Close-knit Freetown is Feeling Squeezed

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Richard Brown
Richard Brown

Richard Brown began his first day in the world in 1935 in Freetown, a little community of some dozen or so houses behind Brownsville Market. He’s never left it. His parents were born there, too. And his grandparents set up together in married life there, according to their family Bible, in 1869. Brown isn’t sure if the Civil War freed them from slavery, but he thinks not. They were already free. That’s the way the family remembers it.

For 140 years since then, the community of black families who built and passed along humble houses on the high ground above the slopes of Stockton Creek lived there undisturbed. The four acres of open ground along Rt. 250, opposite D&W Market, was owned by the Johnson family and at least one of their graves was behind the family cabin that in more recent years housed Ward’s Small Engine Repair. That shop is gone and the cabin was bulldozed a couple of years ago in anticipation of a gas station and convenience store plaza, proposed by the property’s new owner, Jeff Sprouse. It’s not clear if his plan will result in Albemarle County’s largest or second largest array of pumps. But the idea is to build a facility that will entice motorists and truckers off Interstate 64 to refill their tanks and get something to eat.

Meanwhile, on the south side of Freetown, the Yancey family, owners of Yancey’s Lumber Mill and the pastureland along I-64 that Stockton Creek runs through, have asked the county to amend its Comprehensive Plan, the document that sets out just where growth of any type will be directed and how it is regulated, to create a 184-acre light industrial park on their land, most of which is now zoned rural, as well as permission to construct from 1.1 million to 1.8 million square feet of buildings. Charlottesville’s Fashion Square Mall contains a total of 570,000 square feet.

The residents of the unpretentious old houses of Freetown Lane are sandwiched between projects that threaten their tranquility, their wells and water quality and potentially their ability to stay in place.

Albemarle County zoning officials have concluded that Restore’n Station, as Sprouse has named his plan, will require a special use permit because of uncertainties over whether it can stay within the 1,640 gallons per day water usage limit on the parcel. A review of the building’s design and site plan by the Architectural Review Board, the third so far, was cancelled by the recent snow storm.

Jonathan and Stacey Hunt of Freetown.
Jonathan and Stacey Hunt of Freetown.

Brown built his small ranch house in 1968 on property his father owned. Only two houses have been built in Freetown since then. The neighborhood’s origin traces to the generosity of one Berrell Mason, according to Brown, who sold a lot of the property to blacks in roughly two-acre lots. “Everybody liked him. He was a really nice man. One of my mother’s cousins was named for him, Mason Washington. It was named Freetown because the freed slaves settled here. There was an older gentleman who lived in a two-room log cabin, Lewis Tucker, he said he was here when the Yankees came over the mountain. He died in the 1940s in his nineties.”

The family names of those who made Freetown were Winston, Washington, Mills, Jackson, Brown, Wood and Tucker, Brown recalled. Most were related to the others through marriage. Most of the Freetowners had large families. Typically, seven or eight people were living in the two-bedroom houses, he said. There were enough that in the evenings boys would gather after supper in a flatter, open area in the center of the neighborhood to play baseball. Most folks went to church at Piedmont Baptist in Yancey Mills. “On Sundays, when people were off, they didn’t have much to do,” Brown recalled. “We would go up to the road and sit and watch the cars go by.” Brown was the first in his family to learn to drive and at 16 began driving a school bus that picked up black students from Nelson County, Batesville, Crozet, and Ivy on a two-hour route and carried them to Albemarle Training School, then the black high school. He left by 7 a.m. and was due at the school by 9:05. He graduated from then-new Burley High School in 1951, long before schools desegregated.

“Most everybody gardened. We raised sweet potatoes, corn, peas, cabbage, lima beans and tomatoes. Practically everyone had an apple tree. We had a walnut tree, too. We raised a couple of hogs very year. Late in the fall there would be a communal hog-killing day. Everybody was happy here back then.”

For their livelihoods most worked for private families on the big farms and estates in Greenwood. Cars would be sent early in the morning to pick them up and women would go to cook and clean and men went to farm. Brown was captivated by Lang Gibson’s recent memoir, For the Love of Greenwood, about Gibson’s childhood there, because Brown was familiar with so many of the people Gibson referred to. Brown’s grandfather was the head cook at Miller School. His grandmother cooked at Mirador and Seven Oaks and his mother cooked at Casa Maria and Scott’s Castle.

“Freetown people worked for somebody they knew and the people were nice to them. In the old days the county supervisors would come in and ask you what you wanted. But they don’t bother with that any more.” His family members always voted, Brown said. “They believed in that.” But they typically were uninterested in civil rights issues and did not pay much attention to them, he said.

