pension, while other members of the family that had fought for the Confederate forces didn't qualify. Ruby said that to tease the old man the older boys would sing "Dixie" to infuriate him.

Henry Dillon was a neighbor who taught a school in the area and acted as an unofficial doctor during emergencies. He said he obtained his education from reading whatever books he could get his hands on. He and Sam Underwood had a good bit in common; Sam was a reader and subscribed to the Atlanta Constitution, which couldn't be touched by anyone else until he read it. His children were all great readers, especially Ruby, who read the heavy newspaper even when she was too small to understand the stories. There were a few treasured books in the house, read over and over and shared with the children.

Another neighbor was a woman farmer who raised her children and kept the farm alone, with only the help that the neighborhood folks could spare her. She was well-respected as a hard worker and self-sufficient woman, and was called "Mrs." although she never married, as far as can be discovered. One of her sons stayed with her and took over the farm as she grew older, staying there with her until the Park Service purchased the land.

Ruby's early childhood years were spent deep in Rock Castle, where she was surrounded by family and friends and wealth in the form of a large and loving family to protect and provide for her. Necessary chores were done, even by small children, but there was plenty of time to play with cousins from up and down the mountain and to explore the creek and surrounding hills. Children invented their own games, toys were few and treasured but imagination was boundless.

To Be continued....


  1. After reading your post, we're going to have to put a hike in Rock Castle Gorge and an overnight at Rocky Knob Cabins on our list of places to stop when we take our "dream vacation" of driving the entire Skyland Drive/Blue Ridge Parkway and staying at all the Park Service lodges along the way. We had planned to do it in April last year but discovered the Park Service sites aren't open that early, so we postponed it.

  2. Interesting account. When my family bought the "White House" in the gorge, no one mentioned the Underwoods, but the Blues and the Connors who were descendants of the original Belcher family. I can correct one part though; the Park service has not bought the property (any topo of the property of the park will show you the patch missing in the middle of it where the trail passes through our front yard). We still own it and have for more then fifty years and there is no generational limitation on it. We try to be good neighbors and the Park Service mostly leaves us alone though we know many of the rangers and have had them over several times (especially after the big repair of the road recently!).


  4. Thanks for the update and the correction! Hope to meet you some time. We live on the ridge behind you -- or rather, know how the terrain works around here, maybe two or three ridges behind you, up on the south side of Belcher Mountain Road. Jack

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