Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Look Around—History Is Hidden in Plain Sight

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Spillway construction at the dam for Lake Albemarle, summer 1941. Workers from Civilian Conservation Corps Co. #338, Camp Albemarle, established in June 1933 at White Hall, VA, began the lake project in 1938. African American CCC Co. #1390, Camp Gallion, from near Green Bay, VA, was relocated to Camp Albemarle in July 1941, and brought the project to its completion. (Photo courtesy of the J. Harvey Bailey Collection)

Ever wonder about the individual whose name adorns the street sign at that intersection which you drive through every day? Or why that nearly century-old business facade was designed with oversized plate glass windows? And what’s the deal with the old horseshoe partially embedded in that tree next to the parking lot?

To live in modern society is to have one’s senses bombarded constantly from all sides. It takes effort to focus even on the task at hand — like safe, responsible driving — so it’s understandable when we whisk right by otherwise obvious vestiges of our past without even a sideways glance.

“Looking Back” was a Daily Progress newspaper column penned by Free Union native Vera Viola Via (1914–1964). From the late 1940s until shortly before her passing, Miss Via focused on uncovering and casting new light on some of the people and places associated with our shared heritage. Similar to other Daily Progress interpreters of local history such as Boyce Loving and David Maurer, Vera’s weekly columns were the result of her just looking around Albemarle County for vestiges of the past. We would be a much poorer community had she not taken the time and spent her precious energy to enlighten us.

Let’s begin with our largest and most easily “overlooked” history feature. Western Albemarle County is bordered by the majesty of our beautiful-in-all-seasons Blue Ridge Mountains. Perhaps you are numbered among the millions who have motored along Shenandoah National Park’s “Greatest Single Feature,” the Skyline Drive. Hikers, both casual as well as those bound for Georgia or Maine along the Appalachian Trail, regularly traverse that backdrop which we too often take for granted.

This concrete watering trough alongside historic Brown’s Gap Turnpike/Old Three Notch’d Road was filled with water piped from the millrace for the c.1790 Jarman’s Mill at Mechum’s River. The inset photo shows the trough’s inscribed construction date as April 29, 1915. The mill’s foundation ruins are directly across the road. Photo: Phil James.

In the 1920s, the Commonwealth of Virginia condemned more than 16 thousand acres of long-settled and populated land in western Albemarle and then gifted it to the Federal government for a national playground. Those whose homes and ways of life were sacrificed for the park’s establishment would want us to honor their personal legacies by seeking out and learning from the remnants left of their former homes, gardens, and solemn burying grounds.

In addition to overlooks and trailheads all along Skyline Drive inside the park, three public access points for adventurous park pass holders exist in Albemarle County: in Jarman’s Gap at the end of Rt. 611; in Sugar Hollow at the end of Rt. 614; and in Brown’s Gap at the end of Rt. 629. Parking is extremely limited at each of these points, and it is imperative that adjacent private property rights are respected.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state-sponsored segregated schools were illegal. It took more than a decade of court challenges for that landmark decision to become implemented in Albemarle County. Prior to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, in the era of Jim Crow traditions, separate and unequally funded African-American public school facilities were augmented by funds from philanthropist and Sears, Roebuck and Co. president Julius Rosenwald.

Beginning in 1917, Rosenwald Funds were added to locally raised monies to build schoolhouses in Black communities in the South. In the Newtown community at Greenwood, one such school was opened in 1926, modeled after Rosenwald’s plans for a two-teacher school. Other former African-American schools at Brown’s Cove, Ivy, and White Hall have been repurposed as private dwellings. The Crozet Elementary School for Black students, opened in 1916 adjacent to Union Mission Baptist Church, was razed in 1984, lost to the ages like too many otherwise historic structures that once stood in and around that village.

Before you depart Crozet village, pause to glance at the large plate glass display windows in the store building across the road from the former train depot. When your mind’s eye refocuses, it might picture the 1930s automobile showroom for Lockhart Chevrolet. Down Main Street on the corner of Jarman’s Gap Road, that former tearoom-turned-filling-station also had a show room extension added to display automobiles for sale.

On Brown’s Gap Turnpike at the stop sign in front of c.1888 Wyant’s Store in downtown White Hall, you are invited to park your posterior on their front porch bench, relax and wave as the world passes you by. While you’re there, comfortably contemplating the true meanings of life in the country, consider that the springy bench upon which you are perched had its origin a half-mile away on the Camp Albemarle Civilian Conservation Corps grounds, established in 1933.

Just up the road, hidden in plain sight directly behind Piedmont Store and the White Hall Post Office is the original Piedmont Store. At age 150-plus, it is the oldest extant country store in Albemarle County, still standing firmly on its stacked rock foundation.

Shenandoah National Park contains over 16,000 acres of western Albemarle County land. The eminent domain process by which those properties were acquired in the 1920s and ‘30s uprooted scores of Albemarle families who had known no other home besides these mountains. The overgrown National Park Service boundary marker is alongside the 18th-century Three Notch’d Road at Jarman’s Gap. Photo: Phil James.

Several miles to the east and across the river near Earlysville, you might notice the street sign denoting Link Evans Lane, honoring that community’s blacksmith. Further along, when you pass across South Fork Rivanna Reservoir you would not realize that the steel-truss bridge that once spanned Ivy Creek is buried in the water’s depths. No, not in plain sight unless you spot its photo, taken in the 1960s as the reservoir was filling, in the book Flash: The Photography of Ed Roseberry, published in 2016.

Scattered all along the byways on which we travel are hidden springs once well-known and counted on by travelers before the advent of automobiles. Shallow ponds and accessible wide spots in small streams once provided ice in the cold winter months to fill deep icehouses, some of which still exist today beneath trap doors in generic looking sheds.

Look around—a watering trough here, a millstone there, lonely stacked-stone chimneys, even an occasional horseshoe partially protruding from a tree; each have stories to tell of others, much like yourself, who once passed this way.

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 © 2003–2017 Phil James

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