Thursday, February 12, 2015

Geology of Rockingham

Rocks of Rockingham

                 Without being too technical, this article focuses on the geology and geography of Rockingham County with specific detail on natural features found in the western portion of the County.  We hope you will be encouraged to take a new look at your neighborhood.  History, economy, recreational activities, and even governmental decisions are profoundly affected by our landscape.
                We know that Rockingham County was named to honor the Marquis of Rockingham, Charles Watson-Wentworth, who opposed the suppression of the American colonies.  However, anyone who has put a spade in the soil around here knows the “rock” in Rockingham for another reason.   We pity the early settlers who had to move boulders and rocks to build the County and its roads.  In the early history of byways in the County, the policy on infrastructure upkeep was that residents along a road were responsible for getting out their sledge hammers to break-up the stones to keep the roads repaired![i]
Rocks present obstacles and define activities, but one should take a moment to look closely at the rocks.  In this place, in one hand you can hold a small rock that is more than 300 million years old.  In the other hand you can hold a pen that has been recording the history of the area for only about 300 years.  Three hundred million years ago, in the Paleozoic Era fishes were evolving as were land plants, and more important for the stratigraphy and structural features of our landscape, it was the era of sandstone and coal deposits and the folding of the Appalachian Mountains.  (The evolution of dinosaurs and their extinction was a couple of millions years in the future.)  Three hundred years ago Governor Alexander Spotswood and his party of explorers crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains and viewed the Shenandoah Valley.  In an account of this first crossing a member of this exploration remarked that Spotswood “could not grave anything” to mark their arrival because the “stones were so hard.”  Another member of the expedition noted that the party was provided with “horseshoes (things seldom used in the lower parts of the country, where there are few stones).” [ii]

 In this time span of more than three million years, and even before, geological events shaped the landscape.  The results of these events provided much of the economic basis for activity in the area, which included mining, water and distillery bottling, pottery, and hospitality.  Rock outcroppings, mountain clines, and water courses defined boundaries and provide recreational activity.  The geological formations provided the source for legends and for artistic imagination and endeavors, as well as scientific curiosity.  Fortunately human intrusion has been mostly respectful of the natural environment.  Humans have been content, if at times inconvenienced, to leave changes to natural forces.
Some 400 to 300 million years ago during the Devonian, Mississippian, and Pennsylvanian periods in the Paleozoic Era, sandstone was deposited by meandering rivers in the Shenandoah region.  Sandstone is cemented sand containing predominantly quartz and is the most abundant, durable mineral on the earth’s surface.  Sandstone color variations can be attributed to the mineral content, degrees of oxidation, ferrous content, and shale.  The following illustration is the stratigraphic scheme of the ground beneath our feet from Little North Mountain to the top of Shenandoah Mountain. 
The next time you pick-up a sandstone rock, note the colors and then imagine the land upheavals that brought this particular rock to the surface for you to hold in your hand.  Also contemplate how far below your feet is a lot more of this sandstone.  Without having to dig, you can drive west on Route 33 toward the West Virginia border and see in the road cuts the two top formations: Pocono and Hampshire.
The accompanying table explains the map symbols and the character of the layers.  Mostly the focus is on Devonian division in Paleozoic Era.
Notes on Western Rockingham County Geology

From the Paleozoic Era



in feet


Appalachian Mtn Fold



Coal and Sandstone

Pocono formation
Massive white-grey sandstone with

some dark shale

Upper Devonian Period - Sandstone and Shale

Hampshire Formation
Chiefly red sandstone, some flag-

stone, shales, and mudrock

Chemung formation
Grey to greensih silty sandstone and

brown to grey shale, fossiliferous

Brallier Shale
Greenish brown stiff micaceous

shale and fine grained thin bedded

 greenish sandstone

Source: William B. Brent.  Geology and Mineral Resources of Rockingham County.  1960.  p.10

