Secrets of the Blue Ridge
By Phil James
Boy, oh boy, for those good ol’ days when the excitement generated by summertime and the Fourth of July in Crozet nearly rivaled Christmas morning itself!
Within a few decades of the village’s establishment, Crozet’s progressive business leadership had made the small town enticing to outsiders, attracting not only the business-oriented but the vacationer as well. Full-page newspaper promotions shouted the name of the village and its amenities to readers far and wide.
Established farmers within a reasonable buckboard ride’s distance from the depot welcomed the business traveler and, for a modest fee, provided food and lodging. Advertisements brought queries from afar, and summer vacationers began to arrive. Hayrides were pleasant pastimes for those early visiting city-dwellers.
Richmond’s Times-Dispatch newspaper reported in July 1906 — Crozet, VA: “…large wagons will meet the afternoon trains at Crozet and carry the lawn party guests to a frolic. There is a rumor of a large hotel being erected here in the near future. This will be a much desired addition to our town, as the number of boarders is larger this year than ever before, and our people have been forced to turn many away.”
The local fruit industry was booming by 1910, and the prosperity it brought showed in the new Goodall Building on the corner of the public Square. That modern brick edifice housed a drug store and hardware store, along with Ellis Harris’s Crozet Hotel. Harris’s new hostelry joined Jim Ellison’s nearby Liberty Hall Hotel in welcoming an ever-increasing flow of visitors. That July, Charlottesville’s Daily Progress newspaper carried a note from Crozet, stating that, “The summer girls are very much in evidence in our town now.”
The year 1910 also saw the organization of a volunteer fire company in Crozet. Its initial membership included many business leaders from the community. To raise needed funds to support its work, business contributions were supplemented by “ice cream festivals, socials, lawn parties and entertainments.”
Crozet’s Volunteer Fire Department was reorganized in 1920, and soon thereafter began to concentrate its fundraising efforts by staging a Fourth of July celebration complete with food, games, amusement rides, baseball contests and fireworks. The opening of Crozet’s new public high school in 1925 led to CVFD establishing the tradition of setting up its main fundraiser on the school’s expansive grounds. The annual cause quickly grew into western Albemarle’s most anticipated social event.
“Fourth of July in Crozet during the mid to late ’40s was a magical time,” recalled Grant Tomlin. “There was no TV in the area and trips to Charlottesville or Waynesboro were rare. This was a big event for the town and area. Money raised that day by the Crozet Volunteer Firemen was used all year for necessary expenses. Exciting events held at the Crozet High School were baseball games [where] the morning game pitted the Kent family against any challengers, bingo, greasy pig chase, greased pole (with money at the top), and Huckly Buck.”
Beginning in July 1959, following the official opening of Claudius Crozet Park in October 1958, the Crozet Firemen’s Fourth of July celebration moved to that newly-popular location across the tracks.
As good as memories recall the past 4th o’ July celebrations, in a more perfect world they could have been even better. A most unfortunate fact of social life closely associated with but not solely limited to the South were the Jim Crow laws and associated forms of Jim Crow “etiquette,” enacted from the 1870s through the 1960s. In Crozet, as elsewhere, many forms of social “mixing” between whites and African Americans were prohibited, especially on otherwise public property governed by the enacted laws of the land.
Socially excluded from certain public events and venues, the local African-American community established the Crozet Community Center on private property just off of Route 240, east of the village. With oversight by the leadership of Union Mission Baptist Church, youth and adults enjoyed a unique place for fellowship and recreation. Special events there included picnics, reunions, birthday gatherings, or even a spirited sandlot baseball contest hosted by the mighty Crozet All-Stars baseball team.
Holiday events such as Crozet’s “4th” were, nevertheless, opportunities for relaxed interaction with coworkers, extended family members and seldom-seen neighbors. It was the one time of the year when you could expect to see those faces that were familiar only because you saw them in that one place year after year.
The old folks huddled together or sat in small groups, simultaneously talking and watching the myriad of activities taking place all around. Youngsters ran to and fro, energized by the electric atmosphere, and safely watched over by every parent on the grounds. The aroma of cotton candy and other delights blended with the chants of amusement barkers and excited participants to create that sense of place embedded in hearts and memories.
The wise young person began preparations early for an event like the 4th o’ July carnival. A quantity of nickels and dimes would be needed to play the games with hopes of winning a prize, or to ride with friends on the merry-go-’round, Ferris wheel or ponies. Allowances were saved or more diligently budgeted; neighbors were solicited for day labor; little red wagons appeared along the roadsides, pulled by young entrepreneurs with high hopes of finding cast-off pop bottles which they could redeem for 2¢ each at a grocery store or gas station.
Seldom did it cross those young minds that their youthful labor was being exchanged for the ultimate good of their community; that it required everyone’s available nickels and dimes and dollar bills to fund a piece of fireman’s safety gear or upgraded equipment; that the coin which they tossed away in hopes of winning a stuffed animal, trinket or dish might be returned to them some day in the form of a life rescued or the treasured possessions of a neighbor saved from harm.
Seems that, when you look at it that way, it really did end up being kind of like Christmas morning itself, except that it happened in July.
Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! 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: www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2013 Phil James