We are experiencing another brief hot and humid period here at Peeper Pond Farm, so Barb and I decided to seek refuge yesterday (Monday, August 6) at a higher and cooler elevation—Skyline Drive at nearby Shenandoah National Park. I actually had another good reason to make this trip. I learned recently that a series of memorial monuments (in the shape of solitary pioneer stone chimneys) are being erected to recognize all of the families who were forced to leave their homes and land for the construction of Shenandoah National Park. I was very encouraged to hear that, nearly 80 years after they were evicted from their ancestral lands, their tremendous sacrifices would receive the recognition and honor they deserve. I should note that the National Park Service prefers the word “displaced,” but it is sadly inappropriate to apply that term to those who were removed against their will. After all, I’m talking about the same government that called the Trail of Tears Cherokee removal a “relocation.”
I call their forced removal tremendous sacrifices because the “just compensation” they received did not recognize the intrinsic value of the pain they experienced by the taking of the land they cherished and the loss of the self-reliant lifestyle they obtained from it. All they received was the price that the land was worth to a prospective buyer—a price that was greatly diminished by the discriminatory negative stereotypes that had been applied to them by a society that viewed them and their way of living as simple, regressive, hostile, and uncouth. Viewed from that perspective, the forced eviction from the land where their ancestors lived and were buried was for their own best interest. Just think of all the advantages they would receive by a forced assimilation into the outside modern world. They could take a bath to become more presentable; they could get an education that would make them smarter and more useful to society; they could get a job and earn money to pay for the replacement homes they had to buy, and they would learn how to function in a modern, fast-paced, sophisticated society that would gradually turn them into upstanding citizens in the eyes of the people who had judged them. With all those benefits awaiting them, why should anyone care about their forced separation from their own circle of friends and relatives, the loss of their connection to the land and abundant natural resources that allowed them to live the way they desired, the fear of a forced adjustment to a vastly different way of living and society that they had no desire to join, and the scorn they would continue to face more immediately from the outside world that now lived next door? These are the impacts they were forced to bear and for which they were not justly compensated, because no one cared to view them as different people who, in many even if not all cases, chose to live that way for generations.
I hear many people today in our highly politicized society refer to themselves and their values as “inclusive, enlightened, and sensitive.” As someone who was raised in a different social and economic setting that more closely resembled a self-reliant lifestyle, I strongly agree that those are respectable values. They are wholly consistent with my own core values which I internalized from my upbringing on our family dairy farm. However, I also recognize that those values are merely good descriptive words if they are not backed by the actions that give the words value, substance, and integrity. The word “inclusive” means “not excluding any section of society or any party involved in something.” I contend that those people who desire and aspire to live self reliantly are a party involved in a free lifestyle choice that, while different in nature from the modern technology- and money-driven lifestyle that most people live today, should not be viewed as inferior or disreputable. They did not request or seek pity or support from others. Many people who live that way possess lifestyle skills that would give them a superior ability to survive and maintain their standard of living in the event that our modern economy should fail. To look down on that valid lifestyle choice would not bring legitimacy to any people who call themselves inclusive, enlightened, or sensitive. Yet, I know many people today who do and then illegitimately lay claim to those values. Unfortunately, for many self-reliant and poor citizens of our country, the monetary value of the land they own is decided exclusively from that paternal and condescending perspective—as it was for the people forced to leave their land so that the rest of society could have a new playground and for Romaine Tenney who was forced to leave his land for an Interstate highway interchange.
The story of Romaine Tenney is the reason why I was so glad to hear about the new monuments. I first learned of him during my childhood from my father, who was acquainted with him during the four years in the early 1960’s when their lives overlapped. They weren’t close friends, but our family farm was only five miles by road from Romaine’s farm, and they eventually became acquainted with each other. Perhaps they didn’t have time to establish a longstanding relationship, but my father understood him and held him in high esteem.
