Crozet’s Bootstraps

The clubhouse of the Woman’s Club of Crozet was used by the Red Cross for a blood drive. At the time of this 1952 event, the clubhouse was also home to the Crozet Library. (Photo courtesy of the Woman’s Club of Crozet)

How did the early settlers do it? With a finite supply of rations, tools and able hands to help, they ventured where few had gone before. Enduring seemingly endless strings of obstacles and setbacks, many, nevertheless, survived. How did they react when the mule came up lame, their child fell ill, or yet another handle broke out of the felling axe or grubbing hoe?

With no villages to offer sanctuary and without public-funded safety nets to drop into, they learned in a jiffy to be more creative with the resources that Providence had left to their careful management. It was through the much-practiced habit of reaching down to tug at their own proverbial bootstraps that the hardy-in-spirit stepped over or around the stumbling blocks of each new day.

The pioneer struggled to raise his simple shelter in the forest, and prayed that furrows scratched into the new land would yield much-needed foods. Likewise, those who first envisioned a village where only rural farmland existed, were faced with a plethora of decisions that required wisdom and resources.

Lester Washington (1915–1996) was a Crozet businessman and community leader for over a half-century. The famous as well as the average citizen visited his Crozet Shoe Repair business on Main Street. (Photo by Ray P. “Pete” McCauley)

By the early decades of the 19th century, the rural land of Albemarle County west of the seat of government in Charlottesville had been under cultivation for nearly a century. Travel followed routes very similar to today’s byways, over road surfaces that were totally at the mercy of the day’s weather. Stagecoach routes stuck to main highway arteries like the old Three-Notch’d Road, where post houses or taverns offered various services. Trips across the Blue Ridge Mountains took many days at some expense and risk.

With the building of the Virginia Central and the Blue Ridge Railroad in western Albemarle County c.1850–1858, many saw opportunities at the stations established by the railway planners. Woodville (Ivy Depot), Mechum’s River, Greenwood and Afton, where the locomotives stopped to take on water and fuel, prospered and grew. Water tanks and freight platforms at these locations were soon augmented with passenger shelters and weather-proof depots with wired communication systems.

In 1869 former Batesville native Samuel Miller’s will provided the financial means to establish a boarding facility, Miller Manual Labor School, where the county’s orphans could learn the skills necessary to provide for themselves in an increasingly industrialized society. Design work on this gigantic project was begun in 1874. To facilitate the movement of construction materials and personnel to the remote worksite, school officials, in 1876, requested that the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company establish a rail stop at a point three miles west of Mechum’s River Depot.

That same year, hearing the unmistakable sound of opportunity rattling at their farm gates, a petition was signed by landowners in the immediate region requesting that a depot also be established at this place. At a meeting with these petitioners, C&O Vice-President Williams C. Wickham agreed, decreeing the name of the new stop to be “Crozet,” memorializing the Frenchman who had engineered the railroad through the Blue Ridge Mountains during the 1850s.

The new hamlet of Crozet began its life surrounded by farmers who were familiar with one another and accustomed to lending a willing and able hand whenever needed. They were soon joined by entrepreneurs attracted to the traffic being generated by the great project at Miller School.

Immediately, a livery stable and blacksmith were needed. Arriving rail passengers could rent a horse, with or without a buggy or wagon. Others leaving on the train for a day trip or overnight excursion could secure board for their steeds at the livery. The smith on hand could perform repair work on all sorts of equipment.

The locals took in boarders, providing, for a fee, lodging, meals, baths and laundry services. The host’s workload often necessitated the hiring of additional domestic help.

A growing demand for commercial and residential space encouraged the adjoining farms belonging to the Wayland, Ballard and White families to sell off lots from the corners of their properties near the depot.

In the mid-1880’s hoteliers and merchants such as James M. Ellison, who relocated from Augusta County, provided rooms for the business traveler as well as for the growing tourist trade. Ellison’s enterprises dominated the area of town that became known as The Square.

Churches soon located in town. The earliest, Crozet Methodist, received funds from individuals, businesses and the Miller School, and, in 1889, erected their new sanctuary along Main Street, which was known at that time as Miller School Avenue and is now called Crozet Avenue.

Tradesmen of every ilk soon found their place in the progressive town, leaving little to be required from outside the village that could not be brought in easily by rail.

The new opportunity to ship by rail encouraged farmers in the region to follow the lead of the prosperous orchardists in the Covesville area and to develop new orchards of apples and peaches, especially the highly profitable Albemarle Pippin. As these fruit trees matured, Crozet came into its own as a state leader in fruit production.

The Crozet Board of Trade was formed in the first decade of the 20th century. Comprised of local businessmen with a financial interest in fruit production, they marketed the Crozet area far and wide, including hosting orchard owners for seminars and exhibitions.

Civic and fraternal organizations established followings within the village. Volunteers established and manned a free lending library in 1907. The Crozet Volunteer Fire Department was formed in 1910. In addition to protecting the village’s inhabitants from fire catastrophes, it organized an annual community parade and carnival. The Modern Woodmen fraternal band presented outdoor concerts. Dr. E. D. Davis established a hospital downtown next to his office and pharmacy. The all-volunteer Western Albemarle Rescue Squad, located in the fire department’s former squad house, has served the region around the clock since 1978.

By the 1930s, hotels, restaurants, car dealerships, a movie theater, and retail establishments provided services that one would expect to find in much larger cities.

Several decades later, a new generation of business leaders enticed thousands of industrial jobs to Crozet, supplanting the dwindling agricultural jobs and refueling the area’s growth for another solid half-century.

As with any vital, successful community, the appeal of Crozet is determined by the collective assets of its individual citizens: always ready to meet a challenge by digging a little bit deeper, and, whenever necessary, reaching down in the manner of their forebears and pulling themselves upward and onward through their faith and the strength of their character.