“Some [Freetowners] left to go to northern cities or to Richmond. They helped build Sugar Hollow Dam and the Skyline Drive. Some were prominent; nurses, teachers, engineers. Some worked for the C&O—my father and a cousin. Some were ministers, insurance agents, real estate men. Some went into the navy and the air force. A lot of people came out of Freetown and did good things for the country,” said Brown emphatically.

Brown started out working at Acme Visible Records in Crozet and eventually became the first black supervisor in the sheet metal shop. After Acme, a filing system manufacturer, folded, Brown became a bus driver for Charlottesville Transit Service and retired in 2004 after 17 years of driving. “I miss it every day,” he said. “It was new every day. Never boring.”

A home in the Freetown community.
A home in the Freetown community.

Brown became involved in the gas station’s development and is especially upset at the prospect of noise from 18-wheelers, which often do not cut off their engines. He wrote two short speeches and delivered them before the supervisors. “As property owners and tax payers we only want to be treated fairly,” he said. If only people pushing the plan would try to stand in the shoes of Freetown folks, he said.

He has contended with Sprouse before. Sprouse had graded around Brownsville Market when he owned it without setting up silt fencing, and rains carried a heavy load of silt into Brown’s pond. “He ruined it.” Brown said. A pond 10-feet deep ended up being 5-feet deep and Browns’ favorite catfish, which he had stocked and waited on for 3 years, were buried in the bottom. Brown sued Sprouse to get the pond restored but agreed to a settlement before the case was finally resolved in court. The experience has given him a deep anxiety about silt and other runoff from the expansive gas station project.

Jonathan and Stacy Hunt settled in Freetown seven years ago. “We had been living in an apartment in Crozet and wanted to buy an house,” Jonathan Hunt said. “A friend of mine at the Piedmont Housing Alliance, which had our house then, told me it was available, so we went and looked. There was almost nothing affordable in Crozet. We liked that it was tucked away and in an old neighborhood and the house, though only 1,200 square feet, still had character. Richard Brown told us about family members of his that had owned it. David Fisher [another longtime Freetowner] filled us in on who lived here. The neighborhood is full of all kinds of people. There is a sense here of the legacy of Freetown as a land grant to former slaves after the Civil War.

“We love Crozet and we wanted to be here. Freetown is nothing fancy. I could walk away from the house, but I couldn’t walk away from my neighbors now. Everybody looks out for everybody. It’s great. No one is rich, but they are all really, really great people.

As for the looming development surrounding them, Hunt said, “It’s scary. It’s even petrifying in terms of privacy, water, safety, home values. We see nothing good coming from being downhill from a four-acre gas station. We all have our life savings in our houses. Of all the bad things we could imagine—we know the [front acres] are zoned highway commercial and that Sprouse has rights—but he couldn’t have found something more damaging to the neighborhood than what he wants to do. We’re all on wells and we’re worried they will go dry or be contaminated. We get no help from county when we try to push back against this. And we are definitely worried about the light industrial proposal. It is game-over for us if Yancey goes through. We love our neighborhood and it’s one of the oldest in Crozet. People are going to be affected who’ve lived their whole lives here. It will be really sad if we get pushed out.”

Another house in Freetown.
Another house in Freetown.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. If Freetown’s plight, as shared by Crozet Gazette editor Mike Marshall and life-long Freetown resident Richard Brown, doesn’t give the reader pause to consider honestly where Albemarle County is heading, then nothing ever will.

    Oh, how I envy the citizens of other areas I pass through, who, when pausing at a crossroads of planning for their futures, quite apparently chose to HONOR — even CELEBRATE — their cultural heritage by protecting and preserving it.

    In our county’s (and state’s!) headlong pursuit of preserving “open spaces”, a very DIS-proportionate amount of attention is being paid to preserving, protecting and celebrating enclaves such as Freetown.

    Must we resign ourselves to having only the architectural histories and memoirs of the rich-and-famous to remind us of the many who have gone before us? Faded photographs in dusty albums can never take the place of, or bring back, what has been disregarded and obliterated beneath the weight of supposed progress.

    “Close-knit Freetown is Feeling Squeezed” is, perhaps, the best example of collaborative storytelling that I have read in the Crozet Gazette’s four-year history. A sincere ‘thank you’ to ALL of the western Albemarle County residents who contributed to this heartfelt article. May each of its readers — and our county’s planners — take heed.

  2. As new residents of Albemarle County/Crozet-Greenwood area, we heartily endorse the comments of Phil James. We chose to bring our horse breeding farm of 30 years to Albemarle County because of its great natural beauty, neighborhood character and highly cultural community. Upon reading of Free Town in the Crozet Gazette we were dismayed—first to learn that anyone—investors or local officials, would even consider displacing some of the scenic beauty of Albemarle, or, second, to be so “politically incorrect” as to place an environmentally insenstive and polluting development next to an historic African-American community that presumably dates back to the time that black slaves were being freed in Virginia.

