George Freeman Pollock checks the time, scarcely able to contain his excitement. It is the start of the summer-long party at the resort he runs on Virginia’s Stony Man Mountain, and his guests should be arriving soon.
It is years before George’s wife will leave him, years before his poor grasp of fiscal realities will cost many investors their life savings, years before he will be sued by people he once thought of as friends. It is years before he will die in the house of a black man he once employed as the resort’s major-domo, a man named Will Grigsby who oversaw the staff at the resort, first called Stony Man Camp, then Skyland.
That is what awaits George Pollock, but today he is happy. He is happy because the season is starting and horse-drawn buggies are arriving, carrying road-weary guests from the Luray, Va., railroad station. They have traveled by train from Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, lured by what a Skyland brochure describes as “Highest elevation in the South. 50 artistic rustic cottages. No mosquitoes. Rustic dining-room and amusement hall. Select orchestra. Magnificent scenery. Unsurpassed table . . . Milk and cream from tuberculin-tested cows.”
“No mosquitoes.” This is ironic given that among the guests arriving in the summer of 1900 is Smithsonian entomologist Harrison G. Dyar. Dyar has made his name with moths but will soon be blazing a trail through the world of mosquitoes and will eventually be considered one of the country’s leading experts on the family Culicidae.
George Pollock’s expertise is at cajoling people to spend three months on top of a 4,000-foot mountain in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. He is Skyland’s cheerleader, strutting around the camp in whimsical garb, waking guests in the morning with blasts on his omnipresent bugle. He is Skyland’s social director, organizing horseback rides, camping trips, musicals, pageants, minstrel shows, euchre parties and, miles from any ocean, an annual nautical-themed ball.
Money is a nagging concern. There is the faint whiff of failure around Skyland. Pollock’s father bought the property for its purported copper deposits, but the mine was a bust. Now Pollock is selling cabins to well-to-do people in eastern cities. Rules stipulate that cabins may not have kitchens. That’s so guests have to go to Pollock’s dining hall to buy meals.
But Pollock is not much of a businessman. The only boy among six sisters, he has been indulged for most of his life. His little sister Wellesca, a kindergarten teacher in Washington, is a frequent visitor to Skyland. At some point in the summer of 1900, amid the camp’s primitive cabins, she meets Harrison G. Dyar.
She is 29. He is 34. Both are smart, strong-willed and curious. Dyar’s search for knowledge is not confined to the insect world. He has a philosophical and literary bent that he explores in short stories. Wellesca’s curiosity isn’t confined to the classroom. She has been seeking enlightenment in the Bahai religion.
Perhaps they are just moved by the bracing mountain air. While it would be a stretch to describe Skyland as a nest of free love, there is a certain relaxation of strictures away from the city. Flirtations are common, assignations, too. What happens in Skyland stays in Skyland.
Years before Dyar sticks a single spade in the earth to start building secret tunnels under his D.C. home, he embarks on a clandestine project of another sort: He enters an adulterous love affair with Wellesca Pollock.
This is good news for George Pollock, the feckless master of Skyland. Dyar is a wealthy man. Over the next 15 years, as he engages in an increasingly reckless dalliance with Wellesca, Dyar will lend Pollock thousands of dollars to keep the resort going. So will other guests and residents of Madison County, Va. Pollock will eventually take out multiple mortgages on the property and will never be able to escape the crushing debt.
Still, by the time Pollock dies in 1949, his greatest dream will have been fulfilled: In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicates Shenandoah National Park, the centerpiece of which is Skyland.
That, of course, is all in the future. When the summer of 1900 is over and Dyar is back at his desk in the National Museum on the Mall, he prepares an entry for a scientific journal. It has fallen to him to name a newly discovered species of moth. He dubs it Parasa wellesca, noting: “Named in honor of Miss Wellesca Pollock of Washington, District of Columbia.”
Tomorrow: Meet the other woman.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.