By Lynn R. Mitchell
September 25, 2013
I once said of Paul Galanti that I was talking over iced tea with living history. Recently I broke bread and had iced tea with a walking, talking pint-sized history book.
Polly Yager Campbell is a bundle of energy in a small package, and she’s no pushover. Youthful for her age with a memory as sharp as a tack, she knows the land around Shenandoah National Park like the back of her hand. She should. She grew up at the foot of the mountain beneath Big Meadows Lodge in Page County. She is a Virginian from a long line of Virginians. The Yager family migrated to Virginia in 1717 and settled in “Germanna Colony,” an area on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
On an exceptionally warm day for September 12th, Polly and I met in Elkton, and drove up Rt. 33 to Skyline Drive. Our destination was lunch at Big Meadows Lodge. At Milespost 51, we turned left at the field known as Big Meadows and slowly drove the one mile to the lodge’s parking lot, scanning the woods and open areas for wildlife and commenting on the lush green of trees and grasses after an exceptionally wet summer. Perhaps it was the warm temperatures that day but we saw no wildlife in the usual places other than birds.
There were a few mid-week visitors. We walked across the parking lot to the lodge that was build in 1939 from stones carved and transported from Massanutten Mountain, a lodge Polly’s father helped build in the 1930s. In 1997, this mountain getaway was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Polly and I made our way through the lobby area to the Great Room, pausing to look out the large ceiling-to-floor windows overlooking the valley, and then stepped outside onto the flagstone terrace that extends along the entire length of the valley side of the building.
A haze caused by the late summer heat partially hid the Page Valley below as Polly and I stood at the terrace railing and gazed over the tree tops, searching for landmarks. Polly smiled as a memory came to mind and shared that, as a child, she could look up the mountain at night and see the lights from the Lodge. Wow, I thought … can you imagine growing up and being able to see Big Meadows Lodge?
The cool mountain breeze rustled her hair as she stared into the valley thinking about her childhood on land in Page County that had been in the Yager family for five generations. As she shared more memories, I couldn’t help but wish there was a way to record her thoughts. They are a part of her … but they are also a part of the history of Virginia, the park, and the mountains.
She spoke of her family — father, grandfather, mother, grandmother, and siblings. She talked about tragic events and family members who had passed on. She remembered the seasons — October is her favorite time of the year and the month of her birth — and being caught in a big snowstorm once while at Skyland with her husband, eventually escaping before they became snowed in.
She talked of traveling the back mountain roads, and told about a time when her uncle had driven to pick up her dad at Big Meadows. They met a truck approaching from the opposite direction in the middle of the narrow, steep road and, when they tried to pass, their car hit the soft, unstable shoulder, causing the vehicle to tumble over the side of the mountain. Polly was inside with her mother and siblings. With a quiet chuckle, she said two little saplings stopped the free-fall or they would have gone all the way to the bottom. She was calm in the retelling … no, no one was seriously hurt, she said, although they were shaken and bruised when the backseat came loose, as the car rolled over, and all the tools fell on their heads. She was holding her baby sister on her lap, and her arms were still wrapped tightly around her when the car came to a stop, and she was able to climb out. Her mother had a broken arm. So there were occasions when vehicles went over the mountainsides, I asked. Oh, yes, she replied, and it sounded like something that was more common than not.
I could have stood at that railing all day and listened but, after a while, we went inside and walked around the Great Room of the Main Lodge with its rustic chestnut wall paneling and beams, huge stone fireplace, and the bank of paned ceiling-to-floor windows overlooking the Page Valley. Chestnut trees, valued by early settlers for their durability and used for all the wooden interiors of the main lodge, were plentiful in 1939 but, due to disease, are practically extinct these days.
Polly’s eyes took it all in, sweeping across the room, perhaps remembering her dad in that place looking at his handiwork of decorative chestnut touches or special add-ons. Perhaps she was remembering as a child climbing into one of the rockers that faced the windows overlooking the terrace. Perhaps she was just lost in thought. Only one patron was in the room with his laptop taking advantage of the WiFi, a nod toward the realization that, while visitors enjoy the mountain isolation, they still like their modern electronics.
