Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Batesville on the Old Plank Road

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By Phil James

A light snow helped define the village of Batesville in this early 1900s postcard view. (Courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection)
A light snow helped define the village of Batesville in this early 1900s postcard view. (Courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection)

The village of Batesville, Virginia, with its beginnings reaching back to the mid-18th century, is one of Albemarle County’s best-preserved secrets. The 25 m.p.h. drive through its main thoroughfare reveals a pleasing mix of 19th and early 20th century dwellings, enough so that, in 1999, Batesville Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Earlier known as Oliver’s Store, the crossroads village was designated as Mount Israel in 1828, with Rowland Bates, Harvey Oliver, and Samuel Moon listed among its first postmasters. Soon thereafter, the hamlet of fewer than 100 souls became noteworthy as the approximate mid-point on the increasingly popular 43-mile Staunton and James River Turnpike that linked Shenandoah Valley’s Augusta County with the port town of Scottsville on the James River in southern Albemarle.

The turnpike waypoint at Mount Israel profited from the traveling public of its day, much as a busy interstate exit does today. Locals provided food, spirits and basic lodging at taverns, while blacksmiths offered often-needed services to steeds and various beasts of burden, as well as repairs to stagecoaches and wagons. Farms in the surrounding region prospered from much easier access to large markets.

Maintenance of the roadway was a constant struggle, physically as well as financially. During wet weather, teamsters barely made ten miles’ progress a day. Between December and March, when freezing and snowy conditions precluded most maintenance efforts, the tollgates were often left open (thereby losing profits), and shippers sought alternate routes and markets.

The coming of the railroad to central Virginia and the Valley by the mid-1850s coincided with struggles between stockholders and turnpike managers over how best to improve and maintain the road’s surface. Macadamized surfaces of crushed, packed stone were most durable and naturally preferred by the public. Virginia’s State Engineer Claude Crozet had advocated for that surface treatment during the turnpike’s earliest years: “Although this turnpike is not so good as it might have been, it will nevertheless be one of the best roads in the State, when miry places in it shall have been made firm by the super-addition of a bed of broken stone.”

Within two years of a reorganization of the turnpike company in 1847, a penny-pinching decision was made to surface the roadway with wooden planks. Mount Israel Post Office was renamed Batesville in 1853, coinciding with the peak years of usage for the rapidly deteriorating plank road. Disorganized business management and the coming of the iron horse brought about the end of a once-promising era. In 1860, the state allowed the individual counties to purchase the failing roadway.

Because many of the army movements during the Civil War followed the railroads, Batesville was spared indignities imposed on those places closer to primary travel arteries, especially the railway towns. In mid-September 1865, former Confederate General Robert E. Lee may have passed this way en route from his home in Powhatan County through Rockfish Gap to Lexington, where he assumed the work of president of Washington College.

Major changes were on the horizon for the nearly forgotten village in 1869 when word arrived of the death of one of their native sons: Samuel Miller, who was born in the Batesville area in 1792. He and his older brother John lived a hardscrabble life nearby the village, but their mother Jane was determined that her sons would receive an education. When John completed his course of local studies, he left home to find work as a merchant in Lynchburg. Samuel finished school as well, but he chose to stay at home with his mother. Together they eked out a subsistence living and Samuel taught classes at the village school.

John prospered in his business at Lynchburg, and around 1814 called for Samuel to join him there. Together they bought their mother a small farm near Batesville, and arranged with trusted local merchant Nicholas M. Page to give careful attention to her care and to apprise them of whatever comforts she might need. That arrangement continued until her death in 1841.

Following his brother John’s death, Samuel, who never married, continued to live frugally in Lynchburg, and he wisely invested and managed the monies that he and his older sibling had earned. His detailed will, drawn up in 1859, appointed three executors including his mother’s former guardian, long-time Batesville friend Nicholas Page. By the time of Miller’s death in 1869, Page was the sole surviving executor.

A biography of Samuel Miller prepared by R. Colston Blackford of Lynchburg supposed that at the time of his death, Miller was “one of probably the ten richest men in the United States” with an estate valued at nearly two million dollars, “vast beyond words at that date.”

Nicholas Page proved Miller’s confidence in him through the five years required to settle the estate. The will’s mostly benevolent directives were highlighted by the 25th clause directing the balance of the estate to be used for the endowing of Miller Manual School. The dream of John and Samuel Miller finally was realized in the fall of 1878 when the first enrolled boarding students began classes at the magnificent edifice nearby the grave of Jane Miller, a poor mother who did all that she could to provide for her children.

It was noted that by around 1900, Batesville was home to “five stores, two churches, a blacksmith and livery, a mill, a barrel factory, a cabinet maker, two doctors [one of whom, Dr. Robert L. Page, son of Nicholas Murrell Page, served as a physician in Batesville for over 50 years], a lawyer, and lots of fine homes.”

Batesville’s residents for many generations have known a most special place that has been honored and preserved for well over two centuries. Its old plank road dissolved back into its mud base only a decade or so after that ill-advised decision was pronounced. With its “expressway” traffic diverted, the good people of that village made the prudent decision to work hard, provide for their families, and just enjoy life to the full away from the heavily beaten path. That wise decision continues to make all the difference.

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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