Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Woodrow Wilson Keyton: The Sage of Pasture Fence

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By Phil James

Woodrow and Rosie Mae (Garrison) Keyton, mountain sweethearts, 1942. (Courtesy of Woodrow and Rosie Keyton.) Additional photographs accompany the print version of this article.
Woodrow and Rosie Mae (Garrison) Keyton, mountain sweethearts, 1942. (Courtesy of Woodrow and Rosie Keyton.) Additional photographs accompany the print version of this article.

It was perilous times around the globe in 1918 when Scott and Lizzie Keyton’s seventh child was born in a tenant house on Pasture Fence Mountain. They chose his name to honor then U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, born 62 years earlier just across the Blue Ridge Mountains in Staunton.

That year, in addition to our nation being caught up in the throes of a World War, another struggle with life-or-death consequences was waged on home soil, where 600,000 Americans perished during a devastating influenza outbreak. Families in the Blue Ridge were not immune; the ravages of the pandemic of that day added heavily to their daily concerns.

Smith’s Pasture Fence Mountain was referenced in Colonial-era land documents. The 2,779’ mountain had been owned by well-to-do planters who lived in the lowlands. Their cattle were fattened on its luxurious bluegrass-covered heights, watched over by slaves and, later, hired tenants who lived on its slopes.

“Old man Rinehart used to own that mountain,” said Woodie Keyton, recalling the early decades of the 20th century. “Back in them days they said he was a rich man, lived in Charlottesville.”

Woodie’s own early decades of employment were spent on various farms and orchards in the area, where the land owners sometimes provided basic housing for their full-time workers. But losing one’s job or accepting work at another place meant changing houses, a frequent occurrence for younger laborers like Keyton.

Moletus “Leet” Garrison was a subsistence farmer and a landowner. He lived on and worked his own place high atop the main Blue Ridge west of Pasture Fence. He knew the relative stability of sleeping beneath his own roof, but in the 1920s and ’30s in the Blue Ridge Mountains, that, too, lost its guarantee when the state and federal governments partnered to create Shenandoah National Park.

Unfortunately, Leet and his substantial family were among the losers in that protracted struggle. But Moletus Garrison’s ultimate loss of the property where he had long labored turned out to be a boon for a few of the young fellows in the lowlands who wound up meeting and marrying his pretty daughters. That particular lot happened to include Woodie Keyton, who took Leet’s daughter Rosie Mae for his bride.

Woodie Keyton easily relates stories from his nine-plus decades, be they remembrances of hardships or lighthearted recollections. The telling of life’s ordinary moments provides good context for national and world events that tend to overshadow all else.

The U.S. Prohibition laws of the 1920s and ’30s created opportunity, albeit illegal, for some stealthy entrepreneurs who happened to live in the isolated hollows and mountain ridges. One such local occurrence didn’t work out quite as planned for the parties involved, namely Lijah and Blanche. It seems that Lijah had been working at perfecting his recipe, but the skill sets he had mastered in production were sorely lacking in the distribution department. And that’s where Blanche came in—or so he thought.

“So they had a load of whiskey going over into the Valley,” recalled Woodie. “Half-gallon jars in the trunk or in the backseat covered up. They had somebody over there they could take it to and sell it. And Lijah couldn’t drive, but [Blanche] could.

“They headed down [the north fork Moorman’s River road] to Wayside Church, crossed over [through Black Rock Gap] and come out down in Harriston. And that’s where the agents got after them, down in Augusta County somewhere on the other side of the mountain. She was trying to outrun them and she told Lijah to jump out. Won’t no use to catch both of them. So he did. And she kept on going but they caught her within a couple miles.

“She was locked up for hauling five or six gallons. But it didn’t bring nothing at that time. Two dollars a gallon is all it brought.”

For the Keytons and Garrisons and most of their neighbors, the pace of life was governed by the seasons. The daily toil of planting, tending, harvesting and food preservation eventually gave way to cooler weather and the welcome respite of fall hunting.

“Years ago, people didn’t do nothing but squirrel hunt, rabbit hunt,” said Woodie. “Deer and bear didn’t come back in here ’til after the Park took over and they turned some loose. That’s the way they got here. I reckon I killed the first deer that was killed in this country. Yeah, got it back yonder where Minnie Via used to live. Down on the falling side of that mountain. The top end of Sugar Hollow. On up above Wayside Church.

“Me, Andy Garrison, and Joseph, my brother. The three of us went up there hunting. We walked up the mountain road where Lulie Frazier used to live. After you get up to the top we went off down a walking path passed the Minnie Via house.

“People had been seeing deer in the park. But they hadn’t spread down in here then like it is now. I figured, go up there you might see one that come down that far—and I did. And jumped a bear while I was shooting the deer! Carl Via and a bunch of people living down there were shooting at him, but they didn’t get him.

“But then we done the wrong thing. We tied all four of the deer’s feet together and got a pole and run down it, and put one end of the pole on my shoulder and one on Andy’s. Old deer back there flopping-like, just wore all the hide off our shoulders. Brought him down here—the road had washed out so you couldn’t get all the way in a Jeep. Got him down part the way on this side of the mountain and met up with Merle Gibson and another fellow out of Blackwell Hollow. They were up there hunting, and they brought him the rest of the way down to the Jeep. Took him out to White Hall and had him checked in.”

With Rosie Mae at his side, a satisfied heart and a twinkle in his eye, Woodrow Wilson Keyton reflects the quiet wisdom gained through living in good harmony with loved ones and community.
 
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