Historical & Human Interest

The Mountain People
Originally published Sunday, February 26, 1984 Richmond, Va Times-Dispatch
Submitted by: Vicky Hensley VHens10263@aol.com
with additions submitted 9/14/98 by Karan Raines Callaway CALLKRC@aol.com

Greene County, Home of two mountain dynasties:
Shifflett and Morris

by Bill McKelway

        For those who have never been to Greene County Virginia maybe this will help them picture what it's like. The past 12 years haven't changed it much at all. The acrid smell of distant wood smoke drifted lazily towards the mountaintop from the hollow below, carried by a rush of wet cold air. The busy sound of wildlife ferreting about for food, bit away the gentle monotony of nameless mountain brooks. Sometimes, outcropping of the rock and mud fell away from an embankment. The sounds neither grew nor diminished in intensity, but were steady and soft. The view of the wintery forested expanse below, cupped in the folds of Hightop and Flat Top mountains seem timeless and inalterable. Occasionally, a truck or a car far off would work its way in or out of the little hollow following the Roach River. The sunlight crashing off the windshields pierced the Blue Ridge mountain haze, but that too was only fleetingly disruptive of the distant serenity in Bacon hollow.

        It is a majestic place of sorts, seen from the airy heights of the Skyline Drive, but to those who know it the hollow is better described as the cradle of two proud mountain dynasties, one named Shifflett and one named Morris.

Their story, generations in the making is one of the most puzzling, tender, convoluted legacies in the Virginia mountains, one with no discernible origin and no predictable end. And though they have sent a multitude of their clan out to the flatlands and distant cities, nowhere else in Virginia do two names so thoroughly dominate the landscape as Shifflett and Morris do among the Blue Ridge hollows that form the crinkled perimeters of Greene, Albemarle, and Rockingham counties.

        “You write in that story that the Shifflett and Morris families, from the time Greene County cut itself off from Orange, that was in eighteen and thirty eight they has been the backbone of the county.”

        “They are good, hardworking, mountain people and paid more in taxes and dog tags and kept that county going more than anybody. But they've never received the first word of credit.” So said Refa Shifflett Delcomyn, married and living in Florida now, but who, in a relentless search of courthouse records and the state archives, is determined to trace the origins of the Shiffletts.

        And of the Shifflets, Shiflets, Shifletts, Shifflettes, and Shiflettes?

        “Well, yes,” said Mrs. Delcomyn, 60, “because really all they did was to change the spelling a little to keep them apart. And really, if you want to know it, the Roaches is all Shiffletts, too, because the first Roach, Archie Ball Roach, who was born in 1838, was born a Shifflett but changed his name to Roach on his marriage license when he married a Conley.”

        Mrs. Delcomyn estimates she has 500 living relatives, Morrises and Shiffletts. “You study the Shiffletts and really you're studying the Morrises, too,” she said.

        Her work, to be blunt, has far surpassed efforts printed in a Greene County history book, which, after much disjointed rambling about Shifflett origins being tied to English settlers, German prisoners of war, and an Anglicization of a Rhineland surname, haughtily concluded, “In any event, they are here.”

        The Morrises did not fare much better. “It is very difficult to determine the origin of the Morris families. . . One fact is certain, there are a large number of them here,” the slender history reads.

        In terms of sheer number, in fact, Shiffletts and Morrises, were they to mount some form of offensive, could overtake tiny Greene County as readily as the Shenandoah National Park threatened to do in the 1930's.

        While it is an imprecise measure, the Greene County telephone book alone lists more than 150 Shifflett families of various spellings, although the number is undoubtedly larger because many have unlisted numbers or no telephones. Taken together, the two families account for roughly 10 percent of the listings for the entire county.

        That is equivalent to picking up the Richmond directory and finding 41 pages of Joneses and Smiths. Tack on families living in the sprawling counties surrounding Greene and the number of Shifflett family listings grows to almost 900.

        “It can all get to be quite a jigsaw puzzle,” said Olen Morris, who also lives in Florida and is regarded as a family treasure because of his nine years of painstaking Morris research, which he keeps locked in a vault and surrenders only at family reunions. “But it begins to fall together.”

        “My parents didn't know they were related until I started working on this,” he said. “My mother's parents were first cousins and my father's parents were second cousins.”

        “Most of the families had 10 or 15 children back in the early days, so we're talking about hundreds of relatives. My great-grandmother had 15 children and her grandchildren numbered 45 to 50. I've met all of them. My mother has 45 first cousins on one side and 25 on the other.”

        Complications abound, Lawyers in Greene generally agree that family connections are insufficient cause to strike potential jurors if their relationship to parties in a case isn't closer than a first cousin. “We just give up after that,” said one lawyer.

        Turn to the birth index in the county under “S” or “M” and it appears that the bold flowing script of court clerks had suddenly gone on automatic pilot, locked on the name Shifflett or Morris. Walk through the cemeteries and it seems that some terrible force has singled out only two families for destruction.

