Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Aunt America, Uncle Billy and Life in Simmons Gap
By Phil James
High upon the Blue Ridge mountaintop on the Greene-Rockingham County line, a pioneer road once carried traffic up and over the ridge through Simmons Gap. As the crow flies, it was only 2.7 miles north of the Albemarle County line, but as often is the case in the mountains, “you can’t get there from here.” From the east, access through Simmons Gap required a roundabout trip into Shifflett’s Hollow, then another five-plus miles up a mountain trail past the community of Sullivan. From the west, the climb was a little longer coming from Swift Run through Beldor Hollow.
America Jane Sullivan, daughter of St. Clair and Frances Sullivan, was born in 1834. She was a direct descendant of the gap’s colonial-era namesake, Ephraim Simmons (Seamons). It was in that neighborhood which she and William “Billy” Atwell Garrison courted and were married in the winter of 1857-’58.
Billy and America Jane knew the discipline required to survive in the mountains. They raised a family of six: five boys—Henry, Robert, Malachi, William, and John; and, finally, one little girl, Salenia. Amid the coveted joys of life, their family also experienced its sorrows when, in January 1882, first John, age 10, then Salenia, 8, followed by Malachi, 16, died nine days apart. The three children were laid to rest in the Sullivan Cemetery east of Simmons Gap.
Devout Dunkard (Brethren) believers, the Garrisons’ Christian faith was tested nevertheless, as all would be in similar circumstances. During such adversity, they might have turned in the Scriptures to Psalm 50:15 where it is written, “Call upon me in your day of trouble. I will deliver you, and you will honor me.” In their lifetimes, Billy and America Jane honored God with their compassion and good-heartedness which became legendary among those who knew them.
In the 1890s, Rev. Frederick W. Neve, a transplant from Kent, England, was serving Episcopal congregations in the Ivy, Greenwood and Ragged Mountain areas of Albemarle County. When communicants directed his attention toward the remote ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains, exploratory trips into those heights convinced him of the genuine needs and daunting challenges.
After much thought and prayer, Neve came to envision a network of mountain missions and schools planted every ten miles along the Blue Ridge crest, the first one being at Simmons Gap. An ad was posted in diocese newsletters, and the lone reply of interest was from a young woman, Miss Angelina Fitzhugh of Maryland. This disheartened the man of faith, as he felt that the physical rigors and isolation would be too demanding for a woman.
In November 1900, after meeting with the hopeful missionary and presenting her to his congregation at Ivy, Neve and Miss Fitzhugh agreed to go together and assess the possibilities. At the end of their arduous journey, Angelina was face-to-face with the realities of no building in which to teach the previously unschooled mountain children, and, for her housing, a decrepit log cabin with missing chinking and no ready wood supply with which to heat it.
To Neve’s dismay, she entreated him to allow her to stay. Leaving her on the mountaintop, Neve turned for home, more concerned than ever for her well-being, and equally determined to find the necessary funds to improve her living conditions and erect some semblance of a school building.
When the Garrisons realized that the Reverend alone had departed the mountain, they immediately went to check on his charge. They found Angelina struggling to start a fire on the cold stone hearth. The couple directed her to gather her few belongings and return home with them. Later that night, as Neve fervently petitioned his Maker for Angelina’s safekeeping, he was unaware that already she was safe and snug, and would remain so, under the secure roof and watch care of Uncle Billy and Aunt America.
From that most humble and tenuous beginning, a great benevolent work was born. Neve soon located a benefactor who gave $150 to purchase a small lot and build Simmons Gap’s first school house.
Miss Fitzhugh stayed with the mission until 1903. By that time, other mission outposts had been established, and George Mayo was appointed by Neve to oversee the work and its ongoing expansion. The concept of a centralized mission workers’ “home” was studied. Shared living arrangements with opportunity for fellowship was a key consideration. The first such facility was established at Mission Home, VA, located on a ridge between Bruce and Shifflett Hollows on the Albemarle-Greene County line. Its early residents included workers from Simmons Gap, Frazier’s (Loft) Mountain and Wyatt’s Mountain.
At Simmons Gap, the simple wood-framed schoolhouse doubled as a chapel until 1911 when a more substantial cement block school and separate church were erected, each protected from the harsh elements by roofs of iron shingles. Consecrated as “The Church of The Holy Innocents”, the solid building with its opalescent green stained-glass windows quickly became the centerpiece of that community.
The seminal work of a faithful few, once sheltered solely in the plain cabin abode of Aunt America and Uncle Billy Garrison, in eleven years had grown to encompass “four churches, two mission homes, one infirmary, five day schools, and an industrial school [Blue Ridge School at Dyke/Bacon Hollow] with a farm attached of some 500 acres.”
The missions’ beneficial endeavors continued to expand for two more decades before ominous whispers of a pending government intrusion filtered into the mountains. The State of Virginia was considering condemnation of the property of private citizens in order to host a national park. All who lived in the community along Simmons Gap Road were threatened with eviction. The processes of surveying, valuations, authoritarian double-speak and individual court challenges kept those families in limbo for nearly a decade. In 1935 the last shoe finally dropped.
“We are trying to adjust ourselves to the new conditions caused by the Shenandoah National Park running through the middle of our territory, taking two of our missions and leaving the others divided into two groups, one on each side of the Park Area,” wrote Rev. W. Roy Mason, who had oversight of the mission work in 1935. “Now, what was formerly the mission house [at Simmons Gap] is the home of the Park ranger… Park officials were good enough to allow us to move Holy Innocents Chapel from Simmons Gap to our new point at the Cross Roads [west of Free Union].”
One of the last mission workers at Simmons Gap, Virginia Cary, reflected in the pages of “Our Mountain Work”: “Simmons Gap Mission will soon be closed. The little old frame schoolhouse close to the road, with just a few square yards of ground surrounding it, fenced with a rail fence. I can see it now! Of a Sunday afternoon the fence would be adorned with many sitters, boys and men. In spring the shutters were swung back and the windows opened, and the fragrance of apple blossoms with the hum of many bees entered to beautify the place. The baby organ, the folding kind which you sort of carry on your lap, makes a goodly sound, and the clear shrill voices of the congregation are lifted in a rather dragging rendering of the old familiar hymns.
“Mr. Mason gives his words of comfort and help, a small child comes creeping, closer, closer, while the people watch. He settles contentedly at the preacher’s feet and plays with the toes of the shiny black shoes on the platform. The preacher goes on, unnoticing, undisturbed apparently.
“How many summer Sundays have I known just such as this… I have never found a more lovable group than my people at Simmons Gap.
“It would seem heartless to close up this mission whose record is so fine. But the Park has taken the people… The mission will have to close. The people are going. Many have gone, and almost all will be gone by autumn.
“The mission closes, the people move away, the Gap is alone.”
Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! 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 © 2003–2014 Phil James