               Keith Frye.  Roadside Geology of Virginia.1986. p.8

Structural Features
Geologists assume that the structural faults and folds took place during the building of the Appalachian Mountains near the end of the Paleozoic Era.  In western Rockingham County are two of the County’s four northeast-trending fault areas.  The first fault, noted on the stratigraphic map, is the Little North Mountain Fault.  The Little North Mountain Fault zone extends 27 miles in a northeast and southwest direction across the County. The Fault crosses US Route 33 about 2.5 miles west of Hinton.  The second fault structure area is between Little North Mountain and the Shenandoah Mountain crest at the western boundary of Rockingham County. 
In the area of Rawley Springs and in the area west of it are two structural folds.  These major folds also cross Rockingham County southwest to northeast.  The first fold is the overturned and southeast dipping West Mountain syncline which forms the prominent ridge of Narrow Back Mountain and which forms the southeastern boundary of the former Rawley Springs resort area.  The overturning was a result of the drag from movements along the Little North Mountain Fault where there Little North Mountain is absent. [iii]
The second northeast-trending folding structure, farther to the west and barely crossing the Riven Rock Mountain, is the Bergton-Crab Run anticline.  Here the rocks are sloping downward in opposite directions on both sides of the mountain.  The fold axis roughly parallels the axis of the West Mountain syncline.  Relating these structures to the strata, the age of the rocks in the faults is of Devonian and the age of rocks involved in the folding is Mississippian. [iv]
Seeing the Geological Features
Since the 1800’s, the rock formations named Juliet’s Tower and Lovers’ Leap along the Rawley Aretes have made the Rawley Springs a favorite for rock scramblers.  Other intimate and challenging encounters with rocks can be made nearby on the north side of Route 33 on Second Mountain and Dictum Ridge.  In 1992, modern climbers re-discovered a formation that resembles the profile of George Washington on Lovers’ Leap, which was a favorite of the old resort visitors.  It was thought to have been dynamited by vandals many years ago.[v]   In winter it can be seen from Route 33.  One notable feature of the rocks is their tortured, massiveness that without climbing can be seen on casual strolls and drives or while taking in a dip in the Dry River.
Water Resources
Dry River
One of the most prominent physical features and one that served as a frequent point of reference for western Rockingham County is the Dry River.  The River begins as a network of small streams (Runs) on the east slope of Shenandoah Mountain and flows through a gap at Rawley Springs and then across the Little North Mountain fault to the North River at Bridgewater.  The Dry River often appears to live up to its name, but the large boulders resting in the river’s path attest to power of the stream during periods of high water and long ago upheavals.
As early as 1807, Dr. Peachy Harrison noted in a scientific paper for the Philadelphia Medical Museum that “this district (Rockingham County)...abounds with perennial springs.  The water they yield holds so much lime…or to use a common phrase, is so hard to require breaking before it is fit to be used in washing clothes...”[vi]  In 1891, much to the delight of the residents of Harrisonburg whose well water was very hard, the Dry River became the City’s primary source of water.  The water of the Dry River is soft.  From this River at Rawley Springs, Harrisonburg received its water by gravity flow by way of a 10 inch cast iron pipeline laid by using a pick and shovel.  By the 1930’s, Harrisonburg’s growing population and the reduced water flow from the River during the summer months caused water shortages.  Allen B. McDaniel, a consulting engineer from Washington, DC, discovered a unique solution to Harrisonburg’s water problem.  He discovered about 15 feet below the River bed a subterranean constant flowing stream running over limestone bedrock.  The underground water source, trapped by an underground dam where the two mountains meet at Rawley Springs, again provided a reliable water source for Harrisonburg. 
There are many well-known springs in Rockingham County.  The springs are the result of a natural flow of ground water to the surface.  They are characterized by a variety of conditions, such as rock type, rock structure, and source of water supply.  At Rawley Springs, three small springs, which issue from a syncline in the Pocono sandstone, are chalybeate, so named because of the peculiar taste due to presence of iron in the water. [vii]  The significance of springs in the history of Rockingham County is another topic for exploration.
 Mineral Resources
Cement, of which limestone is the chief ingredient, is common to the area.  An old lime kiln about two and a half miles southeast of Rawley Springs on the Dry River and many other similar structures around the County are evidence of limestone’s significance in the economy of the area. 
Also, known since at least 1834, a coal-field crop lies on the northwest slope of Narrow Back Mountain that runs from Stokesville in Augusta County to Rawley.[viii]  One of the three County coal locations was near Rawley Springs and was noted on several of its metes and bounds descriptions.  The coal pit was near Union Springs Road. 
            Technical matters aside, collecting rocks is an enjoyable and educational hobby.  On February 23rd at 1:00 at the Main Library, geologist and lapidarist Stuart Mercer of Elk Run Mining will show patrons the gems that await in our county.  
by Diane Rafuse