        In 1976, had the William Monroe High School principal barked into the public address system “I want Shiflett from the eighth grade in my office immediately”, he would have summoned Betty, Annette, Bruce, Carroll, Cindy, Debra, Dorcas, Floyd, Jeff, Mary, Phyllis, Ricky, Rita, Roy, Lee, Tony, Sherman, Sheba, Terry, and Tommy.

        There is also the matter of a Shifflett suing himself. It involved the case of General Jackson Shifflett, who, having learned late in life that General Jackson Shiflett was his actual name, wanted it changed to Pat Shifflett, which is what he had always called himself. Pat Shifflett won the case, which is styled in court records as General Jackson Shifflett v. Pat Shifflett.

        When problems arose several years ago determining the ownership of an acre of land, legal proceedings involved 14 Shiffletts. Among others, there were Ossie Shifflett, Zena Shifflett Morris, Agnes Shifflett Morris, Charlotte Shifflett Shifflett, and Deborah Shifflett Shifflett.

        Devotion for departed family members can be expressed with tearful simplicity. “He transplanted another flower up in Holyland and that flower was you” read a Shifflett family tribute to a loved one in a local paper years ago.

        But the demand for retribution for a public wrong, no matter how incidental, can be swift and uncompromising. When a newspaper correspondent wrote in January, 1934 that Miss Polly Morris of Bacon Hollow “had two fine hogs butchered recently and will butcher another later,” Polly apparently was incensed over her sudden notoriety.

        The newspaper's next issue ran the following correction, “Miss Polly Morris butchered in the early part of November instead of recently. Her butchering was an average butchering for a woman.”

        When one Shifflett's human frailities became overwhelming, the newspaper became a sort of public confessional. Virginia Shifflett submitted a brief item headlined “Gossip Habit” nearly a decade ago.

        “One of my faults,” she wrote, “is that I sometimes gossip. Dear Lord I find myself repeating things I've heard about other folk and I'm guilty of listening to rumors and tales concerning things that really aren't any of my business.”

        So there is that part of the Shiffletts and Morrises...the numbers of them and the occasional openness and the humility. They have risen occasionally to the seats of local power. Julius Morris has been county administrator in Greene for a decade; Willie Morris, a distant relative, overthrew longtime incumbent Sheriff Harold T. Chapman last fall; a Morris served as judge for several years in the 1950's and E Z Morris was a member of the board of supervisors.

        But it is not often that the families entirely shake off the heritage of the mountains, which no longer can provide a living but still harbor an instinct for insularity, a tentative distrust of outsiders, and a sense of belonging.

        “Bacon Hollow and around there is where it all really started, in the hollows and in the mountains where the park is now,” said Olen Morris, the family chronicler. “That's where the old homeplaces are. That's where the heart is.”

        It is a place that has been worked hard and where living has always been a test of will in a way that isn't visible from the Skyline Drive or surrounding mountaintop chalets where the outsiders dwell or from the hangliders, which mountainman, John Morris will tell you, remind him of buzzards. “One of 'em landed right by here once. Said he'd pay for the damage,” Morris recalled, scanning the mountains from his century-old forest pine log cabin, which is equipped with a telephone and television set but still relies on spring water and wood for heating and cooking.

        Blanche Morris, his wife, has 2,000 pounds of food put away and trips out of the hollow are a rarity.

        When the cars roll out of narrow Bacon Hollow road in the morning on the way to Charlottesville for day work past Mamie shifflett's ancient place she sometimes thinks about the past.

        “I never went to town until I was sixteen, when I got married,” she said. “The trip took three days with three horses and a wagon but there wasn't that much cause to go. We had every thing we needed right here.” Her marriage to Ashby Jackson Shifflett lasted 55 years and produced 18 children. Her husband helped build the Skyline Drive. Approaching her ninth decade in Bacon Hollow and a Great Great Great Grandmother 15 times over, she wears hardship like a mantle of grace. She never voted she said “because I couldn't read the names and I was afraid I'd make a mistake. When I needed business done, I'd just go to the judge.”

        Miss Nellie Wampler, a member of the Brethren church who helped start a school for the mountain children in the area in the 1920's, is remembered by Mamie Shifflett as one would a saint. “She taught us how to get by. But she was against the liquor and one time at church a bunch of them was going to kill her. My husband drew his gun and led her away to safety. She died in this house, Mrs. Shifflett said, in February 1970 at the age of 93. It was a gentle passage, but the span of years of Miss Nelie's long life never diminished her fierce tenacity,” Mamie Shifflett said.

        Nor have the years diminished very readily the mystery of death; it comes without warning, frequently and in a vaiety of ways to Bacon Hollow familes. When one talks of the Shiffletts and Morrises, it assumes an almost palpable, eerie presence.

        For more than 50 years the Twentieth Century by-passed Greene County keeping to U. S. 29 on its way to Charlottesville and points south.

        Everybody knew every body else and moreover knew his parents and grand parents and if they didn't know their great grand parents, they knew who they were. The area was quiet and peaceful broken only when some one chose to exercise “the code of the hills”. So said in the Greene County Record in January 1980 in a article opening the new decade.

