Moving people, dead and alive: A story of Smith Mountain Lake

Lake View 1964
Smith Mountain Lake in 1964, before it reached “full pond.” (Photo provided by Marge Dillard.)

A few years ago, I was asked to write a story for a local magazine about the history of Smith Mountain Lake. The popular recreation area, located about an hour from Lynchburg, was created 50 years ago by Appalachian Power Company.

Throughout 2016, communities around the lake are celebrating the anniversary.

So, I researched and wrote the story, reporting about feasibility studies and how the power company acquired property in Bedford, Franklin and Pittsylvania counties. I wrote about the hydroelectric dam and how the Roanoke River Basin was flooded to provide power, recreational opportunities and other things.

What I found most interesting, however, was what had to be displaced for all of this to happen: namely people, dead and alive.

In May of 1960, two Appalachian Power employees were given a challenging — some might have said impossible — task: find and relocate every grave on the 20,000 acres of rolling Virginia farmland that would eventually become Smith Mountain Lake.

Those employees were an administrative assistant named C.O. Roberson and his coworker Herbert Taylor. Roberson, also known to be an “avid genealogist,” documented the daunting task in his 1963 report, “Relocation of Cemeteries in the Smith Mountain Lake and Leesville Reservoir Areas of Bedford, Franklin and Pittsylvania Counties.”

The report can be read, in full, at Jones Memorial Library in Lynchburg.

As Roberson wrote in his report, he and Taylor quickly realized “that the finding of these cemeteries would indeed be the most difficult task. Several months were spent on this one phase of the job. Many of the burial grounds were in most remote, isolated locations, far removed from accessible highways.

“They had to be found by walking and searching long distances through dense forests, briers, and bushes, and treelaps and honeysuckle vines, and everything else that grew over them. In some cases we spent hours locating a particular cemetery. We frequently solicited the aid of local residents and in a number of instances they joined the search.”

For months, Roberson and Taylor scoured fields and forests. They searched for tombstones, field stones, dips in the earth — anything that could possibly be a grave site. They also looked for periwinkle, a popular ground cover used in cemeteries.

“Periwinkle proved to be a blessing in helping us find cemeteries,” Roberson wrote.

The intrepid pair tangled with vines and briers. They got bit by lots of ticks but luckily no snakes.

“We killed two rattlesnakes and some moccasins, but we let the blacksnakes go,” the candid Roberson wrote, adding, “If anyone believes it is fun looking for graves in a rattlesnake and tick infested area, he should try it some time. We were often bitten by ticks, but fortunately not by a snake.”

Roberson and Taylor found graves from as far back as the 1750s. They also suspected many of the graves they found belonged to slaves. Very few graves were marked with names and dates, and many of the remains were of children.

Chimney at SML
My friend, Paula, found this chimney at Smith Mountain Lake State Park.

The pair found many graves at old home sites, identified only by a foundation or a couple of chimneys and, as Roberson put it, “often with large trees standing among the graves.”

During their two-year odyssey, Roberson and Taylor drove at least 100,000 miles and communicated with next-of-kin from all over the U.S. and Canada.

Roberson wrote that, “most of the next of kin desired and requested that the graves of their people be relocated, but in many instances their kinship was so distant that they did not show much concern or interest.”

Those in the black community, however, were adamant that their ancestors’ remains be relocated. “Without exception, colored people requested … their ancestors be moved to ‘higher ground,’ ” Roberson wrote. “They could not seem to bear the thought of permitting the graves to be inundated.”

Roberson and Taylor eventually found and coordinated the relocation of 1,135 graves from dozens of cemeteries. It was hard work, but it appears Roberson considered it a worthwhile endeavor.

“The relocation of graves, with all the minute details involved, turned out to be a bigger undertaking than we first anticipated,” he wrote at the end of his report. “It took longer than we thought it would, but it was a job that had to be done. We did the best that we knew how.”

Lots of living people also had to leave the area, among them people from Huddleston’s black community. Some families had been in the area since before the Civil War — first as slaves, then as sharecroppers.

For my original article, I talked with Margaret Garrett Moon, a sharecropper’s daughter. She grew up south of Lynchburg in Evington, but went to church in Huddleston.

Moon and her family attended church at Oak Grove Baptist and Thomas Slave Chapel. Thomas Slave Chapel was founded by freed slaves in 1877. It’s still used today, although mostly for annual homecoming-type services.

Moon remembered the older folks talking about being forced out by the impending flood. “Everybody, rich or poor, had to leave. … The dam was taking everything,” she said.

Trouble was, some people had nowhere to go. So the churches collaborated, building a shanty town at Oak Grove Baptist Church.

“Huts were put up … anywhere they could find a place to live,” Moon said, adding that some people lived on the church grounds “till they died or went into a nursing home or something.”

My friend and running partner, Paula, featured in the photo with the chimney, blogs at Virginia Sweet Pea. There, she writes about a variety of things, including crafting, fashion, food and her dog, Sherman. 

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