Play traces Blue Ridge Parkway's origin

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The production opens Aug. 20 at the Cherry Orchard Theater

By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — The bucolic origins of the Blue Ridge Parkway arise more from myth that from fact, playwright Frank Levering finds.
When Levering put a play on the Cherry Orchard Theater's schedule, "Riders in the Sky," he admits he did so out of a sense of obligation.

He felt compelled out of a sense of duty to put on a play about the scenic parkway due to its 75th anniversary falling this year.
But when the playwright and orchardist started learning about the history, he unearthed facts that surprised him.
The effort to create "America's Favorite Drive" was actually rife with conflict — a necessary element in any theatrical presentation.
"The history of the parkway is a much more interesting story than I thought it was," he said.
Levering considers himself a frequent user of the parkway, but he never associated any dramatic elements with it. "When you think about the parkway, you don't think drama, so I was very surprised to discover how interesting and dramatic some of the aspects of the parkway history are," he said.
In his research, Levering finds that several commonly accepted views of the parkway differ from the facts.
Built during the depths of the Great Depression in 1935, most people believe that the scenic road was intended as a "make-work" project for mountain people, he said.
Another myth was that the vistas that grace the parkway correctly capture the idyllic and pastoral nature of the Blue Ridge Mountain communities.
"Those are myths we all love, but I don't think this culture was nearly as isolated or that the Blue Ridge Parkway was a make-work project," he said.
There's good reason to believe that the parkway came about as a result of work by chambers of commerce to bring investment and business to their communities, he said. After Asheville, N.C., got the effort started a lot of other chambers saw the potential and started competing to get the parkway.
And the communities along the parkway route were anything but peaceful — particularly when agents came around and started offering deflated prices for the land needed to build the road, Levering said. Where land in Ashe County had a value of $26 per acre, agents offered five dollars per acre to the owners.
"It turns out there was an awful lot of opposition to the parkway, particularly by landowners and developers."
A big fight also developed between North Carolina and Tennessee on the location of the parkway, with the Tar Heel state winning out, he said. And Virginia became influential due to Sen. Harry Byrd's friendship with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Many of the views from the parkway are picture perfect, but they aren't all natural, Levering said. "Many of the landscapes were created, they were not what you saw when the parkway was being laid out."
A landscape architect on the project, Stanley Abbott, got his inspiration from large public park projects, like Central Park in New York, where plants, trees and lawns were artfully placed to frame views.
The architect heavily relied on landscaping in the Blue Ridge Plateau region, where the forests had been denuded, Levering found.
We now take the parkway for granted, but the project almost got killed twice in Congress, when legislators tried to tie up the funding, he said. If it had not been for Rep. Bob Doughton, after whom Doughton Park in North Carolina is named, the effort to cut off the funding would have worked.
Levering's play has 21 characters in it, including Roosevelt, but also local people like midwife "Aunt" Orlene Puckett and Galax's Mary Guynn.
Guynn played an important role in the creation of the Blue Ridge Music Center, the playwright explained. She served as a liaison between the City of Galax and the Blue Ridge Parkway on the deal to turn over land owned by the city for the music center.
"If there's a greater friend to the Blue Ridge Parkway, I haven't met them," he said of Guynn.

The play on the parkway starts at the Cherry Orchard Theater today, Friday. It will run through Sunday at 7 p.m. and again Aug. 27 - 29. Tickets are $10 each, with children under 12 admitted free. Participants should bring a lawn chair. They are welcome to bring a picnic dinner, too. Directions are available on the orchard's website: www.leveringorchard.com/virginiasweetcherries.aspx.