THE PEAKS OF OTTER AND THE JOHNSON FARM ON THE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY
JEAN HASKELL SPEER
EAST TENNESSEE STATE UNIVERSITY
Landscape shapes culture. It may also obscure it. Fascination with the scenic qualities of mountain lands can lead to the feeling that human culture is an intrusion, perhaps an intrusion to be eliminated or, at least, recast to fit the contours of the landscape. Looking back over the history of Appalachia, it is easy to find instances of the hegemonic preference for landscape over culture. In this essay, I want to illustrate through a case study how the hegemony of landscape reshaped some of an Appalachian community and obliterated most of it.
In 1935, construction began on the Blue Ridge Parkway, envisioned as a scenic road connecting the Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The Peaks of Otter area, already a well-known scenic attraction, was one of the first areas on the parkway planned for development as a recreation and service area.  Stanley Abbott, the landscape architect who designed the Parkway, envisioned the development at the Peaks of Otter as including a lodge of 125 rooms, cabins for tourists, a lake in the natural bowl between the twin peaks, a boat house and restaurant, bath house and gravel shore area, camping sites, and horse stables. Abbott predicted that
unquestionably the proposed Peaks of Otter development will become a major objective for drivers from Roanoke and Lynchburg [Virginia]. It is notable that on Apple Orchard Mountain....the parkway will reach 3910 feet, its highest elevation in Virginia. South toward Roanoke the drive coasts on the absolute skyline on a well-defined ridge providing one of the most spectacular sections of the parkway location in Virginia. 
In a later report, Abbott added, almost as a footnote, that "the main basin area formed by the triangle of mountains (Sharp Top, Flat Top, and Harkening Hill) at the Peaks of Otter is known as the Mons area. This has been under one kind or another of cultivation and use over more than a century..." 
Abbott might have said "more than five hundred centuries." Archaeological digs at the Peaks of Otter have determined that early Indians occupied the site at least five thousand years ago and, since that time, human settlement and culture have been a continuous and significant part of the Peaks of Otter area. And while Abbott is certain of the scenic values of the Peaks of Otter, he only alludes to the richness of cultural resources, unrealized even today.
The earliest European settlers were Charles and Robert Ewing, who came to the area about 1700 from Scotland.  Although there are several stories accounting for the Peaks of Otter name (some say it derives from the Cherokee "Atari" or "Ottari" for "high mountain"), it is more likely that the brothers named the twin peaks for Otterburn, a famous place name in Scotland.  Other settlers came to the area as early as 1735, and by the 1770s the area was developing quickly. In 1772, a turnpike was constructed through the Peaks of Otter that connected Liberty (now Bedford, Virginia) and Buchanan on the James River. Wagons hauled pig iron, lead, and produce over this road prior to and during the Revolutionary War to supply soldiers in the lowlands. Thomas Jefferson wrote about his measurements of the Peaks in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785).
In the early 1800s, the Peaks of Otter was already luring tourists attracted by the majestic scenery. Polly Wood, a widow, had sufficient business to earn her living running an ordinary. Soon a second ordinary, run by Leyburn Wilkes, took in visitors to the area. Wilkes was so successful that by 1857 he opened the first hotel on the site, the Otter Peaks Hotel, with accommodations for fifty people, a springhouse, smokehouse, wagoner's house, stable, and a hut on the top of Sharp Top for guests who made the arduous ascent. A visitor to Wilkes' establishment wrote:
His buildings multiply with the increase of travel, and no labor or expense will be spared to make this the most attractive watering place in America. The air is cool and salubrious, and in the hottest season an exhilarating breeze sweeps through the mountain pass, while the low lands of the State are parched, sultry and infected. 