My father was not someone most people would consider to be emotional. He always faced the cold, hard realities of life with steadfast determination, dignity, and self-control. I now realize and admit that I internalized those characteristics from him. However, I recall many times when my father would tell Romaine Tenney’s tragic story, and it would bring a tear to his eye, as he would struggle to maintain his composure. That always caught my attention and it made the story something that would influence my thinking about the forces that took his heritage and homestead away, as I faced my own compelled transition into the outside world.
Although the government did not force me to leave the farm that raised me, my adoptive parents did by repeatedly instructing us not to aspire to live as we did and that our only futures were based in the outside modern world that we didn’t really understand. Maybe I was not raised in my adopted home of West Virginia, but like many natives, I came to know what it was like to feel ashamed of my upbringing by the humor my fellow college students found in my accent, manner of speaking, rural behavioral characteristics, and the very different stories I had to tell of my upbringing. Many of my college friends and acquaintances simply didn’t believe the stories I told of how we lived. Society didn’t feel very inclusive or accepting to me then until I learned how to recreate myself in their accepted way of being. I hope that experience earns me some understanding and acceptance from native West Virginians. Perhaps it, along with my 30-year professional planning career, also gives me a more balanced and credible perspective from which to discuss the issue of private property rights and public land takings. For that is the core issue that unites the new Shenandoah eviction monuments with Romaine Tenney. I hope you will indulge me while I explain his story to you. A very sensitive and more detailed account of his life can be found in the March/April 2013 issue of Yankee magazine. That article serves as the source for the details of his life that I will recount below, some of which I have forgotten over the years and some of which I never knew.
Romaine Tenney was born and raised on a 90-acre dairy farm in the Weathersfield, Vermont village of Ascutney that his father purchased in April 1892. Romaine was the only child in a family of nine that remained on the farm as an adult to continue the family’s dairy operation. He never married and eventually operated the farm alone without any modern conveniences. He milked his herd of 25-50 cows by hand, worked his fields with two teams of horses, mowed his yard with a scythe, lived without electricity, and owned no car or truck. If he needed to make a trip into town, he either walked five or so miles across the Connecticut River to the City of Claremont, hitched a ride along the way, or scheduled a ride with one of two brothers who lived in Claremont. He lived his own life in his own way and never changed his clocks for daylight savings time because it just didn’t matter to him or his cows. He had a lean but muscular build honed from his years of manual farm work. While Romaine’s lifestyle would seem difficult and reclusive by today’s standard, he enjoyed it immensely and always openly greeted strangers and friends with an engaging and sincere smile of contentment. When one of his neighbors, concerned about his hand-milking difficulties caused by advancing arthritis, helped him install electrical service to his barn for milking machines, he soon had it removed because he preferred milking by hand. His land and animals were close to him because they were the pillars that supported his lifestyle. He simply chose to live as he did.
Romaine’s life was fine and fulfilling until one day in the early 1960’s, when a survey crew charting the path for Interstate 91 approached his property. The State of Vermont had tried to purchase his house for $10,600, but he refused to sell. Eventually, the State condemned his property and initiated eminent domain proceedings against him. Eminent domain is a legal process by which private property can be taken without the owner’s consent for a “public use” for “just compensation” as determined by the courts. At his condemnation trial, a jury increased the State’s purchase price by $3,000, and he was told he would have to leave his farm by April 1, 1964. He never complied and only stated repeatedly that he wasn’t leaving his land—even to friends who had offered to assist him.
A standoff resulted that lasted more than five months until September 11, 1964, one week after Romaine’s 64th birthday. That day, the local Sheriff arrived at his door with a court order to evict him. As Romaine watched solemnly from a side porch on the house, the Sheriff’s deputies began to remove his personal belongings from the horse barn and sheds and stacked them in piles underneath an elm tree. That was the last day anyone saw Romaine Tenney.
