A Conversation with Anne Mitchell Whisnant, author of Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History.
Q: What inspired you to write the history of the Blue Ridge Parkway?
A: I came to love the North
Carolina mountains the summer I turned 10, when my family spent six
weeks at Lake Junaluska United Methodist Assembly, near Waynesville.
When I returned to Junaluska to work during my college years in the late
1980s, I rediscovered the Parkway. Later, when I was becoming a
professional historian, I realized the Parkway had a fascinating and
complicated history that had never been writtenpartly, it seemed,
because no one thought there was much to say beyond a few anecdotes
about design and construction. When I learned that the Eastern Cherokees
had fought the Parkway construction for five years in the 1930s, I knew
there was more to the story, and I set out to write about the Parkway's
Q: What were some of the highlights of your fifteen years of research on the Parkway?
A: There are several, but one was
when I began my research in the Parkway's Asheville archive, when it was
housed in an abandoned Veteran's Administration hospital dormitory.
There was no electricity and no archival staff. I read by the window
light and later took notes on a laptop computer connected to an AC/DC
converter hooked to my car's cigarette lighter. Another memorable moment
was when I was driven up the steep and curvy Grandfather Mountain road
in a monsoon rain by then-eighty-three-year-old mountain owner Hugh
Morton, who insisted on stopping the car to get out and take photographs
of the cascading water.
Q: While doing your research, did you at first intend to challenge the myths and beliefs that surrounded the making of the Parkway or did your exploration lead you there?
A: When I started, I believed many
of the myths! The first book about the Parkway's history I read was
Harley Jolley's The Blue Ridge Parkway, which primarily popularized the
mythical history. Until I got into the archives, I had no reason to
think that much of what he wrote was misleadingly simple. The key for me
was to have a direct encounter with the historical documentsto let the
voices of the past speak to me. If following those voices has meant
overturning myths, it is only because I have sought to be as true as I
can be to the history.
Q: Why do you think the popular myth of the ParkwayÑthat it "was miraculously laid on the land"has flourished while the actual history is virtually unknown?
A: I think this has happened
largely because the myth appears to fit what people see, and want to
see, when they travel the Parkway. The Parkway is a carefully designed
landscape that presents a very controlled, picturesque scene. Behind
that scene are complicated, messy, sometimes not-very-pretty stories
about what was there before and how the Parkway came to be. Over the
years the traces of those stories on the landscape have been all but
wiped away by the National Park Service. When most people see what
remainsÑthe peaceful, apparently undisturbed natural landscape with a
few rough-hewn buildingsthey have trouble imagining that the Parkway's
creation was not easy. Additionally, most Parkway history has been
written either by people within the National Park Service or by people
with backgrounds in landscape architecture. These studies have tended to
focus on the Parkway's design, neglecting other equally important
people, perspectives, and forces. Hence, almost no one has revisited the
historical documents to see what they actually say. I myself was
surprised by the conflicted stories they revealed.
Q: What's the story behind the title, Super-Scenic Motorway?
A: The title comes from an article
written by early Parkway designer Stanley W. Abbott for a 1941 travel
booklet called the Eastern National Park-to-Park Annual and The Blue
Ridge Parkway Guide: "The Blue Ridge Parkway: 500-mile Super-Scenic
Motorway: A New Element in Recreational Planning within Day's Drive of
60,000,000 People." Although I found the article very early in my
research, I rediscovered it when the book was nearly finished. I was
captivated by the simple-but-catchy descriptiveness of "Super-Scenic
Motorway," and was pleased to reuse a phrase that dated from the
Parkway's early development.
Q: There are a number of photos in your book, many of historical significance. How did you decide which to include? Do you have a favorite?
A: Since my book does explore the
Parkway's history and is not another coffee table book or travel guide,
I wanted to try to do something different with my photographs. I tried
to include images that sharpened the stories told in the book. One of my
favorites depicts the early timbering of Grandfather Mountain, while
another clearly shows the relationship of the Parkway to the road that
takes visitors to the privately owned Mile-High Swinging Bridge at the
mountain's peak. These two imageswhich I spent months
seekingcontradict a popular myth about the mountain's history and were
difficult to locate. The mountain's owner would not release an early
postcard he had published showing the road to the Bridge, and Park
Service staff members did not believe they had any Grandfather Mountain
photographs. It was exciting to find them in the Parkway headquarters a
few weeks before the manuscript went into production.
