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Lohmann: Through hardship and displacement, a mountain family maintained their love and humor

Lohmann: Through hardship and displacement, a mountain family maintained their love and humor

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Sherman Shifflett is writing a book about his father.

I know this because he has sent me a few sample chapters to read, which is how I came to learn about the mountain residents who were displaced for the creation of Shenandoah National Park. Shifflett’s family was among them.

Look in Sunday’s Flair section for a piece I’ve written about the Blue Ridge Heritage Project and its effort to honor those who lost their homes to eminent domain so the National Park Service could develop one of its first parks in the East.

For the families of those who did not want to move, it remains a story that is understandably sad and at times infuriating, but it’s nice to see the displaced recognized for their sacrifice.

It’s also good to see the park has come around in the way it tells the story of how it came to be and acknowledging the lives and plight of the former residents of the park land who long ago were portrayed in a less-than-flattering and -truthful light.

Sherman Shifflett hadn’t been born when his family was forced from its Rockingham County home in 1933, but his four oldest siblings spent their early years on the mountain. The family moved to Albemarle County, and Sherman was born at University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville in 1942 on April 13, which happens to be Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. His mother told him the nurses were trying to get her to name him “Thomas Jefferson Shifflett.”

“I thanked Mom many times for not doing that,” Shifflett wrote, though he did get “Thomas” as a middle name. He prefers “Sherman” to “T.J.,” though he doesn’t know where they got “Sherman.”

Of course, Sherman was the ninth of 11 children, so his parents had run through a lot of names by the time he came along.

“One time, a neighbor asked Dad, ‘Mr. Shifflett, why did you have so many children?’” Sherman has written in the as-yet-unpublished manuscript. “Dad thought for a few seconds and responded, “That’s the only thing I know to do to keep the youngest child from being spoiled.’”

Shifflett, a retired teacher and administrator at Louisa High School now in his second term on the county School Board, enjoys rambling around Virginia. Over the years, he has offered me a number of travel tips, including several solid dining recommendations.

He introduced me to the inimitable Eugenia T. Bumpass, now 102, a Louisa educator for whom the library in the recently rebuilt high school was named (and whom I wrote about in 2016). All of that, and we share a mutual interest in pie.

So, it was only right that when I went to interview Shifflett, we wound up the afternoon at Floozies Pie Shop in Louisa. You can’t go wrong with the sour cherry.

It’s been enlightening reading Shifflett’s words about his father and the challenging, self-reliant life his family led on the mountain in Rockingham and later in the foothills of Albemarle.

They raised cattle and milk cows, pigs and chickens. His father worked in surrounding orchards and dug ginseng, gathered American chestnuts by the bushel to eat, feed to the hogs and sell. His family would make an expedition to Harrisonburg or Elkton several times a year for staples it couldn’t produce: salt, sugar, coffee, spices.

Fruit and vegetables were dried, canned and buried for winter use in straw-lined holes. (Back at his home, Shifflett had brought out one of his treasures: a large, old, blue-tinted Mason jar that his mother had brought off the mountain. “She gave it to me just before she died,” he said.)

Hams were cured and sausage was canned. His family would deliver grain to the gristmill for flour and cornmeal; the miller wouldn’t charge for his services but would keep a percentage of the grain.

“The Great Depression had minimum impact on the family,” Shifflett wrote. “They had no money in the bank and did not trust banks anyway. What money they had was placed in fruit jars and buried.”

His family was poor, but early on the children learned the value of hard work and responsibility — several of the Shifflett children, Sherman among them, went on to earn graduate degrees. They also grew to appreciate the importance of humor. His father, Harvey, and mother, Nelie, saw to that.

“I used to hear them laughing long after the lights had been turned off,” Shifflett wrote. “I heard laughter most mornings before I came down the steps. Many mornings I woke up and heard the coffee pot perking, and the pleasant aroma of coffee wafting throughout the house.

“But, above all else, I remember the laughter emanating from the kitchen. We were poor, but we had the basic necessities — food, shelter, clothing. There were very few amenities, but we had each other, we had love and we had lots and lots of laughter.

“Often, we laughed when we should have cried.”


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