Hungry Mother State Park – Appalachia

Hungry Mother State Park

From I-85 N, we took Exit 47 at Marion, VA and followed the signage to Hungry Mother SP. The roads were easy to navigate to the first Park office at Camp Burson. Burson is below an earthen dam built by the CCC during the Depression, campsites are gravel or grass, some are shaded and there isn’t any cover between sites. At the office we were told that the other campground was up a “very windy road.”

Unhooking the car, it took only 15 minutes to explore the road, lake and Creekside Campground – the twists wouldn’t present a problem for the Trek. We signed in at the Discovery Center close to the main park amenities (boat ramp, canoe/kayak rentals, swimming beach, fishing pier, restaurant and bike/walking trail heads) and camped on Hungry Mother Creek.

Settled for a few days, we took a look at the things we could learn about this corner of Virginia.

I’m starting to wonder about whether we travel under a weather curse. Rain. Everywhere we’ve been gray skies follow us. I appreciate the sun (read- worship) when it makes an appearance.

Hungry Mother Creek’s name has three possible origins, the most popular version begins with an attack on white settlers by “hostiles.” A whole village of people were killed and the women and children were taken captive. Among those were Molly Marley and her two year old daughter.

Legend has it that Molly and her child escaped and wandered the forests eating berries. Molly finally collapsed and the child wandered down the creek until she was found. The child uttered two words, “Hungry mother.” Molly died and nothing more is said about her little girl but the two words were branded to the creek and when the impoundment was created, the lake and park got the same name.

We walked the park and explored Marion. There are a couple of good places to eat – The Wooden Pickle Bar and Grill was closed when we stopped by but we got two enormous sandwiches at Macado’s (Mack-a-Do’s). The interior of the restaurant is crammed with movie and baseball memorabilia. We each took half a sammie home and had two ‘normal’ sized sandwiches the next day. I meant enormous!

One of our explorations found us driving the famous Dragon’s Backbone – CR16. Famous because of the twists and hairpin turns that motorcyclists love. “Dragon’s how Backbone for some knee-dragging fun!” boasted a brochure at the park’s Discovery Center. It was a fun drive and passed a rainy day nicely.

We also explored Saltville, chiefly through the eyes of the Museum of the Middle Appalachians. The museum is small and powerfully curated. From the Pleistocene times (mammoth teeth and bones) to the 1960’s, the museum’s collection offered insight into life and times.

The museum has a notable collection of early Native American jewelry in the form of shell bead strings – one is forty-two feet long – and arrowheads.

Around the tops of the walls were core samples of earth pacing a timeline with adjoining displays. Saltville was founded before the Civil War by folks who wished to exploit the rich salt deposits 200’ deep in the earth. The mines are located in the valley and the workers houses, company store and school were all on the hillsides around the mines.

The first attempts to extract the salt followed traditional mining – drill a hole, widen it and bring up the salt. That failed because Appalachia is water country. If there is a seam in the ground, water seems to seep or run out of it and sure enough, ground water went right into that first mine. The water set the method of mining, saltwater was pumped to the surface, evaporated in kettles (that look just like sugar kettles in south Alabama). The evaporated sale would then be scraped out and bagged.

During the Civil War salt from Saltville mines played an important part in food and the manufacturing of munitions. During the Civil War, each southern state had it’s own mine and evaporator. Evidence of Alabama and Georgia’s mines are still visible near the ponds that grace the landscape today.

Saltville was a company town, workers could receive script valued at $1.10 or cash at $1.00. Script from the Mathieson Company had such good value that people could go south to the big town of Buckley and spend or cash it out in most of the stores. The town boasted the best high school science program in VA until it was closed in the 1960’s.

Our docent went to that school and was later told, by her college science instructor, that she had a significant advantage over other students. She also described being a child in Saltville, the parades and semi-pro baseball team, the sense of intimacy and knowing everyone, the safety and beauty that surrounded the people who lived and worked in Saltville. She was of the first generation to need to move away to find work and one of many who returned to retire.

I read a local newspaper while we were in Marion. The focus of most of the articles was environmental pollution and how it affects the local population. The number of mines (of nearly all exploitable minerals) in Virginia and West Virginia that have been abandoned is staggering. Those mines, being in Appalachian Water Country, seep their minerals into peoples wells and the springs that many folks drink from.

Chemical companies still rule employment in the area. One local company that legally dumps the chemical PFOA into the New River admits to no wrongdoing while it supplies hundreds of residents with bottled drinking water. Don’t take my word for it, look up some of the towns in Appalachia and find out about land and water issues folks face.

Inroads were made on cleanup of mines and chemicals in water supplies but I wonder how much more cleanup money or government holding corporate polluter’s feet to the fire will occur since the current administration is repealing rules and regulations of the Clean Air and Water Act left and right.