Along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the days before once-coveted fertile croplands began to sprout their final yield of housing developments, late summer and autumn were associated with harvest time. Relative to the generosity of the sower, the timing of early and later rains, and the diligence of those appointed to tend the crops, harvests of fruits, grains and vegetables were laid by carefully.
Figuring strongly in the harvesting rituals and almost exclusively in the preserving of its bounty were the female workers. Furthermore, even a casual reading of Blue Ridge history reveals the steady presence of women in the noting down of events that define day-to-day life. Whether recording family births, marriages and deaths in the family Bible, or penning profiles of their neighbors and villages, it was the grandmothers, mothers, aunts and daughters among us who often were making notes for posterity’s sake.
Virginia Wood Sandridge (1917–2013) grew up at the foot of Pasture Fence Mountain near Mountfair in western Albemarle County. For nearly 40 years, her father, Wilson P. Wood (1874–1949), was the foreman at Walnut Level Farm for absentee business owner C.W. Antrim & Sons, wholesale grocer and commission merchant in Richmond.
“There were ten of us, 13 counting Mother and Dad and Grandma,” said Mrs. Sandridge. “We had a great big garden and we canned. Didn’t freeze anything ’cause we didn’t have a freezer. We had an icebox refrigerator.
“Phil and Totsy Wood from Boonesville had their own threshing machine. They would go around and thrash for everybody that had a farm. You never saw such fields of corn and oats and wheat. Would take two or three days sometimes, and some of them would spend the night in the barn, up in the loft on the hay. And then, of course, Mom would have to give them breakfast, and dinner too. They would say if they could have two meals a day, they could make out.
“Daddy had hired quite a few people, and Aunt Martha Jackson would help Mother to cook for the threshing machine men. They would have 17 and 18 men to feed several days when they were thrashing. Isn’t that something.
“But they raised everything. Have six to eight hogs to butcher every fall. It was 13 of us. Took a lot of meat. Oh my day, we dreaded when they had to butcher hogs. All that sausage to work up, cold pack and fry. We’d help out when we got bigger.”
Twenty-five miles or so, as the crow flies, southwest down the ridgeline from Walnut Level Farm, can be found the mountain community of Love. It was there, beginning in 1981 and for the next quarter-century, that Lynn Coffey nearly single-handedly published the Backroads newspaper, highlighting the lives of her neighbors nearby the Blue Ridge Parkway in Augusta and Nelson Counties. She invested her time by listening intently to their life stories and detailing their soon-to-be-lost folkways. After she retired her newspaper, Coffey heeded the pleas of her elder neighbors and proceeded to pass down “their” stories to an even larger audience via a popular series of books.
The establishment of Shenandoah National Park in the 1930s uprooted hundreds of families whose traditions extended back many generations in the heights and hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains. J.R. Lassiter, then Engineer-in-Charge of the proposed park and its soon-to-be first Super-intendent, wrote in 1935 that “there was nothing culturally significant in the mountains.”
Dorothy Noble Smith (1915-1999) and several other volunteers begged to differ. In the 1970s and early ’80s, efforts were organized to reach out to the park’s former residents and record their side of that distressing saga. In 1983, Smith shared selections from the bounty preserved in those interviews in her book Recollections: The People of the Blue Ridge Remember.
That oral history collection of 135 interviews, the bulk of which was gathered by Mrs. Smith, was locked away, inaccessible to the public, in the park’s vault until 2001, when it was donated to James Madison University.
Countless other women, well-known and unknown, collected photographs and wrote names, dates and places on the backs, assembled scrapbooks, or simply welcomed someone into their private world and shared the memories and reminiscences that the Good Lord had allowed them.
An unlikely heroine of Albemarle County history was born in Free Union in 1914. Vera Viola Via was stricken with polio at age five. In spite of her family doctor’s initial prognosis that she would not survive the attack, she persevered with determination, faith, and unyielding support from her family. Though physically limited by the disease, she graduated from Bridgewater College in 1942 and embarked on a career as writer, genealogist, and local historian.
By 1948, Miss Vera’s historical perspectives and photography were featured regularly in Charlottesville’s Daily Progress and continued to appear until shortly before her passing in 1964. Along the way, she created an index to 18th and 19th-century Charlottesville newspapers, and profiled families, individuals and villages, all while reaping, face-to-face, many priceless memories from those who lived during the second-half of the 1800s.
Enduring physical challenges that most could never fully understand, Vera Via personified the urgency to gather when “the fields are white and ready for harvest.” Like a frugal gardener, she preserved that bounty entrusted to her and passed it down.
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: SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2017 Phil James