Friday, October 21, 2011

"Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas" on Hardscrabble Knob

Posted by Phil Whiteway
We're pleased to announce the cast of Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas, our world premiere holiday musical at Hanover Tavern, running Nov 25 - Jan 8. Returning from our Smoke on the Mountain trilogy will be five beloved actor/musicians: Emily Cole, David Janeski, Drew Perkins, Aly Wepplo and Eric Williams, all members of Barksdale's version of the Sanders Family. Joining the fun for the first time will be Katrinah Lewis, Nick Shackleford and Anthony Smith.

Direction is by Anna Senechal Johnson, with music direction by Drew Perkins. The original script is by our artistic director, Bruce Craig Miller (he uses his middle name only as a playwright, to avoid confusion with another writer named Bruce Miller). The music is mostly traditional mountain music with English and Irish origins. All instruments (guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, dulcimer, flute, piano, harp, bass, etc.) are played by members of the cast. Kelly Kennedy is offering assistance with music and choreography. Set design is by Terrie Powers, and costume design by Lynn West.

A Little Background - In 1912, a team of U.S. Forest Service employees headquartered at an inn named Mountain House, located about 20 miles outside Staunton. They walked, drove, rode on horseback, and surveyed the mountains and valleys of Virginia's Highland, Bath and Augusta Counties. Their work led to the 1913 purchase of more than 38,000 acres on and around Shenandoah Mountain--some of the first property to be acquired for the Shenandoah National Forest.

Connecting Mountain House with Hardscrabble Knob, the second highest peak on Shenandoah Mountain, a creek called Ramsey's Draft flows freely through these high Allegheny Mountains. From its headwaters of mountain springs at nearly 4,000 feet in elevation, the stream drains the wilderness's 6,500 acres. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps build a road that roughly followed the path of the draft, allowing Shenandoah Valley residents unique and previously unavailable access to Hardscrabble Knob.

On cold December evenings in the 20s and 30s, the mostly poor Appalachian residents who once owned this land would travel in horse drawn wagons, up the new rough road, toward Hardscrabble Knob. Before reaching the peak, they'd leave their wagons at road's end, and climb through a dense stand of old growth hemlock, giant trees that had begun as seedlings at about the time that Columbus was "discovering" America. At the rocky peak, they would join as a community to perform their treasured holiday traditions, sing and play their ancestral songs, and celebrate this Garden of Eden that their English, Irish, Scotch-Irish and German ancestors had settled in the 1700s.

Historian and writer Lella Smith, who's family has lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains since before the American revolution, writes that in the 1930s, two areas in the United States were acknowledged as sacred: the Four Corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada; and the mountains surrounding the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Several peaks contained "dancing grounds, sacred places where paths crossed and people gathered to dance by moonlight."

Today, Mountain House is nothing but a wayside parking lot with picnic tables. The road constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps was washed away by Hurricane Camille in 1969. The majestic hemlocks have been devastated by an infestation of the wooly adelgid, and nearly all of the 500-year-old trees now have died.

In Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas, we'll venture back to December, 1938, to Hardscrabble Knob on Shenandoah Mountain (from which you can look east to the Blue Ridge), and revisit a merry night during the Great Depression when a group of warm-hearted Appalachians gathered in joy on a cold mountaintop to honor a sacred season and celebrate a magical land that was no longer theirs.

--Phil Whiteway

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