To the locals, he was an arrogant and self-serving businessman, responsible for the dislocation of over 400 families when he sold his mountaintop acreage to create the core of the Shenandoah National Park. One neighbor felt “especially betrayed by George Pollock…[for] “pushing the people out. And, you know, coming up with all the stories of the areas that were just really poor. They didn’t ever say anything about the people who worked, and made a good living, and lived there peacefully and nicely.”
To his guests at Skyland—‘Polly,’ they called him—George Freeman Pollock was the eternal party boy, blowing his bugle at sunrise while dressed in ten-gallon hat, hunting trousers and boots, with a .45 revolver strapped to his hip. He liked holding up live rattlesnakes to show visitors. Massanutten Lodge, where Pollock lived with his wife Addie for many years, was known as ‘Poker Flat’ to resort regulars thanks to the non-stop gambling there.
Pollock was well connected from the start. Louise Pollock, George’s mother, was a pioneer in American kindergartens, opening the first one in 1862. Schools were modeled after her National Kindergarten and Normal School. She had the backing of First Ladies Lucretia Garfield and Lucy Hayes. She wrote and transcribed journals, song books and education manuals, and she had an exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair.
His father, George H. Pollock, a prosperous Washington DC importer, formed the Miners’ Lode Copper Company in 1845. He and partner Stephen M. Allen, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, purchased 5,371 acres of land on Virginia’s Stony Man Mountain in order to mine copper.
That didn’t last long. The area’s ore was poor quality, and there wasn’t much of it, and so the mine shut down in 1850. Local residents grazed their cattle and pigs in the clearings, removed lumber and tanbark from the property, and ‘squatted on the land,’ according to the Pollock family version.
“[George Freeman Pollock] wasn’t factual in his statements about the mountain people. He called them squatters when in fact most of them held deeds to their property. Deeds dating back to the early 1800’s, long before Pollock was born,” says Diane Nicholson Smith, a descendant of one of the accused ‘squatter’ families.
Trouble would brew soon enough.
George Freeman Pollock fancied himself a naturalist and had a keen interest in taxidermy. When Dr. William T. Hornaday, young Pollock’s mentor at the Smithsonian Institution, asked him in 1886 to collect specimens of small animals, the elder Pollock suggested his son do his searching on the copper tract.
George F. was so taken by the scenic splendor of the region that he returned to Washington determined to share his enthusiasm with others by creating a rustic resort. His father was willing to pursue the idea as a way of making some money with the languishing property, and convinced Allen along with Colonel John Bowles, a Washington real estate developer, to buy out the other stockholders and develop potential buyers for resort property.
By 1889, George F. Pollock had collected $3,000 from sales of lots. He had also established Kearney, English and Pollock: Millowners, Builders and Contractors to process and sell the materials necessary to build cabins at the Stony Man camp. Over the next few years, Pollock and others built several cabins and a log stable, in addition to the lumber mill. In 1891, Pollock fenced 125 acres to establish control of the land and began accumulating his own livestock, including dairy cattle, horses, mules, pigs, and chickens.
But the following few years were problematic. The declining economy sent Pollock to other jobs, and in 1893, the worst year of a very bad depression, both Allen and the elder Pollock died, leaving the legal status of the property in chaos for a decade.
In protest against the problems the Pollock family had caused them, the locals burned the resort buildings that had been built.