By Kathy Johnson
“Greenwood’s ‘modern’ history begins almost three centuries ago as the first white settlers traveling down the Shenandoah Valley turned east and crossed over the Blue Ridge Mountains,” said Langhorne Gibson, Jr. in an introduction to his latest book, For the Love of Greenwood.
Gibson has written a number of books, primarily dealing with Virginia history, but this book is a little different. He brings his focus to the Greenwood of his early childhood.
“Who am I to write the history of Greenwood?” he said. “I was there for 20 years. All I did was play or go to school. I never had a job in Greenwood. I never paid any taxes. So who am I to write a history of Greenwood? I salute the people who have lived in Greenwood and who have paid taxes and who have raised children. The only reason I do it is because no one else has ever done it.”
Gibson sat relaxed on one of the matching loveseats in the living room of his home in Richmond. Nearby on the wall above the fireplace, a breathtaking portrait of the Gibson Girl looked down as her grandson explained his love of Virginia and in particular the small community where he was raised. Gibson’s grandmother was Irene Langhorne Gibson, known as the original Gibson Girl as painted by her husband Charles Dana Gibson.
“Besides how it molded me,” he continued, “Whatever good parts there are of me, I think I got from my exposure in Greenwood. It was a combination of all the people in Greenwood and that’s why I have called it For the Love of Greenwood. I look back and there was such a huge, obvious disparity between the people who had money and the people who didn’t. I mean you had the huge houses—Tiverton, Blue Ridge Farms—and then you had other people at Newtown and the men and women who did the work for the—I hate the word estate—for the bigger places.
“But there was, in so many ways, no class distinction. I might have been naive then, and now, but I can’t remember my parents or my parents’ friends ever saying anything negative about anybody just because they didn’t have as much money or just because their perceived social standing wasn’t as high as somebody else’s was. And that, to me, was a wonderful lesson for me to learn. And this lesson, played out every day, is that money has nothing to do with class.
“You see those families—the old time families, the Foxes and the Shirleys—and the wonderful roots that they had relative to ours. My father moved there in 1938, or whatever, a newcomer, and, although he had some roots there in Mirador [home of the Langhornes], you had all these people who had been there and how well everybody blended together. How wonderfully everybody respected one another. It was just a fact that the people who had the money and the big places hired the people who didn’t have the money. And so it worked out beautifully for everybody.
“That consciousness of being better than somebody else was just not there,” he said. “I could see how respectfully my father treated everybody, not because he said, ‘I’m going to be respectful of this person,’ but it was just normal. It was just natural, with the men that came to get in the hay and the farmers who worked on the place, and that to me is just so, so important.”
Gibson explained that book starts with earlier material than that about the families he was describing. “I love research. I rooted and rooted and rooted for a little nugget here and a nugget there and there is so much you can’t find. Like, I have no idea who the first person who lived in Greenwood was. You can’t get that out of plaques and things. And there was so much speculation going on. In the early days in the 1700s, so many of those people were just moving on. They would come, they’d move on. They’d end up in Tennessee or wherever. Some people stayed, but of course you didn’t have any institutions in Greenwood. The first institution was really Lebanon [church] and that was like 1854.
“I researched from about 1740 onward. One of the things that interested me so much was the town of New York. I had never heard of New York.” Gibson described the area behind the current Rockfish Gap Country Store near the intersection of Rt. 250 and Rt. 151. “Right in the back of that, in the field behind it, was the town of New York or York or Little York. It was a bustling community around 1800. It had a post office. It had 70 houses. It had a tanyard. It had a few business establishments. I got a lot of information from the Mutual Assurance Company. It was doing business back then and they only stopped writing insurance there about 1820, 1830, but you can see all these policies. And so you had that bustling little community and I couldn’t find out what happened to it. It just faded away. I think it had faded away before the Federal Army came through in 1865.”
Early Greenwood had a farming economy based on slavery. “To me it was interesting because Greenwood was such a backwater. Then the big places started to be built in the 1840s; Mirador was 1842, I think, and some big land owners came in later. So you had the big land owners with lots of slaves—I mean like 4,000 acres—and then the train came. Greenwood was a western terminus.”
Gibson said he did not want to focus on the Langhorne family. “I had one little blip in there about the Langhornes.” An English biographer of Nancy Astor, one of the Langhorne daughters, asked Gibson to help him. “I said I would help him if he would take what I’m saying and prove that I’m right. There were five sisters and their father was the one that was supposed to get them going, get them into society and all that. It wasn’t him! He was a rough cob of a guy.” Gibson explained that his great-grandfather was a miller, a workman, not a gentleman farmer.
“If you were a miller in the antebellum South, you weren’t anybody. The mother’s father had a plantation. He had money, he had slaves and he was in the state legislature. So she was an absolutely incredibly beautiful person who had all the style and all the class. She was the one that got those girls going.
“My great-grandmother wouldn’t have let anybody go near any of those girls unless they had a lot of money.” He rubbed his fingers together and laughed. “She was all about the cash and position for her daughters.”
Then he pointed to the oil painting above the fireplace. “See the Gibson Girl? That’s the only oil portrait of a Gibson Girl. He [Charles Dana Gibson] did that in 1905 or ’07. “Then he threw them all away (except the one on the wall) because he didn’t like them. My mother is there,” pointing to a bright and colorful oil painting done with heavier brush strokes. “That’s the oil. He might have done about 300 oils and the family owns 290 of them. We’re not about to sell them.” In addition to that painting, the room is filled with small and large oil paintings and in an adjacent room are two of the sketches for which Charles Dana Gibson was well-known.
“I mention the big houses and things, but I don’t go into it. Then I talk about Greenwood High School and the Community Center. I went to a little private school in Charlottesville—for whatever reason. The lady died and so I went to Greenwood in the 7th grade. And then I went to Albemarle High School for 2 years and then I went away to school. I say in [the book] ‘we lived a weird existence.’ I mean we had nannies.”
“I stopped my history at 50 years ago. I talk about Fox Brothers and I talk about Mr. Wolford and Lightning. Mr. Wolford lived up in the rafters on one side. And Lightning, this black guy, also lived in the rafters. That was their home. My point is I talk about what Greenwood was like from a child’s point of view. I didn’t know what was going on—I was playing.”
Gibson recalled a favorite memory from Tiverton. “Mrs. Boeing [lived there] and then her son went off to found Boeing Aircraft and all that. Then she died. She was married to a doctor who later married Aunt Mariska—back then we called all our parish friends aunt and uncle. I talk about going over to Tiverton after church, this huge, incredible house. You would walk in and you’d take a couple lefts and you would turn in to a nightclub. It’s all been torn out now, but it was a miniature nightclub. You know with booths and a bar, and pictures of scantity dressed women flying all over the walls. And there were slot machines; you’d think you’d died and gone to heaven. Aunt Mariska gave us a handful of nickels and we played the slot machines.”
Gibson will sign copies of his book December 5, from 2-5 p.m. at Stone Soup Books in Waynesboro. Copies can also be ordered from Langhorne Gibson for $15 plus 75 cents tax and $2 for shipping. Email [email protected]