By Emily Grey
From a morning in the 17th century to an afternoon of fishing on the Roanoke River, a day in this historical treasure is truly out of the ordinary.
It’s late October, circa 1671. Companions and this writer tread upon a shady trail to the village of the Monacan people. Women and children of this eastern woodland culture tend staple crops of squash, corn and beans. Men use stones, shells and bones found along the vast floodplain and the Great Valley to adroitly create tools, garments and shelter. Inside a tall tepee, a heaping pile of kindling sizzles while smoke rises steadily toward a crisscross wooden apex. We watch as these Native Americans tell stories, care for their elders and young, and laboriously prepare for winter at this period of initial European contact.
History Comes to Life
Around a bend in the Old Wagon Road, the 1700s come to life. At the Settler’s Cabin, women sew, cook and gather the fall harvest while men repair their hewn-log abode. A few yards down the sylvan path colonial woodsmen like Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton busily tan beaver and deer hides at Longhunter Camp. They cheerfully swap hunting tales and other adventures from the mysterious, beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains that lie yonder.
Time marches into the mid-1800s and a beehive of diverse activities. Pioneers scurry about the little rural settlement entertaining questions and conversations related to their era. No need trying to discuss the Internet or Pokémon.
Farther up the village the indispensable, burly blacksmith hammers away in his Spartan shop. Treacherous footpaths comprised of rocks, deep holes and mud made early travel by wagon a constant burden.
We marvel at the unique architecture of the German double-crib “bank” barn of the Houtz family. Used in large-scale commercial farming, this structural type may still be viewed in the Shenandoah Valley and Pennsylvania.
Our circular route leads to Kemp’s Ford one-room schoolhouse. At the front of the class the impeccably groomed master is conducting class. Students of varying ages suppress giggles at their teacher’s formal demeanor and antiquated attire. He turns his back but hastily pivots around. For fear of being called on or chastised for not paying attention, we depart for another segment of the journey.
Heirloom gardens with an array of vegetables and a corn-crib outbuilding capture our attention. A tantalizing whiff of fresh oven-baked loaves drifts from the Hofauger Farmstead. Herbs, flowers and tobacco hang from spacious beams in the kitchen of the two-story house. A pot of hearty stew simmers by a crackling fire. The cook serves the repast to her guests, but not to my party. After all, we are 21st-century intruders, invisible to the 1850s family. Soon, time-warp travelers will heartily dine in the frontier atmosphere of Brugh Tavern.
A young woman dyes yarn while another demonstrates hand weaving inside the Loom House. Nineteenth-century Ossabaw Island hogs and Hog Island sheep, which furnish the wool for the aforesaid tasks, are penned outside the Wray Barn.
On to the Gristmill
There’s something indomitable and eternal about a gristmill. The six- to eight-foot-high waterwheel was once America’s symbol of commerce. Towns sprang up and flourished near them.
In the mid-1700s, local farmers marketed their milled flour in Roanoke and Danville. In 1860, Richmond was the nation’s largest flour-milling arena and Virginia was the “grain belt of the south.” Shipping packaged and barreled flour to strategic seaports was crucial during the Civil War.
The mid-19th-century 20-foot-wide replica at this park contains a set of French and Virginia 36-inch millstones and 150 feet of wooden sluice box. Formerly known as the Esom Slone Mill of Franklin County, the historic structure was dismantled, relocated and reset in motion. Soon, people can observe close-up as corn and other grains are ground. (At the time of this writing the exhibit is being restored.) Hopefully, they will appreciate the old gristmill and actively work to restore others.
Batteaumen on the Free River
About 15 years ago, an archaeological team in Richmond uncovered the remains of awesome river boats called batteaux (French word for boats). These mighty, low-maintenance craft were the major means of navigation on inland waterways in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Typically, rivers above the fall line were rocky and contained rapids. The batteau was, in effect, a “whitewater cargo boat” which could be skillfully maneuvered about the falls.
Perhaps the most intriguing attraction at Explore Park is the portrayal of the batteauman. In the mid- to late 1800s, free slaves, armed with documents to that effect, navigated rough oak-framed batteaux down the Roanoke River to distant ports of trade.
