Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Front Porch Investments



Storefront porches such as A.C. Bruce’s, adjacent to the C&O Depot in Greenwood, Virginia, were often used by merchants to display their durable ware. Local news was frequently exchanged there by neighbors, and, occasionally, a glimpse of the outside world was gleaned from rail passengers during a stopover. Photo courtesy of Pete McCauley.

Hey, want to hear a sure-fire way to increase your personal worth? Invest in some front porches! Now don’t scoff at the idea right off—folks have been doing it for ages and reports abound on the great returns realized. Just read on.

Okay, first off, we’re not talking decks or patios here, though they have their own sets of advantages. Nor those little stoops where there’s just room enough to wipe your feet before you step inside. No, we’re talking plain ol’ covered porches on the front side of the house. They need to be big enough for a few people to sit around—preferably on rockers—but stools, benches, gliders, mule-ear’d chairs, sofas or even La-Z-Boys will do. Now, here’s the best news of all: if the house you’re living in doesn’t have one, you can realize the same return by investing in your neighbor’s front porch. Just make sure they’re “investing” at the same time. It’ll double the return.

Front porches. Just think of all the history that’s made right there: kids heading out to their first day of school, or a first date, or off to military service. They are places we dash to when it rains, or retreat to when it’s hot. It’s where company gets welcomed by the family dog, where paper boys tested their aim, and the milk man once made his early-morning exchanges.

During America’s post-WWII love affair with highway travel, motor courts provided porch-like extensions and outdoor chairs for their guests’relaxation. And at least one major restaurant chain today still markets their image of a front porch lined with over-sized rocking chairs.

Front porches were the original neighborhood-watch headquarters. Gardeners, with aprons donned, settled down there to snap beans or shell peas. In towns they were sometimes pulpits for announcements, or, occasionally, court facilities for the local justice-o’-the-peace.

Porches were placed where the house faced the community. Always they were places of rest and retreat, where families and neighbors greeted one another with a wave of the hand or the wagging of an ever-present flyswatter.

Cecil and Mertie McAllister relished the chance to relax from the day's tasks on their porch overlooking Moormans River and the road into Albemarle County's Sugar Hollow. The siblings' guest on this occasion was their cousin Bap Hicks. Photo by Phil James.
Cecil and Mertie McAllister relished the chance to relax from the day’s tasks on their porch overlooking Moormans River and the road into Albemarle County’s Sugar Hollow. The siblings’ guest on this occasion was their cousin Bap Hicks. Photo by Phil James.

On a late summer afternoon in 1985, this writer, accompanied by his cousin Virginia Baptist “Bap” (Sandridge) Hicks, enjoyed a front porch visit with Bap’s McAllister kinfolk, Cecil and Mertie. The McAllister siblings’ ancestral home sat on a knoll above the first bridge into Sugar Hollow. Unmarried, they had lived their entire lives together in the same weather-boarded log cabin where they had been born: Mertie May, the third of seven children, in 1899; and Cecil, the youngest, in 1913.

Introductions included familiar recitations all around of kinship strings. Soon, however, separate but simultaneous conversations by the “men folk” and the “women folk” commenced on either end of the porch, while each party kept one ear casually attuned to the other party’s train of conversation.

Cousin Bap loved people and folks loved her in return. She was probably the best in this particular grouping at keeping up closely with both conversations. During one rare lull, she commented across the porch to me, “They had a crippled brother.”

Bill McAllister (1897–1964), also unmarried, spent most of his life on wooden crutches. His strong, handsome features were prominent in a rich store of family photos: in studio shots, at neighborhood functions, laboring in his older brother’s sawmill. Bill was even known to drive the family truck into the village on occasion. In his latter years he was more often recalled sitting on the front porch watching the traffic on the road below.

Mertie: “When Bill was six years old, he had the infantile paralysis.”
Bap: “He used to sit right there and count the cars when cars first commenced going up in Sugar Hollow so much.”
Cecil: “He’d count ’em the first day of fishing season. He was busy then!”
Mertie: “It was over 300 come by here that day.”
Cecil: “That many now and it ain’t even fishing season.”

As shadows lengthened across the yard and silent pauses in the conversations became more noticeable, the evening sounds mingled with those of the river below. Bap asked about the old family burying ground, and Cecil offered a walk up the hill behind the house to the private graveyard.

Along the way we passed the site of an earlier detached kitchen. “We had to go away from home to cook and eat,” Cecil said with a grin. “Lot of old houses built like that, you know.”

Walking back down the ridge from the cemetery, a wooded area was pointed out that once had been a productive apple orchard. Once-cultivated fields where wheat, corn and oats had been raised lay hidden on the hillside now populated with middle-aged trees. Our stroll ended back at the front porch where it had begun.

After goodbyes were exchanged and we turned out of the driveway onto the highway, Bap looked over and said, “This reminded me of one time I went down to Hopewell to see Cousin Taft. We dug up everybody that had ever died.” Our laughter carried us the rest of the way back to Crozet.

Even though that visit took place nearly a quarter-century ago, memories remain ever-fresh of the voices and pleasant sounds carried on the breezes of that special evening. Priceless time spent—no, invested—on a front porch.

Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County, Virginia. You may respond to him through his website or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003-2009 Phil James