The earliest known inhabitants of the Shenandoah Valley were prehistoric hunter-gatherers that used the land more than 9,000 years ago. European settlement started at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the mid-18th century but gradually made its way upslope in search of pasture and farmland. Orchards were planted, and fruit growing soon became an integral part of frontier country life — but not in the way that you might expect!
Fruit, particularly apples, were grown for two primary reasons — to feed hogs and to make hard, alcoholic cider. Apples as a food item were only a tertiary consideration. Every planter had an orchard, and every orchard produced fermented cider for daily consumption. Even children drank diluted cider when milk was not available. Mountain folk also distilled whiskey from crops like rye. Distilled spirits were an effective commodity for several reasons — they were easy to transport, had a long shelf life and were almost always in demand.
While mountain life could be hard, and negative stereotypes of mountain folk have been perpetuated over time, new archeological discoveries have worked to counter the myth that all inhabitants of this region were “primitive,” “unlettered,” or even “medieval.”
A drought in the 1930s caused serious problems for the agrarian communities of settlers in the Shenandoah Valley. The state of Virginia and the federal government began acquiring — by purchase or by condemnation — about 3,000 separate tracts of land for the establishment of a national park. Some saw this as a humanitarian effort, since the denizens of these lands were thought to be backwards and “almost completely cut off from the current of American life.” The idea was to make something beautiful out of something ugly. But in the process, around 500 families were displaced, their communities lost and their lifeways forever altered.
The park was established in 1935, during the Great Depression, and received a lot of attention from the Civilian Conservation Corps, which helped build its famous Skyline Drive, among other things. In fact, the Shenandoah Valley and Skyline Drive were toured by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt before the park was even opened, to help highlight the administration’s new public works projects.