Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Mamie Parrish and the Nortonsville Store
By Phil James
For many years, the sign attached to the second floor porch railing of the grand old store at Nortonsville in northwest Albemarle read “L.C. Parrish. Nortonsville Post Office.” But it likely wouldn’t have been the imposing figure of L.C. Parrish waiting behind the counter for your business. History has shown that at the right hand of many a successful man is a very capable woman, and for L.C., that special woman was the diminutive Mamie Wood.
Margie Shifflett, recalling her grandfather Louis Cranston “L.C.” Parrish, said, “He was a jack-of-all-trades.” Indeed, he was: gardener, farmer, cattleman, Notary Public, auctioneer and undertaker. He organized and transported orchard laborers during fruit harvest season; ran a mail route from Charlottesville to Staunton; was a furniture maker, house carpenter, and schoolbus driver; and handled most of the hauling for the store. In his spare time, like the rest of the Parrish family, he was a store clerk.
The village of Sandy Hook in Goochland County was where L.C. and Mamie first met. He was a native of Augusta County but had secured work at his sister’s husband’s Sandy Hook store. Mamie, born and raised near Nortonsville, had earned a teaching degree from Madison College and become Sandy Hook’s new schoolmarm. The sweet hand of Providence had arranged her room and board within the safe confines of the family of L.C.’s sister, practically sealing their destiny.
As their courting conversations turned to the subject of marriage, Mamie made it clear that she preferred to live nearer her family back in Albemarle. L.C. agreed, confident that his energy and work ethic could provide for them wherever they lived. Their knot was tied in 1917.
Back in Nortonsville, after a season of renting, they were able to purchase the dwelling and store business from the Marshall and Perkey families. The Marshalls’ path of ownership traced back to Cyprian Norton who, in 1835, had lent his name to the post office established near that place. The Parrish family worked in the Nortonsville store for three generations before it closed.
“Grandma was a tiny little woman, and the store business was actually Grandma’s,” L.C. Parrish’s granddaughter Margie recounted. “She started the store business with her own money. When she was raising her children, people would knock on the door, and say, ‘Mrs. Parrish, I need five pounds of sugar,’ and she would open the door and sell them the sugar and then lock it back up and go on about her daily duties. And that’s the way it was.”
L.C. and Mamie were blessed with five children, all born in the first decade of their marriage: Kermit, L.C. Jr., Frances, Juanita, and Jack. George Milton Via married Juanita. Remembering his mother-in-law, he wrote, “How she found time to do all the work she did, I don’t know, but she knew what had to be done and she did it.”
Mamie, the petite former school teacher, confidently grew into her varied roles of wife, mother, chief cook, baker, food preserver and washerwoman for her own family of seven, plus a household that included extended family members and boarders. She raised chickens for the family and the store, was the store’s acting manager, clerk and bookkeeper, with a thorough knowledge of the store’s extensive credit accounts. She was Nortonsville’s postmistress. She answered the telephone and wrote messages for the village’s doctor, W.A. Kyger, whose office and living quarters were upstairs over the store. She performed those duties and countless others for decades prior to the arrival of electricity to that remote corner of the county.
L.C. and Mamie remained faithful to their family even as they worked hard to address the needs of their community. Their daughter Frances recollected those earlier days: “All five of the Parrish children spent our childhood at Nortonsville living in the house behind the store. Our home life was not very private. A store is a very public place. Our property was like a small village—a store, post office, doctor, dentist, schoolhouse, barber shop, blacksmith shop, garage, and a working mill. The store business always came first. Raised during the Depression, we learned many things that have stayed with me all my life. We were taught to appreciate what we had [and] not to go into debt. We learned right from wrong. We were taken to church and learned to thank God for his blessings.”
Parrish’s store was set up and operated in the typical manner of its day. Milton Via became well-acquainted with the store in the early 1940s while he was courting Juanita. He wrote, “The store was not one you waited on yourself. A long counter ran down one side of the store. Shelves were on each side from the floor to the ceiling. The ceiling was so tall that a special hook was used to reach up on the top shelves. When Mrs. Parrish ran the store, you told the clerk what you wanted, or you gave her a list of things. These things were gotten together and put on the counter.”
Frances Parrish Gibson also remembered times when certain “outsiders” passed through the village. “Salesmen or ‘drummers’ would come in the summer and show what they had for sale and take orders for Christmas and winter clothing and things. Gypsies would come through once in a while. They camped in an open field just a short distance from the store… My parents were happy when the gypsies stopped coming to our area.
“When we were small children in the ’20s, sometimes in the summer the ‘Medicine Man’ would come through the area. I remember them putting up a tent in the open space beside the store with benches for people to sit on. They would put on a show for entertainment and sell candy in small boxes… Each night they would talk a lot about the medicine they sold which was supposed to cure almost any and everything.”
“Granddaddy used to pick me up on Saturday when he would go to town to buy the stuff to sell,” said Margie. “One Saturday, Grandma had her list for him to buy. When we got back, she was missing 15¢. She said, ‘Cranston, I need to know where my 15¢ is.’ She stewed and stewed with him and added up all the tickets again where we had bought stuff and went through everything. Finally he said, ‘Mamie, I know exactly where it went. I bought Margie Ann and I a Coca-Cola and Nabs.’ She said, ‘Good. That’s fine. I just needed to know where it went.’ That’s how she ran her business.”
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