A few years ago I went to the village of Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, to scout out a location in my second novel of the Durant Family Saga trilogy: Castles in the Air.
Freshwater is a step back in time. It appears nothing has changed in this small coastal village since one of the characters in my novel, Ella Durant visited it over one hundred years ago to meet the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. Given its history I would be surprised if it wasn't a haven for artists and writers. The beauty of the cliffs and rolling hills is astounding.
After finding Tennyson's home, Farringford, which is not open to the public, I went to the Dimbola Museum, once home of the famous photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. I found a reference in a letter from Thomas C. Durant to his daughter Ella Durant dated April 1874 in which he stated he would allow Ella to stay with Mrs. Cameron in Freshwater. I speculate that the photo below may have actually been done by Cameron, although I don't know for sure. But in it Ella poses with her brother William and other friends at Isle of Wight, and it is dated 1874. Anne Thackeray Ritchie, an author and a family friend of Julia Cameron, stands tall in the back, facing right.
Follow the people from the past, the places they lived, worked, politics, public sentiment, changing landscape, and a narrative emerges that's worth telling in fiction.
While climbing the viewing tower on Mount Constitution in Washington State, I had the opportunity to read the testimony of the men who built it and was hooked on their story. A particular sign caught my eye. It was a certificate of appreciation to one of the men who helped build the tower in 1936, thanking him for being part of an "Army of Youth and Peace" and "Awakening the People to Conservation and Recreation."
The men who built the Mt. Constitution viewing tower and much of the infrastructure at the park, served in the U.S. Tree Army, a.k.a the Civilian Conservation Corps. (CCC). They led ordinary lives during an extraordinary time in U.S. history: the Great Depression.
These men, recruited from cities, rural towns and Indian Reservations from 1933-1939, served the U.S. citizenry and had an enormous impact on cultural attitudes toward conserving the natural resources, especially National and State forests.
Their nickname: The Tree Army, is apt; estimates are they collectively planted over three billion trees across the country. They fought numerous forest fires ravaging lands that were cut over and neglected by private lumber companies, and they prevented the decimation of the Great Plains agricultural lands through their soil conservation works.
And they were paid $5.00/month and given three meals a day to do so. The rest, $25.00, was sent home to support their families. Five dollars a month may sound like a paltry sum, but during the Depression, it was a king's salary to these men. "Five dollars a month made me rich! I never had $5.00 before in my life."
They were between the ages of 17-30. Some were World War I veterans. All were on public assistance. The U.S. Surgeon General estimated that 75% of the 100,000 men they examined in one year, were malnourished, prone to disease and exhausted from stress and the search for work. As one CCC alum wrote, the men had the mark of shattered ambitions and blasted hopes written on their faces.
Although the CCC was touted as a jobs recovery program, and a way to keep men, particularly young, immigrant men, from becoming juvenile delinquents roaming city streets, President Franklin Roosevelt also had a keen interest in preserving national park land. During his administration the Federal government acquired vast amounts of land and put it in the public domain.
Soon, CCC camps were popping up in rural enclaves throughout the U.S. where there were plenty of public work projects to be done. Besides planting trees these men built roads, cabins, lodges, rest areas, bridges, and scenic byways in the parks. And their presence played a big role in improving the economies of the surrounding towns. Local supplies, carpenters, and tradesmen were employed to help build and service the CCC camps and the local businesses: theaters, barbershops, food stores, all catered to them.
The Tree Army had an enormous impact on the recreation and tourist industry. Back in 1930 the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had about three thousand visitors a year. By the end of that decade, and due to their work, over 130 thousand visitors came to visit. Today the park welcomes over ten million visitors/year.
While reading the testimony of the men in various written accounts, one can imagine how hard it was, especially for the city dwellers, to be sent into the woods, so far from home, even if they were surrounded by awe-inspiring beauty. Most didn't have a high school education and had never traveled outside their own city neighborhoods. One man stated he and the other recruits were pensive when they landed at a Washington port to be shipped out to the San Juan Islands. They didn't believe it when they were told by their camp leader the Islands were part of the United States, instead thinking they were being deported.