These vessels and their operators, mostly free African-Americans, contributed substantially to the development and livelihood of Central Virginia. The exhibit reveals the importance of river routes in commerce prior to railroads and highways. It also gives a sense of the precious liberty and movement enjoyed by free blacks.
Adept helmsmen courageously steered these boats, built by farmers and laden with tobacco, iron ingot, coal, wheat, corn and flour, to Richmond, Lynchburg and other ports. The rugged batteaux were generally used only for one trip. After reaching a destination, most of them were disassembled and the lumber was sold. The boatmen often walked hundreds of miles back to camp or their small abodes.
Soon to be featured along the banks of the Roanoke will be the Batteauman’s Cabin. This 20-by-16-foot pine log building with stone chimney will depict the simplicity of the boatman’s home life.
“When visitors leave Explore Park after viewing the batteau or riding aboard it, … I hope they feel hunger … to know more about the human side of the African-American experience in the time of slavery. There are wounds to be healed and stumbling blocks to be made into stepping stones,” says Aletha Bolden, executive director of Harrison Museum of African-American Culture.
Nestled at the end of a short, secluded country lane sits the lovely Mountain Union Church. Like many other dated buildings at Explore Park, this 1880s Greek-Revival structure was moved from a far-off site.
Suddenly, the Vis-a-vis, an authentic 19th-century horse-drawn carriage, pulls up to the chapel door. What an appealing place for a memorable wedding, anniversary or other romantic or religious occasion.
Newly created 1,100-acre Explore Park offers sundry outdoor recreation, like six easy-to-moderate miles of self-guided hiking trails, mountain biking on Subaru-sponsored tracks and fishing in the Roanoke River at Back Creek (The Point). Tangent Outfitters provides canoe and kayak lessons with gear included in the rental fee.
Atop a grassy knoll overlooking the lovely river is Shenandoah Life Picnic Pavilion. This is an ideal locale for clubs, reunions and church gatherings.
On certain weekends wagon rides and seasonal naturalist hikes are available. The park is currently working with the Wild Turkey Federation to establish feeding plots and a viewing platform above the river.
Arthur Taubman Welcome Center is the definitive post to become familiar with the park. Next door, an interpretive building focusing on transportation of the Roanoke Valley and Blue Ridge Parkway is targeted to open later this year. Tickets to most events held at Explore can be purchased at Taubman. The Blue Ridge Treasures Gift Shop, located at the Welcome Center and the Rawanoke Trading Company, displays an unusual assortment of historical mementos often manufactured on the grounds.
“Explore Park should be a regional showplace for recreational and environmental education facilities,” explains Director Roger Elmore. “It has the potential to be a major destination near the Blue Ridge Parkway. It should be a catalyst for many things and for people to realize that the Roanoke Valley has a lot to offer.”
UPCOMING SPECIAL EVENTS
June 9-10 Garden Festival
June 24 Subaru Bike Fest
June 30 July 4th Celebration
Sept. 1-3 Appalachian Folk Festival
Oct. 13-14 Life Along the Wagon Road
READY TO EXPLORE?
P. O. Box 8508
Milepost 115 on Blue Ridge Parkway
Roanoke, VA 24014-0508
Phone: (540) 427-1800
Fax: (540) 427-1880
Web Site: www.explorepark.com
From I-81 take exit 143 and then I-581/ US 220 for 12 miles. Turn north on the Blue Ridge Parkway to Milepost 115 and continue about seven miles.
April, Fri. & Sat., and May-Oct. 31, 2001, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun. Noon-6 p.m.
Arthur Taubman Welcome Center:
April, Mon.-Thurs. 9:30am – 12:30pm; Fri. & Sat. 9:30am – 5:30pm; Sun. 11:30am-5pm
May-Oct., Mon.-Sat. 9:30am-5pm; Sun. 11:30 am-5pm
Ask about in-season tours and the November-through-March Outreach Program for school groups and in-service scientific certification for teachers and park membership benefits.
Adults (19-54) $8
Students (6-18) $4.50
Children 5 & under FREE
Seniors (55+) $6
Day Bike only $3 (all ages per bike)
Fishing only $3 (all ages)
Nearby Superb Lodging:
CrossTrails B & B
Bill & Katherine Cochran, Innkeepers
5880 Blacksburg Rd.
Catawba, VA 24070
Phone: (540) 384-8078
Web site: www.crosstrails.com