Secrets of the Blue Ridge: J. J. Lafferty: A Remarkable Life

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By Phil James

Rev. Dr. John James Lafferty, c.1901. (1837–1909) (Additional images accompany the print edition of this article)
Rev. Dr. John James Lafferty, c.1901. (1837–1909) (Additional images accompany the print edition of this article)

Countless remarkable persons pass through our lives each day. Without fanfare, their daily deeds often go unnoticed until their lives are spent. While casually reading an obituary, we are often surprised to discover that a seemingly ordinary life had been filled with trials, triumphs, and numerous instances of compassion. A few of those acts might have been labeled exemplary by the world’s standard, but most had been known only to the trusted few of their innermost circle.

The final 20 years of John James Lafferty’s remarkable life were spent at his self-described “Cottage on the Cliff” near Crozet. He and his family walked the dusty streets of the little village, attended the Methodist church, and involved themselves in the life of the fledgling town. Did the locals know that their amiable neighbor was counted as “one of the most remarkable men of the 19th century,” as was stated in a contemporary account in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper?

J.J. Lafferty, a grandson of Irish emigrants, was born in 1837 near the Lower Roanoke River basin in Greensville County. A year later, his father drowned in the James River along with several others when a sudden wind upset the ferry on which they were riding.

An apt student who took advantage of every opportunity for education, young John’s propensity for scientific pursuits led him to medicine as a profession. However, before those studies were completed, his religious conversion in 1857 brought a profound shift in his life’s focus. Joining the Virginia Methodist Conference, the learned 20-year-old “displayed gifts for evangelizing” and he soon embarked on a series of revivals that produced unusual results: in one instance, a church’s membership was doubled.

By 1858, he was serving as associate pastor under Rev. Robert Newton Sledd at Beaver Creek Methodist Episcopal Church, South (predecessor to Crozet Methodist Church). His local interactions led to his finding favor with Mattie Ann Brown, daughter of Bezaleel Brown of Brown’s Cove, and they married in 1860.

During the Civil War, he served as chaplain on the staff of Gen. A.P. Hill. During the battle of Gettysburg, he was in camp with Generals Hill and Robert E. Lee, and together they witnessed the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge. Lafferty recalled that Gen. Lee sat in front of a tent fly on a camp chair, with Gen. Hill standing by him, watching the charge. “When the charging column was repulsed and streamed back from the enemy’s works,” wrote Lafferty, “Gen. Hill rushed to the rear of the little tent and, putting his hands over his face, burst into tears. But Gen. Lee was perfectly calm. With steady nerve and quiet voice, he ordered his horse, rode forward to meet the retreating divisions and spoke words of praise and encouragement.”

At the close of the war, “preachers in the army were left ‘without work,’ home or resources.” Rev. Lafferty, with his health in serious decline, returned to his wife and family in Albemarle County. He joined Rev. R.W. Watts “without money and without price” in a series of revivals. By 1866, hoping the region’s mineral waters would help him, he moved to Lexington and engaged in several businesses there.

In 1869, Lafferty became editor of the Lexington Gazette. That same year, he received an appointment to head the Journalism Department from Washington College President Robert E. Lee. This department offered the first college classes for journalism in the United States. He was tasked as “hands-on” trainer for students engaged in practical printing and journalism work beyond the bounds of classroom instruction.

In his capacity as newspaper editor, John Lafferty was the first to announce the death of Robert E. Lee in October 1870. At the time of Lee’s death, Lexington had been cut off by floodwaters. Lafferty went by horseback to Staunton in order to get word out to the nation that Gen. Lee had died.

Leaving his young wife and five children in Lexington for an extended season, Lafferty moved to Richmond in 1874 to become associate editor, and later, editor, of the Richmond Christian Advocate newspaper, while also serving as curator for the Medical College of Virginia and as a member of its Board of Visitors. During the next two decades, he was a prolific writer and publisher, and traveled extensively to speak and raise funds for local churches.

A contemporary account stated, “His writing will bear comparison with that of the leading editors of our times as to both form and inherent quality… a true wizard of the inkhorn, a magician with words.” The Norfolk Virginian newspaper said, “Had he chosen the stage instead of the pulpit, he would have rivaled Owens and equaled Jefferson.”

It was during those years that his scientific and medical background prompted his study and research into the nutritional qualities of wheat. After 20 years of publishing he retired, so to speak, to Crozet, where he purchased the former Powell’s Mill on Lickinghole Creek. He built a modest house for his family and set about to upgrade the old mill’s equipment to perfect his patented milling process, producing what today’s nutritionists tout as “100% whole wheat flour.”

In 1895, the Alexandria Gazette wrote, “Rev. Dr. John Lafferty, of this State, not only looks after the souls and minds of men, but their bodies also. After long investigation, he has discovered that the most strengthening part of wheat, both for brain and brawn, is taken out of it by the present system of flour making, and has invented a process of grinding wheat by which that strength is retained. His flour is made at Lafferty’s Mills, Crozet, Va.”

A remarkable life—indeed! Waiting for the train at Crozet Depot, standing alongside his neighbors, rural laborers, farmers and orchardists, the gentle parson would have admired their own remarkable lives. Likely, he would have been more than content to be recognized simply for a January 1, 1895, note that somehow made its way into the Richmond Dispatch newspaper: “Upon the glassy surface of Dr. J.J. Lafferty’s extensive mill-dam on last Saturday, there was played the old Scotch game of hocky, known in the American school-boy lingo as bandy, or shinny. Among those who handled the bandy-canes were [college friends of his daughter] and a large number of others.”

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 © 2003–2016 Phil James

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