When Orson Welles broadcast the War of the Worlds on radio in 1938, some of the men panicked, believing their homes in the Northeast were being destroyed by an invasion of martians. As one alum recounted, the boys from the east coast cities were screamin' and hollerin' around the camp.
After reading about the men in the CCC, I went looking for fictional accounts and didn't find many. That's when I decided it was time to tell their stories.
Olympic Mountain Range from Mt. Constitution, Moran State Park, Orcas Island.
Photo credit Wikimedia: Lee317
Brinkley, Douglas. Rightful Heritage. HarperCollins 2016.
Hill, Edwin. In The Shadow of the Mountain. Washington State University Press 1990.
Jolley, Dr. Harley. The Maginficent Army of Youth and Peace. UNC Press. 2007.
Maher, Neil. Nature's New Deal. Oxford University Press 2009.
In a interview on the History Author Show podcast about the Durant Family Saga, the interviewer asked me a question that had me stumped:
If you could fill any gap about this fascinating family after three novels, what would you choose?
Of course, there’s more I could have uncovered about the Durants to turn my trilogy into a series. I've received emails from people who were reading my books and my research journey blog. They offered me tidbits of information, leads to follow, contact information of descendants with interesting histories of their own. But for me, enough was enough. I’d spent five years of my life researching this Gilded Age family. I had traveled to several libraries and museums on the east coast of the U.S., and visited the Isle of Wight in England.
At some point authors of historical fiction rely on conjecture. It is the lens we use to offer our interpretation of events given the information we have on hand. Indeed, at the end of the trilogy, in the novel, The Night is Done, the narrator, a historian, remarks:
I’m sure that in the future, someone will come along and find gaps in my research. It’s the historian’s curse. Our job is to sift through the tall tales and determine what’s worth including and what’s best left as fodder for others to chew on. The truth is found in the abyss of the unknown.
If my readers believe it’s me, the author saying these words, they aren’t far off. I put myself in the head of the narrator, a historian, tracking down and interviewing an elderly member of the Durant family, and by the time I was done writing the last book in the trilogy, it was how I felt.
We read historical fiction to discover history in an interesting and entertaining fashion. Authors of this genre are all too aware that some research could take up a lifetime and if we wait for all the facts to be known, the stories would never get written. This is especially true as libraries, newspapers and museums digitize their collections making them more accessible to the public, uncovering new details and facts about historical events along the way.
There are always new stories to tell, and I have moved on to tell them. My latest work in progress is about the men of the US Civilian Conservation Corps, who planted over a billion tree seedlings in the US during the Great Depression. The story revolves around the families who once lived in Cades Cove, a cultural heritage site at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After doing research about these families, I felt compelled to tell their stories. And I hope to have this novel published soon.You can read the first couple of chapters here.
The sound of a stream plunging over a precipice is one sign of spring and on my recent visit to the Smoky Mountains National Park there were plenty of gushing waterfalls; I hiked up to Spruce Flats to get this view.
I went to the Smoky Mountains National Park to conduct research for a novel and to write about place, exploring the mountains in spring. I was especially interested in the area around the Tremont Institute in the park. It was once a thriving lumber community and one of the more famous inhabitants was William Walker. He owned most of Walker Valley before the Smoky Mountains National Park was formed, and this is where my fictional family lives. What drew me to their story is the old growth, or what is left of it at the Tremont Institute in the park.
William Walker settled here in the 1850s and as lumber operations closed in on his valley, he tried to keep his old growth woods from the clutches of the Little River Lumber Company. William lived a colorful life. According to his descendants, he had three wives and some estimate he sired over 20 children. He hung on to his land until 1918, selling it off to the owner of the Little River Co. on his death bed with the understanding that the old trees would be spared. What he never knew was that eventually his trees were cut, post-mortem, by the company and that he was under paid for the land.
A few miles down the road from Tremont and Walker Valley is the only cultural heritage site in the park - Cades Cove. This eleven mile circuit holds what remains of an entire community that once lived there: homes, corn cribs, barns, smoke and spring houses. The people that lived in Cades Cove had full, industrious lives.
