One of many articles published locally in Luray, Virginia about Melanchton Cliser and his property in the Shenandoah. Articles were published all over the country about this incident in 1935. The following was published in the Page County Courier in 1983. The writer of the article, Carolyn Reeder later published a children's book called "Grandpa's Mountain" - a story inspired by this event.
It was back in 1935 when Melanchton & Carrie Cliser were forced out their home, but people on both sides of the Blue Ridge still talk about it. Though the Cliser name has been forgotten by almost everyone except for their relatives and former neighbors, the story has grown into a local legend. It's told whenever people talk about how the mountain families were moved out so the Shenandoah National Park could be developed.The facts of the situation are soemtimes confused, but the feelings expressed are strong:
- "A man over the mountain, he was taken to jail because he wouldn't give up his place."
- "There was one man that tried to protect his home with a gun, but they tricked him and took it away."- "In Thornton Gap, one family's furniture was just put on the side of the road."
- "That man with the gas station, he should of been allowed to stay in business for the tourists. He shouldn't of been made to leave."
The Cliser's daughter, Merle Fox, who lives in Luray just a few miles from the homeplace that was lost, still broods about what happened to them, and she shared her memories and her brittle newspaper clippings so that their story might be told.The background for the story is this: The forested slopes of what is now Shenandoah National Park once were openland - the fields and pastures and orchards of a few large landowners, a number of smaller family farms, some tenant farmers and numerous families termed "squatters" by outsiders though their ancestors had worked the soil the lived on generations.
8Melanchton Cliser was considerably better off than many of the people in the area that was to become the Park. He was better educated than most and was prosperous. He owned 46 acres with frontage on Lee highway where he had a gas staion and store and where his wife ran a lunchroom. The Cliser house had conveniences that were rare in that area at the time - indoor plumbing with gravity-flow running water and electricity generated by a Delco System.
The house was large and comfortable, with seven rooms and a bath. Behind it were the barn, meat house, car shed and other outbuildings. Beside it stood the small store and lunchroom."We served ham sandwiches and pie. For 10 cents you could buy a quarter section of a pie about 2 inches thick" remembers Mrs. Fox.It was a good life. but then came news of the plan for Virginia to buy up the mountain land and then transfer it to the federal government for a national park. As early as 1929, Melanchton Cliser wrote letters to the editor of the Page News & Courier decrying the takeover of private property and trying to rally the small landowners to work together to oppose it legally.But some of the people affected were resigned to the idea of leaving. It was becoming harder and harder to live self-sufficiently in the mountains as modern ways encroached on the traditional lifestyle. Some families wanted to leave their isolated hill farms and move where their children could have better medical care and education and where they would have access to modern conveniences. Those who did not want to leave their homes were helpless against the power of the government.
Plans were made by various government agencies to resettle the tenant farmers and so-called squatters who would receive nothing for their homes and land and most property owners, willingly or not, sold their land and bought new farms outside the Park boundaries.But Melanchton Cliser was one of those who refused to sell. He fought for his home and business in every way be could. More than once he wrote to the Secretery of the Interior. He wrote to President Roosevelt and even telephoned the White House. And finally he simply refused to accept the $4,855 check in payment for his land. Since he had not taken the check, he reasoned that the land had not be bought. If it had not been bought, it was still his and he would not leave it. "This is the only home I've ever known and I aim to keep it," he said.
8When the chairman and secretary of Virginia Commission on Conservation and Development came into his store to talk to him about the situation, Cliser told them, "If you want to buy anything, buy it. If you don't, get out." When county workers came to read him an eviction notice, he barricaded himself in the kithcen and refused to listen.
Public opinion was strongly on his side, In fact it took the threat of contempt of court to get the sheriff to take decisive action and carry out the eviction ordern against Cliser.
This action came on the morning of October 3, 1935, when the sheriff and four other law enforcement officers in plain clothes pulled up by one of Cliser's gas pumps. Thinking that they were customers, Cliser approached their car and they promptly handcuffed him.
Cliser was taken into Luray to talk with the Circuit Court judge who had signed the eviction papers, not to jail as many people had beleive. While the judge tried to explain how his home and land would be taken in this way, everything was moved out of the house and - as they story tells - set at the edge of highway. See photograph by Arthur Rothstein on this site that famously documents this event.
8 8Newspaper accounts of the day quote a state official as saying that if Cliser had been willing to apply for a special permit, he could have continued to operate his business on a month-to-month basis, as some of the other people in the area were doing.
"But that wasn't the point", says his daughter. "That wasn't what he wanted. He wanted to stay in his home and operate his business for good".
"My father believed in the Constitution," Mrs. Fox continues, "He never got over what happened, He never thought something like that could happen to one in America-"
But it did happen.
The seven room house and it's nine outbuildings were razed and the Cliser's moved into a crooked old log house" a mile or so from where their daughter lived. The busy days when they ran the store and gas station and lunchroom were over.
Melanchton Cliser died at 74, but his wife lived to be 97 spending the last years of her life in her daughters home.
8For many years the location of the Cliser place was visible on the south side of 211, about 1 1/2 miles west of Panorama, but now the flat gravel area area that had surrounded the gas pumps is completely overgrown. If you explore the wooded area, though, some foundation outlines can still be found and the day lilies that Carrie Cliser planted in the yeard still push their way up through the forest floor each spring.
Over 70 years later (2009), this story is still alive in the Hollows and local history. "Shenandoah Moon", a local play production out of Waynesboro, Virginia included Mr. Cliser as one of the characters in this play.