A large knot tightened in the stomach of the young father as he tried desperately to coax life back into the body of his precious daughter. His wife of ten years stood by anxiously with their children Mollie, age eight, and John Henry, six, who clung wide-eyed to their mother’s apron.
It was a Sunday morning, and just minutes earlier, little Bettie had been playing joyfully in the yard outside their simple farm tenant house. Now her parents’ thoughts raced wildly back and forth between the frantic spectacle that was playing out before them and the nearby grave of baby Lucy who had died in infancy only four years earlier. The nearest doctor lived in the Elkton community six miles away. But in the early 1880s, when mere moments could mean the difference between life and eternity, that Shenandoah Valley village in eastern Rockingham County may as well have been on the other side of the world.
In the foothills and hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains, life sometimes tottered between the sublime and the disagreeable realities of isolation. Cornelia Via sobbed when her husband Rice hung his head in despair and started for the house with the still form of their two-year-old cradled in his arms.
Elizabeth Catherine Via Gochenour related that traumatic day in the life of her beloved family when she had “passed [her] three score years and ten”. She wrote, “I guess I was born with a roving mind. One Sunday morning Mother dressed me up and I started out to see the world at the early age of two years, with a pie pan in my hand. I got as far as the spring.
“Now this spring was what we called a “bee-gum” spring—four boards nailed together and sunk in the ground. I guess I thought that would be a nice place to sail my pan, so I put it on the water. I may have slipped or just tilted it, but down I went into that nice cool water with no way in the world for me to get out.
“Pretty soon two boys came running to get a drink of water and there were my feet sticking out of the spring. I’ll bet they forgot that they wanted water. They called my father and he shook me and rolled me on a flour barrel. Then he said that it was no use to work with a dead child so he wrapped me in a blanket and carried me inside and laid me on a couch. I caught my breath, though, and the water flew clear across the room. As I look back and think about such a narrow escape, I think God really had my work laid out for me.”
Bettie was three years old when the family celebrated baby Lula’s arrival the following year. She wrote, “We lived there on Uncle Sam Naylor’s farm until I was five years old. My memories are few, although I remember once sitting by the window in a split-bottom chair and I asked Mother to let me hold Lula. She laid her in my arms, but she was just a tiny baby and Mother didn’t trust me. One can’t hold babies like they do dolls.” Lula succumbed to a fever in December 1886.
Rice and Cornelia’s sixth child, George Thomas Chapman Via, was born in ’87. Soon after, Rice and Cornelia decided to move their family across the mountain to Sugar Hollow, the place of Rice’s birth in 1852.
“In 1888 we moved to Albemarle County,” wrote Bettie, “near Grandfather [Hiram K.] Via… where I spent the best part of my happy childhood days. Brother John and I often wore our shoes out skating on the ice when the river would freeze over. I go back and look at the hill [behind our house] that we used to slide down on our crude sleds we made. Brother George Thomas Chapman died [of pneumonia] in infancy and is buried with Mother and Father on top of that hill that we used to slide down.”
Two more boys were born in Sugar Hollow: Carl, in 1889, and Philip, in 1891. “I wanted to name Carl,” said Bettie, “so I got my spelling book and sat down to pick out a name. I spelled Carl with a ‘K’ but he said he couldn’t make a good K so when he grew up he used a ‘C’.
“We really had some nice times. The older girls — Mollie, Georgia Wood and Annie Carr — made the nicest playhouse in the pines, with rooms laid off with rocks and moss. One day Ella Ballard climbed up in a pine tree and was rocking back and forth. The top broke out and she fell and hurt her back. There was no more climbing for a while.
“Father bought some land and built us a home right close to the grist mill. Before we moved in, on Sunday afternoon, the mill and the workshop burned down. I went way up on the hill above the mill and cried. Father built it back.
“Father had a sawmill and people hauled logs to have him saw them up into lumber. I was a ‘daddy’s girl’ and also a big tomboy. I used to ride the carriage truck when he was sawing logs. It was fun, but Mother would scold me because she was afraid I would fall off and get hurt. I would hold on tight and watch the saw buzz through the log. Then it would go back so quickly, and slowly buzz through again. My, but it was fun, I thought, to get such a nice ride.
“When we got a little older, Father would let us ride the horses to church on Sunday mornings. John would ride Sal, a gray mare, and I would ride Fly. He was a Kentucky Blue, and quite the traveler. I learned to harness a horse and hitch it to a wagon or buggy.
“In the summer the Wood girls and I would go swimming. We didn’t have bathing suits, either, just our old dresses. We would swim in either a deep hole or in the millrace. I learned to swim very young.
“My childhood days were happy ones. I had two loving parents, both very affectionate. We were of medium circumstances with very little money, but so wealthy in having good health. We always had plenty to eat and it was good substantial food. We didn’t hear about all the horrible things that were going on outside of our little world. Oh, those were happy days!”
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