Blue Ridge

A friend is currently reading about the Appalachian Mountains, one of the oldest mountain ranges on the planet. It was supposedly formed 480 million years ago, and has been in the process of weathering for quite sometime. In it’s youth it was similar to the Rockies or the Alps, and sealed off the east coast from the interior. This was pretty much true until the mid 1700s, when Daniel Boone opened the Cumberland Gap, which was a flood gate into Kentucky and the Ohio valley.

I had read about the Appalachian\ but in 1971 I was privileged to live in the Blue Ridge mountains for almost two years. I lived in Rouzerville, which was right next to Blue Ridge Summit, and just a few miles from Cascade, where Ft. Ritchie existed. It started as Camp Ritchie and it was a semi-secret post, training interpreters during WWII, over 20,000 were trained in German and Japanese. In 1998 It was one of many installations that were decommissioned, but in the early 1970s it was a busy place, for all the services.

After WWII and during the buildup of nuclear weapons, the military turned its attention to organizational bunkers. The facilities of Adolf Hitler in Europe were well known and that was before atomic bombs. In the 1950s, plans were drawn up to build a bunker deep inside a granite mountain on the east coast. The Blue Ridge Mountains were selected. Camp Ritchie became Fort Ritchie, and was selected to be the organizational support unit on the surface, and the actual underground facility was a few miles away, on the other side of the border in Pennsylvania, at Raven Rock. This was to be the Joint Chiefs Command Center for every branch of the service. It was technically the Underground Pentagon.

When I was not underground, I roamed around the Blue Ridge Summit area, hiking the Appalachian Trail, visiting the small mountain towns that were off the beaten path. The mom and pop stores were often mini versions of Target or Walgreens. They were stocked with a complete variety of products. If something had sold once, they bought three more from various vendors. Rolling ladders were against the wall to reach the shelving that was ceiling high. It may have taken several years to memorize the row, and the height of the stored merchandise.

My favorite was the local items, sold by individual “mountain people” on commission. There were whistles, good luck charms, yarn goods, mostly hand-made with accompanying stories.

I remember a collection of “fairy crosses” being offered, very small stones in the shape of a cross. I had forgotten about them, but was reminded by an article by Charles Fort. He had researched an article that had been published by Harper’s Weekly in the late 1870s. “In parts of the Blue Ridge Mountsins, there have been found small carved ‘fairy crosses’, that attest to a race of small people that crucify cockroaches. The crosses are in the shape of St. Andrews, Roman, and Maltese. The local people believe the collected crosses have a power that will provide good fortune.”

What was published in Harpers Weekly is still true, but things have changed. In Virginia it is now illegal to dig for “fairy crosses”, they are protected from collectors. It is unknown if they are still used to crucify cockroaches.

What is known, is that the “crosses are the result of a natural formation. The stones are staurolite formations of silica, iron and aluminum. Formations created under great heat and pressure, when the Appalachians were rising 480 million years ago. Thomas Edison and Teddy Roosevelt both believed in their mystical properties.

I haven’t been back to see if the local Mom & Pops carry them at the checkout counter, but I suspect some still do. I thought they were cheap trinkets carved by “local mountain folk”, glad to know that they are natural and organic.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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