Secrets of the Blue Ridge: A Mountfair Christmas: Shaping the Heart of a Country Preacher

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By Phil James

Brown’s Cove Methodist Church, early-1930s. “Whenever our church, Brown’s Cove Methodist, had a revival, we went every night—just as regular as a goose goes barefoot. But if another church had a revival, we went one night ... usually on a Wednesday, because Papa said that was likely to be the ‘off’ night in attendance. And being a family of ten children, we made up for almost any deficit they had.” ~ Sidney Sandridge (Photo courtesy of Herbert McAllister). More photographs accompany this story in the print version of the December 2012 Crozet Gazette.

“I grew up in a country store with a post office in the back corner and I have never been able to figure out what children do who grow up in any other environment,” wrote Sidney Sandridge in his memoir Things My Father Always Said … Or would have – given the occasion.

Sidney’s father Laurie Sandridge was born in 1890 at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Albemarle County, west of the Mount Fair plantation established by Revolutionary War Capt. Bezaleel Brown of Brown’s Cove. As a young man, Sandridge found employment on that same farm, owned then by Jim Early.

“I was born in a log house on the bank close to the [Doyles] river,” recalled Sidney’s brother Homer. “I remember hearing my Daddy say that during World War One—he had four children then—his pay was $16 a month. Flour was sold for $18 a barrel during the war. But he didn’t have to buy any flour. He was furnished with flour, meal, a couple hogs, a cow to milk. That’s what came along with all of his compensation.

“My earliest remembrance of what Daddy did, he was working on Mount Fair Farm and he along with two or three other people who worked on the farm were cutting telegraph poles—45 or 50 feet long—and hauled them with a four-horse team to Mechum’s River to put them on a train to ship them. At that time, you see, it was a railroad station at Crozet, but I think the road was better to Mechum’s River.”

Laurie and his wife Vertie (Batten) Sandridge stepped out in faith and with determination to improve their lot by taking on much greater responsibilities as store merchants. In making that move, they set a course that expanded the career options for generations of their descendants. When they acquired the store business in 1921, their customers crossed the Doyle’s River by ford or foot bridge.

“Between Mountfair and Doylesville is less than a mile,” said Homer. “I remember you crossed the river—you forded the river—three times. The road just followed the river.”

To supply the store’s groceries required a day-long, 37-mile-round-trip to Charlottesville in a Model-T Ford truck. Homer noted, “We sold horseshoes, hardware-type items, plow points. At one time they were shipped from Staunton. We’d go to Crozet and pick up the hardware and dry goods—they’d call yard goods.

“When you ran a general store you had to have a ware room because a lot of it is feed and bulk items: a hundred pounds of salt, stone crocks. Daddy and C. W. Sandridge would buy a whole boxcar load of crocks and divide them. They would pack crocks in boxcars, just stack them up about three or four high with straw between them. C.W. was running a store in Crozet and Daddy was running the store up here. That was a lot of crocks.”

Sidney wrote, “Papa kept a stock of meal, flour, salt, horse and cow feed, as well as a 20 by 6 foot table filled to a six-inch depth with black walnut kernels, dried apples, or ginseng roots—depending upon the season of the year. These were the products he had taken as trade for the groceries and other supplies that some of his customers needed.”

“There was a board fence from the river up to the store,” recalled Homer, “and then some more board fence up above here. That’s where they tied their horses. There might have been one person who drove here who had a Model-T.

“The mill sat right here [across Fox Mountain Road in front of the store.] The blacksmith shop sat below it on this side of the river. The Madisons ran that early on. Theodore Madison was the first one I knew after we moved here. Then his son Mahone ran it after him. Later, Lem Shifflett built a place up on the hill there and he ran the blacksmith shop and took the mill over.”

Sidney continued, “Papa was the Postmaster at Mountfair, Virginia. Our house was attached to the store and we sat by the pot-bellied stove in the back of the store until bedtime each evening. Then at closing time, two of us would close the wooden shutters on the front of the store, extend a steel bar across them, place a bolt-like pin through the wall and secure it with another pin. This was a lesson in cooperation and dependence: Any two of us could ‘close the blinds,’ but it took two of us. One could not do it alone.

“The business of buying and selling was as natural to us as breathing. Ours was the business world, and we lived and learned from that world. I, along with all my brothers and sisters, found a place in the world of business.”

As the youngest child in a large family, Sidney Sandridge was shaped by a myriad of family and neighborhood experiences. His older siblings modeled the work ethic and Bible-based values of their parents. Church and school leaders modeled lessons in civics. Whether walking by lantern light to an evening church service or participating in a Thanksgiving Day hog killing, the basic fabric was being woven that would drape his life work of Christian ministry and education.

Sidney’s memoir, originally written for his children, recounts many of those life-lessons. One particularly meaningful experience is shared here:

“Christmas was a grand time in our family,” recalled Sidney, “with an emphasis on music, gift giving, and family. But one Christmas stands out in my memory.

“It was a Christmas Eve and the snow was deep and still falling. All my brothers and sisters and I, along with our parents, were gathered in our upstairs parlor, which was used only on rare occasions. In the midst of our clamor, someone heard a sound that appeared to be someone crying. My Father and older brothers took lanterns and went out into the dark night. Across the bridge, on the main road, they found a little girl, about eight years old, with her younger brother walking in the snow and crying. The men brought the two children in and began to investigate the situation. They discovered the Father of the children down the road a couple of miles, where he had fallen into a ditch in a drunken stupor. He had started walking with his two children earlier in the day trying to get them to his Mother’s home. As they walked, the snow got deeper and he got drunker until he could no longer stand. The little girl was trying to make their way to her Grandmother’s home, which was still many miles away. My family took the children in, kept them overnight, and made arrangements with the County Sheriff to take the Father in for the night. This happened on Christmas Eve, and the two little children were with us for the Christmas morning event. It was interesting to me that Santa Claus didn’t forget those two children and some of the packages that had been under the tree suddenly had their names on them. I was very young, but I learned that day what the spirit of Christmas means.”

Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2012 Phil James 

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