At milepost 5.8, the very northern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, sits an iconic symbol of American individualism: a small log cabin and farm. A weathered split-rail fence delineates a small clearing, surrounded by the forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains. An interpretive sign states that the site “was originally a Land Grant tract granted by the Commonwealth of Virginia to induce pioneers to settle the Blue Ridge Mountains and establish the border of the Western Frontier. Later it became known as the William J. Carter Farm. The original buildings have long since disappeared, but replaced with other authentic structures moved from nearby.”
This farm represents an 1890’s mountain farm and was assembled from buildings found along the Parkway. Outbuildings include a root cellar, smoke house, and pig pen. The log cabin is synonymous with the American frontier. According to another interpretive panel at the site, the idea to build homes from logs came from northern European immigrants, but was quickly adapted by Scots-Irish and others who recognized the value of using the abundant resources around them. I’ve visited the farmstead at various times over the years, drawn back again and again by its simplicity. But the simplicity is deceptive. There was nothing simple about making a living from the rocky soil high up in the mountains.
The tidy structure would have been home to a large family and its typical state would no doubt reflect the hard use of daily life. I visited on a quiet Fall day, one interpreter on duty. He had built a small, smoky fire in the fireplace and the sun’s rays cut through in dramatic fashion landing on the wood floor. Alas, no cat lay curled in the puddle of sun.
A log cabin symbolizes self-sufficiency and the need for space. Probably no other person is connected in American consciousness to a log cabin as much as President Abraham Lincoln, but according to most sources, seven U.S. presidents were born in a log cabin. In the nineteenth century, thousands of log cabins dotted the American landscape, especially in the Appalachian Mountains.
This National Park Service site stands adjacent to the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center, which features a number of displays about the region’s colorful past. I tackled the trail up to Humpback Rocks, a large rock formation that served as a landmark for travelers on the Old Howardsville Turnpike across the mountains. The view from the Rocks is stunning and worth the effort. The Appalachian Trail meanders nearby. While historic cabins stand preserved throughout the U.S., this one, with minimal interpretation and lack of connection to anyone famous, offers a good opportunity to reflect on life in an American icon.