Blue Ridge Parkway National Park Preserves Memories

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Karen Hall
Mabry Mill, the most photographed mill in the world.

The Blue Ridge Parkway National Park, the largest national park in the United States, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. A 469-mile museum into the past, the Blue Ridge Parkway begins at Rockfish Gap in Virginia and ends in Cherokee, North Carolina. It covers 29 counties in those two states as it winds its way along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  

Construction began September 11, 1935, at Cumberland Knob in North Carolina near the border with Virginia. Construction was completed in the mid-1980s with the construction of Linn Cove Viaduct. 

The Blue Ridge Parkway was built by private contractors and federal contractors who bid for the work and by participants in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA), the two public works agencies organized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Life in the United States in the 1930s was difficult, to say the least. At the time, 90 percent of the land bordering the proposed roadway was rural farmland; 63 percent in North Carolina and 74 percent in Virginia. In Virginia, more than half of the land in 11 of the 12 counties affected by the proposed parkway was farmland. 

Many sites along the parkway bring early farms to life. In North Carolina, the Brinegar Cabin, home of the Martin Brinegar family from 1880 until the 1930s, is the only farmstead on the parkway currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The family maintained vegetable gardens and orchards with a variety of different fruits including apples, plums and pears, and they grew flax for weaving and dill for canning pickles. 

In that era, wheat was grown and taken to mills to be ground for bread making. The most photographed mill in the world is Mabry Mill, located along the parkway. 

The buildings at Humpback Rock are a great example of the colonial farm structures in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Early settlers came from Europe, homesteading in the mountains for various reasons, including the fact that it reminded them of their homelands. 

The Dr. E.L. Johnson Farm near Peaks of Otter, along the parkway, is an example of a mountain farm. Johnson’s family lived and worked this rustic farm from 1852 to well into the 1930s. He practiced medicine for more than 50 years. The Johnson Farm, at one time, had a sheep herd, distillery and potato crops. Eventually it boasted an apple orchard, another distillery and chickens. The Park Service has developed the Johnson Farm as a representative of a typical Blue Ridge Mountain home of the 1920s in the area. Costumed interpreters work the farm and offer programs daily in season.