Their economy was based on a bartering system with the nearby cities and towns. And they had plenty to barter before the woods were ravaged by blight, forest fire, and habitat destruction. Ginseng, chestnuts, corn, and cattle were just some of the products the people of Cades Cove bartered and sold at markets in Maryville and Knoxville, TN. Luckily local residents (many descendants) from nearby Townsend, Tennessee advocated for preserving the architecture of Cades Cove. It is the only area in the park where you can find everything intact. Which was fortunate because when the government started acquiring land for the park in the mid-1920s they tore down or let buildings rot after their occupants moved out. Just like the natural areas in the park, Cades Cove is a great place to rocket the imagination.
I also found a plethora of reading material at the Smoky Mountains Heritage Museum in Townsend, first hand accounts from people who grew up in the region before their families were forced to move because of the National Park in the mid 1930s. These books are gold mines of information, tall tales, and stories about the families who lived there, their hardships, feuds, and industry. Before a fungus blighted the Chestnut trees, children would go deep into the woods to collect the nuts and sell them at the local stores. They had a miller who came in from the fields at the sound of a bell to mill corn for customers who stopped in with a sack of kernels. His was an important job as corn was a family staple and wheat was hard to grow so flour was usually shipped in and store bought.
The families raised pigs, notched their ears to identify them and let them roam the hills. At harvest time they were lured in with salt and nuts. The meat was kept in a smokehouse and slabs taken off throughout the winter. Game was scarce by the early 20th century due to over hunting. Hunters were lucky to get a 'Gobbler' roosting in a tree, or squirrel meat. I found no references for deer hunting but Elk now pasture in the coves and there are signs everywhere to be aware of them while driving. I've visited the park twice and have yet to see one. But I'll be back for the next season: summer and maybe I'll get lucky.
Connect here for my next post on the history of lumber industry in the Smoky Mountain region.
In 1837 George B. Sudworth, submitted a paper to the American Forestry Association describing the forest of the Great Smoky Mountains: a primeval forest 'scarcely ever broken by the sound of a woodman's ax', a forest 'truly of virgin character.' Within 100 years the landscape would dramatically change. Men working in the Smoky Mountains as part of the newly created US Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934, described the forest as a wasteland, filled with slash left behind by lumber companies who cut what they could and abandoned the rest to the ravages of forest fires. Indeed, in Elkmont, Tenesee, the Little River Lumber Company did just that.
The Little River Lumber Co. is credited with engineering a railroad with technology that allowed harvest of timber at a scale never seen before in the region. In the early 20th century, the company bought up or leased land from homesteaders. And when ownership was dubious, they went to court to make a claim. As they did, the company moved operations into elevations up to 4,000 feet above sea level to access virgin stands of tulip polar, chestnut, and hemlock. The company had specialized steam-powered rail engines, called Shay engines. These engines were able to chug up the steep grades and handle the sharp curves. Lumber co. men threw buckets of sand on the tracks for traction.
And as the railroads inveigled their way into the forest depths, so did the the lumbermen and their families. They lived in shacks called set offs. The first ever mobile home, these 12x12 spaces were placed on flatbed railroad cars and trudged up the mountains. Two or three might be set next to each other to house families while the men worked for the company harvesting lumber. Communities sprouted up along with them, stores, blacksmiths, makeshift schools, and when operations were moved, so did the community.
It took a small army to cut and load the trees on the rail cars. Men used steam-powered 'skidders' wheels of long cable let out and dragged up sides of slopes to where the logs lay. The cable was wrapped around the trunks to pull them off the slopes. Afterwards, the men used a crane with a large tong attached to it which lifted the logs onto the flatbed. Once they stacked twelve or more logs, the train carried them down the steep slopes to town.
