The Towles sisters, Florence and Marion, must have wondered what they’d gotten themselves into. On dark nights they huddled together in a ramshackle cabin, terrified, miles from civilization, listening, Florence recalled, “to the thunder of flying horses’ feet and the shouts and yells of drunken men wild with moonshine whiskey.”
The spot where The Towleses waited out harrowing nights now sits deep in Shenandoah National Park. The utter stillness and silence of the place, the scattered ruins, structures surrendered to nature, all these belie that this simple crossroads was once considered a point of God’s spear.
The Towleses were missionaries sent not to some far off continent, but to a remote hollow on the Appalachian Mountains’ eastern slope. Around the turn of the 20th century, Frederick W. Neve, an English-born Episcopal minister, embarked on an ambitious plan to build missions every ten miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains. He found the people there deeply in need of religious instruction.
In 1902, work began on a mission at the top of Pocosan Hollow. Far Pocosan, Neve called the post, a reference to it being deep in wild country, the latter word an Algonquin term for marshy land. Neve built another mission–Lower Pocosan–at the foot of the mountain years later. Far Pocosan was a simple affair, a schoolhouse that doubled as a church, providing folks with secular and religious instruction. Neve’s missions also distributed necessities–food and clothes–that were often hard for many impoverished mountain people to come by.
A mission house accompanied the school-chapel at Far Pocosan. The modest house was a cabin made from rough-hewn logs, chinked to buffer against the frigid mountain breezes. The kitchen was an enclosed lean-to hanging off one side of the rustic house. Here Florence and Marion lived for years.
The Towles sisters took their calling at Far Pocosan seriously, ministering to a mountain people they saw as primitive, untamed, damned. They were a constant source of frustration for the devout women. Local families were dangerously superstitious. They’d have the seventh child of a family blow into a baby’s mouth to cure thrush, or not comb a mother’s hair until her newborn child was nine days old for fear of bad luck. Fighting, drinking, general licentiousness and ignorance, all were evils to be eradicated by the word of God carried uphill by these women.
The sisters, too, welcomed and admired the inherent beauty of the mountain people, “blue-eyed, golden-haired, soft little bits of humanity,” Florence described the children, “so full of possibilities.”
To the people who served in them, these missions must have seemed the heart of darkness. After all, rugged mountain terrain, before modern technology, was, for most people anyway, an obstacle, not an asset. Today we find aesthetic and recreational value in mountain landscapes, but years ago that very same ground was forbidding and marginal. However they saw themselves, the people who inhabited this rugged backcountry were considered by others to be peripheral, and in a pre-modern society quite sensitive to class and social structure, something less than normal.
But the mountain people, too, must have seen Far Pocosan as a window to another world, only from the opposite side of the glass. Without the means or the will to descend slopes to the towns at the foot of the mountains, many of the Blue Ridge’s inhabitants drank heartily of news and influence from outside. “They are so interested in all the things there are to learn, so anxious to hear about the world beyond the mountains,” Florence wrote in an appeal for donations to support the mission.
The visitors today who seek out what Far Pocosan once was aren’t disappointed. On a recent trip to Shenandoah National Park I asked a ranger for a family-friendly hike that would include ruins. Her suggestion was the gently sloping walk to what’s left of the Pocosin Mission, as it’s now spelled and called.
Shenandoah is a trove of traces; the government bought out hundreds of mountain families, sometimes against their will, and removed them to settlement communities when the park began to take shape in the mid 1930s. It’s worth remembering that those families’ sacrifices allowed the rest of us to enjoy the natural beauty of what was once theirs.
The trail to Far Pocosan is a fire road off Skyline Drive that takes you a mile into the woods to the very spot that the Towleses cultivated Christianity among the mountain people. A dilapidated wooden barn is making a feeble attempt to stand up to the elements. There’s an overgrown cemetery. The stone wall of some structure is crumbling, reminiscent of some Grecian temple. Were these the buildings that shielded the Towleses from mountain bogeymen? No telling; Far Pocosan carried on as a mission for some 20 years after they left.
But the quiet, the solitude at Far Pocosan is mournful. Fitting, really. A damp blanket of leaves, and the tall trees they’ve fallen from, shroud the site as it’s slowly yielding to nature. The beauty in this wilderness inspired generations and compelled at least one person to describe it in verse.
Far Pocosan; Night or Day
by Reverend Frederick W. Neve
Knight ushers in the Brighter Day
And yet she does not pass away;
For strange to say
She shines and drives the dark away.
Since this is so, it must be right
To call her Day, as well as Knight