Remembering life on the mountain

The Valley Banner

ELKTON – Ken Shifflet remembers growing up on the mountain near Simmons Gap.

He was six years old when his mother screamed, “The park people are coming!”

That was Dec. 5, 1935.

“They told my parents to move or they would be set in the road,” he remembered.

The next day, his family moved to a vacant house in Nortonsville in Albemarle County and Shifflet’s father, Ambrose, and his brother, Otto, drove their farm animals down the mountain.

When his father and brother returned on Dec. 7 to retrieve the rest of the family’s belongings, the house was burning. The “park people” had set it ablaze.

Shifflet, 87, has been telling his story about forced relocation from what became Shenandoah National Park for several years now.

He lived with his parents and nine siblings in a 2-story, 6-bedroom log house that was owned by Fox Eiler of Keezletown. Shifflet’s father looked after Eiler’s cattle in the summer.

But Ambrose W. Shifflet wasn’t just a tenant farmer. He also owned 325 acres on the mountain where he had an orchard, garden, sheep, chickens, mules, hogs and milk cows.

His father wouldn’t sell his land to the “park people,” agents the state of Virginia employed from 1930-35 to assess the value of property and offer a price.

They ended up giving Ambrose Shifflet $7,166 for his land.

“He didn’t think it was a fair price,” Ken Shifflet said. “Ninety to 95 percent (of landowners) wouldn’t sell.”

While growing up, Ken Shifflet said he and his brother “were so happy. We made our own toys” using corn stalks and elder limbs, for example.

He remembers shooting marbles every Sunday afternoon.

On Sunday mornings, the Shifflets attended Simmons Gap Mission Home for worship. The former Episcopal church is now a ranger station.

Shifflet fondly recalled one Sunday when he recited the following: “I am but a little boy and I do not have much to say, but I wish each and every one of you a Happy Easter Day!”

Folks used the barter system then, Shifflet said.

Prior to Prohibition, his maternal grandfather, Burton Morris, made moonshine legally. Shifflet said he paid some kind of tax on it.

His parents, Ambrose and Laura Morris Shifflet, grew up on the mountain and were married in 1903.

“My parents were bitter,” Shifflet said. “For me it was sweet. It turned out great for me because otherwise I would’ve been a barefoot boy on the mountain. I would have probably never gone beyond high school.”

Shifflet graduated from Hershey High School in Hershey, Pa., and earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture education from Penn State.

He taught agriculture in high school and later got a master’s degree from the University of Maryland, where he taught agriculture for 30 years.

At age 55, Shifflet became a consultant and managed the Eastern National Livestock Show for over three years. He raised sheep and traveled across the country holding sheep shows.

He and his wife, Anne Louise Frysinger, moved to Harrisonburg in 2003.

Shifflet remembers occasionally attending Roadside School on Beldor Road in the fall of 1935 even though he was too young to enroll. He did it to get away from his mother.

“She needed some space,” he said. “She raised 10 children.”

Shifflet was the youngest. He is the lone survivor now, but is working with the Blue Ridge Heritage Project to honor some 190 displaced families. The project’s Rockingham County committee wants to create a memorial.

It is looking for someone to donate one-third to a half-acre of land between Elkton and Shenandoah National Park.

For more information about the project, call Jim Lawson at 298-0582.

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