Q: You note that there are several unresolved issues surrounding the Parkway that you do not expand on in the book. How did you narrow your focus?
A: For every episode I examined in
detail, there were many others I could have looked into. The archival
record of the Parkway is massive and spread over more than 20
repositories. In order to finish this book in my lifetime, I could not
talk about every interesting story. So I selected a few that allowed me
to cover the major social and cultural issues: the Parkway's origins and
context, land acquisition and use, and relationships between the
existing private tourist industry and neighboring landowners. The cases
I chose were well documented and important, offered new insights into
Parkway history, and contained vivid personalities and interesting
Q: What do you hope your readers will take away from your findings? Do you hope to encourage activism on behalf of the Parkway?
A: I hope that readers will
understand that creating the Parkway is an ongoing process in which they
play key roles. History is happening now. The Parkway did not emerge in
a magical time where there were no conflicts and no hard decisions to be
made. Rather, it exists because people in the pastpeople very much like
usmade difficult decisions to do some things and not to do others. In
order to assure the continued viability of the Parkway, we have to do
the same. To the degree that readers see this, I hope they will become
activists on the Parkway's behalf. The road is in serious danger at
present. It is faced with funding shortfalls, encroaching development,
visitor demands, and maintenance backlogs. If we don't make active
decisions now to protect the Parkway, to re-create our Parkway, there
won't be a Parkway in another 75 years.
Q: If the Blue Ridge Parkway has more visitors than Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon combined, why do you think it is struggling for funding and employees?
A: Funding of individual parks
within the Park Service depends on land base under management,
visitation statistics, physical plant expenses, cultural and natural
resources in each park, political pressures, public perception of
resource values, among other factors. The critical problem for the
Parkway, and all national parks, is the serious and prolonged
underfunding of the entire National Park Service, likely to worsen with
recent orders to cut park budgets. National parks across the country are
struggling in the same ways that the Parkway is. The key is to increase
funding for all our national parks to the level that is needed to
preserve and enhance this vital public legacy.
Q: The Parkway has a very rich history. What do you think is the best way to renovate and maintain it but also to preserve its past?
A: Most important to understand
here is that past and present form an unbroken continuum of which we are
a part. For the past 75 years, the Parkway has been a work in progress,
an evolving landscape shaped and reshaped by many hands. There is no
"pure" Parkway to be preserved. To maintain the Blue Ridge Parkway for
another 75 years, we need to see ourselves as the road's creators. In
that effort, some key principles must be borne in mind that have always
characterized this free public road built and supported for the public
good with public funds: a wide, protective right-of-way, limited access
from adjoining properties, and services to please travelers rather than
commercial interests. Continuing to have a Parkway built on these
principles has required making difficult decisions that, at some points,
have made some people unhappy. In order to maintain this Parkway, we
will be required to make some of those choices, too.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for lovers of the Parkway who want to aid in its survival?
A: Lobby your congressmen and
women to increase funding for the National Park Service, and, more
generally, to restore funding for our public services and
infrastructure, all of which are seriously underfunded and threatened.
In North Carolina and Virginia, push your state legislatures to seek
ways to funnel monies to the Parkway. At the same time, work to resist
the national mood that asserts that government cannot do anything right.
Donate money to private, nonprofit organizations that support the
Parkway, such as the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, Friends of the Blue
Ridge Parkway, and the Conservation Trust for North Carolina.
Q: What's your next project?
A: My husband, David Whisnant, and
I have recently begun a historical study of the DeSoto National
Memorial, a sixty-year-old National Park Service site in Bradenton,
Florida, that commemorates the 16th century North American expedition of
Spanish conquistador Hernando DeSoto. Under contract with NPS, we are
writing the memorial's administrative history, an internal planning
document that will help staff manage the park. We hope this will be the
first of many applied historical research projects, which use history to
influence policy, that we will do under the umbrella of our recently
launched consulting firm, Primary Source History Services.
This interview may be reprinted in its entirety with the following
credit: An interview with Anne Mitchell Whisnant, author of SUPER-SCENIC MOTORWAY: A BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY HISTORY (University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2006).
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