[i]  In the Courthouse are the Road Books, an invaluable resource that records by mile marker from the Courthouse the person or persons responsible for a portion of the road.
[ii] John W. Wayland.  History of Rockingham County.  C.J. Carrier Company, Harrisonburg VA. 1996.  Originally published 1912. 426-7.
[iii] William B. Brent. Geology and Mineral Resources of Rockingham County. Virginia Division of Mineral Resources. 102.
[iv] Brent. 102.
[v] Zook. 17.
[vi] John W. Wayland. A History of Rockingham County Virginia.  430.
[vii] Brent. 157.
[viii] Brent. 142.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Reading Challenges

Reading Challenges: what are they and why should I do one?

A reading challenge is pretty much what it sounds like: set yourself a goal in terms of books you want to read and challenge yourself to complete it in a defined period of time. This can be a great way to motivate yourself to expand your reading horizons, or to deepen your knowledge of a particular genre or author. Book Riot, a popular blog on books and readings, started touting the benefits of an annual reader challenge in early 2014 and suggested a number of options for readers to choose from. For 2015, they decided to develop their own challenge. This challenge includes 24 categories (so 2 books a month, on average). Readers can select books that meet multiple criteria, but can only count each book in one category. This challenge is called ‘Read Harder’, as it is designed to get readers to get out of their normal patterns. Check it out at Book Riot or Goodreads.

Reading Challenges for 2014. (Jan 10, 2014). Retrieved from

The Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge. (Dec 15, 2014). Retrieved from

Monday, January 12, 2015

Women in the Time of the Tudors: A Renaissance Refresher

Women in the Time of the Tudors

This essay complements the first MRL Adult Lecture of 2015. On January 26, Sarah Kennedy, who visited last year to discuss Altarpiece, the first novel in her The Cross and The Crown series, returns to discuss City of Ladies, the recently published second book.  The series details the life of women in Tudor England.  To prepare for this discussion, the following is intended to refresh our knowledge of sixteenth century British history.  

            By the early 1500s, a convergence of intellectual developments on the continent of Europe brought a rebirth of ancient learning and new humanist thinking to Tudor England.   In southern Europe the Renaissance renewed interest in Greek and Roman culture and learning; in northern Europe new religious thought emphasized individual will and human involvement in events.
Translations in English of the New Testament made the “word of God” accessible to lay people without reliance on interpretation by the Church.  Economic and social conditions unique to England also added to an unsettling of order.  An expanded English urban middle-class centered around the cloth trade.  King Henry VIII depleted the national treasury with costly foreign alliances and military misadventures.  Excesses in personal conduct, displays of wealth, ecclesiastical privilege, and ostentatious pomp at all levels of the Church fueled resentment against that institution by the general population.  This popular disaffection, personified in the chief royal councilor Cardinal Wolsey, provided cover for the King to eliminate him, to act against the clergy, and to convert the wealth of the Church to himself.  Precipitously, the desire of the King to have his marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled by the Pope in order to marry Anne Boleyn created tension between the King and the Church.   While all these factors played a role, the King’s personal life propelled the passage of the 1536 Act for the Dissolution of the Monasteries causing religious chaos that lasted for years.  Though two women were at the center of the turmoil, the consensus among many historians is that women did not benefit from it.  The belief in the inferior position of women remained unchanged from previous centuries; however, from this lesser standing, women found ways of being influential and active in the secular society.   Unfortunately their sisters in the convent found their societal relevance denied. 

