Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Fox Mountain: Surprises All the Way Around

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Mountfair Store, c.1930s, as viewed from the Lemuel and Beadie Shiflett home. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Shiflett) Additional photos accompany the print version of this article.
Mountfair Store, c.1930s, as viewed from the Lemuel and Beadie Shiflett home. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Shiflett) Additional photos accompany the print version of this article.

Ignore old Fox Mountain if you want to, but it’s certainly not going away anytime soon. As a matter of fact, back in 1980 when Mount St. Helens popped her top out in Washington State, more than a few central Virginia folks cast sideways glances toward western Albemarle’s long-extinct volcano.

Fox Mountain, named for an early landowner, is actually a grouping of several related summits named Cherry, Currant, High Top, Gibson and Martin. When one views Fox from the right vantage, there’s no mistaking the flattened volcanic dome of High Top. Geologists say the greenish rock that is encountered in much of the Virginia Blue Ridge complex was once a molten concoction which was spewed from now-2369-foot tall High Top Mountain. That layer of rock known as “Catoctin greenstone” is nearly five miles thick in some areas.

Of course, all of those fireworks happened looong before either Hector or Grandpa were pups. But once things had settled down and human activity eased into the area, some folks took a distinct liking to the mellowed old hills. Early European settlers soon noticed that they, in fact, were not the first persons to explore the hills and hollows of Fox Mountain, as a variety of American Indian artifacts were revealed with each season’s plowing.

Hop in the truck and we’ll take a slow ride through time around Fox Mountain and catch up on what’s been happening in these parts. Our starting point is Mountfair, at the intersection of Brown’s Gap Turnpike (Rt. 810) and Fox Mountain Road (Rt. 668). The “round” trip of 17 miles will bring us back to this point, and, if time allows, we’ll slip into the store there across the river for a little refreshment.

Heading north on 810, the first intersection is with Walnut Level Road, leading to a former working plantation that belonged to the pioneer Brown family. (In the 1740s, Benjamin Brown was tasked by the county court to clear a road across Fox Mountain) A stave mill was set up on one corner here, a sassafras mill sat on another. Around this curve and below the road, Hobart Shiflett and crew performed annual hog killings and butchering. Ahead and up the hill to the left sat Mountfair School with its majestic white pillars.

Here come Bryce and Maude Walton down the road, moving their young family from the Boonesville area while Bryce works at Dorsey Wilberger’s busy heading and sawmill near Doylesville. Lem Shifflett operated a small blacksmith shop on this stretch. Across the road, beside the river, was a store and grist mill before flood waters carried them away. Moses Coleman’s old log barn leans back on this stretch once referred to as Battonsburg.

Mount Carmel Baptist Church, organized in 1879, sits opposite the accompanying former African-American schoolhouse. Around the bend on the left was a movie theater established by Randolph White, well-known editor of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune newspaper. The theater morphed into a restaurant for a season, and later was operated as a general store by the Ernest Shifflett family. Ahead is Brown’s Cove Methodist Church, said to have been founded in a nearby 18th century tobacco barn.

At the Blackwell’s Hollow Road intersection, we bear sharp right across Doyles River. If we had continued straight ahead, prior to the establishment of Shenandoah National Park in the 1930s, we could have crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains at Brown’s Gap where Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate troops maneuvered in 1862.

Two miles up Rt. 810 is Albemarle County’s Patricia Ann Byrom Forest Preserve Park. Less than a mile passed Byrom Park, we see Lucy “Big Mama” Walton’s log-bodied Blackwell Hollow store just before we pass the former Blackwell Hollow Episcopal Mission, established in 1905 by Rev. Frederick Neve.

At Shifflett Mill Road (Rt. 687), we turn east beneath the shadow of Martin and Gibson Mountains. Henry Beddows, a mail carrier and store proprietor, operated a small mill alongside this road. A couple miles ahead we turn right onto Rt. 601, having bypassed the village of Boonesville. We’re about half way back to our starting point.

In a mile and a half we pass another of Neve’s missions, Crossroads, a reminder to watch for our next right-hand turn onto Wesley Chapel Road (Rt. 749). A few hundred yards ahead, our route number changes to 671 at Davis Shop Road, but we continue straight ahead on Wesley Chapel.

In the early 20th century, nearby this intersection were two distinct mining operations, each likely owing its existence to Fox’s volcanic past. Parrott’s Iron Mine was on a lower shoulder of Gibson Mountain. Near the head water of Piney Branch was the Naylor-Bruce Graphite Company’s mine. Their vein of graphite varied from 13” to eight feet wide, and yielded blocks of ore weighing several hundred pounds. By 1911, however, their fortunes had changed and the digs were abandoned.

Farmington Hunt Club moved into this area in 1984. Their storied hunts date to pre-WWI. Along the two miles from here to Wesley Chapel, one might have encountered Lewis Washington astride his mule, riding to or returning from Free Union. In the late 1930s, Civilian Conservation Corps laborers from the White Hall camp improved an old road that traversed Fox Mountain. That private road was maintained for some years for fire-fighting purposes. It extended from Wesley Chapel Road up Gibson and Martin Mountains, skirted the summit of High Top, and exited on the west side of Fox Mountain above Mountfair.

Our final right hand turn is made at Fox Mountain Road (Rt. 668). Wesley Chapel, a successor of the 1790s Garrison’s Meeting House, stands to the left. Five miles to go now, up and over Fox Mountain on Benjamin Brown’s old mountain road.

Peavine Hollow lies between Cherry and Gibson Mountains Its private road once connected up top with the old C.C.C. road. It passed through the sag between Martin and Gibson, then zigzagged down the northwest side of Fox into Blackwell Hollow. John Fry met Julia Gibson, his wife-to-be, in these parts. They married in 1890 and, today, many still reference Peavine as Fry Hollow. Brothers Albert and Junior Morris, grandsons of John and Julie, keep family traditions alive with their farming and timber operations.

Locust Grove Meeting House, now a private residence, was established alongside Fox Mountain Road in the 1870s by Brethren believers from the Shenandoah Valley. Many traveled there by horse and buggy until the Lower Union meetinghouse (now Free Union Church of the Brethren) was built in 1896.

Into the steep portion of the mountainside a century ago, travelers noted Burnt Shop Hill, where a blacksmith shop had been consumed by fire. The road still exhibits its true mountain character near the summit with high banks, S-turns and small roadside waterfalls. Present-day Mountfair Vineyards is passed a half-mile above the old riverside post office and general store. Mountfair Store proprietors Jim Early, Laurie Sandridge and Roy Blackwell greeted, collectively, generations of customers. Across the road, blacksmiths and mill keepers provided needed services.

Where transient salesmen of snake oil once cajoled passersby, youngsters swapped snared rabbits for pencils and penny candy, and families bartered live chickens and shelled walnuts for home essentials, we end our ride, still on the rock-solid footing of Fox Mountain.

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 © 2003–2014 Phil James