Although chestnut trees were plentiful at the beginning of the 20th century, by 1925, a fungus blight was ravaging the forest. It was estimated that in some locations chestnut made up forty percent of the forest cover. Hence, they were an important tree for the ecology of the region. The nuts were foraged by turkey, domesticate hogs, cattle, and humans. The wood was rot resistant, lighter than oak, and used for a variety of utilitarian purposes throughout the U.S. It was a valuable commodity in the Smoky Mountains and the Little River Lumber Co. harvested most of it from the watershed before the blight spread. But once the blight spread, the fate of the chestnut was sealed. When the company came upon trees hollowed out from the blight they left it to rot.
By 1937, the Little River Lumber Co. had ceased operations in what was then the inaugural Smoky Mountains National Park. After decades of harvesting most of the virgin timber in the Little River watershed, they sold their land holdings to the federal government for the newly established National Park. Families moved, and those that stayed were not allowed to cut timber for firewood or building. In addition, the government forbid them to hunt, or to raise cattle and livestock to graze in the mountain pastures. People who could, moved out or were bought out by the government. The old chestnut trees were either dead or dying and although there are still a few places where one can visit old growth forests in the area, a majority of the Smoky Mountains is second or third generation forest. As for the chestnut; scientists are working on a remedy: a hybrid that may resist the fungus. There's hope then that maybe I'll get to see a mature chestnut tree within my lifetime.
Weals, Vic. 1993. Last Train to Elkmont. Olden Press.
Maher, Neil. 2007. Natures New Deal.Oxford University Press
From Kirkus Review
A historical novel, set largely in upstate New York’s Adirondack Park, about the troubled lives of real-life real estate investor William West Durant and his embittered sister, Ella.
Myers (Castles in the Air, 2016, etc.) continues the story of the Durants in this third book in her Durant Family Saga trilogy. Thomas C. Durant was a railroad magnate who lost a fortune and died under a cloud—and intestate—in 1885. His son, William, assumed control of the family’s remaining assets and began new real estate and construction ventures in the Adirondacks. His sibling, Ella, who was somewhat of a bohemian, always felt financially shortchanged and ill-treated by her older brother—which caused litigation between the two. In the novel, told in the form of reminiscences of various characters, readers follow the arc of William’s career from his early days as a high roller (starting in 1892) to his impoverished life as an old man (circa 1931). In the end, not only has William lost all of his own wealth, but also money and land that Ella won in her final lawsuit—so they both end up losing. However, as William wrote to a friend in 1932, “I am poor, but I am happy, what more can most of us expect?” Myers writes with skill and has chosen well in deeply researching the Durant saga, which remarkably parallels Greek tragedy. It’s a truly engrossing story, and Myers does it justice. William is effectively portrayed as being more clueless than anything else, as he honestly doesn’t understand that he is treating his sister—and his wife, for that matter—very badly. He’s also obsessed with his camps in the Adirondacks, giving readers the impression that he sees the whole park as his personal fiefdom. That’s likely the reason why Myers uses the very clever gambit of telling the story from the perspective of William in his old age, when he’s “calm of mind, all passion spent,” and being interviewed by wealthy Harold Hochschild, who now owns William’s old camp, Eagle’s Nest. To compare William to the aged Oedipus is not so great a stretch.
A well-wrought, classically inspired riches-to-rags tale.
Often, when I'm giving a talk about my novels I'm asked, where did you come up with the idea to write the story? I get my inspiration from past. I started to research the Durant family saga - after staying in a cabin hidden in the wilderness that was supposedly built by William West Durant for trysts with his mistress. What I thought would be a one book love story/romance, turned into a four year research journey. This folklore about William and his mistress started me down a path of clues that shed light on the lives of the Durant family and had me visiting the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, Winterthur Museum, the Adirondack Museum, and England. My one book idea turned into a trilogy.
Soon after I was finished with my draft of novel three in the trilogy, I was visiting my family in South Carolina and ended up hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, one the US most popular National Park. I was intrigued with the history of the people who once lived in the park and were eventually forced out--like the residents of Cades Cove--now a Cultural Heritage site in the park. And then there is the story of the Walker Sisters, who, due to their age, were allowed to stay in their cabins until they died. I found fascinating oral histories about the former residents in the bookstore of the Smoky Mountains Cultural Heritage Museum in Townsend, TN.