    During my career as a legislative attorney on Capitol Hill, with the U.S. Congress and the Executive Branch, and having had a hand in drafting the Scenic Byways laws of the Nation, I am appalled to see this happen in a new place that I thought would be a scenic and politcally sensitive environment.

  3. Interesting that the Hunts who couldn’t leave their close knit neighborhood have recently put their Freetown home up for sale.

    • I think it is disturbing that you would post such a sarcastic statement without knowing the motivations for the Hunt’s move.

    • HAVING JUST MOVED OFF RT. 250/GREENWOOD I HAD THE GOOD LUCK TO MEET THE HUNTS AND THEY ARE HIGHLY EDUCATED, ARTICULATE, KIND, CARING PEOPLE – AND FOR CAREER REASONS, IN DIRE ECONOMIC TIMES, THEY ARE MOVING TO AN AREA WHERE THEY HAVE PREVIOUS CAREER/SOCIAL CONNECTIONS. FURTHER, THEIR EFFORTS TO SELL THEIR HOME HAVE BEEN GREATLY DAMAGED BECAUSE THEY ARE HONEST WITH PROSPECTIVE BUYERS AND ADVISE THEM THAT THEY MAY HAVE ALBEMARLE COUNTY’S 1ST AND ONLY DIESEL TRUCK STOP NEXT DOOR TO THEIR HOME!

      I WAS APPALLED WHEN SHORTLY AFTER MOVING OUR HORSE FARM HERE I LEARNED I WAS GOING TO BE DOWN THE ROAD FROM A DIESEL TRUCK STOP – I THOUGHT I WAS MOVING “UP” IN THE WORLD BY RELOCATING TO GREENWOOD, IN ALBEMARLE COUNTY. NOR DID I THINK THAT THE POLITICAL LEADERSHIP OF ALBEMARLE AND THEIR BUREAUCRATS WOULD NOT BE AWARE THAT THE INVASION – “SQUEEZING OF FREE TOWN” COULD OCCUR IN ALBEMARLE. I HOPE THAT THE ELECTED AND APPOINTED OFFICIALS OF ALBEMARLE WILL DO A LITTLE BIT OF LEGAL RESEARCH INTO “ENVIRONMENT JUSTICE” AND “ENVIRONMENTAL/RACIAL INJUSTICE!” – AS A NEW TAXPAYER IN VIRGINA/ALBERMARLE, I DO WANT TO PICK UP THE LEGAL FEES/DAMAGES THAT MAY RESULT FROM THIS SPECIAL EXCEPTION AND THE LITIGATION THAT WILL EAT UP MILLIONS OF TAXPAYERS MONEY! HAVING WORKED FOR THE U.S. CONGRESS AND THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH AS AN ATTORNEY FOR 38+ YEARS – “BEWARE ALBEMARLE!” I HAVE BEEN LOOKING AT HORSE FARMS HERE – BUT I MIGHT LOOK ELSEWHERE – WILL THAT HELP THE “DEVELOPMENT” ALBEMARLE PRO-DEVELOPMENT ELECTED OFFICIALS ARE LOOKING FOR ??

      BATTERSEA STUD FARM

  4. From Freetown go out 250 a little further pass the 64 interchange to the right is “The Cedars” house built in 1850s and still owned by the builder John S. Cocke during the civil war. John S. Cocke owned quite a few slaves, one was Parthenia who was the wife of Nelson Brown. (Possibly Nelson was a former slave of John S. Cocke-not sure, but Parthenia definately was). Nelson Brown & Parthenia had a large family (see 1880 census) among whom was Topsy Brown who m. Wellington Monroe, Preston Monroe, and lastly John Jefferson. Topsy Brown in 1870 census appears with Louisa Washington and Oliver Dickenson.

    • Nelson Brown was (very likely) a former slave at Mirador and Parthenia (proven) a former slave at The Cedars. A grandson, Nelson Brown, became a large land owner. His biggest tract being 74 acres near Hillsboro. His half brother was Emmett Dickerson. There was a Lucy A. Brown and Rev. A.D. Brown (Methodist minister born in Jamaica) that lived with Nelson Brown. Lucy donated the farm to the Methodist church. The methodist church sold the farm called Mountain View being 67+acres to Lawrence Clark IV & Sara in 1979. Alb. parcel 87 pg 55. Emmett Dickerson (1/2 brother of Nelson) married a sister of Rev. A.D. Brown. I wonder if someone knows where A.D. Brown preached, if the farm is still called Mountain View etc.

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