On to the Spotswood dining room, named for Virginia Governor Alexander Spottswood who led his Knights of the Golden Horseshoe to explore the area in 1716, a large space with walls of windows, chestnut wood paneling, oversized stone fireplace, and tables with ladder-back chairs that added to the rustic feel. A friendly young man seated us at a window table overlooking the terrace and Polly’s valley. Perfect! The breeze coming through the screen door had the faint scent of the outdoors, green like the mountains.
We sat across from one another and ordered our meal and then, over glasses of iced tea, the conversation turned to politics. Polly has crossed paths with too many politicians to count so there we were, two political junkies, veterans at the game, eagerly discussing the people, places, and activities of politics at all levels.
There was a lot to talk about since we had both been Republican volunteers and members together on the State Central Committee. A long-time volunteer in statewide politics, Polly’s blue eyes teared up at the memory of the changes in the party; and her service of 44 years as Secretary of the Republican Party. She also served as Young Republican representative for several years before her election as Secretary. It is evident from talking to her that she is profoundly proud of the commitment of her time and means to the building of the Republican Party and honored by the opportunity to have served and be touched by so many lives.
And then her eyes flashed as she recalled more than 50 years of hard work that included countless Republican losses in the early years, remembering when the Democratic candidates would win yet another election and call out to the defeated Republicans, “When you going to give up?” Polly would respond, “There’s another election next year.” Then she and her colleagues would go back to the drawing board, help recruit more candidates, roll up their sleeves, and get back to work.
She paused … and then smiled at the thought of the jubilant victory in 1970 when Linwood Holton — whom she knows and calls Lin — became the first Republican governor in Virginia in 100 years. That’s a long, dry run, and the win whetted Republican appetites for more. It was the beginning of the Republican comeback in Virginia after years of dominance by the Democratic Byrd machine. Those not familiar with Governor Holton may be familiar with his son-in-law … former Governor and current U.S. Senator Tim Kaine.
Polly talked of attending the first ever Republican Advance, as well as subsequent ones, at Ingleside Resort in Augusta County, of seeing George H.W. Bush there when he was running for president, and seeing his sons, George and Jeb, while working of their father’s campaign. She smiled at the thought … they were called the Bushie Boys, she said. We discovered we’re both Bush family admirers.
I soaked in every word as she shared historical political facts, my brain absorbing it like a sponge. Back in the Byrd days, Republicans were scarce. Polly’s family was Republican, and it sometimes affected jobs. Her father was a carpenter, self taught, and worked for the construction company that built Big Meadows and Skyland Lodge. He also helped build the Byrd Visitor Center at the entrance to Big Meadows, a job he was working in 1965 when, at the age of 59, he died of a heart attack.
I shared with Polly that my parents had honeymooned at Big Meadows in the 1940s so, in a sense, our parents’ paths had crossed in that historic, rustic resort. Since she had grown up living there, I was all ears, listening, asking questions, and imagining what it must have been like to have Shenandoah National Park right outside your door.
For employees of the park who live in the Page Valley, there is a gated gravel road that climbs up the mountain to Skyline Drive just south of Big Meadows. Nowadays, only those with a key can access that shortcut but when Polly was a little girl it was still a public road that ran beside her house. In 1936 when she was about five or six years old, she and her family walked the five miles up that mountain road to attend the dedication of Shenandoah National Park. The ceremony, attended by President Franklin Roosevelt as well as other dignitaries and many visitors and locals, took place in the big meadow. She didn’t know it then but President Roosevelt was the first of many high-ranking politicians she would rub elbows with in her lifetime.
Spending time with Polly was a reminder of how much things have changed during her 50 years in politics — from not winning, to that first taste of sweet victory, to today. She was a Republican pioneer at a time when the GOP began to effectively chisel into the long time Democratically-controlled government.
We finished our lunch, took one last stroll around the lodge, and finally headed to the car to begin the journey down the Drive and back to Elkton. I left richer for having heard history on several levels, and grateful to know Polly a little better through her window on the world. Her memories are rich and laced with historical facts. They need to be mined — recorded and heard — before that generation is gone.
Polly and I have a date for lunch at Skyland in October. I can’t wait….
Photos by Lynn R. Mitchell
Originally published September 25, 2013