Secrets of the Blue Ridge: The Legacy of Red Front Market

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Jack Wagner’s Red Front Market, on The Square in downtown Crozet, was notable for its signature storefront colors, adapted from the A&P grocery store that previously had operated there. (Detail from a 1951 photo by Hubert Gentry; color added by Phil James). Additional images accompany the print version of this article.
Jack Wagner’s Red Front Market, on The Square in downtown Crozet, was notable for its signature storefront colors, adapted from the A&P grocery store that previously had operated there. (Detail from a 1951 photo by Hubert Gentry; color added by Phil James). Additional images accompany the print version of this article.

It would be difficult to establish a real town and have it flourish without a grocery store. The real stuff of life can be found there: food, of course, but also interactions with neighbors, and the ensuing relationships that lead to community.

When the warm relationship between Lyle “Jack” Wagner and Nannie Blackwell blossomed into a marriage solemnized in Waynesboro back in October of 1936, much was set into motion. Nannie had studied on Jack’s strong work ethic, while he had somehow seen beyond her twinkling eyes and cute smile to recognize the boundless energy and organizational skills that she possessed.

Across the mountain in the bustling little community of Crozet, in 1929 The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, more commonly known as the A&P, had opened up a store in the Goodall Building fronting on The Square. This ideal location was adjacent to Crozet Drug in the space previously occupied by William McLeod’s and Morton Sadler’s Crozet Hardware Company. At that time, A&P, the country’s first grocery chain, was the world’s largest retailer. The brand’s signature colors of red and black were made familiar by the thousands of distinctively painted company wagons that transported wares to thrifty customers in rural areas.

Not long after adopting the novel self-serve concept at their supermarkets, A&P’s opening for a manager at their Crozet location in the latter 1930s was filled by Jack Wagner, who, sans a personal automobile, regularly rode the bus from Augusta County to run the business. Like his blessed marriage to Nannie, Wagner’s move into the business community of Crozet was another match made in heaven. The village has profited from that family’s involvements and legacy ever since.

In February 1945, during World War II, Jack was called into military service. Around that time, concerns were mounting in the halls of Congress that A&P was becoming a monopoly. A&P addressed those allegations, in part, by refocusing on urban supermarkets while shuttering a great many of their smaller rural stores, including, in 1946, their Crozet location.

When Jack returned to Crozet following the war’s end, he partnered with Albert Sandridge and Edward Daughtrey to lease the former A&P space. Its previous paint scheme suited him just fine and, in 1947, his 50% business share made him the majority partner in Red Front Market.

The business was an effective proving ground for high school students entering the job market. They were required to dress neatly, demonstrate respect and politeness to the public, and master the work ethics of promptness and trustworthiness. Sixteen-year-old Dabney Via was one of several from Crozet High who landed a job at Wagner’s Red Front.

“I went to work over there in ’49,” said Dabney. “I was in the 9th grade and worked there three years in high school. Went to work at six o’clock in the morning and worked until 8:30. Walked to school. After school, came back and went to work at 3:30 and worked ’til nine every night during the week. Saturday night I worked from six until closing at 11 o’clock.

Two more local enterprises opened their doors for business in downtown Crozet in 1949. Moses and James Sandridge opened S&S Food Center at the top of The Square, approximately where pioneer Crozet merchant Jim Ellison operated his successful mercantile in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Next door to Red Front Market in the space previously occupied by [George] Pollock Insurance Agency, Nannie Blackwell Wagner opened Red Front Five & Ten.

The Five & Ten quickly became the go-to place in town for notions of all sorts, fabric and ready-to-wear clothing, toys, comic books, and candy by the piece or by weight. At Christmas time, the second floor was transformed into Toy Land, a colorful department of wishful things for good little boys and girls.

“As soon as Nannie opened the Five & Ten, we used the back end of that for a stock room,” said Dabney Via. “That was the only storage we had. Albert’s fresh chickens came in wooden crates packed in ice and he had them in a walk-in cooler back there. We also used that for produce. We sold feed at that time: hundred pound bags of hog feed, horse feed, cow feed and chicken feed. We would bring it out on a hand truck through that little ramp between the two stores to put it on a delivery truck. When Nannie enlarged the store and went into the upstairs, we had a little stockroom in the back of that for all of the extra supplies of paper goods.

“I stayed there until 1957, went in the Army and stayed two years. When I came back, they sold me a quarter of the business. Goodness, they had five active [grocery] stores in Crozet at one time! I expect we sold as much as anybody did. The Red Front did a lot of delivering. We had several customers that we went to every day. That’s the reason we kept it open for a while even after they opened the IGA in 1967. Because they knew it was going to take a while to get people used to going to the other store and not getting their groceries delivered.

“Agnew Morris, V.L. James and myself went down to the IGA when we opened that. Dennis Rea, who was at that time working for Foods of All Nations, was hired as meat cutter.”

IGA Foodliner and subsequent Crozet Great Valu solidified its local reputation by building on a strong foundation of customer service and community caring demonstrated by its founders. Multiple generations of Wagner family involvement in the store’s day-to-day operations, and shares of store ownership changing hands principally among dedicated employees, have meant that familiar faces have been ever-present to welcome returning customers.

Untold numbers of local high school students have been introduced to the business world via the disciplines learned while bagging and delivering groceries. At least two of those young employees parlayed their experiences into successful careers of store ownership: Thomas Starke, Crozet HS class of ’47, Starke’s Cash Market on Rt. 240 in Crozet; and Dabney Via, Crozet HS class of ’52, Ridge Market on Rt. 250 at Brownsville. Worthy of note, too, is V.L. James’s entire 60-year career as grocer and meat cutter, served in company with the Wagner family.

The Crozet community has benefitted from the personal attention of wonderful hometown grocers throughout its existence. None, however, spanned as many generations of customer loyalty as that of the venerable Wagner family. Jack and Nannie would be pleased.

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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