While the research is a slow and steady task, never really ending, a lot of it can be done via use of digital archival material. However, the writing takes dedication. I'm lucky enough to be in an academic profession that allows me chunks of time to write. In the summer months I spend the mornings in a library or coffee house writing until I reach 3k words (usually about two-three hours). I do this until I have a rough draft of a novel - about 80k words. Editing takes another year if not more. Indeed, I am still editing the novel I wrote set in the Great Smoky Mountains, The Truth of Who You Are, as it is now out on submission with publishers.
Once in a while I panic, thinking, will I ever run out of ideas on what to write about? What if this novel is my last? Can I keep up with the research and the creative process involved in putting out a novel set in the past about real people and events?
Recently, while walking in the famous Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, NY where Harriet Tubman, and William Seward are buried, I thought about how many stories there are to tell and thought, "I'll ever run out of material."
My current novel in progress has a section set during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. This epic military campaign began in the foreboding Ardennes Forest December 16, 1944 and was not concluded until January 1945. The Germans had amassed a large army hidden in the forests along the ridges and deep ravines of the Ardennes mountains of eastern Belgium and France. The Germans' objective was to take the city of Bastogne and the port of Antwerp. Unsuspecting American soldiers from the 110th Infantry were recuperating from the brutal battle in the Hürtgen Forest in the town of Clervaux. And when the Germans began their offensive, the Army was taken by surprise. Although the Germans would eventually be defeated, it was an epic battle. Infantrymen recount the eerie presence of German soldiers camouflaged in white outer-coats to match the snow, moving like wraiths in and out of the cover of fir trees on the battlefield. By the time it was over, 75,000 American and 80,000 German soldiers perished in the Ardennes.
While looking for primary sources I landed on a book titled: I'll Be Home for Christmas. It's a compilation of soldiers' letters and essays from the U.S. Library of Congress focused on the period of time soldiers' memories of home were most precious. The chapters include passages where they describe the movement of the infantry through the dark fir forests of the Ardennes, trudging through snow up to their thighs, hiding in fox holes, reminiscing about the holiday. More than once, the gravity of the moment was interspersed with small wonders and gestures of humanity. As one of the survivors, who was holed up in a cellar on Christmas Eve recalled: "At the stroke of midnight, without an order or request, dark figured emerged from the cellars. In the frosty gloom voices were raised in the old familiar Christmas carols. The infantry....could hear voices two hundred yards away in the dark, in German,...singing Silent Night."
They decorated random trees with tin ration cans. They made the best of a situation while pining to be home. Some of the men who were separated from their units ended up in cabins of the locals who gave them refuge and food on Christmas Eve. A medic was given a wooden carving from a piece of packing crate with the word Weihnachten 1944 (Christmas in German) from one of the German prisoners of war he treated.
A Belgium schoolteacher, returning to his classroom after the battle found this written on the blackboard by a German officer:
May the world never live through such a Christmas night. Nothing is more horrible than meetings one's fate, far from mother, wife, and children..... Life was bequeathed us in order that we might love and be considerate to one another. From the ruins, out of blood and death shall come forth a brotherly world.
One of the more poignant stories comes from bomber pilot Philip Ardery who knew all too well that fate might never give him another Christmas. He was reminded of this everyday while flying over Europe during the month of December of 1943. Growing up, he never opened any presents before Christmas Day. By late November family members of the pilots were sending packages to the headquarters where he was stationed. Many sat unopened, a 'Return to Sender' stamped on them when a soldier failed to return from a flight. Yet when Ardery was sent out on a mission in the inky dark of a bracing cold dawn, he had to decide: should I open one of my gifts just in case I don't make it back?
His family and friends made sure he had plenty to open. Each night he considered them from the perch of his bunk; the packages, sitting there waiting for him to rip open and discover what was inside.
Making it even more difficult was the fact that the weather was horrendous. Heavy fog and cold, damp air was hindering the pilots' efforts. Because they had not received their pathfinder equipment on time, they were flying without the instruments needed to guide the bombing. As a result, there were many mid-air collisions. In addition, lack of adequate gear meant men returned from their mission with frostbitten hands and many had to be hospitalized.
