Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Greetings from Crozet: Wish You Were Here!
By Phil James
The brief handwritten note in now-faded ink to Rockingham County in July 1911 said, “Hello Meg, Received your letter last week. I am at Crozet having a grand time. You must come up to see me real soon. Margaret B.” On the reverse of the penny postcard was a colorized picture titled “Looking West from C.&O.R.R., Crozet, VA.”
A careful examination of that early image revealed a sizeable fruit orchard, 11 two-story houses, three with white picket fences, nine barns/sheds, a schoolhouse, and a church. Nearly every property was encircled with a wire fence to contain livestock or to keep the same out of the family garden. Today, a century hence, the schoolhouse, church building, orchard, and wire and picket fences are gone. Only a few of the outbuildings remain, and much of the former open spaces sport a more recent crop of dwellings.
Picture an era without television, radio or automobiles; a time when personal travel for many living in rural areas was limited to a dozen or so miles over very poor roads. There was little need for most to travel more than a few miles from home. Small communities usually centered around a general store that carried or could order most of what its customers needed. The post office, if there was one, was usually in a corner of the store. If a particular village was not adjacent to a rail line, news arrived from the “outside” by way of the post office or traveling salesmen.
Interestingly, this also was the era when a public craze that had begun in Europe rapidly overtook nearly every community and household in America. Souvenir picture postcards issued during the Columbian Exposition of 1893 sparked a national passion for their collecting and exchanging. With an easing of postal restrictions in the early 1900s, publishers released a flood of attractive, desirable art cards of every description and for every occasion.
Highly prized and equally collectible were “local view cards,” images unique to every city, town and village that had access to a keen-eyed photographer and a retailer who wanted to increase traffic to his business. Merchants in the village of Crozet were not to be left out of this lucrative collecting frenzy.
Crozet at the turn of the 20th century was at last coming into its own. Orchards of apples, peaches, plums and other fruits and berries were maturing, and the resulting prosperity brought an influx of tradesmen and entrepreneurs to the rail town. Postcard photographers captured images of a village in transition from rural farmland to a bustling business center. Fields and orchards extended to the rear of houses and businesses that fronted on an increasingly busy highway and rail line.
Period postcard images reveal those early days. On Crozet’s Square, a frame-constructed pharmacy with a wooden plank walkway was supplanted by an imposing two-story brick building flanked by a poured concrete sidewalk. The town’s new drug store/doctor’s office was joined downstairs by a hardware store; the second floor was taken over by a hotel, all within easy steps of the train depot. Within a few years, just up the sidewalk, an even larger cement block building sported a comprehensive mercantile business, complemented upstairs by an expansive community auditorium.
The town’s little bank, only a few years old, could not adequately contain the village’s prosperity, so yet another new imposing cement block structure appeared in the center of town. The post office, originally housed in the train depot, was transferred over to the new bank building. Business spaces were created upstairs in addition to a fraternal order establishing their lodge home there.
Jim Ellison, one of Crozet’s earliest business men, in the 1890s converted his comfortable home near the train depot into a hotel. For years his mercantile/feed store was the first thing seen by those disembarking the C&O train. Postcard images captured now-rare glimpses of those early days in the life of his adopted town.
Other views showed the town’s quaint wooden depot and the new brick two-story high school; Albemarle Pippin orchards and views along the railroad tracks also made their way into the postcard racks.
Roy Cox, an expert historian in the field of postcard collecting, surmised that “the picture postcard hobby became the greatest collectible hobby that the world has ever known.” Figures that back up that statement have been gleaned from U.S. Post Office records, revealing, for example, that for the fiscal year ending in June 1908, almost 678 million postcards passed through the postal service. That figure, of course, does not include the masses of cards that went directly into private collections without ever being mailed. Noting that the total U.S. population at the time was less than 89 million persons, it could certainly be called the “golden age” of postcard production and collecting.
During this era, the highest quality cards were produced in Germany, where huge factories and skilled printers had been supplying the trade for years. But the onset of the World War changed all of that, finally bringing a decline to an industry that had known few limits. European factory workers were lost to the armies, and the war reduced to rubble many of the printing factories.
The great fad of postcard collecting during that “golden age” preserved some of the sole surviving images of early, small town America. Because of their enduring appeal, many early postcards were stored away rather than discarded. Who knows what two-cent (penny for the card; penny for the stamp) treasures of our past have yet to be brought back into the light of a new day.
Equally precious are many of the messages that accompanied the pictures, like this one mailed to Richmond in August 1909 on the reverse of a postcard featuring Jim Ellison’s Liberty Hotel: “This is Ellison’s old homestead. Leave here Thurs. and I do so hate it. Had a swell time on our hayride last night. May W.”
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