Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The tracks of history around my home . . .

A couple of years ago, I visited an antebellum house just off Route 42, north of Harrisonburg, to take a look at a derelict slave cabin.

The two-room building sat across the road from the main house. It had been a snug, well-chinked, double cabin, each side housing one family, each side fitted out with a fireplace and wainscoting. It was much, much finer than any slave cabin I'd seen anywhere, including at the homes of our much revered Virginia presidents.

Derelict slave cabins are rare in the Shenandoah Valley, because, for the most part, area land owners didn't farm with slaves. But some historians say -- using the presence of such well-built cabins as their evidence -- they did farm slaves. In other words, Valley farmers raised people of color for the express purpose of selling them.

I remember standing in that cabin and thinking about the weight and puzzlement of history. This is such a gentle, civil area. And here I was, standing on the floorboards of an incongruous piece of its past.

I thought of this again, when Charlie (who's incurably curious) showed me a website he'd discovered on WWII German POW camps located in the Shenandoah Valley.

Timberville PW Camp, Rockingham County, Virginia; 1944 or 1945 photo

A  paragraph lifted from the website:
In seven months of operation, German PWs provided a total of 26,081 man-days of labor—14,635 during the harvest season of 1944 and 14,635 during the 1945 season. The totals represent 5,573 man-days in agricultural work and 5,873 man-days in food processing during 1944, with 8,202 man-days in agricultural work and 6,433 man-days of food processing labor provided during 1945. (Martha note: I know the numbers don't add up, but thought it still gives an interesting picture of what the POW's life was like.)

The camp was dismantled the day after the prisoners departed. This is what its site looks like today.

Again to me, it seems somehow incongruous to have had POW camps located in the hospitable and gentle Shenandoah Valley -- even though, as POW camps go, they seem to have been humane and even comfortable. Just as that double slave cabin was.

Everywhere you love has its past. I need to remember that, to remember the decisions I make today in my personal life and in my life as a citizen will  leave their tracks in tomorrow's history.

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