Secrets of the Blue Ridge: The Precious Mountain Jewels of Lydia

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By Phil James

Jack Deane’s sassafras mill, c.1911, on Swift Run in upper Mutton Hollow, near Lydia. Extract made from distilled sassafras root bark once was used as an aromatic in soap and perfume, as well as flavoring for root beer and tea. (Photo courtesy of Larry Lamb). Additional photographs accompany the print version of this story.
Jack Deane’s sassafras mill, c.1911, on Swift Run in upper Mutton Hollow, near Lydia. Extract made from distilled sassafras root bark once was used as an aromatic in soap and perfume, as well as flavoring for root beer and tea. (Photo courtesy of Larry Lamb). Additional photographs accompany the print version of this story.

No one today can say with certainty who was the namesake for Greene County’s community of Lydia, scattered alongside two miles of U.S. Route 33, three miles east of Swift Run Gap. In 1896, when Lizzie Smith was appointed as the first postmaster at that place, the official name “Lydia” was assigned. Four other postmasters tended the mail there before the office was discontinued in 1943, but the area is identified fondly as such to this day.

For all of the lore associated with the Blue Ridge Mountain crossing known as Swift Run Gap, its namesake, as well, largely goes unnoticed today except by those who live nearby its banks. Swift Run belongs to the generations who have embraced the mountains of Greene County as their home. Its waters begin in the heights purchased in the 1920s and ‘30s by the Commonwealth of Virginia for the creation of Shenandoah National Park. When speaking of Swift Run, the writer of a pre-Park guidebook said, “In such rapids as these the mountain trout gets his training in speed and cleverness.” Through the ages, those valuable attributes were employed by the native fish as it attempted to evade the grasp or hook of hungry Indians, pioneer explorers, Colonial expeditionists, and generations of determined youngsters and anglers.

Despite several centuries of traffic along the Spotswood Pike, it was a far-sighted Englishman who, via the prompting of a fellow minister in Stanardsville, brought attention to the jewels that existed on the mountainsides surrounding Lydia. Having experience in the gathering of similar treasures, he was able to draw others into the work of their harvest.

Episcopal Archdeacon of the Blue Ridge Rev. Frederick W. Neve, in 1888, started a mission outreach in the Ragged Mountains of Albemarle County near Ivy. Through faith and vision, in 1900 he began a similar work at Simmons Gap in Greene County. Around 1905, on the heels of having begun other work at Greene County’s Pocosan Hollow, he began to draw up plans for additional mission posts at Lydia and on High Top Mountain.

Following a fundraising trip in New England, he received a letter from someone in New York City who had heard of his appeal. Wanting to support the work, but lacking ready financial means, the writer told the Archdeacon that she had sold her personal jewelry and was making the proceeds available for his use.

Neve later wrote, “I was so touched by this incident that I determined to use it for some building which should be always associated with this act of self-sacrifice. The amount was not, however, sufficient for the purpose, so I appealed to the women of the church to send offerings of jewelry so that, if possible, the church might be entirely built from gifts of this kind.”

At Lydia, Samuel Lewis stepped forward with a donation of four acres of land, and the mission’s first pastor Rev. Robb White began the good work at the settlement designated St. James Mission by building a mission house and a hospital.

In 1906, three of the church’s workers—Sadie Roberts, Edith Hart, and Lillian Hunter—described what it meant “to missionary” at Lydia: “To begin with, it means different things on different days. Sunday, it means running a Sunday school and holding a song service. Monday, it may mean anything from making a pair of trousers to putting up blackberry preserves.

“Tuesday, it may be helping to nurse the sick. Wednesday, it means another song service. Thursday, perhaps, it means making social calls and explaining to an interested public what sort of lives we lead when we are at home, how old we are, and why we have never married.

“Friday, it may mean almost anything—and Saturday it is sure to mean cleaning up the little schoolhouse, which also serves as a chapel, and getting ready for Sunday. Every day, it means climbing fences, going up and down mountains, crossing streams, and usually includes getting caught in a rain; and after this week it will mean living in and taking care of a Mission House, which appears to us to be the most beautiful building in the world.”

Robb White was succeeded by Rev. Willis Cleaveland, and it was during his term that Neve noted, “…at last it became possible to carry out the design which has been in my mind for so long.”

Lumber was cut from the adjacent hillside, and a Gothic-design frame church edifice with seating for 200 was erected. Windows of stained glass were installed with one being of particular note.

“I was anxious that the people attending the church should know and be impressed by the beautiful incident which was the cause of the church being built,” wrote Neve, “so I ordered a window to be made, representing the story of Mary anointing the feet of our Lord with the ointment of spikenard because it seemed to me that this incident bore a strong resemblance to the act of the unknown lady who had devoted the most precious of her possessions to her master’s service.”

The fitting name of St. James’ Jewel Church was decided upon, and, on the day of its consecration in September 1912, fully 500 persons crowded onto the Mission grounds for the ceremony, followed by a basket dinner. In addition to clergy and mission workers from the surrounding region, it was recorded that, “People from all walks of life in the county were present.”

For nearly three decades, the residents in the surrounding region both contributed to and were recipients of the church’s ministry. On Sunday mornings, many of them would be found seated in the church’s pews, their attention alternating between the words of the speaker in the pulpit and the beautiful stained glass above the altar, its image of Mary ministering to Christ modeled after a painting by late 19th/early 20th-century German artist Heinrich Hofmann.

Wrote Archdeacon Neve, “The window is placed in the Chancel above the altar and is thus always in view of the congregation. It is my earnest hope that the people who worship at this church will be constantly reminded of their duty to give the best they have to their Lord and Master, and to do what they can to further His cause in their community, so that when He comes again to make up His jewels, He may find many precious souls which have been won for Him through the instrumentality of the Jewel Church.”

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 © 2003–2015 Phil James

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