By Phil James
When little Lizzie Wyant was five years old, her family moved from near Elkton in Rockingham County, coming across the Blue Ridge Mountains to Sugar Hollow in Albemarle. Eighty-nine years later, Elizabeth Wyant Wood still vividly recalled the events of that 1910 wagon ride.
“See, we didn’t leave from over there until that evening,” said Lizzie. “They was loading the furniture and everything before we left. Poppa kept one foot up on the side of the buckboard when he was riding. But coming up the mountain [toward Simmons Gap] Poppa walked, carrying a lantern. I was watching the shadow of Poppa in the dark.
“That night it come up a terrible rain. They didn’t have no tops for them old buckboards, you know, and Momma was afraid the baby would get too wet. So when they come by old Uncle Fountain Howard’s [the head of a respected African-American clan well-known to Lizzie’s family], Poppa went to see if we could come in ’til the thunderstorm was over. It was along in the morning.
“They said, ‘Oh, yes, come on in,’ ’cause they knew Poppa and us. Went in, and their daughter was in the kitchen cooking. I can remember how that smelled, and that she had on a little white cap and a white apron. Oh, she was nice as she could be. But we left before breakfast because we was going to Grandma’s, and Grandma was looking for us.”
For the foot traveler or soldier of old, even a piece of oilcloth provided welcome respite to the alternative of being exposed to the elements. The chronic moan of, “Are we there yet?” aside, travelers have always wondered where they would lay their heads when the sun went down. One of the earliest cottage industries—that of providing hospitality to strangers—was born out of that necessity.
In central Virginia, an increase in mid-18th century traffic gave rise to the roadside tavern’s offering of “ordinary” food and shelter to the passerby. Proprietors wanting to distinguish themselves from their competition attempted to provide food, spirits or accommodations that were just a cut above their nearest competitors’. Roadhouses were established on lonely stretches of roadway where no other services were available, or else at crossroads locations where travelers congregated to rest, resupply, or simply slow down in order to change direction.
Brown’s Tavern, at the eastern foot of the turnpike and gap of the same name, catered to freight haulers from the Shenandoah Valley and Piedmont. Old Michie’s Tavern was originally situated along the roadside between Free Union and Earlysville. It welcomed 19th century travelers moving east and west between Charlottesville and the Shenandoah Valley. In 1927, growing automobile tourism led to Michie Tavern physically being moved to a spot near Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello shrine, where today it welcomes guests from around the world.
The vanished hamlet of New York, or Little York, at the eastern foot of Rockfish Gap, supposedly came into existence as a rest area for teamsters on the Rockfish Gap Turnpike. A short distance away, during the mid-1850s, Col. Claudius Crozet found extended accommodations at Brooks’ Tavern while he engineered the Blue Ridge Railroad along and through the mountains.
And, oh, the changes that were wrought with the coming of those steel rails! As commerce migrated to the wondrous rail travel, industry and hostelries sprang up at strategic points to take advantage of influxes of workers as well as affluent seekers of adventure and pleasure. Already-established mineral spring resorts in western Virginia enjoyed a boom in business. At Basic City/Waynesboro in 1890, the spectacularly-appointed Hotel Brandon opened on a hillside within sight of the train station. Today, it is poised to recapture some of its earlier glory.
Following soon after the arrival of trains to the Piedmont foothills, hotels were established near depots at Mechum’s River, Crozet, Greenwood and Afton. They joined the long-established Mountain Top Inn at Rockfish Gap, where, in 1818, Thomas Jefferson met with other dignitaries to decide on the location of his Academical Village.
Entrepreneurial families advertised spare rooms and meals in their private homes. Others in busy areas converted their entire houses into boarding facilities. Summer homes were established specifically for seasonal lodging, such as Summer Rest at Greenwood. Visitors sought retreats where they could relax from the pace of the cities, or avoid unhealthy summer conditions in areas such as the Tidewater region.
The seemingly primitive nature of early public accommodations was a matter of note mainly for white travelers. Commercially available meals and lodging for African Americans were difficult to find prior to the repeal of segregation laws in the latter half of the 20th century. Social mores forced persons of color not only to the back of the bus, but also to the back doors of restaurants.
Overnight lodging and other services might be found by asking the right questions of the right people. To alleviate those inconveniences—and potential dangers— The Negro Motorist [later, Travelers’] Green Book, published by Victor H. Green, first appeared in print in 1936 and continued with annual updates until it was rendered obsolete by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Especially helpful around cities, black travelers passing through the Charlottesville area could learn the exact location of Carver’s Inn or Chauffeur’s Rest on Preston Avenue, Alexander’s “tourist home” on Dice Street, or the Virginia Inn on West Main.
The Green Book was of no help, though, in the rural western side of the county, where a room might be secured at a popular boarding house near the Piedmont Baptist Church at Yancey Mills, or alongside the Doyle’s River near White Hall at one of Vassar Tarry’s overnight cabins adjacent to his store and dance pavilion. Tarry relocated to Waynesboro and, in 1940, opened Tarry’s Hotel next to the railroad tracks on Port Republic Road.
The first African-American visitors to Shenandoah National Park in the late-1930s were directed to the “Lewis Mountain Negro Area” for services. Various forms of federally sanctioned racial segregation were encountered by black patrons in SNP until 1950.
From the earliest of days, continuing to the present, Lizzie Wyant Wood’s c.1910 recollection charmingly portrayed what each of us would hope for when traveling away from home: safe transportation, shelter from the storms of life, and someone waiting and watching for us at the end of our journey.
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