            Between 1536 and 1540 the monastic religious orders in England were dissolved.  Though the exact number is unknown, about 140 nunneries were closed, affecting about 1,600 nuns.   Most of the dissolved nunneries were very small; in addition to their religious role, they were an important local institution.  Their abbeys and nunneries served as a refuge for traveling gentry who wished to avoid the bread and board at the local taverns.  The sisters educated local daughters in reading and numbers and the gentry’s daughters, in addition, were taught needlework and drawing skills.  The nuns served as the pharmacists and doctors in the neighborhood. 
            The historical record is absent on what happened to these often penniless “former” sisters.  Some made their way to religious orders on the Continent.  Those who stayed faced the same environment as other women in society of the 1600s, plus being additionally burdened by being an  age unsuitable for marriage and by their own vows of chastity.  Returning to their families was not always a viable choice.  Many of the nuns arrived at the monastery as the "spare" daughters to be “dedicated to God” or as orphans abandoned on the door step.   These women came into a secular society that espoused the Biblical interpretation that women were to serve and obey a man, which not even the Reformation theology challenged.  The sole function of the woman was to marry, produce sons, and look after her home and family.   Women from wealthy families were more constrained in their opportunities than their less well-off sisters.  Usually the women of the upper ranks of society had no control over a choice of a husband.  Their health was put at risk because they did not nurse their children, resulting in frequent pregnancies and therefore at greater risk of dying in childbirth.  In contrast, common country and city women, though still enjoined by their Biblical role, found economic necessity brought broader opportunities. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Shooting in" the New Year

A few years ago, we mused about the Valley tradition of belsnickling at Christmas. (See Valley Christmas Folk Traditions, December 16, 2011.) This year, we bring to light a local New Year’s tradition that faded into memory a century ago:  shooting in the New Year.

On New Year’s Eve, a group would gather at their leader’s house.  According to local historian and author John Stewart, “To be elected captain of the community’s shooters was a great honor.”[1]  Unlike belsnickelers, the New Year Shooters were an all-male group. The men would visit farms and houses in the area during the early hours of the New Year. They called to the head of the house by name, and after receiving a response, they would sing a greeting with wishes for the coming year.  This was followed by discharging their guns, and in some cases fireworks or dynamite, and other loud noises.

Like many Valley traditions, shooting in the New Year migrated south with the Pennsylvania Germans. The New Year was generally thought of as a secular, rather than religious, holiday in Germany. According to one Pennsylvania German, “This custom of New Year wishing, like many other of our holiday customs, can be traced not only to the fatherland, but to some rite or custom of the time when our forefathers were heathen.” Apparently, many areas of Germany have New Year’s traditions that feature crowds and noises.[2] Still, some of the New Year’s Shooters did sing hymns and recite scripture under their neighbors’ windows in addition to the more “heathen” noisemaking. Though the practice of shooting in the New Year was nearly extinct in Pennsylvania by the 1860s, it continued in the Valley in isolated areas until World War I.

The tradition was a way to show concern for one’s neighbor in the days before greeting cards.  An article in the Pennsylvania-German notes:  “In that elder day, when brass-bands and other instrumentalities for serenading were not so common as now, the new-year shooting salutation also had its significance and possibly its benefits. It was a means of manifesting good will and expressing greetings which now is supplanted by less offensive methods.”[3]  After receiving New Year’s wishes, folks usually invited the group in for refreshments, like cake or mince pies and hot beverages—often alcoholic.  Shooting in the New Year was a neighborly, community-minded event.

(from google images)
Of course, while some shooters focused on being neighborly, others used the tradition as an excuse to let off steam in the dead of winter.  In some cases, men were known to skip the traveling greetings, instead meeting at the blacksmith’s, loading the anvil and firing off massive charges.  Some shooters would pour in extra powder and stuff the guns with paper, which could be dangerous.  One Valley man remembered his brother’s gun exploding and a piece injuring his head.  And while most of the traditional greetings were tasteful wishes, there was also the occasional shorter rude doggerel invented by those looking for fun.  Another reason for the eventual unpopularity of the New Year’s Shooters might have been due to incidents of young men overindulging in refreshments, particularly the Dram un Seidereil (hard cider). According to an early 20th century Pennsylvania journal article, “Probably both customs, [belsnickeling and shooting in the new year], were born of kind, friendly, pious motives, but later degenerated, as all good customs are apt to do, into practices ‘more honored in the breach than in the observance.’”[4]

