Monuments to Tenacity

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

An old proverb says, “The hammer shatters glass but forges steel.” And so it was that the hammer that shattered the crystal cocoon of the Roaring ’20s forged a steely resolve and an indomitable civic spirit in the blast furnace of the Great Depression of the ’30s. Shared misery often leads to shared sacrifice, and thus the modern cooperative movement was born in the fiery depths of the Depression.

This past May, cooperative leaders from across the country gathered in Warm Springs, Georgia, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), whose creation by President Franklin D. Roosevelt triggered the start of one of the largest and most successful cooperative movements in history — rural electrification. The ceremony this past May took place at the “Little White House” in Warm Springs, whose healing waters helped ease the ravages that polio had wrought on FDR’s legs. This hilly, red-clay region of Georgia would end up inspiring FDR’s efforts, and firming up his resolve, to electrify America’s farmlands.

So in May 1935, FDR signed the order creating the REA, thus making available to hundreds of local citizen groups the low-cost financing they needed to electrify their rural communities. But these groups of neighbors still needed to become electric utilities, and so they organized themselves as businesses where everyone shares in the cost, and everyone shares in the benefits. They organized as cooperatives.

Three-quarters of a century later, more than 42 million Americans in 47 states receive reliable, affordable electric service from over 900 locally owned, locally controlled electric cooperatives. There are 13 electric cooperatives in our fair Dominion, serving more than 500,000 homes and businesses and more than 1.25 million Virginians. The growth and spread and success of electric cooperatives form a remarkable — and enduring — legacy from a remarkable time.

In addition to the REA, 2010 also marks the 75th anniversary of yet another Depression-era monument to tenacity. It’s a road that runs right through our backyard: the Blue Ridge Parkway. On Sept. 11, 1935, ground was broken for this glorious road that follows the crest of the southern Appalachian Mountains, connecting Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive near Waynesboro, Virginia, with Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee, N.C.

Utilizing government workers, including Civilian Conservation Corps crews, as well as private contractors, the road only slowly took shape. Designers and engineers had to go through the excruciating process of mapping many miles of unmapped wilderness. Progress was also slowed by the road builders’ determination to follow the topography as much as possible, building the road with the natural geology of the land, rather than over or against it.

This test of public stamina and private support ultimately took 52 years to finish, with the final section being completed near Grandfather Mountain, N.C., in 1987.

The result, though, is breathtaking. Over and over again. As motorists drive around curve after curve, to overlook after overlook, they are treated to unparalleled vistas of blue mountain folds, undulating off into infinity.  

The National Park Service takes care of this treasure, whose 469 miles (almost 217 in Virginia) are traversed by roughly 18 million visitors each year. There’ll be a 75th anniversary celebration of the Parkway this month, Sept. 10-12, at the Blue Ridge Music Center in Virginia (milepost 213) and at Cumberland Knob, N.C., site of the 1935 dedication (milepost 217). If you’re interested in attending the festivities; in more information about the Parkway; or in helping secure a Blue Ridge Parkway specialty license plate in Virginia (350 commitments are needed by December; cost is $25), you should visit the website of the Roanoke-based Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway, www.BlueRidgeFriends.org.

So this fall, visit the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a monument to tenacity, sure, but it’s also one heck of a jaw-dropping drive.


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