By Phil James
In the mid-19th century, Minceberry Bingham Walton, a blacksmith by trade, hung his shingle from a large oak tree in northwest Albemarle County. The two roads that intersected at that place moved enough traffic by his shop for him to make an adequate living to support his bride Lucy [Hall] and their growing family. Their first child, John Thomas, was born in 1839. He grew up helping his father at the forge and came to be known in that area as the go-to man if a horse needed taming. ‘Berry and Lucy Walton’s tenth and last child, Lucy Mildred, came along just as the country was beginning to clear its head from four grueling years of Civil War.
By 1872, Berry Walton’s trusted reputation in his community helped qualify him as the first postmaster for the tiny village of Boonesville. In 1881, daughter Lucy Millie married local farmer George W. Bruce. Berry’s son Melvin succeeded him at the post office in 1884 as the aging patriarch’s steps began to falter. John T. assumed the blacksmith duties when his father passed away around 1886.
Life in Boonesville moved on, and, in 1902, George and Lucy Millie’s daughter Nellie married Henry Ira Davis, the son of yet another area blacksmith. Two years later, George Bruce agreed to purchase the Walton’s corner property from his brother-in-law John. By that time, the lot included Bruce’s 16’x20’ store and, perhaps, the post office.
George Bruce and his son-in-law Henry Davis became partners in the general store, and, shortly thereafter, purchased a secondhand carousel, or as Lucy Millie referred to it, a set of hobby-horses. Activity on the corner ramped up! Stocking and staffing the store six days a week was juggled with the energy and logistics required seasonally to maintain and transport the carousel to venues within hauling distance of Boonesville.
The little store was enlarged, the carousel prospered and more rides and amusements were added. Motorized transportation enabled them to carry more equipment and workers over greater distances. The initial set of hobby-horses grew into a successful but labor-intensive, full-time, spring-to-fall traveling carnival. After a dozen years juggling the rigors of life on the road with off-seasons spent behind the store counter, Henry Davis decided to sell his interest in the carnival and turn his attentions full-time to the selling of “dry goods, notions and groceries.”
A fair portion of his early business was in barter, providing the store with more “locally sourced” goods such as live chickens, fresh eggs, cracked walnuts, and chestnuts (which, before the devastating blight, he purchased by the wagonload for a penny a pound).
Davis bought out his father-in-law’s interest in the business along with the store site in 1920. At the seasoned age of 37, with a dozen years of carnival miles to his credit, a half-dozen years of service as Boonesville postmaster, three school-age children, and with residents of the local hills and hollows beating a slick path to his storefront, he and his wife Nellie set their sights on the long haul ahead.
In earlier days, the bi-weekly trip to Charlottesville to restock supplies took two days with a two-horse wagon. Keeping up with the times, he purchased the first Ford Model-T truck in Boonesville and cut the required travel time to less than a day.
The delivery truck also allowed him to expand his local services, carrying groceries farther into the rural areas. Two of “Big Jim” Walton’s daughters, Kathleen and Alease, fondly recalled visits to Davis’s Store when they were young girls and Henry Davis would discretely give each of them a piece of candy. Alease Walton [Bruce] remembered when Davis would deliver groceries to their house in Blackwell’s Hollow. “We would order peanuts from the store,” she recalled. “They came in boxes and he would sneak a nickel in the box for us kids. When we got the peanuts, we would find that nickel. [The next visit to the store] we could buy some Teaberry chewing gum!”
Henry’s wife Nell and their son Russell worked seasonally with the Bruce Greater Shows carnival until the end of its east coast run in the mid-1930s. Russell’s wife Carrie already understood the store business when they married in 1926, as she had grown up helping out in her father Edward J.T. Maupin’s store at Free Union. She stepped right up to marshal the store counter alongside her new father-in-law, even gaining appointment as official Boonesville Postmistress in 1927.
The proceeding years were stuff of local legend. Neighbors met at the H.I. Davis & Son store to pick up their mail, swap greetings and tales, and catch the local news. They bought grocery staples and animal feed from bulk supplies, a snack and a cold bottle of pop, and ordered newfangled catalog goods across its counter. The gas pump out front provided the gallon or so required for most machinery and travel needs. Life was good enough, and nary a one gave a thought that things would not always be just that way.
Henry Davis and his wife Nellie, Nellie’s mother Lucy Millie Bruce, and Russell Davis and his wife Carrie lived together comfortably in the house adjoining the store. Store traffic remained steady until after WWII, when post-war prosperity and a more plentiful supply of private automobiles eventually sent many folks packing out of the countryside toward greater job prospects in the city. Friday or Saturday evenings once spent around the store’s potbellied stove became less frequent as the allure of bright lights, busy sidewalks and picture shows 20 miles away kept the wheels turning, and the simple lights of the old store faded in the rearview.
Gradually, the community marked the passing of first one and then another of the old establishment’s venerable characters: Lucy Millie, everyone’s beloved Queen of the Carousel, in 1962. The following year it was Henry, the store’s namesake. Nellie joined them in 1967. Russell passed away in 1968, erasing the second name from the store’s signage.
Even then, H.I. Davis & Son’s store was not down for the count. Far from it! It operated continuously for another 26 years. The dear heart who persevered to the end, after 47 years as acting postmistress and 68 years behind the well-worn counter top, was Carrie Maupin Davis. In 2003, just 30 days before the 100th anniversary of her birth, she was reunited with the others whose lives were spent in service to their neighbors in old Boonesville.
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