Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Smith Mountain Dam and Lake

I recently read James A. Nagy's new book, Smith Mountain Dam and Lake, published by Arcadia Publishing as part of its Images of America series. I enjoyed the book very much—and I could connect with it on several levels.

The book especially interested me because I have a strong connection to the area and its history. My roots run over 250 years deep into Bedford and Franklin Counties, and my maiden name is Smith. If you look at the portion of the Franklin County settlers' map below, you'll see a John Smith (1771) who owned land on the Blackwater River just below the last bend on the Roanoke River, a bit above and to the left is Samuel Smith (1779), and near him is Stephen English whose family is intertwined with the Smiths. What used to be their land is now under the lake.

My grandmother, Sallie Lee Brown Smith, told me when I was a child in the 1950s that a dam would be built where the gap was in the mountain. It was hard for me to comprehend then. How could they—whoever they was—do that? But Smith Mountain Dam and Lake makes it clear how Appalachian Power Company did it. 

The book is rich in history of how the dam came to be, and numerous illustrations give an idea of the tremendous effort it took to acquire land, clear much of the land, and build the dam in the Smith Mountain gap. The well-organized book is divided into the following sections: "Before the Dam," "Construction at Smith Mountain," "Rising Water," "The Leesville Dam," "Filled to Capacity," "Welcome to the Smith Mountain Project," "Roads and Bridges," and "Developments and Attractions."

For most of the 1950s—while the land was being cleared—I wasn't aware of what was going on, though I'd heard that my grandmother had identified some of the graves that had to be moved because they'd be underwater. According to Nagy (p. 98):  "These old cemeteries posed a challenge with the installation of Smith Mountain and Leesville Dams in that some cemeteries were located in future reservoir areas. Relocation efforts resulted in some 1,100 graves, many marked only with flagstones, being moved to safer locations." 

When my grandfather died in 1959, Granny Sallie went to live with her youngest daughter in Henry County, and the family farm in Union Hall stood empty for a while. When I inherited the property in 1969, the lake—a mile or so from the farm as the crow flies—had  already filled. 

In Smith Mountain Dam and Lake, Nagy includes plenty of photos that show how the area looked as land was cleared, the dam was built, and the lake was filling. "In September 1963, the dam completely closed the gap at Smith Mountain in order to allow the lake to begin to form." (p. 30) The lake wasn't completely full, however, until 1966. 

I can remember in the early 70s how muddy the lake was and how roads dead-ended in the lake. Not many houses had been built along the shore then, but a lot of local folks had trailers on lakeshore land they'd rented from Appalachian. Some of the local folks whose farms ended up as lakefront property made money from selling off lots. In the 60s, when my daddy's half-uncle Rufus offered to sell him a lake lot in the Union Hall area, Daddy declared that "two thousand dollars is way too much for an acre of land on that mud hole!"

Who could have known then how much that mud hole would change? Smith Mountain Dam and Lake chronicles the changes. The last chapter, "Developments and Attractions" gives a glimpse of how much the lake has changed the area—not just physically but also economically. In this chapter, he mentions the lake's recent history—movies filmed at the lake, the development of Westlake, the brewery, the Virginia Dare, and others.

One of the attractions Nagy mentions is Booker T. Washington National Monument, formerly the James Burroughs plantation. Some of the plantation's land once belonged to my 5th-great grandfather, Jesse Dillon, Sr., who once owned 1,100 acres stretching from Crossroads to Haleford. In 1833, Jesse sold 170 acres of his land to Thomas Burroughs for $900 and a grey mare. Burroughs then sold it and some other acreage to his brother James. Jesse, who was in his 80s, died later that year—on June 12—and is buried near the Blackwater River—one of the rivers that flows into the lake.

What would Jesse think about how his rural neighborhood has changed? And would my grandmother have ever realized that the red clay road—then known as the racetrack—running past her farm would end in many upscale lake neighborhoods?

Granny Sallie, in front of the cabin where she lived for over 40 years.

She'd to go to Bethel Church by way of the racetrack, which crossed the creek at Houseman's Ford and continued on to the church. Now there's a neighborhood on the cove that used to be where the ford used to be before the lake filled in. I've used Houseman's Ford in both my two novels and the lake in one of them.

In Patches on the Same Quilt, two characters leaving Bethel Church race their horses along the racetrack and stop at Housman's Ford. In Stuck, the main character encounters a ghost who had a buggy accident near Houseman's Ford and who can't believe a lake is now in the area.

If you're writing a novel about the Smith Mountain Lake area, Smith Mountain Dam and Lake could provide you some good background information—what the area used to be, how the lake was built, and how the area changed. But Nagy's book is useful to non-novelists, too. Smith Mountain Dam and Lake is a good history reference book for those interested in regional history. Newcomers to Smith Mountain Lake might enjoy learning about life in their area. And, of course, long-time residents and natives of the Franklin-Bedford area would enjoy the book.

I highly recommend Smith Mountain Dam and Lake.

NOTE: James Nagy will be doing a presentation on his book  on March 26 at the Westlake Library at 2 PM and the Rocky Mount Library at 6:30 PM. On March 27, he'll be at the Moneta/SML Library at 2 PM. If you're in the area, you might want to stop by. Meanwhile, there are articles in local publications you might enjoy: The Franklin News-Post, the Laker Weekly, and the Smith Mountain Eagle.

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