Hungry Mother

“I don’t really get along with kids,” I told the sweet young staff member who was trying to find someone to fill in for her on Campfire-and-Marshmallows night.  “I mean, I do have one of my own, and I love him a lot–heck, I would let him have the last piece of pizza–but most others really get on my nerves.”

“That’s OK,” she replied without batting an eyelash at my curmudgeonly confession.  “Most of the campers who show up are adults.”

It turned out she was heading to Florida to help with Hurricane Irma clean-up efforts.  It is one thing to be a bit of a grouch.  It is quite another to be selfish in the face of selflessness and not do your part in providing assistance on the home front.  So, I accepted the task.

Besides, the evening would have one slice of saving grace:  part of my job would be to talk about the Legend of Hungry Mother, the legend that gave this fine state park in southwest Virginia its name.  And I do love history.  And stories.  And the challenge of unraveling a strand or two of truth from the tapestry of an engaging tale.

The event turned out just fine.  Several couples came with their children.  We enjoyed s’mores over a roaring fire and had a nice informal session where I talked a little about the park and its namesake legend.

Thanks to an idea that came from Miss Joyce, campground boss-lady extraordinaire who runs the office with the efficiency of a school teacher tempered by the grace and hospitality of a true southern lady, we started the evening with a perfect ice-breaker of a game.  That afternoon, Joyce and I had been discussing variations on the legend that gave Hungry Mother State Park its name and she reminded me of the childhood game where you whisper something into one person’s ear, they pass it along to the next person, and so on and so on, until the last person announces what they heard.  It is inevitably quite different from the original.

So, that evening around the campfire, I began our chain-whisper-legend with the first listener, whispering into her ear:  “There’s a 10-point stag up on Molly’s Knob waiting for a flat-footed bear to bring him a cheese and pepperoni sandwich.”

After completing the circle of whisperers, it had morphed into:  “A four foot man is bringing us a cheese and pepperoni sandwich.”  I was surprised we didn’t get a pizza by the end.  Perhaps if the chain had been longer and the participants hungrier, we would have.

For those of you who were not around the campfire that evening, here is the park’s version of the Legend of Hungry Mother, rooted in early American folklore:

Native Americans destroyed a settlement in a valley south of where the park currently is located.  Among the survivors taken to the raiders’ base camp to the north was a woman named Molly and her small child.  Molly and her child escaped and wandered through the wilderness eating berries to survive.  Molly finally collapsed and her child wandered down the creek until he/she found other settlers.  The only words the child could utter were “hungry mother.”  When searchers reached the foot of the mountain where Molly had collapsed, they found her, dead.  The mountain became known as Molly’s Knob, and the stream, Hungry Mother Creek.

A less exciting version (Indian raiders being totally absent) has a woman and her child living alone in a cabin on one of the mountain knobs in the area.  She apparently suffered some very hard times and starved to death.  When fellow settlers discovered her body, they found her child had survived because of the food the mother had left behind.

When the state park was developed in the early-to-mid 1930s, the creek was dammed to form Hungry Mother Lake and much of the surrounding area became park land.  As completion neared, there was great controversy over what to name the park.  Several options included:  Forest Lake State Park, Walker State Park, and Southwest Virginia State Park.  Thank goodness more imaginative heads prevailed.  A local newspaper referred to it as “Hungry Mother Park,” after the creek and the old legend, and the name stuck.

Complaints poured in over the name.  Many thought it terribly ugly.  One local news editor/historian lamented the choice, saying they might as well call it “Starvation Park.”  It was built and dedicated during the height of the Great Depression, so I can see how that might be a sensitive point.

Mack Sturgill, in his 1986 book, Hungry Mother:  History and Legends, concludes that key developers and promoters of the park gave it the name and promoted the accompanying legend as an advertising ploy.  Sturgill likens the stunt to “putting an old tale in a new bottle with a provocative label.”  He points out that the legend was not even widely known locally until after the park claimed it and that there are serious doubts about the content of the tale.

Whether you want to criticize or praise the park’s name, let alone delve into history to challenge the legend itself, you have to admit that the name, Hungry Mother, is catchy.  Consuming.

The tale also goes to show one feature of historical “fact” that has not changed over the course of time…

 

. . . Capture the imagination, you create memory . . .  Craft it through repetition, you manufacture truth.     CE-9/20/17

 

 

Sources:

Virginia State Parks website, link:  www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/hungry-mother;

Sturgill, Mack H., Hungry Mother:  History and Legends, 2nd Ed. June 2001 (reissued by Friends of Hungry Mother State Park and sold at the park gift shop);

Linford, Margaret, genealogist and columnist for swva today, April 14, 2014 article, “String of Pearls:  Mystery and Controversy of Hungry Mother State Park’s Name.”  I can’t get the link to work but you can easily find it by googling key words.

Comments

  1. Wayne Plowman says:

    Hi Carol,
    I just finished ready your blogs. I stumbled upon this looking at phoenix cruiser forum as i just purchased a new to me 2013 P.C. 2350. Going to pick it up next week at the factory. Anyway, just wanted to say that i enjoyed your blog and you are a very good writer.
    Like you, I will also be traveling with my labradoodle Zoe. Only part time though as I have a small business in Omaha NE.

    • Welcome, Wayne, and thank you for the kind words.
      Labradoodle! The only thing better than that is my girl, Dawny!
      Good luck breaking in your PC. It’s a wonderful way to travel. Big enough for all the comforts of home, yet nimble enough to easily go most places.
      Feel free to ask any questions you may have here and/or on the PC forum. Lots of smart peeps over there!
      Happy, safe travels–
      Carol

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