The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Ode to an Agronomist

By William "Bill" Lord © 2014

Online: December, 2014

Cows grazing in a pasture inside of a wooden rail fence along the Blue Ridge Parkway. A tree-covered hill appears in the distance on the opposite side of the road. Image taken by C.E. Westveer in August of 1974. Image taken near Rocky Knob, Va., and milepost 170 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.Cows grazing in a pasture inside of a wooden rail fence along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The mountain in the distance is Rocky Knob with the Parkway winding along its side. Image taken by C.E. Westveer in August of 1974. Image taken near milepost 170 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.(Editor's Note: William G. "Bill" Lord, "was hired by the Blue Ridge Parkway, first as a park ranger for a two year stint, 1948-49, and then as their first park naturalist, 1950-55." He is author of the timeless classics; Blue Ridge Parkway Guide Volumes I and II. You may order both volumes from Menasha Ridge Press.)

Morning rubbed its eyes and stretched over the Blue Ridge community of Sparta, North Carolina. Roosters crowed their prideful dawn salute. Dairy cattle bawled hungry eagerness as they headed for pasture. Farmers hefted ten gallon milk cans into cooling water, then trudged to house and breakfast. Back in 1950 it was the start of another midsummer day.

Bill Hooper, the Blue Ridge Parkway Agronomist, bade farewell to his host at Kelly's Motel and motored to a section of farmland within the Parkway's right-of–way. This morning he was checking on land leased to local farmers between his entry on the Parkway at Roaring Gap, and then southward into dusk and the call of the whip-poor-will.

He parked his government car and strode to a bordering snake-rail fence. Per usual he paused to pull some tall grass; then slowly munching a stem, he leaned on the fence to ponder the land's progress or lack of it.

His blue eyes brightened. Chalky streaks banded a somewhat jaundiced pasture, indicating a recent and needed application of lime. A wide, white smile gleamed on his sun-burned face. Good. Harvey Wilson had kept his word.

Harvey had asked for another chance to retain his lease with the Parkway. He'd slipped a bit once he had use of the land. He took off the hay, but he didn't lime or fertilize. "My daddy didn't do none of that, and I learned farming from my daddy." Bill, with polite firmness, said he might have to cancel the lease. "Mr. Cooper," said a mite anxious Harvey. "You just give me another chance. I give you my word."

Mr. Cooper? Bill never could tell why, but the mountain farmers often called him Cooper instead of Hooper. Bill didn't mind. Call me Cooper and let's come to an agreement.

Bill stretched a happy stretch. There, profiled on the hillside, he was the prototype mountaineer, square-shouldered, lean and sinewy.

In anticipation of further good findings, he vaulted the fence and crossed to a steep crease in the land. A recent red scar of bare erosion was now tended by a packing of stones and brush. Rain torrents could no longer gouge away the soil. Green sod was closing and healing the wound.

And now for that broken down section of fence; Bill had supplied Harvey with some of his "scrounged-from-high-and-low" stock of chestnut rails. Yes, Harvey had removed and replaced the broken section.

A year ago, Harvey signed a five-year lease. For the modest sum of $1.00 per acre per year he agreed to specified land use practices. He gradually backslid some, but now with his word and a handshake, the agreement was secure.
This was true of Harvey and the mountain people in general. Giving one's word was more binding than a signature. Of course most farmers fulfilled their agreement without any prodding, but then, there's some Harvey in the best of us. Most importantly, the lease was in good hands and so was the farmland scenery.

Bill returned to his car and headed south. Foster Caudill at Laurel Gap wanted to put more sheep in his leased pasture. Bill felt sure he could work something out. Foster was a good farmer and his tending produced a lush growth that the sheep never overgrazed.

Things were in pretty good shape. Parkway neighbors were, by and large, cooperative and recognized that they had a good deal. "Yes," mused Bill, "things have shaped up very well. But it wasn't always that way. No sir. What a time I had when I first started...."

The Parkway is a concept of the landscape architect, guided since its inception in 1935, by a sublime document known as the Master Plan. The inherent artistry of the Master Plan is most evident in the realization that the Parkway has no apparent boundary. It is one and the same with the countryside. On farm terrain this effect is achieved by leasing land acquired for the Parkway's wide right-of-way to the Parkway's farmer neighbors.

It is truly a master stroke. Farmers obtain the use of the land and the earnings of its yield in return for a modest fee and proper care. The Parkway benefits from greatly reduced maintenance costs, and the scenic treasure of a natural countryside.
The green and golden harmony we enjoy today, however, was not brought forth without great effort, patience, and skill. It was recognized during the Parkway's early years that the land-lease program should be assigned to a professional agronomist trained in field-crop production and management.

The proposed agronomist would meet with the local farmers and persuade them to become partners and caretakers of the thousands of acres of farmland purchased for the trans-mountain passage of the Parkway.
He would smooth over the resentment of many toward this "mighty particular road" that cleaved their lands in two, even amputating buildings that encroached onto the government side of the boundary line.

He would persuade un-persuaded farmers to accept new farming methods that made proud claims for better yields and soil conservation, and called shame down upon primitive and wasteful ways. He would be a college man entering the home of the unlettered, asking for a signed contract from men that put their trust in a handshake and the spoken word.
Where could the Parkway find such a man? Such a man was found in Bill Hooper and the finding became one of those rare and cherished events when a man is right for his time and place.

Of course, he had to be a mountain man himself. When he spoke to a Parkway neighbor, he was talking to his own. He knew and respected the innate courtesy and natural manners of the people. He was never in a hurry. He never pressed for a decision. He always accepted an invitation to "come and see me."

Some farmers readily recognized the favorable terms and benefits of a Parkway agreement. For a token fee a man could lease land for crops and pasture. It might not make sense, but he could agree not to grow a "row-crop" like corn or cabbage in successive years. All right, he'd lime and fertilize, and yes, he'd plow on the contour to prevent erosion. He'd even agree to put only one head of cattle or four sheep to the acre on that lush pasture.

And you know, even though Mr. Hooper never said, "I told you so," my leased land is looking better than my own land.
Early on, however, there were some mistrustful souls not having any doings with Bill. They'd meet him with a surly eye and say "Git." No hurry. After a while he'd let it be known that he'd be most grateful to meet with Mr. Whomever whenever he'd a mind to; and one day, sure enough....

Bill looks back on those early times with a tinge of regret for their passing. They had a man-to-man directness that gave the feel of trust. But an inevitable affluence came with the increasing productivity of the land, and increasingly, Bill found himself dealing with attorneys representing the lessee rather than the lessee himself.

Change is constant, however, and Bill simply applied his practical approach to suit the needs of a more meticulous society. The bottom line is there to see. Today is much improved from yesteryear. The mountain farms are greener. The corn is taller, the yield greater. Large firm heads of cabbage are harvested by the truck-load. Cattle fatten knee-deep in pasture. The Parkway visitor sees a verdant, productive farm scene.

Life is an art, not a science, and what greater artist than a practical man with style. Bill Hooper retired from the National Park Service in 1974. He is the recipient of well-deserved awards from the Park Service and from his alma mater, Appalachian State University. He has certain other honors:

The rustic boundary of the rail fence
The wind-sheen of sunlight passing over ripening wheat
The aroma of buckwheat in bloom

These and all things like them
Honor the way he touched the land.