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|Earl Hamner: The man behind 'Waltons Mountain'|
By Jack Elliott Jr.
(First of a Two-Part Series)
The opening scene was a panorama of a tree-covered mountain with a narration provided by Earl Hamner, Jr.:
"My grandfather used to say that nobody owns a mountain; but getting born, and living, and dying in its shadow, we loved Walton's Mountain and felt it was ours. The Walton family had endured in that part of the Blue Ridge for over two hundred years. A short time in the history of a mountain. Still, our roots had grown deep in its earth."
The scene was from "The Homecoming," a 1971 television movie that led to the creation of the television series "The Waltons" which aired for nine seasons from 1972 to 1981. I could identify with its setting -- a rural Southern community, Walton's Mountain, Virginia – and with a family whose history was interlaced with the area. I could further empathize with the central character, John Walton, Jr., or John-Boy as he was known. John-Boy was based on the show's creator, Earl Hamner, Jr., who based the series on his own family and on his native Schuyler, Virginia. From his memories he created a world in which otherwise ordinary people and situations embodied important values. As someone appropriately noted, Hamner was "forever taking a backward glance to his roots for direction in the way of what makes life worthwhile."
Hamner elaborated on his connection to Walton's Mountain: "Someone once asked my sister, Marion, where Walton's Mountain was, and she answered, 'It's a place where my brother was happy.' That place is the white clapboard house that still stands [in Schuyler]. And this is how I remember it: . . . . We were in a depression, but we weren't depressed. We were poor, but nobody ever bothered to tell us that. All we knew was that we suffered an absence of money, but that didn't bother us. We were too occupied with the day to day events. To a skinny, awkward, red headed kid who secretly yearned to be a writer, and kept a journal of events, each of those days seemed filled with wonder. And as I look back they still do."
In the television show the first Walton – Rome Walton -- settled on the mountain in the 1780s. By the 1930s and 1940s, his descendants –- John and Olivia Walton, their seven children, and John's parents, Zebulon and Esther Walton -- were living near the base of the mountain in the community known as Walton's Mountain which centered on the store and post office run by Ike Godsey.
Growing up in the community John-Boy Walton aspired to be a writer. In one episode he stated: "From the very beginning when I thought of writing, it was about my family, our home, and Walton's Mountain. This was my world, the only kind of life I knew well enough to tell people about." Indeed he knew this world intimately: He roamed the mountain, looked after his younger siblings, worked in his father's sawmill, and attended church and school. He also read voluminously, so that his experiences were always seen in the light of the broader tradition of human experience. He came to know Walton's Mountain and its history often in the form of family lore. As his grandmother Esther once told him:
"My family was storytellers and long before we had luxuries like electric light and radio, and all these modernisms, why we used to sit around the fireplace at night and each one of us would take turns telling stories: ghost stories, witch stories, long ago stories of
Indians and wars and things that happened in the history of our family. . . . And all those stories I remember, I'll tell them to you, John-Boy, and that'll be my inheritance to you."
These stories and his own experiences were incorporated into his first novel entitled appropriately "Walton's Mountain." When he presented the manuscript to his publisher, it could have been Earl Hamner speaking: "Most of what's in here is the truth. I mean, I fictionalized parts of it but most of it really happened. It's about my family and me."
Walton's Mountain was based on Hamner's hometown, Schuyler, Virginia, a quarry and mill town on the Rockfish River in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The highest part – the Blue Ridge itself – lies several miles to the northwest. Around Schuyler the ridges are much smaller and have been eroded into distinct segments that have names like "Ball Mountain," "Butler Mountain," and "Wales Mountain." Located along the same ridge 25 miles to the northeast – is another small mountain, Monticello (or "Little Mountain" in Italian), where Thomas Jefferson built his home of the same name. No doubt one of these "little mountains" provided the model for Walton's Mountain.
For generations the Hamners were farmers in neighboring Buckingham County, located in the Piedmont which is more suited for agriculture than the Blue Ridge. During the late nineteenth century vast reserves of soapstone in the Blue Ridge were identified as having considerable market value. Consequently towns were established to excavate and mill the stone into products such as table tops and bathtubs. One of these towns was Schuyler which was founded in 1893. Sometime between 1900 and 1910 Mr. and Mrs. Walter C. Hamner decided that life would be better at the soapstone plant, so they left their farm and moved to Schuyler. Their oldest son, Earl Hamner, Sr., became an employee of the soapstone plant and married Doris Giannini, the daughter of another employee. The young couple started a family with their first child born in 1923 – Earl Hamner, Jr.
Earl, Jr. would grow up amidst the images of family, community, history, and land, and he would turn those images into a television series that conveyed the importance of the things in life that are the most important.
(Jack Elliott is historical archaeologist for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
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