The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

John R. Barnard - The Man Who Knew His Way

By John Hassell Yeatts © 1984

Issue: September, 1984

the man who knew his wayMr. and Mrs. John R. Barnard and granddaughter, Carol Durham.It was the second week of January 1935 and the air was colder than the brass tips of a blue nose Tibetan ox. Ice forming along the protruding rocks of Little Ivy Creek stilled its usual gurgle to make it run silent. The rhododendron leaves were curled like green uncured cigars hanging stiffly along the banks giving little evidence that they would ever regain their cheerful sheen. And icicles along the road banks pushed up the red clay and held it there in grim testimony to the lowest temperatures of several years. Up ahead, a man bundled against the cold walked briskly along the single vehicle trail, his long blue overcoat striking the red top woolen socks extended above his high laced leather boots.

A 1933 Ford pickup pulled alongside the pedestrian, stopped and the driver invited him inside. The walker recognizing the driver quickly accepted and inside the cab - warmer but not warm at all - he wiped away a drop of water from his rosy nose with a brown cotton gloved hand and explained that his concern for the safety and comfort of the pupils and teachers at Free Union School near Vesta had brought him walking and hitch-hiking from the warmth of his home near Mayberry to check on the cordwood supply at the small clapboard school. An unavoidable but fatal accident some years earlier in Greensboro had caused the man to willingly relinquish his driving permit for the remainder of his life.

The man was John Robert Barnard, educator, naturalist, farmer, cattleman, miner and humanitarian who was once described by this writer as one of the "kindest men he had ever known." For many years he was a one-man chamber of commerce for the Heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. His persistent efforts in the Appalachian Trail, The Blue Ridge Parkway and the City of Danville Hydro Electric project are now legend. He once constructed a massive observation tower so tourists could better view, at no cost to them, the Pinnacles of Dan. He also landscaped a spring and picnic area for their enjoyment and he provided many travelers with free bed and board. It is practically without dispute that the construction of the two dams and power house bringing major employment to the area during the depths of the great depression grew out of his tenacity and his correspondence with Franklin D. Roosevelt concerning the envisioned project. And when the work finally began, instead of accepting one of several "cushiony" jobs he might have had, he shouldered his axe and surveyor's rod and traipsed into the rugged mountains with the Charles T. Main engineers to help lay out the project. He was every inch a man's man, that John Robert Barnard.

The year of 1935, ushered in on the wings of frigid Canadian air was to be an eventful one in his, too short, life. It would see him reach the age of 50, witness the City of Danville's vote to authorize the bond issue to build his "dream dams" and gain assurance of his appointment to the Patrick County School Board. He held that honored position until his death in 1962. Of all his dreams, a good school system was perhaps his greatest. That system included a brick, 12 grade, consolidated school at Meadows of Dan. John R. as many of his friends called him, saw that school become a reality.

Born in Patrick County, Virginia on January 29, 1885, he was the son of Eligah and Louisa Webb Barnard. He attended school in Stuart in 1901-02. And Fairview Academy near Hillsville in 1903. Then in 1912 he obtained his teacher's certificate from the Old State Normal in Martinsville. He taught at Pinnacle View, Bell Spur and Mayberry schools and is remembered by several as a kind, effective and "no nonsense” teacher. When he tired of teaching, he "rested" from the monotony by digging coal in the mines of West Virginia.

Soon after the start of his professional career he married Mrs. Sally Cruise Jessup, mother of two small daughters. "Miss Sallie" is remembered as a kind, gracious and beloved Christian lady. They became the parents of a son Lucian E. (now deceased) and a daughter Gladys - Mrs. Ralph Durham. The Durhams, a highly respected couple, reside near the old Barnard home place between Mayberry and Bell Spur.

Mr. Barnard believed with all his heart in the democratic system and in the right to vote. He was one of the most effective county leaders. He worked tirelessly to urge and assist people in exercising their citizen's franchise. He called voting, not only a privilege, but a duty. For many years he was a registrar at the Bell Spur Precinct. And it is part of the sad irony of life that he had gone there to assist one bright and chilly October morning in 1962 when he became ill and went to sit in the sunshine on the steps of the New Bell Spur Primitive Baptist Church he loved so well. It was there his kind and noble heart failed him and he died alone at 77. He left a void in the Heart of the Blue Ridge that has never been, and perhaps can never be, filled. But hundreds of folks still carry in their hearts a great love and admiration for this exemplary leader who lighted the way for many who might otherwise have groped in the darkness…