In the Valley, the custom varied from region to region and between religious affiliations. For instance, it was popular among Lutherans but frowned upon by Mennonites, though some Brethren did accept greetings and show hospitality to their non-Brethren neighbors. “They use to come around to make a wish at our house…We had them come in and we’d give them something to eat, but we wouldn’t give them anything [alcoholic] to drink,” remembered one Church of the Brethren member.[5] Valley Shooters also adapted the tradition to make it their own. In Shenandoah County, guns were accompanied by big saws, cow bells, and sometimes a bull fiddle, an instrument with a strange sound that carried great distances. While organized parties of Shooters weren’t common in some parts of the Valley, New Year’s noise certainly was.  In Broadway and Timberville, shooting off firecrackers was a popular New Year’s activity. In Bergton and Criders, men fired their guns at midnight, even if they didn’t visit their neighbors’ homes. And in southwestern Rockingham County, some blasted dynamite to welcome the New Year.

Monday, November 24, 2014

SnowFlake Bentley

Snowflake Bentley

One of the greatest joys of childhood is the coveted snow day—no school, playing outside, a warm hot chocolate at the end of the day.  As we reach adulthood, snow days mean hyperactive kids, frozen pipes, and treacherous road conditions.  The excitement fades.   Many years ago, there was a man who maintained a childlike wonder of snow from boyhood throughout his twilight years.  Rather than catching snowflakes on his tongue as children do, he caught them on film.  His name was Snowflake Bentley.

Early Life

Wilson Alwyn Bentley was born on February 9, 1865 on the family dairy farm outside of Jericho, Vermont.  He was interested in nature from an early age.  Nothing captured his attention more than snow, a fortuitous passion in the Snow Belt, where snowfall averages 120” annually.[1]  Bentley’s mother, a former schoolteacher who taught him at home until he was 14, encouraged his interest, despite the skepticism of his father and brother.  For his 15th birthday, Bentley received an old microscope from his mother’s teaching days, and he began to study the natural world in closer detail.  Snowflakes were the most enthralling specimens of all:
“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others.  Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost.  Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.  I became possessed with a great desire to show people something of this wonderful loveliness.”[2]

He began by sketching the flakes, but they often melted before he was done. After three winters, hundreds of sketches, countless lost snowflakes, and with his mother’s persuasion, Bentley’s father bought him a camera and microscope that were worth nearly as much as the family farm.  The self-taught Bentley invented an apparatus of microscope, camera, and bellows that he would use for the rest of his photomicrography career.  After a season of failure, experimenting with stops, exposure, and focus, Bentley had his first success in 1884 at the age of 19.[3]  Following this achievement he said, “I felt almost like falling to my knees beside the apparatus.  I knew then that what I had dreamed of doing was possible. It was the greatest moment of my life.” [4]


Bentley was following in the footsteps of great scientists.  Johannes Kepler first introduced the snowflake’s shape in his 1611 work, On the Six-Cornered Snowflake.  Robert Hooke first illustrated the varied structures of snow crystals in his 1665 work Micrographia.  It was Wilson Bentley, a teenage farmer with no formal scientific training, who pioneered photomicrography and took the first picture of an individual snow crystal.  Bentley showed a single-minded dedication to scientific pursuit, working in the cold and snow every winter for decades.  As a result, in 1924 he was awarded the first ever research grant given by the American Meteorological Society for “40 years of extremely patient work.”[5]  His goal of sharing the beauty of the natural world with others remained a priority. Over the years, he published dozens of general interest and technical articles in various publications, including the New York Times and National Geographic.  Clearly, he did not publish for his own acclaim; in a list of his publications recorded in his notebook, notes like:  Knowledge, London, 1912, I think” were common.[6]

In addition to his work with snowflakes, Bentley also researched frost, dew, and raindrop size. He regularly recorded weather records three times a day, as well as descriptions of 600 auroras over 40 years. He was “first to deduce that rain in thunderstorms has a dual origin, suggested that many snow crystals start growing as frozen cloud droplets, came close to explaining the Bergeron mechanism of rain formation…and proposed what was probably the first hydrometeor-related explanation for cloud electrification.”[7] Modern atmospheric scientists have said that Bentley’s work on cloud physics was decades ahead of his time.