Two well-known artists of the mid-nineteenth century, Edward Beyer and David H. Strother (known as "Porte Crayon"), made the Peaks of Otter area famous through their illustrations in popular magazines, attracting even more tourists. Travel to the Peaks was difficult, but tourists felt the natural attractions of the area made it well worth the journey. Henry Morgan, an early travel writer, summarizes with exuberance the feelings of the mid-nineteenth century Peaks of Otter visitor:
We leave the (train) cars at Liberty, twenty-five miles from Lynchburg, and ten or twelve miles from the Peaks. Here we find stages, carriages, buggies and riding horses to suit every persons taste for travel. Those desiring to continue from the Peaks to the Springs generally prefer public conveyance, but the parties visiting only the mountains choose the more social and chivalrous pleasure of horsemanship. Tremendous is the excitement! The wild prancing steed catches the wilder spirit of its riderand paws for the race. Now the mighty forest echoes with the multitudinous bound of iron hoofs. Vociferous shouts of laughter drive the partridge and the pheasant from their old possessions, and the sylvan songster flies with notes half spent in air and half down his throat, frightened half to death. Dogs from distant cabins rouse from their slumbers, bark, howl, run over fences and hedges to join the chase, and yelp in the tangled briar with mad despair. On! on! rush the fiery coursers with the speed of thought. The mountain heaves in sight, but only to cheat the senses, for perspective hath lost its rules of distance. We seem within a short walk of the mountain top; we inquire and find it ten miles. The fact is, the mountain being exceedingly grand beyond our common experience, we cannot judge of its distance, but the delightful road amidst towering forests and beautiful plantations compensates for the length of the journey. 
While some tourists found excitement in their trip to the Peaks, others came seeking peace and meditation. In The Peaks of Otter, A Monograph of the Religious Experience of a Young Man (1859), the unnamed author tells of a horseback ride to the top of Sharp Top that led him to a religious conversion. Whenever he had doubts about God forever after, he "recurred to the scene and the prayer on the topmost Peak of Otter, and said, I will believe God." 
Near the close of the nineteenth century, the community that had grown up around the Peaks of Otter, now called the "Mons" community, was thriving and bustling. According to one local resident, there were at least twenty families, some with as many as twelve children, living within a radius of two miles around the Peaks of Otter.  There was a church, a school, an Odd Fellows Lodge, the hotel now called the Hotel Mons, two mills, and the homes and outbuildings of local residents, including black families who lived and worked in the area. There was an economy based on farming, fruit orchards, legal distilling, turnpike traffic, and a thriving tourist trade.
One of the families in the Peaks of Otter area about whom we have a great deal of information is the Johnson family, whose mountain farm is now an interpretive site on the Blue Ridge Parkway. John Therone and Mary Elizabeth Johnson bought land on Harkening Hill in 1852 and established a farm that would remain in their family for three generations, a period of eighty-nine years. John T., as he was called, raised sheep, grew potatoes in abundance, and operated a distillery in a nearby hollow on "Still-house Stream," where he made brandy from apples grown on the mountainside. He was father to thirteen children, a leader in the New Prospect Baptist Church, and a man of inestimable value to the Mons community. In an article written after John T.'s death in 1901, a local resident said:
He was a man of integrity. This was shown in all his transactions and relations.... He was a man of decision. He would assume a position by slow degrees, but when once be planted himself according to bis best light and judgments be was there to stay. He seemed to absorb the firmness and sturdy strength of the mountain near whose summit he resided. 
Jason Johnson, the favorite son who had a clubfoot, bought the farm from his parents in 1884. He took over the development of the farm with his wife, Jennie, and the seven of their nine children who survived childhood. Like his father, Jason was a prominent and respected member of the Mons community. He was a farmer, carpenter, and cobbler, making shoes for his family and neighbors. According to census records of agricultural production, Jason and Jennie created a productive farm; they had swine, poultry, a milk cow, and horses, and they produced eggs, butter, Indian corn, oats, and potatoes in abundance.  Because of his handicap, Jason often sowed seeds from horseback or planted and weeded on his knees. Jason took special pride in his horses. A granddaughter recalls that "he had the prettiest horses. You know, people in those days, I've heard my grandparents say, if you drive down the road and if you see a skinny hoss, horse, watch out for the people who owns it. It was sorta their way of, you know, judgin' character." 
The Johnsons worked side by side with their neighbors in the large apple and peach orchards grown on terraced slopes of Flat Top mountain. One of Jason and Jennie's children remembered that "the best grade of apples were packed in home-made barrels that were made in the orchard, hauled by wagon to Bedford15 barrels to the loadthen shipped to the English market."  While apple production tied the Johnson family into an international economic market, it also provided them with pleasurable community contact. Each fall, communal apple butter "stirrings" made gallons of apple butter.
