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CURRENT STORIES


Construction of dam ended simple way of life for some

by Jennifer Biller

STAFF WRITER

William Jewell III gazed across the Stonewall Jackson Lake, his attention focused on a boat full of fishermen about 300 yards from shore.

On this hot August afternoon, Jewell and his wife, Wanita, stood in the paved parking lot at Vandalia Bay, looking at the large body of water where their home once stood.

"They're fishing in our front yard," he said, shaking his head.

The Jewells were one of hundreds of families who sacrificed their property for the construction of Stonewall Jackson Lake.

William, now 61 and living in Mt. Clare, spent many years at his family's farm on Big Skin Creek in Lewis County. He grew up roaming the hills with childhood neighbors, working on the farm and attending school in the small community.

The Jewell family owned about 700 acres of land, which they used for dairy and beef cattle. The farm had been passed down from William's great-grandfather, who acquired the property in 1883.

"We have deep roots here," he said. "If you go down the lake about 2 1/2 miles, that's where my father was born."

He pointed to a spot in the water just beyond a clump of trees on the embankment.

"Where the dead trees are sticking out, we had a cattle barn there," he said quietly. "And where that boat is - our dairy barn was there."

Looking at the lake today, it is almost impossible to believe that lurking beneath the water are the remains of a farm that once sported pasture, his parent's farmhouse and his own brick ranch house.

"I hated to leave," he said. "But for my father it was much worse."

William Jewell II remained in his home even when a crew of workmen began demolition. His wife, Virginia, moved to their new house in Good Hope, but he refused to leave.

"They tore the house down around him and he stayed there until there was only one room left," William said.

The elder Jewell never came to terms with losing his homeland. He passed away two months after the forced move, never seeing any of the lake constructed.

"It was very depressing for my husband because he lived there all his life," Virginia said. "He never got consoled. He was depressed and would drive up there almost every day. I couldn't see it."

William's property, as well as his parents', was eventually condemned in 1982 because they refused to sell, according to court records. The government did an appraisal of their farm and made two offers on the land, but the Jewells found the amount to be inadequate and went to court, he said

"You can't fight the government," William said. "You really don't have any say. They come in and tell you what you're getting."

The process of condemning land is the "government's right to take private property for public use," according to Henry Edwardo, Stonewall Jackson project manager from the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Land is generally condemned when both parties disagree about the property value or when there is a title flaw, he said. A hearing is scheduled to settle the dispute and the fair market value is determined by a judge, jury or land commissioners, he said.

Of the 1,220 pieces of property acquired for the Stonewall project, 493 tracts were obtained by condemnation, according to Edwardo.

"It was not fair," William said. "They say it was fair market value but fair is a willing buyer and a willing seller."

Today, the only evidence the Jewells lived in the area is a small green road sign, erected by the government, labeling a gravel road near the access area. The sign is marked with white letters that read "Jewell Road."

The Jewells are not alone - there are countless others with similar anecdotes.

Their stories are diverse but with one common thread: The Stonewall Jackson Lake changed the course of their lives, just as it altered the course of the West Fork River.

Hundreds of families had to sell their land to the federal government to provide the 20,000-plus acres needed for the project.

Decades later, some of the families are looking back at their struggle to maintain their residences and what has become of their treasured homelands.

Clara Mae Spray of Walkersville watched her father and other members of the farming community successfully block early attempts to build the dam. He was part of a delegation that traveled to Washington, D.C., in the 1940s in opposition of the project, she said.

Spray continued her father's quest. She joined a dam opposition group called the Upper West Fork River Watershed Association.

The group organized in 1974 and began a campaign to stop the venture, said Kenneth Parker, a former president of the organization who now lives at French Creek. They had approximately 2,000 members, some who didn't live in the area but were sympathetic to the cause, he said.

The group devised an alternative in which to construct a series of small dams, known as watersheds, would be built to prevent flooding. The watersheds would not have displaced so many people, Parker said.

"We proposed it to them but they didn't agree," Parker said. "Small watersheds wouldn't provide recreation."

The government did conduct investigations into developing the watersheds, according to deposition records from the 1975 litigation with the watershed group.

"None of the sites studied, either individually or in combination with other sites, could provide the overall benefits to the region for the associated costs as the multiple purpose development at the Stonewall Jackson Lake site," a government witness testified.

The opposition group filed two lawsuits against the government and continued to fight diligently for 10 years to impede the project, Parker said.

The adversaries became known as the "watershedders" to the locals. They held the Skin Creek Farm Festival as a fund-raiser, selling crafts and food. The money was used for letter-writing campaigns and attorney fees, Parker said. The group was successful in slowing the project, he added.

"We won some battles but we lost the war," Parker said. "We think the deck was stacked, but when you have something you believe in you have to do it, win or lose."

Emotions ran high in the community, according to newspaper reports at the time. Proponents cited flood control and economic development for Lewis County, while the opposition said it also wanted to avert flooding and improve economic development, but wished to do it in a manner that wouldn't uproot so many families.

"I spent 10 years of my life fighting it," Spray said. It divided the community and there are places in Weston that I still hate to darken the door."

The watershed group disbanded in 1984, realizing it was defeated.

In the end, Spray did not lose her home. She only had to sell five acres. But she watched as her friends and neighbors quickly disappeared from the surrounding hills.

"It was pretty bad to see them have to move off the land they had been on for generations. The farmland was so beautiful," she said. "Now it is covered with water and yes, it is beautiful, but it is hard to see the beauty because I know the heartache and sorrow everyone went through."

Spray has visited the lake on a few occasions, but still isn't sure about it. Her family is trying to make the best of it, she said.

For Roanoke residents Barbara Hevener and her son, their convictions to not leave their home led them into a confrontation with United States marshals in the early '80s, according to newspaper reports.

Although the title for the Heveners' property was transferred to the government in 1981, they refused to leave their 28-acre farm and ignored the Corps' requests for two years, according to the Weston Democrat. They were finally forcibly evicted from the property, restrained in handcuffs and chains, and taken to the Lewis County Jail. A move that outraged local residents and officials.

"In my opinion, they treated those people awful. I absolutely wouldn't have handled it that way," said M. Ralph Hall, Lewis County sheriff at the time of the incident. "The day I would have had to do a little old lady and a boy like that is the day I would have quit my job."

Hall and members of his staff helped move the Heveners to stay with relatives, he said. Hall said he dealt with many of the "dam people" during his tenure and never had trouble with them. The people understood he was just doing his job, he said.

Parker is quick to point out he did not sell his land near Little Skin Creek: It was condemned by the government. He refused the amount they offered and eventually went to court. But in his opinion, the procedure was not fair.

In 1981, he received $143,279 for his 82-acre farm, according to courthouse records. It was $25,000 less than what the government had previously offered, Parker said. His property also contained timber, coal, gas and oil which made it more valuable, he added.

Most of his property now sits under water and he is saddened at the fate of his former friends and neighbors.

"People had roots back for generations to the 1700s," he said. "There was a sentimental value not taken into account."

Parker doesn't visit the lake at all.

"I remember the old timers who fought against it and I consider the situation similar to that like the American Indians and it is like walking over the graves of our people," he said.

Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1449 or jbiller@exponent-telegram.com.

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