Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Chasing Down a Twice-told Tale
by Phil James
“I must warn you that you are leaning on an old worn-out horse when you rely on my stories,” wrote Joseph Harvey Bailey in the summer of 2002.
Mr. Bailey, born in 1909, had grown up among the traditions of the Potomac and Chesapeake watermen from the village of Kinsale in Westmoreland County. Nevertheless, he persevered to attain a civil engineering degree from Virginia Military Institute. The depression-era job market that he entered, however, offered few opportunities for inexperienced young men like himself. By 1936, he was gratified to find regular work in President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Assigned as Camp Engineer to C.C.C. Camp Albemarle in White Hall, he remained at work in that place for six years.
His letter continued: “This year I reached the 93rd year of my existence. These comments… are taken from the experiences and recollections of a single individual. His comments may well not agree with another who traveled with him. Both may have been right. If you are still interested in hearing my twice-told story, I should meet with you as you propose in your letter.”
What followed were a series of wonderful and educational visits, punctuated with humorous recollections and iced tea, as he shared photos and expounded on the effects of the Great Depression, the work of Camp Albemarle, and World War II. Each remembrance was a unique, invaluable piece of a much larger story.
We all have a story to tell because each of us has lived a piece of “the story.” Thus, we find ourselves surrounded by storytellers. Older relatives share tales from our families’ past. We may find ourselves a captive audience to co-workers who entertain us (or not) with all manner of tidbits from their personal lives. Parents of the very young and teachers of pre-schoolers remind us, too, that some of our best storytellers cannot yet tie their shoes, but can leave us filled with amazement and laughter.
Central Virginia resident Jim Weiss turned his talent for telling bedtime stories to his daughter into a career of stage performances and recordings of the timeless classics. Newspaper writers such as Vera Via, Boyce Loving and Curtis Bowman entertained with details from the lives of people in their communities, much as Daily Progress writer David Maurer has continued to do for the past several decades.
Lynn Coffey gathered reminiscences from her neighbors in and around the mountain community of Love, straddling the Augusta and Nelson County line. For 25 years she labored at her kitchen table with typewriter, scissors and paste and published her newspaper honoring them. Those precious pieces of the story continue to be “heard” today, compiled in the pages of her book series titled Backroads.
There are other special stories which we share almost universally. Their continual retelling has rendered them into familiar tales that even the most timid might venture to tell. Most know them as Jack Tales.
If you are familiar with the mischievous, clever Jack and his encounters with bean trees, giants and a host of other characters, then most likely you owe a debt of gratitude to one Richard Chase, who gathered them into print form for us to enjoy. The tales were handed down only by oral tradition into the 1920s; chances are most of us today have learned them one way or another through the printed page. But—did you know that central Virginia has a link or two to Jack and the collector Mr. Chase?
The Jack Tales were “set down and edited” for publication by Richard Chase. Their known origins in the Southern Appalachians trace back, for the most part, to Council Harmon (1803–1896) and his descendants in the Beech Mountain region of western North Carolina to whom Harmon related these stories. Chase’s book has proven to be one of the two most popular books of folk tales in America. When it was published in 1943, Chase was living in the village of Proffit in Albemarle County.
This writer first learned of Richard Chase (1904–1988) within the context of collectors of traditional English ballads. A native of Alabama, his folklore collecting was done primarily in Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia. He traveled around the country teaching children and adults the folk traditions that had been entrusted to him.
On St. Patrick’s Day 2001, my wife Sally and I paid a visit to Darwin Lambert and his wife Eileen at their home in Page County. As we enjoyed the cozy ambiance of their 19th century cabin on the side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and probed Darwin’s vast knowledge of the establishment of Shenandoah National Park, the name Richard Chase was mentioned.
Darwin pointed to the seat where Sally was sitting and proclaimed, “When he visited here, he sat in that very chair!” Darwin then described the stories and music that they shared together on that special day.
As did earlier tellers of these tales, Chase gloried in sharing the stories with children whenever he had the opportunity. It was during one such performance at Crozet High School in the late 1940s that he left an indelible impression on the hearts of the youth in our town.
After school that day, one of the daughters of Harry Schultz, who lived on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Buck Mountain Road, rode her bicycle to the Crozet Drug Store. Upon entering the store, she encountered, sitting at the soda fountain, the one who had enthralled the school assembly with his exciting stories earlier in the day.
The young girl turned around, hurried home, and asked her mother if she could invite Mr. Chase to have supper with their family; her mother agreed. Now pedaling feverishly back to the Drug Store in hopes that he would still be there, she found Mr. Chase still relaxing at the soda fountain. Her invitation was accepted and he followed her to the house to enjoy their hospitality, a home-cooked meal, and, most likely, another story or two.
After supper, Chase joined the Schultzes in their living room. Apparently feeling satisfied and at ease in their home, he stretched himself out on their couch and, to the girls’ surprise, fell asleep!
During our life’s journey, we will surely encounter many unsung tellers of twice-told tales. Some folks may try to avoid these talkers, while others will spend much time and effort to seek out storytellers. And others might find that if they simply sit quietly, they just may discover a great one snoozing contentedly nearby.
Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987.
Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2012 Phil James