Mike Smith had barely begun his career with West Virginia’s state parks system when he was offered the chance to become superintendent of Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park.
Something about the windswept 287-acre park and its role in preserving the site of West Virginia’s last major Civil War battle apparently struck a chord with the recently minted forestry major, He had worked not quite two years at the Bluefield Public Hunting and Fishing Area (now Bluestone Wildlife Management Area) when he was offered the job of becoming what was then the one-person staff at Droop Mountain.
On Monday, he retired as superintendent of the Pocahontas County park after 32 years on the job.
“Back in December of 1984, when I started working here, I had no idea I would stay this long,” Smith said last week, as he prepared for his last weekend on the job. “But I didn’t know I would like it so well, either. It turned out to be much more interesting than I ever imagined it would be.”
Smith said he was only mildly interested in Civil War history when he took the job. “I liked West Virginia history and of course the Civil War is part of that,” he said, “but I wasn’t particularly a Civil War buff.”
Things changed, after spending a few decades working at the place where 45 Union and 33 Confederate soldiers — most of them from West Virginia — died in battle.
“He became a walking encyclopedia of the battle,” said Sam England, chief of West Virginia’s state parks system. “He has the entire story of the battle in his head, and he’s able to pass that story on to anyone who comes to the park and wants to learn about it.”
When Smith first took the reins as superintendent, “the park had become pretty much run down and neglected, more from a lack of funding than a lack of work or good intentions,” he said. “The buildings at Droop Mountain were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the Great Depression era and needed some work, and the grounds had grown up with brush and trees and lacked a view. I had a good background in carpentry and cutting down trees, so I went at it.”
While some people would be daunted by having to be a jack of all trades to keep the park operating, Smith thrived in his role as the park’s one-man staff.
“One thing nice about a small park like Droop Mountain is that you get to do everything from electrical work to mowing grass and interpreting history,” he said. “I was given a great deal of freedom. I chose my projects and was able to do pretty much what I thought was needed. I don’t recall ever being told not to do something I had planned.”
Since Smith was working at a park with historic significance, he saw the need to absorb as much knowledge as possible about the Nov. 6, 1863, battle, which effectively ended Confederate resistance in West Virginia. He began researching the battle, the units that took part in it, and the soldiers from both sides who fought and died there.
“I jumped into the history and got quite enthused with it,” Smith recalled. “I worked with [Civil War historian] Terry Lowry for 13 years in researching his book ‘Last Sleep,’ which is the definitive work about the battle.
“The museum here had been vandalized and closed for five or six years before I got here, and I got it back in order and added to the collection of artifacts, developed some pretty extensive historic files and put together a 100-book library. Over time, I developed an extensive background about the people in the battle and the associated events that led to it.”
Smith said he always made it a point to offer park guests more information about the battle than was available from signs and historic markers within the park.
“I’ll go into as much or as little detail as they want,” he said. “I think personal contact with guests makes for a better experience. After a while, I got so I could talk easily about nearly anything that happened here.”
Sometimes, park guests whose ancestors fought at Droop Mountain have added to his body of knowledge about the battle and its participants, and have made artifacts, letters and journals available for display in the park’s museum.
One such item was a copy of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” signed by the 19-year-old Confederate soldier who owned it, as well as the Union soldier who took it from him, during the 1863 battle. The book was donated by a man who bought it at an estate auction in Missouri in 1992, and later realized its historic significance.
Artifacts from the battle still turn up from time to time, Smith said.
“Last summer, over by the lookout tower, a man was looking at a hole in the ground where a skunk had dug out a yellow jacket nest,” he said. “He thought he saw something white inside the hole, so he pulled it out to see what it was. It turned out to be a .69 caliber minie ball, a type of ammunition used during this battle by the 28th Ohio Infantry, one of the few out-of-state regiments that fought here.”
In 2013, during the 150th anniversary of the battle, Smith planned and led hikes, including one 12-hour trek from Lewisburg, that followed the routes used by three Union forces and one Confederate unit to reach the mountaintop battlefield. During the same year, he transported a huge sandstone obelisk that sheared away from a cliff alongside the Greenbrier River Trail to the mountaintop park to use as the marker for a new memorial plaque honoring the 78 men who died on the day of the battle.
Smith and his wife raised a son and daughter, now both adults and WVU grads, at the park, which “was their own private kingdom,” he said. “They met people from all over the world here.”
Smith’s retirement doesn’t mean he will be a stranger at Droop Mountain.
“I’m building a timber frame house nearby, and will continue to help out with the park’s historical programs,” he said. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to work here for some many years. But we’ve got some Inca stuff we want to explore in South America and some cathedrals we want to visit in Europe. I’ll be a tourist, for a change, for the next few years.”
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.