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In the midst of a depression in the 1930s and ‘40s, there wasn’t much recreation going on in Galax — except for visits to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Many people went to Cumberland Knob — where the parkway began in 1935 — to grill, picnic and walk the trails because it was free and beautiful, Mary Guynn recalls.
Guynn, 81, grew up in Galax, and took frequent visits to the parkway. Her love of the parkway led her to become a member of Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a non-profit organization dedicated to its preservation, and organizing its 50th anniversary in 1985.
She is an emeritus, but had a hand in planning the 75th anniversary celebration of the parkway to be held this weekend.
“Then, the grown people concentrated on the beautiful drive,” Guynn says. “And the kids just loved having a good time there.”
During Guynn’s childhood, the parkway seemed like one of the only forms of recreation in the area for kids, except for playing baseball at an area field.
When locals hosted out-of-town visitors, the parkway is where they took them. Classes, churches and families held picnics at Cumberland Knob.
Along the parkway, greens were always beautifully manicured and maintained, just like you would see on a postcard, she said. And sometimes, it was difficult to find a little knoll to have a picnic along the route, just because so many people had already taken the best spots.
Through spring, summer and fall, the parkway stayed busy with families taking day trips. “It was just something special.”
For those who had sweethearts, Guynn explained, Fox Hunters Paradise was the place where everyone went to “park.” Dating was part of the joy of experiencing the parkway.
“It was just good fun. There was no drinking. Instead, people went hiking, had picnics and cooked out there.”
The ranger station at Cumberland Knob had beautiful views across the mountains, she said. (It has since been closed due to funding issues).
Popularity of the parkway seemed to decline in the late 1940s. That’s when people become “more sophisticated, started traveling because they had cars, and more were going to the Rex [Theater] and doing other things,” she said.
In 1949, four years after Guynn graduated from high school, more people seemed to have good jobs and played tennis and golf, which once was considered only for the wealthy.
Even though the parkway doesn’t seem used as much as it was in the beginning, it still has the same breathtaking views as in the 1930s and ‘40s. And it’s still one of the most traveled national parkways in the U.S., which says a lot, Guynn noted.
“It’s the same beautiful drive, and it’s none like it in the U.S.,” said Guynn. “It’s still a wonderful thing we can claim.”
Guynn joined Friends of the Parkway 30 years ago. She was one of only about 25 members urged to do so by then-Gov. Chuck Robb, a friend of her and her husband.
Today, the organization has hundreds of members. Guynn served on Galax City Council during approval of creating the Blue Ridge Music Center, and she also helped establish the trail next to the music center.
As a result of her work with Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway and helping to organize celebrations for the parkway’s 50th and 75th anniversaries, Guynn says she just wants the parkway to be “used, enjoyed and sustained.”
With the 75th anniversary coming up this weekend, Guynn hopes people have a renewed interest in the parkway, much as they did after the 50th anniversary celebration.
“It’s going to take money and volunteers to help preserve the parkway, which we don’t have. Now that people can’t travel as much and don’t have as much money, maybe people can return to the parkway. The calling card is its scenic beauty.”
The parkway depends on federal dollars, but due to budget cuts in the past four or five years, it has lost some of the money that is key to keeping it going. “We’re going to have to grow and get more volunteers.”
Land on both sides of the road has been cut back, along with the mowing. Heavy snows last winter had a negative impact on the greens.
Galax residents seem to have gotten into the spirit of the parkway celebration, she said. And because of the parkway’s anniversary coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the local Old Fiddlers’ Convention this year, Galax has gotten more publicity.
Nearly 30,000 people are expected to attend at the Cumberland Knob/Blue Ridge Music Center area next week, which is 10,000 more than showed up 25 years ago.
“During the 50th anniversary, the field at Cumberland Knob was a mass of color, filled with thousands of people,” Guynn said.
She recalled how helicopters flew in governors from North Carolina and Virginia, and Franklin Roosevelt Jr. was one of the key speakers, in honor of his father, President Franklin Roosevelt, who supported the parkway’s construction during the Great Depression to put people back to work.
When the president would come on radio for his well-known “fireside chats,” he would begin each speech with, “My friends...”
At the 50th anniversary celebration, as his son stood staring into the crowd, he began with, “My friends...
“The crowd burst into applause.” Guynn said. “There was music and everybody loved that. It was a fun time. The weather was pretty, and it came off so well.”
The celebration worked well that time, so Guynn hopes it will go off without a hitch this weekend. “We just want people to have fun.”
Events will be held throughout the weekend at the Blue Ridge Music Center and Cumberland Knob, including appearances by the governors of Virginia and North Carolina.
During a panel discussion at 2 p.m. Saturday, Guynn will speak about her memories and experiences of the parkway.