Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Joe Wood: Alone on the Mountain

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By Phil James

The Joe Wood home and farm sat below Jarman’s Gap alongside the main road between White Hall in Albemarle County and Waynesboro in Augusta. By foot, horseback, buggy and Tin Lizzie, mountain travelers, Civil War troops and Syrian peddlers alike passed within sight of their front door. (Photo courtesy of the Larry Lamb Collection)
The Joe Wood home and farm sat below Jarman’s Gap alongside the main road between White Hall in Albemarle County and Waynesboro in Augusta. By foot, horseback, buggy and Tin Lizzie, mountain travelers, Civil War troops and Syrian peddlers alike passed within sight of their front door. (Photo courtesy of the Larry Lamb Collection)

During the early decades of the 20th century, those passing through Sugar Hollow by way of Turk’s or Jarman’s Gap would have played the dickens trying to avoid Joe Wood.

The larger-than-life figure was known by many in western Albemarle County, as well as to others across the Blue Ridge Mountains in east Augusta. Waynesboro newspaper headlines once trumpeted the claims of the famous “tamer of rattlesnakes and grower of two crops of apples on the same tree.” When those revelations were “checked for even an iota of contaminating truth,” the Mayor of Sugar Hollow was crowned Grand Champion in the region’s “Tall Story Contest” (modeled after the Burlington Liars’ Club of old.)

Joseph Franklin Wood (1871–1944) was the second born of three sons and two daughters of Alexander and Martha “Mattie” (Ballard) Wood. Joe and his wife Winkie (Belew) (1872–1961) resided with their family directly alongside the road just south (uphill) of where Shenandoah National Park’s Turk Branch Trail (Skyline Drive MP 94.1) intersects the South Fork Moorman’s River Road.

Low stonewalls and scattered foundation stones lie mostly hidden in the heavily forested Wilderness-designated area that belies the productive cultivated fields, orchards and gardens that sustained the families who lived at the southern end of today’s Shenandoah National Park. In addition to the Wood family’s two-story home, originally built by Joe’s grandfather Ira J. Ballard, his property included a 54’ long log barn, a spring house, smoke house, chicken house, a blacksmith shop and a former still house once licensed and operated by his father Alex Wood.

Joe Wood’s life, seemingly isolated and labor-intensive by softer, modern standards, was rich in close family and neighbor relations. A natural balance of hard but satisfying work and play alternated within the seasons.

Joe loved his horses and mules and kept six to eight on hand for work and pleasure: saddle horses; others suited to pulling the family’s surrey on Sunday visits; and matched teams that could move heavily loaded freight wagons over steep, rough roads. Recognized as a top-notch teamster, he contracted the transporting of extract bark for tanneries, barrel staves for cooperages, plus lumber and wood shingles for building material suppliers.

Crimora merchants Plaine & Koiner acquired timber tracts in Sugar Hollow with the expectation to cut a million board feet of oak, poplar, chestnut and other woods. A 1906 Staunton Spectator news story stated, “Their right hand man in the heavy hauling necessary to reach the railway at this point is Mr. Joseph F. Wood, a teamster of skill and experience. Mr. Wood has himself brought over the mountain since last summer more than a half million manufactured [chestnut] shingles.”

Joe and Winkie’s daughter Louise Wood (Austin) (1909–1993), the youngest of the Wood’s seven children, reminisced on life in the mountains: “There was a little one-room school right back up here called Bellwood School,” she said. “It had all grades. Primer clear on up. I remember the first day I went to school [in 1916] the teacher asked me to say my ABC’s and I wouldn’t do it and I had to stand in the corner. I knew them but I wouldn’t say them.

“The first teacher there was Miss Pauline Hamilton from Shadwell. The next one, my first grade teacher, was Miss Delma Thacker from Schuyler, Virginia. And the other one was Miss Lucy Duncanson. They stayed and boarded with us.

“Mother was our home doctor. She had a medical book and whenever we’d get something, she would look it up in there and fix up something for it. She’d make us take sulphur and molasses [tonic] every spring.”

Local midwives, including African American midwife Mary Wesley of lower Sugar Hollow and nearby neighbor and distant relation Mrs. John Craig, helped deliver the family’s babies.

Another African American neighbor, Anna Rodgers, lived just east of Jarman’s Gap. Louise recalled, “When my mother and father used to go away they would get Anna to come and stay and keep us children and we all just loved her. She was real good to us. And she used to come help when we killed hogs.

“We used to butcher nine hogs in the fall. Daddy always said he butchered one a piece for us, there was eight in the family, and one for company. We’d salt it and let it cure and then he’d smoke it.

“In one room in the front part of the house, my grandfather had it built especially for square dancing. They used to have a lot of dances in there even after I was a child. Practically everybody stayed ‘til daylight. My father played a banjo and called square dance figures. My sister played a mandolin and organ, and my brothers played mandolin and organ. The rest of us—we just danced.”

Joe Wood headed up crews who worked the mountain orchards, and was employed as Game Warden for the western district of Albemarle County when, in 1920, he installed 1,500 young brook trout in Moorman’s River.

Ominous handwriting on the wall in the latter 1920s forecasted the removal of many from their Blue Ridge Mountain homes. Louise poignantly recalled, “When I was growing up practically everybody had moved away from here except for us.”

Yet, even as old mountain right-of-ways were closed to the public, Joe remained helpful to all and cooperative with Park officials, even assisting with their efforts to combat forest fires. As a result, he and his wife were allowed lifetime rights to remain in their home.

The Park lands, officially terminating at Jarman’s Gap, were dedicated in 1936. When the Skyline Drive finally reached its southern terminus south of the Wood family’s home in 1939, few if any travelers realized that the final remnant of a once vital community of people resided nearly within shouting distance of the smooth new “mountaintop motorway.”

By 1943, Joe’s health required that he and Winkie leave the mountain and move in with family members at Waynesboro. Just months later, in January 1944, the last of the true mountain men to have lived inside Shenandoah National Park boundaries in Albemarle County went to his final rest.

Neither did Mrs. Wood ever return to live in her once-lively mountain home. Mere weeks after Joe’s passing, a thorough survey of the property was made by the Park. The final report stated, in part: “Solid construction, well made… There seems no probability of further use by former occupants… house is quite well built and in much better condition than abandoned mountain homes. Because of its isolated locality… recommend house and outbuildings be razed.”

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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