PERSON OF THE MONTH
This article first appeared in the Vol. 4 No. 11 (November 1981) edition of the Courier.
Stan Abbott father of the Blue Ridge Parkway
In the latter part of 1933, the Hon. Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, who was also President Roosevelt's Public Works Administrator, announced that he was allotting $16,000,000 in Public Works funds for the construction of a scenic highway to connect two still unestablished national parks, Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains. He gave direction of the project to the National Park Service.
He would have been a very good prophet indeed who would have predicted that within a year, the immediate boss of this unprecedented undertaking would be a young graduate of the School of Landscape Architecture at Cornell who had received his professional degree only three and a half years before becoming its resident landscape architect. He was Stanley W. Abbott, sent down from the staff of the Westchester County, N.Y. Park Commission. He was to be the eyes and ears of two experts from that commission who had been enlisted as consultants for the project. It was these expertsJay Downer, chief engineer, and Gilmore D. Clarke, chief landscape architectwho were expected to give major direction to the design of that scenic highway, which was soon given parkway status.
The Experts Depart
After a few months of participation in the project, the "curmudgeon" Secretary told Messrs. Downer and Clarke that they would have to reduce their consulting fees$75 a day eachby two-thirds. Thereupon the two picked up their marbles and left the game. Thus Abbott was left to direct, and very greatly to influence, the design of what came to be known as the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was his responsibility, working with the Bureau of Public Roads, to find a route for it; also to work with the two States, Virginia and North Carolina, through which it was ultimately decided it was to run and which had promised to provide the so-called right-of-way lands for it. Stan and his associates had to work closely with the Bureau of Public Roads, which was responsible for preparation of the road plans, to insure proper recognition of landscape features and considerations.
In a taped interview made 14 years after he had left the Parkway, Stan remarked that he felt that he had been fortunate that the Park Service, preoccupied with new and greatly enlarged responsibilities, left him to do his job almost entirely on his own. The two men who worked most closely with him during his Parkway years, Edward H. Abbuehl and Sam Weems, give him the lion's share of credit for setting the character of the Parkway.
Ed Abbuehl, who became Stan's "right bower" early in the game, had been one of his instructors at Cornell; retrenchment there because of the Great Depression had cost him his job. A very practical idealist, he served as a sort of balance wheel to Stan's sometimes impractical flights of fancy. And he contributed, in many positive and constructive ways, to the development of the Parkway's unique character.
As the route of the Parkway began to become definite, Stan and Ed conceived the idea of acquiring what Tom Vint always referred to as "bulges," widenings of the Parkway, where camping, picnicking, and other recreational and interpretive activities could be provided. When the Resettlement Administration began buying marginal and submarginal agricultural lands and retiring them from production, the two scouted the Parkway route for sites that might qualify under this program. These were submitted to the proper authorities and, rather unexpectedly, were approved. To appraise the lands, the Federal Land Bank loaned the services of Sam Weems; he came up with proposals for land acquisition on a much grander scale than the rather modest proposals that Stan and Ed had submitted. Thereafter, his interest deeply enlisted, Sam accepted a position with the Service, at a reduced salary, to handle the acquisition of the lands that he had appraised. As project manager of what were known as Recreation Demonstration Projects, in both states, he had immediate charge of their development. Later, of course, he was assistant superintendent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, under Acting Superintendent Abbott. Later still, as superintendent for almost 23 years, he left his imprint on the Parkway in many beneficial ways.
Stan Abbott was both a great idea man and a great communicator. This was a vitally necessary combination of qualities for such an assignment as that to the Blue Ridge. He was dealing with two State Highway Departments; he was dealing with the Forest Service and other Federal and State agencies; and he was dealing with the mountain peopleparkway neighborslong isolated from the modern world, often suspicious of strangers, sometimes even resentful of their presence. And in the early days, he had to deal evenhandedly with the many communities and community organizations that wanted the Parkway routed their way. There was a wide choice of possible routes; as Stan put it, "The Appalachian Range is seven deep in places. . . . It became a race on the part of local interests to secure the route of the Parkway through their favorite section."
A successful venture into communication with his mountain neighbors was Stan's Blue Ridge Parkway News. In this he took them into his confidence, telling them what was going on and what was planned. He wrote lucidly without "writing down" to his readers. By that means he helped to build a well-justified confidence in the fairness of his dealings with everybody. Originally it was intended that Tennessee and North Carolina would share that part of the Parkway lying below the Virginia border, and there was a great battle of words between representatives of the two states over the choice of route from Blowing Rock to the Smokies. Mr. Ickes resolved the dispute by awarding it all to North Carolina. That State was generous in connection with land acquisition; its legislature authorized the purchase of an average of 125 acres to the mile. Virginia, which never had to fight for its share of the Parkway, was much less generous; its Highway Commissioner insisted on sticking to the 250-feet-wide fee-simple "right of way" so mistakenly recommended by Gilmore Clarke at the start. This was to be supplemented bv scenic easements, which proved not a suitable way to protect the Parkway borders among the unsophisticated mountain people. Thus for all of Stan's efforts to obtain an adequate width, Parkway land ownership is much less satisfactory in Virginia than in North Carolina.
Though he avoided drawing comparisons, the basic Abbott concept of design for the Blue Ridge Parkway avoided the principal fault of the Skyline Drive. One of its charms is to be found in its intimacy with flowing streams, mill ponds, mountain farms and farmhouses, "the homespun Southern Highlands picture with miles of split-rail fence, with the Brinegar cabins and the Mabry Mills. . . . Only those places that we attempted to preserve within the right-of-way of the Parkway could resist the whitewash brush, the Sears, Roebuck tar paper . . . instead of the shake roof. Variety was the spice of the Parkway."
Said Stan: "You couldn't possibly have a more fascinating, creative job than the Blue Ridge Parkway was, becauseyou talk about a Pleiades canvas and a comet's tail for a brushyou really were working with terrifically beautiful and vast landscape features. . . . Take the sense of appreciation that the beholder needs to have for the way moss and lichens collect on the roof of Mabry Mill, and then measure that against the huge panoramas that needed at times to come back with all the power of the brass and the full orchestraI get homesick talking about it."
It was Stan who launched the program of leasingmainly to former ownersafter erosion had been halted and fertility restoredsome of the land they had sold for the Parkway, though this was not brought to full fruition until after the war, when Bill Hooper was hired to run the program. The arrangement permitted the Parkway traveler to see some mountain farming, not typical, however, since it featured enrichment, rather than impoverishment, of the soil. And it was a means of keeping open vistas that would otherwise have soon been blocked by forest growth. It is, sad to say, one Parkway feature that has seriously deteriorated in recent years.
Stan's post-war career included direction of the Mississippi River Parkway Survey, followed, from 1953 to 1963, by the superintendency of Colonial National Historical Park. It was he who directed the completion of the Colonial Parkway to Jamestown and all the many other extensive Mission 66 developments that were finished in time for the big anniversary observance at Colonial and in Williamsburg in 1957. Between his retirement in 1963 and his untimely death in 1975, he and his architect son Carlton were principals in the planning firm of Abbott Associates; they provided master plans for many parks and provided consultant services for a great variety of special projects; their services were in great demand.
Always, Stan Abbott dreamed great dreams, then made them come true.
For Additional InformationStanley W. Abbott, Wizard of the Blue Ridge Parkway
Stanley W. Abbott: Visionary Planner of the Blue Ridge Parkway