Daughters of the American Revolution brings forgotten forest to light
The sun had barely risen over the Pisgah Ridge, but the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Devils Courthouse pull-off was teeming — mainly with women, mainly older, wearing pins and clad in skirts and stoles and scarves, some of which were made of bona fide mink.
They were the Daughters of the American Revolution, and they were excited to commemorate an achievement of their predecessors, the Daughters of nearly a century before.
“These ladies were here 76 years ago,” said DAR member Anna Melvin, of the Cabarrus Black Boys Chapter near Charlotte. “It’s just amazing that we’re here on the same ground.”
Shortly after she spoke, a pair of charter buses rolled to a stop, opening their doors to release a total of 81 DAR leaders from across the nation. The women wore wide blue and white sashes across their chests, decorated with the pins they’d accumulated throughout their years of service. Those already in waiting reoriented themselves toward the new arrivals, applauding and greeting them as they made their way toward the crowd.
The occasion? The rededication of the DAR Jubilee Memorial Forest, an accomplishment of the World War II-era DAR that had been all but forgotten.
Rediscovering the forest
Back in the 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service launched the Penny Pine Program in an effort to reforest areas that had been logged excessively during the early 20th century. The program allowed groups to purchase trees — a penny apiece — to restore the forests. The DAR became a staunch supporter of the program, with the 1939 President General Mrs. Henry M. Robert charging each chapter across the country to plant at least one acre of seedlings. The Civilian Conservation Corps carried out the actual planting and care of the baby trees.
The N.C. Daughters in responded well above the call of duty, planting 50,000 red spruce trees over a three-year period to cover 50 acres across the Parkway from Devils Courthouse. The forest was dedicated on May 15, 1940, as the Jubilee Memorial Forest, the place marked by a bronze tablet. But the recognition was short-lived.
“That marker was misplaced, the war came along. The foliage grew up and the forest was forgotten,” said Molly Tartt, of Brevard, vice chairman of the rededication project and by all accounts the mastermind behind its successful conclusion.
“After the plantation work was done in ’43, it fell out of institutional memory, in large part because of World War II,” added James Lewis of the Forest History Society, who helped with the project.
The DAR had wanted to install a brass marker, but brass was going toward the war effort. Nearly the entire globe was embroiled in the deadly conflict, and marking a stand of trees simply was not the priority.
But last year, Tartt was given a job. DAR State Regent Elizabeth Candler Graham charged her with the task of forming a committee to locate the forest, get a new marker produced and organize a ceremony.
“It has been a huge job,” Tartt said.
Tartt had to work with the Forest Service and the National Park Service. She had to do a lot of historical research. She contacted Lewis to help her delve into the archives and map exactly where the forest is located. She hiked the area on foot, traveling to the forest three different times.
“She worked hard, and she’s not a kid,” said Deborah Burkhart, also of the Waightstill Avery Chapter based in Brevard. “She’s one of the little old ladies. Except she’s not little. She deserves a lot of credit. Without her work we wouldn’t be here today.”
An arboreal legacy
And without the DAR, the forest itself wouldn’t be here today. Both the Forest Service and the Park Service were represented in the crowd and the speaker lineup present to celebrate rediscovery of the forest, expressing their gratitude for the DAR’s role in reforesting the Parkway’s stunning viewshed.
“When they planted the trees so many years ago, the whole area had been deforested, essentially, in so many places,” said Mark Woods, superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway. “For them to have replanted it at that time affords us an incredible opportunity today.”
It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t fast — at least as far as growing went. The seedlings were just a few inches high when they were first planted, a far cry from the 80- to 100-foot trees on display today. Evidently the DAR was concerned about the trees’ progress after they were planted, at least judging by a letter that D.J. Morris, forest supervisor at the time, wrote to the group.
“Please assure those of your membership who were apprehensive of the success of the venture due to the slow growth of the trees that this is perfectly natural, that everything possible is being done and will continue to be done to maintain the growth, and in time visible spruce forest will occupy the valley at the memorial marker,” the letter reads.
DAR members laughed as Lorie Stroup, acting district ranger for the Pisgah National Forest, read it aloud.
The trees did indeed grow, and in their 76 years they’ve survived an astounding amount of change in the world around them, Stroup said.
“Since these trees were planted 76 years ago, we have come a long way in things like civil rights, women’s rights and forest management,” Stroup said. “I think that if these trees could talk they would have many stories to tell.”
Stories of the reforestation, stories of the people who made it possible and stories of the emerging presence of women in natural resources management roles.
“I think the trees would probably say, ‘And those (Forest Service) uniforms — they have still not changed, and they still are made for a man,’” Stroup added, eliciting a laugh from the flawlessly dressed crowd.
The sun had risen to a mid-morning tilt when the ceremony closed out with a rendition of “Taps.” The crowd dispersed and the charter buses rolled on, but the forest remained. In all likelihood, it will do so for many more decades — red spruce trees can live to more than 400 years.
And that, according to Burkhart, is a testament to the grit and impact that define the DAR.
“They’ve just taken on so many projects that are so beneficial to this country that so many people don’t know anything about,” she said. “They think we’re just a bunch of snooty women, and that’s definitely not the case.”
Did you know?
• Just down the Blue Ridge Parkway from where the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated its 50-acre Penny Pine forest in 1940, the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated a 125-acre forest in 1943 in recognition of the 125,000 soldiers that North Carolina supplied to the Confederacy.
• This far south, red spruce forests are found only at the highest elevations and are home to some rare species, including the endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel.
• When wearing their DAR pins, members are required to be dressed in either a skirt or a pantsuit.
• Back in the 1940s, it cost just $5 to plant an acre of spruce seedlings.
• In total, DAR chapters across the nation caused 4 million trees to be planted in memorial forests to aid in reforestation, responding to 1939 President General Mrs. Henry M. Robert’s challenge that each chapter plant at least 1 acre of seedlings. The DAR exceeded that challenge by 1.5 million trees.
See the forest
The Jubilee Memorial Forest is best visible from the path up to Devil’s Courthouse, located at mile marker 422.4 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s located on the opposite side of the Parkway from Devil’s Courthouse. Its borders clearly stand out from the deciduous forest surrounding it.