Typical of the mountain region, the Johnsons and their neighbors also gathered for Sunday dinners (usually at the Johnson farm), quiltings, and corn shuckings at which time, according to one of the Johnsons, "the women would have a cookin'." Another family member remembered that "people [in the community] were very sociable," especially during the Christmas holidays. There were dances every night at different homes in the area, but drinking was frowned upon.
You would see a candle-light in every window and beautiful wreaths on every door, and everyone was happy and would give you a warm greeting. We did not have many Christmas toys in those days...we made our own sleds out of plank and we had long hills to ride...About the only thing we'd get for Christmas in the way of toys was some kind of candy animalsgoat, sheep, etc. and firecrackers. 
Jason and Jennie and their family were economically tied to the old hotel in the Mons community, just as the previous generation had been, sometimes earning extra money by taking in boarders from the overflow of the hotel. The children found the numerous tourists who came to the Hotel Mons a source of odd jobs that gave them pocket change and a world of experience. The children would run errands for visitors and serve as guides to take guests to such local attractions as Buzzard's Rock, Needle's Eye, and Table Rock. One of the sons remembers his first trip as guide to the peak of Sharp Top:
My first trip three pious old ladies were boarding at my home and they wanted to go on the Peaks. My mother dressed me up and had me go with them to catty the lunch. I was eight years old and I could walk much faster than theyI got way ahead of them around a curveand, child-like I wanted to see what was in the lunch basket. There was a bottle containing some red fluid so I decided to taste it. I took a big swallow and it liked to have burned my stomach up. I thought I was going to die, so I waited for them to catch up with me. I asked them what was in the bottle and they said it was "Snake-bite medicine," and I made the remark that I would rather have a snake bite me than to have that stuff in my belly. This was my first taste of whiskey. I also got a whipping when I returned home because of my bad behavior. 
The Johnson farm prospered during the tenure of Jason and Jennie, and that prosperity, combined with their traditional values of strong family, religion, hard world, loyalty and duty, gave their children opportunities for success not always found on mountain farms. Their son, Robert, became a successful farmer and merchant in the local area. Ed wanted to be a doctor, so his family helped him finance his medical education, and Jason built a small room on the house to serve as Ed's study. He trained as a male nurse in New York City and then earned his medical degree from the Medical College of Virginia, practicing in his home region until he was in his eighties. Callie Missouri, a daughter, married but continued to live near her parents, and eventually took over the farm. The youngest child, Hattie, had music lessons, a pump organ at the farmhouse, and went to boarding school in Bedford. Jason's granddaughter recalls, "he, I guess made a fairly good livin'. He raised a big family and had... you know, they had good lives, and he educated those who wanted to [be]."  The children all attended the Mons school in the community.
This middle period of the life of the Johnson family on their farm was probably the farm's most consistently prosperous and stable period. The years from 1894 until 1913, when Jennie died, were halcyon days for the Johnson farm and the Mons community.
After Jennie's death, Callie Missouri and her husband, Mack Bryant, returned to the farm to assist Jason, now alone. Jason must have welcomed the coming of the Bryants; this assured continuation of the farm for a third generation of Johnson descendants. Callie and Mack did bring continuity to the farm, but they also brought change, adding their own personal stamp to the life of the farm. Like their forebears, they ran a farm that provided for most of the needs of their family, and they found ways to augment their income with small entrepreneurial ventures.
The excess of their crops of potatoes, beans, cabbages, and tomatoes were taken to markets in nearby Bedford and Roanoke or to the local Kelso's Mill. Like many mountain farm families, chestnuts provided a source of income until the blight began killing trees about 1917. Then Mack and some of his neighbors shaped the wood for sale as railroad ties.  Mack Bryant also served as the local "vetinary," and insisted on good care for all animals. Continuing in the Johnson family tradition, good horses were a point of honor with Mack. A neighbor remembered getting his car stuck in the snow once "and goin' up there and gettin' Mack to bring the team down and pull me out. Our horses were in the field and were cold and wouldn't pull, and Mack's were in the barn and they pulled. That tickled Mack to death." 
