The Old Saving the New by Mary Bishop

 The state of Virginia wanted to build a prison next to the old man’s centuries-old farm.

But Mastin Fayne “Buster” Osborne didn’t relish the idea of leaving his nephew’s growing family, his closest kin, with an eternity of headaches. Their ancestors came to Grayson County before the Revolutionary War. Ever since, they’ve farmed along a bend that juts into the scenic New River like a cursive, lower-cased “r.”

Protests drove the prison away, as well as a highway and a bridge. But someone would always be after that land. A company once wanted to build a hydroelectric dam there.

Osborne could buy the property. But he was about to turn 91. Wasn’t he a little old for this? As a young man, he’d vowed never to borrow money again after buying his first car for $800.

But in late 2007, he took out a loan to buy the 170-acre farm. Working with the New River Land Trust, he preserved the farm forever by putting it and adjacent land into a conservation easement. A total of 540 Osborne acres is now safe from development and reaping generous state tax credits and federal tax deductions.

The New River Land Trust has helped save 30,000 acres in the New River watershed since 2002. Its work is possible through a partnership with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, the largest state-operated land trust in the nation, holding and enforcing easements totaling nearly half a million acres. The Osborne easement is held by both the foundation and the National Committee for the New River, a non-profit group protecting land on the river for nearly 25 years.

Along this dramatic, unspoiled stretch of the New, near the North Carolina line, a total of five miles of riverfront has been spared in recent years. But many more miles are threatened as narrow vacation lots and mobile homes pop up along the banks of what geologists believe is the oldest river in North America.

The New River, 337 miles long and seemingly Eastern, is actually a headwater of the Mississippi. The New flows north out of North Carolina into Virginia, dips back to Carolina twice, then twists across Virginia to join West Virginia rivers that ultimately feed the Mississippi.

When Osborne was a boy, the New served up catfish and mud turtles weighing 40 pounds. It was a river that froze in foot-thick ice and allowed easy winter crossings by foot, horse or Model T. A river where the postman pulled himself across in a cabled basket, and children rode ferries to school.

The land, too, provided abundance. Apple and cherry trees filled the cupboards with jellies and jams. A chestnut orchard littered the ground with bushels of nuts. “Not a worm in ‘em,” Osborne proudly reported.

Passing through his front gate, he apologized for a gnarly tree. “If you’re wondering why I’ve got such an ugly pear tree, that thing was bearing fruit when Mother and Dad built this house in 1900. Made the best pear butter I ever had in my life.”

He moved away for decades of appraisal work in Northern Virginia’s fast-growing Fairfax County. Missing the sound of the wind moaning across the river shoals, he retired and came on home.

A slim, cheerful man with long silver sideburns, he hopped briskly into the back seat of his great-nephew’s high pickup for a ride around his new farm, the one his relatives passed through amicably all their lives. After all, it belonged to the family of the midwife who delivered Osborne and his nine siblings.

Longstanding family connections like that abound here, where more than a few landowners got their property from the king of England when Virginia was a colony. By the 20th century, when agriculture alone could no longer support families, farmers took jobs in nearby textile and furniture factories. “They’d work there 8:00 to 4:00, then farm after 4:00 and on the weekends,” said Charlotte Hanes, Osborne’s neighbor. “They loved that life.”

She and husband Philip Hanes, former CEO of Hanes Companies, own the sprawling River Ridge Land and Cattle Company that offers the Osbornes a peaceful view of rolling hills, trees, rocks and cows. The Haneses and neighbors started Grayson LandCare, an organization helping families conserve their land and live off it again. Thousands of acres have been saved; many more are in the pipeline.

Modeled after an Australian movement, Grayson LandCare has initiated a smorgasboard of sustainable enterprises: A forest co-operative for responsible timber-harvesting. Direct marketing to food companies of all-natural beef. Rotational grazing that moves livestock around without depleting fields. Efforts are under way to provide insurance for beds-and-breakfast, canoe outfitters, cabin rentals, horseback riding, hunting leases and other tourism.

Charlotte Hanes sees marketable botany wildlife everywhere—wild chanterelle and other mushrooms, goldenseal, ginseng, and wild leeks. Diverse birds drawn to the river, forests and fields could lure bird watchers from afar.

On a hilltop, she surveys the New weaving its way northward. Virginia’s highest peak, Mount Rogers, stands at attention in the distance. A visitor suggested what so many do: Build a cabin here! Hanes replied as she always does: “What? And ruin it for everybody else?” Suffice it to say, there’ll be no house there, or anything else.

And no jail along the river either, with inmates shuffling into cells and alarms blasting the pastures, thanks to Buster Osborne. He turned 92 shortly before the conservation easements were finalized.

Though legally blind, he continued working his fields, stooping over to feel for thistle and whacking the spiky weeds with a hatchet. He still lived alone in the house where he was born. Nephew Bobby Osborne, who farms the land, regularly drove Uncle Buster to lunch in the county seat of Independence.

Family’s what kept Buster Osborne going, and family’s what inspired his last bold stroke to save the land. If he hadn’t and if the prison or something else had been built next door? “Lord,” Bobby Osborne said of the impact that would have had, “it’s hard to tell what would have happened."

At a stony beach along the New, Buster Osborne’s great- and great-great-nieces and nephews come to roast hot dogs. The youngest are toddler twins, a boy and a girl.

They get along as sweetly as the Osbornes always have. Buster Osborne was prouder of that than anything. “Them two twins,” he said tenderly, “play better than any babies you ever saw.”

Mary Bishop of Roanoke is an award-winning reporter and Virginia native who is currently writing a memoir.

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