As the casualties mounted, each day, Ardery asked himself: should I open my presents just in case I don't make it back alive? Indecision plagued him through the month of December.
He didn't. He said the gifts were magical because of who sent them, those he held dearest. Maybe it was the taboo of opening anything before Christmas. Maybe it was hope. Hope that he would make it through his mission to eventually return home to those people he held dear. Hope may have been the greatest gift he received that year, that along with his life. He eventually opened his gifts on Christmas Day. One of the lucky ones to return home to family.
About five years ago I was on a trip in the Orcas Islands when I learned about the men in the Civilian Conservation Corps who worked for a measly $5.00/week during the Great Depression, building infrastructure and planting over 1 billion trees in our nation's parks. Of course I'd heard of these men but never knew much about their work or their history. But after reading about the Corps, the multitude of men who hearkened from diverse geographic backgrounds, many of them first and second generation immigrants, I felt compelled to tell their story.
I hadn't realized it at the time, but this book project titled The Truth of Who You Are, would become an emotional journey for me that had me doubting myself time and time again. Was it worth it? I kept asking. Let me list the tribulations to see this novel through to a publishing deal.
1) Research - since the novel is historical, I had to do research, which meant traveling to some of the sites where these men worked. Being self-funded, I launched an online crowdfunding campaign. I made a video, which took hours, and I almost made my goals. But the campaign failed and I wrote about it here. So I scaled back my travel plans to something doable - research in the Smoky Mountains, near where my parents lived in South Carolina. There was a lot of history to work with and hey, it's a tax write off, right?
2) Contests - I am a sucker for them. After winning one literary contest in 2017 for my novel The Night is Done, I figured I might be in a roll, so why not enter my work in progress to some contests , see how it goes? I entered The Truth of Who You Are in five writing contests. It gained semi-finalist status in one, and lost in two others. One is still pending. But the most heartbreaking loss was a national, prestigious contest that required I not pitch the book to anyone, no agents or publishers, until they told me it was out of the running. Five months later and two weeks before they were going to announce the winner, I still hadn't heard anything. My novel was still in the running. I couldn't believe it. The prize was $25,000 and a publishing contract. Could it be that The Truth of Who You Are had won? Everyday that I opened my email and there was no rejection I got my hopes up. My anxiety level was through the roof. I told only a few select friends and family about my anticipation. And then....rejection.
3) Publishers and Agents- I've attended numerous conferences over the past few years, pitching this novel to agents and editors at publishing houses. One editor wrote back to me with constructive feedback as well as encouraging words. "The Conservation Corps sections are terrific, I think. They really conjure time and place and show the impact of the programs on the people who participated in them and on the communities they served. And the burgeoning romance is nicely done as well." Yay! I revised and resubmitted. It was rejected. That was one of many to come from other agents and publishers, after they requested to read the whole manuscript.
4) Revise, revise, revise - the next step in the process is always to self-reflect, reexamine the manuscript and revise. At some point though one has to decide. What is the issue here? Is this novel not marketable? What do people want? Many revisions later, I adjusted the concept, and started all over again with the pitching.
5) Publishing Contract - I sent the novel to a small publisher who offed me a contract. Yay! Then I read the contract. That and a few other things led me to believe I'd be no better off than if I published it myself, so I declined. I can't even begin to tell you what a gut wrenching decision that was.
6) Giving up - I firmly believe in this novel. I know what it feels like to not believe something is worth pursuing. I have a novel I wrote about smuggling along the US/Canadian border sitting on my laptop which will never see print. But this novel, The Truth of Who You Are, is different. I've had positive feedback from several readers, people who I've only met in online writing circles. And my critique partner, who is brutally honest, told me it is my best writing so far.
Recently a publisher asked me for the full manuscript and I’m waiting for their response. Their contract is posted on their website and seems more favorable. So we'll see. Like I said, this book won't quit.
But I imagine, neither did these guys from the Conservation Corps.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.