All of the family members had tasks to do in the running of such a busy mountain farm. For larger jobs, the Bryants and members of the Mon community continued the tradition of communal "workings." Neighbors would gather to saw wood for the winter, shell beans, butcher cattle and hogs, cut oats, shuck corn, make apple butter, and quilt. If the work concluded in time and with enough reserve energy, the whole group would be fed, followed by a party with music and dancing. Contrary to some myths about the isolation and lack of community among Appalachian people, "family responsibility and independence did not have the strong association with isolation and competition that we currently make."  As one Bryant family member in later years puzzled:
Everyone helped one another; you didn't have to have any money, see, but if you wanted to get your winter's wood today, you cut it and you fed twenty to twenty-five, thirty people and then the next day you went to one of those houses and spent your time like at, and now we don't have time to even to see a neighbor with the conveniences now. You figure that one out. 
On Sundays, there was a steady stream of visitors to the farm, not only neighbors who came for dinner (often twenty-five to fifty guests) but also visitors from the Hotel Mons. (The old hotel was bought by the Peaks of Otter company in 1916, and in 1920 they erected a new hotel, named the Hotel Mons, that doubled the capacity of the old hotel.) Many came to see Callie's flower gardens, which were vast and varied in species. Callie sold her flowers to the hotel, and they were famous among the hotel guests who made regular pilgrimages up to the farm to see the glorious blooms:
I just betcha there was a, well there never was a mornin' there was anywhere from 10 to 25 to 35 guests that walked from the hotel up to our house to see our flowers an to, you know, they jus' set down out there in the yard, it was so cool. The wind would jus' blow an' they'd sit down there an' talk. 
Aesthetic sensitivity to their environment was not lost on any of the Bryants, even the children.
The Bryant children, like each generation of Johnson family children, benefitted from their association with hotel guests. They earned money as local guides, played music, and sang to entertain at the hotel. (Dick Bryant played a homemade banjo with a groundhog skin head.) Some family members worked from time to time at the hotel. Buford Bryant milked cows for the hotel and ran its sawmill; Eula worked as a waitress and collected entrance fees for visitors to the peak of Sharp Top. In return, some of the guests who came year after year befriended the children and brought them clothes, candy, and sent Christmas presents (dolls for the girls one year); Mr. Troughbridge, a regular visitor from England, often bought Hershey bars and marshmallows for the children.
The Hotel Mons was a focal point for the whole community and was a lively place during the 1920s and early 1930s. One proprietor of the hotel during this era recalled:
To visit Hotel Mons was to develop "the Mons habit" and to several generations of Mons-goers the old hotel was a summer landmark. There they enjoyed the cool quiet of summer days in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains. They enjoyed hearty meals supplied from country gardens and good companions for an evening stroll to mark the last colors of the sunset reflected against the two summits, Sharp Top and Flat Topthe Peaks of Otter. From Mons they returned home refreshed and replenished. And they returned to the mountain year after year. 
The Mons community had its own active social and cultural life as well, evident in the Bryant clan. Mack and his son Harry were members of the Odd Fellows Lodge in the community, where the family attended ice cream socials and free oyster suppers. They went to church gatherings and to the agricultural fair in nearby Bedford. The Bryants collaborated with their neighbors, the Putnams, in building a small swimming pool that served the community and the Hotel Mons, supplying water for the pool from their springs for twenty-five dollars a year.
The Bryants also supported education in their community by taking their turn boarding teachers for the Mons school. In later years, as the population of the area dwindled, the school met in various buildings in the community, including the Hotel Mons. Keeping the school open required a minimum number of students, so Mack Bryant had his daughter attend school two years past the legal requirement to maintain their community school. Nevertheless, the school finally closed, and the last two of the Bryant children had to travel by foot and by bus some distance to a school in Botetourt County.
