Five House News: V.L. James

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V.L. James, a member of CVFD from the past, who continues to serve some 60 plus years later, is V.L. James. James, who is 80 years old now, and drove and pumped on his last fire when he was 75, explained to me how he got his start in the department at the age of 18. VL with a photo of himself pumping his last fire, at the age of 75. Photo Justin Ide.

News from Station No. 5

The little village once known as “Wayland’s Crossing,” now called Crozet, has gone though a transition from a traditional farming, orchard, and railroad community, into a bustling town of professionals and families, as the footprint of Charlottesville and Albemarle County expands. One constant in this changing world has been the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department and its members serving selflessly at the fire house.

Established in 1910, one of the first fire companies in Albemarle County, the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department is a fully volunteer fire department and its members are your neighbors and friends. It’s designated now as station 5 in the county’s fire and rescue system.

One who continues to serve some 60-plus years later is V.L. James.  James, who is 80 years old now, and who drove and pumped on his last fire when he was 75, got his start in the department at the age of 18. He talked about what it was like back then while sitting at his dining room table surrounded by plaques, photos, and mementos from his time with the department.

“In the beginning, when we moved into Crozet back in the early 50s—1952, ’53—my Daddy got involved with the fire department. They would let me hang around down there, wash the fire trucks and pull them outside,” when he was not yet of driving age.

James recounted his dramatic start in the department. “I remember one thing. They had a ’49 Chevrolet tanker . . . I pulled it out one day in the street, and was backing up, and couldn’t see good so I opened the door to look back, and tore the door all to pieces ,” he laughed.

“I offered to pay for it, even though I didn’t have any money,” he said, continuing to chuckle, “and they had a meeting about it and dropped the case. Right after that I became a full-fledged member at the age of 18.”

V.L. emphasized that in the beginning it was a simpler time, and firefighters were little trained but often called upon. “You know, when I joined, the only thing the fire department knew was ‘surround and drown.’ We had no training whatsoever.”

At that time, many of the active members lived and worked in Crozet proper, and it wasn’t uncommon to see members dropping their work tools—butcher knives, barbers shears, fruit baskets, or hammers, to respond to the wail of the fire house siren.

“I remember one day, Dabney Via and I, were racing, foot racing really, down the street,” James said, “and Dabney slipped and fell on some loose gravel, and tore his knee all to pieces, but he got up and come on to the fire house.”

Early firefighting in Crozet was done while wearing regular work clothes and sometimes canvas jackets. Air packs, which are required today, were introduced with the help of James in the late 1960s.

“We had a lot of structure fires because the buildings were old, but as time went on a couple of us decided we needed to improve, so we bought a few manuals and read them, and passed them around,” said James.  “Our biggest asset, in the late 60s and early 70s, was past fire chief Julian Taliaferro, who took over for Charlottesville. If we had questions, we’d slide downtown and ask him. He was a great mentor for us.”

James was named Firefighter of the Year many times thoughout his career with the department, and worked at Red Front Market, now Crozet Great Valu Grocery Store for his whole life. James retired from Great Valu in December 2016 as a butcher and meat department manager.

James was present at the scene of the crash of Piedmont Airlines Flight 349 into Bucks Elbow Mountain above Crozet in 1959. James said the crash site, where 26 died, was a scene of carnage that he wished he had never seen.

These days, many members work in Charlottesville or farther away, and most employers don’t allow people to leave work in the middle of the day to respond to an incident, no matter how altruistic it might be.  Nonetheless, the commitment and sacrifice of the volunteers are no less significant today.

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