Just after midnight, Romaine turned his cows and horses free and set fire to the barn. He then barricaded himself inside the house and set it aflame. When the fire department responded around 3:00 AM, the house was engulfed in flames and the doors were nailed shut. The fire burned so hot that it melted the plastic emergency light on top of the fire chief’s car that was parked about 80 feet away. There was nothing more anyone could do.
When the fire died down, they found the remains of Romaine’s body underneath his bed with a rifle that had been fired. All assumed he had committed suicide while the house around him burned to the ground. Romaine had said quite firmly, “I was born here, and I will die here.” He wasn’t trying to prevent the highway from being built; he only wanted it to bypass his cherished farm. However, the State refused to alter the highway’s course to spare his property. It was a showdown that neither side won, even though Vermont was able to build the Interstate across his land. By doing so, Vermont inherited a legacy that it is loath to acknowledge even today. Vermont got her highway at the expense of a permanent scar on her reputation—a blemish that boldly proclaims the State’s lack of compassion, empathy, and understanding for a man whose land meant far more to him than it could ever comprehend.
The pain that ended Romain’s life is not impossible to comprehend. It is a pain that has been expressed by countless other politically marginalized people who have faced a forced eviction from their family lands. Those who were forcibly removed to make way for Shenandoah National Park and the Skyline Drive understood that pain. Their personal sacrifices in the face of “progress” were no different. Of the roughly 465 families living in the purchase boundaries of the proposed park—many of whom were removed by force—only 14 were eventually given the right to live out their remaining lives on their ancestral lands. The last one to pass away was Annie Shank in 1979.
We rightly extoll and honor the sacrifice made for our Nation’s veterans and reward them with many forms of public assistance. Yet, when people stand gallantly and fearlessly in the path of “progress,” our society labels them as regressives and proceeds to push them aside without regret. Something in that dichotomy seems ironic and inconsiderate to me. That’s why I was eager to see the new monuments and praise the National Park Service for finally recognizing these great sacrifices. However, as we drove along the parkway, we struggled to find a park employee who could tell us where to find them. Eventually, we learned that the National Park Service had no role in building them and none of them have been placed on National Park property. They are being designed and built by the Blue Ridge Committee For Shenandoah Park Relations – a committee founded by Rockingham County, VA. More’s the pity.
We eventually found one of the monuments built in Ed Good Memorial Park in the Town of Stanley. It stands starkly before the 4,051-foot Hawkbill Mountain, the highest point in Shenandoah National Park. Separated from the National Park, but visible to it—perhaps appropriately. After all, a government that refuses to truly understand and acknowledge the sacrifices made by all of its people certainly doesn’t deserve any credit for honoring them. It is the counties that work on their own to memorialize them that do.
Before closing this post, I wish to clarify my personal and professional stance on the topic of Eminent Domain. I fully understand and agree that our country would not survive if there was no legal process by which major public projects—that benefit everyone—could move forward. However, that legal process should not work to the detriment of people who chose to live self-reliantly and, in doing so, have an attachment to their land and lifestyle without due consideration for their sacrifices. I see nothing in the term “just compensation” that should not embrace and reflect the deeper intrinsic attachment to the land that self-reliant people hold simply because they are a poor and politically marginalized segment of our society. That is my measure of a truly empathic, sensitive, and inclusive government, and I tried hard to be sensitive to those concerns throughout my 30-year planning career. Whenever a community of people must be removed to make way for an essential public project, every effort should be made to understand, accommodate, and, if no other alternative remains, replace the essential living conditions and needs of its citizens. After all, we would do no less for our veterans. Were the sacrifices requested of Romaine Tenney and the hundreds of self-reliant families removed to make way for Shenandoah National Park any less significant? They all faced losing their land, their heritage, their way of life, and in some cases their community of friends and family. I believe we should expect more from a government established by the people to protect and respect their fundamental freedoms. In my view, there is ample room for improvement. If you can agree with me, I hope you will always remember the story of Romaine Tenney.