The demise of the school was not the only sign that the community and the Johnson family farm were beginning a period of decline. In the early years of the twentieth century, more and more families in the Mons community began to sell their land to the U.S. Forest Service; more and more of the children of local families began to leave the area to look for work, no longer willing or able to be mountain farmers. The year 1929, a calamitous year for the whole United States with the stock market crash and the beginning of the Depression, was a dark year for the Bryants as well. Mack Bryant suffered a paralyzing stroke. Several of the older children had already left the farm to find work or live elsewhere, two of them being married that year, and sources of income for the farm declined.  The next year, the Peaks area was hit by a drought.
Callie and the remaining children struggled to keep the farm going and care for Mack, but in 1931, Mack died and the condition of the farm deteriorated. In the Mons community, the school and the church closed with the decline in population, and the Hotel Mons was in financial trouble because of the decline in tourism during the Depression and prewar years. The hotel company sold the hotel and its land to the federal government in 1935. The government had plans to develop the area into a major tourist site, as part of the Blue Ridge Parkway on which they had just begun construction.
For three generations, the Johnson family farm had been a prosperous farm in a thriving community, with a lifestyle of which the family was proud. But in the last years of the 1930s, the family watched their farm and their community wither, and they became painfully aware that the gap between their lifestyle and others in the country now was widening. The family began to feel a need to join the mainstream that seemed to be passing them by and leaving them isolated in a way they never had been before. Most of the other families in the community had moved away, and the hotel was shut down in 1936. Jimmy Bryant, a grandson, was married and had a child by 1940, and he could see no future for his child if he stayed at the farmwe knew it was a comin' thing when we'd have to move, you see." 
The family found its opportunity to move when they sold their land to the Peaks of Otter Corporation in 1941; the corporation then sold the property to the National Park Service in 1942. As the Blue Ridge Parkway plans developed, the Mons community disappeared. The sprawling old Victorian hotel was torn down, as were all the civic and residential buildings. On the side of Harkening Hill, the once lively Johnson homestead languished. As the years went by, a new lodge was built, a lake was constructed, and other visitor services added. In the mid 1960s, the Park Service became interested in developing what was left of the Johnson farm as an interpretive site.
Unfortunately, at the present time, visitors to the Peaks of Otter on the Blue Ridge Parkway may come and go and never know the fascinating saga of human experience that preceded them on the same landscape. Some visitors may stay at the lodge, walk to the lake's edge, look at the Peaks and leave knowing nothing of the area's cultural richness. Others may go to the visitor's center and learn something of the natural history of the area. Some will venture up the path to the Johnson farm, walk around the farmstead, perhaps ask questions of the interpreter, and leave with the impression that this was a lovely, but isolated mountain farm, perched on the side of a lonely mountain, idyllic and out of the ebb and flow of the changing currents of history.
How did this happen? The breathtaking scenic beauty of the area and the mandates for the Blue Ridge Parkway by the National Park Service obscured understanding of the significant cultural life of the area. The hegemony of natural landscape, and of constructing a cultural landscape to fit it, is expressed over and over in Park Service documents about the Peaks of Otter.
In the Superintendent's Annual Report of 1939, it was clear the Parkway planners had high expectations for the Peaks of Otter portion of the scenic road: "Unquestionably the proposed Peaks of Otter development will become a major objective for loop drivers from Roanoke and Lynchburg. It is notable that on Apple Orchard Mountain... the parkway will reach 3910 feet, its highest elevation in Virginia. South toward Roanoke the drive coasts on the absolute skyline on a well-defined ridge providing one of the most spectacular sections of the parkway location in Virginia."  Stanley Abbott, the landscape architect who designed the Parkway, noted in a 1943 report that "the scenic quality of the Peaks of the Otter as they are viewed from the Parkway" is the major consideration in development plans and that it was "undesirable" to plan anything "obscuring the view of the twin mountains from the Parkway." 
There was interest in the cultural life of the region surrounding the Parkway, but even here the comments of the developers of the Parkway reveal the supremacy of visual quality over accurate preservation and portrayal of cultural life. A 1942 Parkway report notes:
Many place name signs giving elevations of points of interest and a number of story signs recounting tales and legends and bits of history were placed during the year. In this the aim has been to stress the lived-in quality of the mountains as the heart of the story rather than the limited interest of political history in the mountains. It has been gratifying to note the contribution to the folk picture along the Parkway of the closely allied leasing program. Restoration of farm fields, the re-building of miles of split rail fence, and the turning out of the sheep and cattle again to pasture have added much interest to the drive.  (Emphasis mine.)