        “The Code Of The Hills? To me it's the Devil work. I just turn my head and ask for the Lords help,” Mammie Shifflett said when asked about the recurring violence. A lot of it went back to liqour and jealousy.

        Perhaps that's why Alfred Ashby (Abbie) Shifflett died in January 1924 in his fireplace at the head of Bacon Hollow. He had a big liquor operation up there. "When I got to him he looked like a slit hog around the neck and he was burned up really bad”, said Mrs. Shifflett. “All he could say was, his last words was, Mama didn't do it.”

        Abbie was Mrs. Delcomyn's grandfather. “We always figured somebody pushed him in”, she said. But that was neither the end nor the beginning of the violence in and among the families; it rolls through the mountains like steady thunder.

        In 1931 Bernard Shifflett, Abbie's son, and brother-in-law Manuel Morris, shot each other to death in a pistol duel that was touched off when Manuel intruded on Shifflett's ailing mother-in-law by asking someone to start clapping so he could dance. The newspaper said that a grudge of long standing existed between Morris and Shifflett and that there had been a incident several months before when Manuel's brother engaged in a shotgun duel with Bernard. The illegal liquor traffic was at the bottom of their trouble the newspaper said.

        In March 1933, six Shiffletts jumped Sutie Shifflett in Albemarle. A gunshot wound left him with one eye. Sutie's ally in that incident, a Morris, would later shoot Sutie in the mouth. Shifflett testified against Morris--reluctantly, according to the news account--with the bullet still lodged in his jawbone. He told the court Morris had simply had too much to drink. Shifflett's perseverance earned him the title “Ironman of the Blue Ridge”.

        In 1936, Elkton police chief George Morris took a .32 caliber bullet in the stomach after he approached a youthful Shifflett from Bacon Hollow who five years earlier had been released from prison. At 15 he had been convicted of second degree murder. The man's father served a 20 year sentence on a similar murder charge.

        And who can explain, exactly, why John Morris in 1960 shot his fiance seven times in [an] Elkton restaurant a week before their marriage? Why Carl W. Shifflett died in 1961 from a gunshot wound delivered from the same weapon he had given his assailant two years before to protect himself? Or why Mrs Elva Shifflett had to die near Crozet when her son-in-law's suicide attempt went awry and he slammed his car into Mrs Shifflett on New Years Eve 1963? Who can explain really why Davy Shifflett died in 1922 at the age of 19 when a conversation with a acquaintance "turned to pistols"? Why a years old grudge over a childhood rock throwing incident would eventually prompt Roy Shifflett to shoot his cousin Sam Shifflett, 30, in 1931? Dennis Shifflett, having been arrested for hauling moonshine in May 1923, drove his vehicle off an Elkton bridge into the Shenandoah River to escape. Shifflett survived the accident only because the arresting officer held his head above water for 30 minutes until help arrived.

(Two paragraphs have been omitted because they refer to incidents in the 1960's.)

        It is not an easy life in Bacon Hollow.

        “Things have been heated up so bad, so long,” said Mrs. Delcomyn. “You can talk about so-and-so. It's just in their craw. It's always there.”

        Twenty-four years ago that violent presence rendered the Rev. C C Kurtz “scared to death” when he assumed pastorship of the stately, handwrought Evergreen Church of the Brethren, which since its organization in 1892, has been a bastion of religious upbringing to the Greene County Mountain Familys. “Seven of my first eight funerals all involved violent deaths. I learned long ago not to take sides, that my job was to preach the word of the Lord and His salvation. I know there have been funerals where people were armed to the hilt,” said Kurtz, who served as a member of the county board of supervisors for years and is a rural mail carrier.

        On his first trip up Bacon Hollow Mr. Kurtz gained entrance to the homes through the accompaniment of a respected local resident. Things went fine until we got to one particular gentleman's house and he didn't answer. On the way back down the road we stopped at a spring and just as I lifted the ladle a shot rang out and I heard the bullet ripping threw the leaves above me. I ran like a rabbit. But my friend just walked back to the car and said, “I knew he was home. I guess he just didn't want any visitors today. Don't take offense.” Now Mr, Kurtz calls his 200 parishoners, 90 percent of who are a Shifflett or Morris “some of the finest people I ever have known. They have lived by the gun and have died by the gun but we are seeing more of the children going off to college now when in the early years they rarely finished high school.&#S148;

        Far away, the sun glinted off windshields of cars passing along the Skyline Drive past the Bacon Hollow overlook, which offers, just as the government intended, that wonderfully pristine, gentle view of the little valley below, but a view, finally, that is deceptive.

        It was not meant that people were to be part of the spectacle, which is why Morris and Shifflett family homes that once stood within a few yards of the overlook were destroyed when the national park was formed.

        “When they moved us off the mountain things changed,” Blanche Morris said. That is what the son of the mountaineer was trying to tell the people in the Greene County Record 50 years ago when he wrote about the tragedy of his 73 year old father being forced from his home.

“Life will not be worth living,
When planted in the valley,
Where everthing is different
To the seeing and the hearing.”

        Maybe that is why the Shifflett and Morris families have stayed so close to the mountains where the seeing and the hearing do not have to become too different.

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