By Phil James
The most logical place to learn about local history just might be your family’s old photo album. History is local, you know. Moreover, what is history but a record of a people?
So, who are some of the people in your family album and what were they up to? What can their photographic record teach us about our community’s history? How can their lives help us relate to national and world history?
Through the years, Secrets of the Blue Ridge has been blessed with opportunities to take “guided tours” through a number of private family photo collections. Visual treasures abound, many of which have not been viewed outside of the owners’ families. A generation may have passed since some of these collections have seen the light of day.
Aside from the occasional local personality, recognizable to many through association with a business or trade, most were like many of us: under-the-radar common folk, working for an honest living, greasing the wheel that squeaked loudest, striving to get by. It is from these varied resources that our stories come forth.
In his 1922 memoir From Saddle to City, Rev. D. Gregory Claiborne Butts, who ministered in the western Albemarle area from 1895–1898, shared vignettes of his “fifty years service in the Itinerancy.” In his Preface, he made the following statement: “If the story brings out on canvas the names of men and women whom the world never knew, and so had no chance to forget, the object of the writing is attained.”
Secrets of the Blue Ridge strives to embrace Rev. Butts’ sentiments in that respect.
In a pinch of photos from a Mechum’s River family was an image of Roland “Buck” Hicks posed with his hand on a World War II bomber dubbed the “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” He was one of many who once walked among us and who mercifully returned home from that conflict, and he reminds us of the great sacrifices made by that generation.
African American farmer Henry Rogers looked straight into the camera as he held firmly to a mule and horse belonging to Ernest Gilbert of Jarman’s Gap. His grandmother Julie was born in 1827 as enslaved property of that mountain gap’s namesake. She received her freedom at the close of the Civil War. Travelers passing through old Jarman’s Gap knew Henry’s mother Anna, born in 1879, for her delicious home-cooked meals and her hospitality.
The Gentry family of Crozet documented their 1926 camping trip to Albemarle County’s storied Sugar Hollow. Page after page of neatly captioned photos celebrated their grand excursion into the wilds: the setting up of camp, group meals under the chow tent, reading, hiking to waterfalls and exploring chimney ruins, and obligatory group photos atop Goose Egg Rock.
Frances Walker Hill was photographed seated, relaxed and smiling, in the side yard of her modest Crozet “bungalow,” as she preferred to call it. Immediately to her right but out of view was the embankment supporting the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, its cinders, dust and rumble an ingrained part of her life since the day of her birth.
Another photo in her collection showed proud and admiring family members surrounding her following the 1938 graduation exercises from Albemarle [County] Training School (the county’s sole institution for high school classes for African Americans), the beautiful young Frances clad in her high school graduation gown. As a professional housekeeper for much of her adult life, she stayed throughout the week at her work place, returning home on weekends to catch up on her own week’s-worth of work, to be in church on Sunday, and then back to her “other” home-away-from-home to be in place and ready when Monday morning dawned.
Hugh Strickler was a friend to many in the western Albemarle area, a coveted employee at the lumber company in Crozet, trusted deacon and Sunday School teacher at his church, and a member of Crozet’s Volunteer Fire Company. He was one who raced on foot from his job when smoke and flames were spotted coming from the town’s movie theater, and one of two men who first entered that building to fight the conflagration before being forced back outside and onto the roof of the adjacent six-story cold storage facility. The fire company saved the theater’s exterior from total destruction and, after a lengthy complete interior renovation, the shows went on.
Hugh’s family photos included local orchard and packing shed workers performing their seasonal work, as well as that extended family relaxing and enjoying one another’s company in the evenings and on a Sunday afternoon.
Pleasant photographic surprises discovered in other albums have included steam engines threshing wheat, horse-drawn wagons transporting barrels of apples or being used in the orchard as a platform for sorting and grading baskets of fruit. A rider on horseback watched a local blacksmith change a tire on an early automobile, juxtaposing those two competing modes of transportation.
All ages of persons can be seen at railroad depots, some posing for photos with groups of friends, others waiting with grip in hand for the next train. Tall water funnels could be seen mounted trackside to replenish the steam locomotives.
General store porches and loading platforms were common gathering places in the neighborhood. Vintage storefront signage recalled earlier days when a lone business attempted to serve its immediate area with groceries, animal feeds, barter opportunities, mail order access, and U.S. Postal needs.
The albums included photos of uniformed soldiers representing various branches of the military service during eras stretching from the American Civil War of the 1860s to the Korean War in the early 1950s. Photos were sent home showing barracks life, off-base trips into town, and buddies, hopefully for life, posed with their arms around their comrades’ shoulders.
History can be better understood when viewed through a local lens. Every family album contains precious, one-of-a-kind pieces of the story. What treasures wait to be re-discovered in yours?
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