Regional culture was to be part of the Parkway experience only insofar as it fit the "folk picture" of the region as conceived by Parkway planners. The political history of the region was of such "limited interest" that it was entirely subsumed by the hegemony of picturesque landscape.
In the mid-1960s, as part of the "Mission 66" program to rehabilitate the nation's parks, the Peaks of Otter and the Johnson farm became a focus for increased development and infusion of funds. What had been the wet meadows of the Mons community became Abbott Lake, necessitating the moving of Polly Wood's Ordinary from the site on which it had stood since the early 1800s. Attention then turned to the remaining buildings of the Johnson farm, with plans to turn the farm into an interpretive site telling the story "of pioneer mountain farms in the Southern Appalachians." 
In 1968, restoration of the Johnson farm began. Decisions were made, based on little documentation, to restore the farm to its imagined condition in the late nineteenth century.  This meant that the weather-boarding was removed to expose the logs underneath, the tin roof came off and was replaced with wooden shakes, some rooms were removed, and sizes of windows changed. A primitive footpath through the woods and up the mountain became the access route for visitors to the farm, not the old road that so vitally connected the Johnsons and Bryants to their community. The farmhouse was stripped of all the improvements it took the Johnsons and Bryants years to earn and build to add comfort and status to their lives. The folk-picture on the landscape again was the guiding principle, rather than cultural history.
By the 1970s, several voices raised alarm about interpretation of the Johnson farm site. The Park historian, F. A. Ketterson, called for new, more thorough research in order to present the farm in its relationships to the larger Peaks community of which it had always been part. He felt the Johnson farm offered "a rare opportunity to interpret a mountain home from its beginnings as a rather rude, one-story cabin that grew and became somewhat refined as the economic lot of its owners improved."  Ketterson also worried about access to the farm, saying
We bring visitors in by means of a foot path that I do not believe existed in historic times, instead of bringing them in over the historic access road to the Johnson Farm. In bringing people in by this footpath, we convey, albeit unintentionally...a false impression of the isolation in which the dwellers at the Johnson Farm lived...The fact of the matter appears to be that they were relatively unisolated. 
In recent years, the farmhouse was returned to its 1930s appearance and furnished extensively with Johnson family or historically appropriate pieces. Thorough research to document the farm, the family, and much of the community has been undertaken. Although little else has changed as yet, the Parkway administration is excited by the possibilities for more comprehensive interpretation of the cultural life of the Peaks of Otter area.
In 1853, just as the Johnson family began their tenure at the farm that bears their name, Henry Morgan wrote: "Perhaps no American scenery is more interesting than the Peaks of Otter."  His feeling was true then and prophetic. The scenery was so compelling that it literally engulfed the human culture of many generations. Near the end of his life, Dr. Ed Johnson remembered his home in truer words than he realized:
The village at Mons was a thriving community and everyone was a neighbor and willing to help each other day or night. The good old days are all gone now, so are the beautiful old homes that formed this community. If you make a visit to that area today, you see only the Peaks, Flat Top Mountain, Harkening Hillmade by natureand the beautiful drive which has been made by man...I feel I owe a lot to my parents and the good people who lived eighty years ago where the Blue Ridge Parkway is today. 
We all are haunted by the loss of Appalachia's cultural life. The saga of human experience at the Peaks of Otter and the Johnson Farm is one of scope and texture and surprise. It is a story worth knowing and worth telling.
5 For a discussion of the naming of the Peaks of Otter, see Jean Haskell Speer, Frances Russell, and Gibson Worsham, The Johnson Farm at Peaks of Otter (Asheville: Blue Ridge Parkway/National Park Service, 1990), 8-9.
10 Rosemary Johnson, Karen Lee, Mel Lee, Julie Savage, The Johnson Farm, Back In 'At Day 'N Time: A Social and Historical Study of the Johnson Farm and Its Inhabitants, 1852-1941, Vol. III (Blue Ridge Parkway, 1975), 73.
Last Updated: 30-Sep-2008