Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Uncle Lem: The Legacy of a Mountain Man

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Lem James was born in Sugar Hollow in 1867. A true mountain man and outdoorsman who hunted and ran trap lines for furs, he supported his family as an apiarist, orchardist and subsistence farmer. (Courtesy of Phil James Historical Images)

They were shouting hallelujah in July 1865 when John Napoleon James showed back up on the doorstep of his father-in-law Hiram Via’s log home alongside Moorman’s River in Sugar Hollow. After four ugly years of an un-civil war, plus another three months of sidestepping the death angel ranging through the Union Army’s prisoner of war camp at Point Lookout, Maryland, the native South Carolinian finally could begin life anew with his young bride Frances Anna.

John-N and Fanny wasted no time getting settled in a family way. Over the next 20 years, their home was blessed with seven boys and five girls. The second-born of those siblings arrived in November 1867 and was named in honor of his paternal uncle Lemuel and his maternal grandfather Hiram. The family just called him Lem.

In 1885, the James family’s home burned to the ground. All souls were spared, along with Fanny’s sewing machine, but everything else was lost. As difficult decisions were made on how to move forward, 18-year-old Lem moved in with neighbor Tom Boyne. Three years later, he married Cornelia Maggie Becks of Rockingham County, and they subsequently moved in with Wash and Susan Via a little farther around the mountainside from the Boynes.

James “Jimmy” Daughtry (1917–1990) and his wife Irene (Thompson) (1919–1995) of Waynesboro traced their roots to Sugar Hollow in western Albemarle County. They were diligent and loving keepers of their family heritage.

Sugar Hollow native James Daughtry, along with his wife Irene (Thompson), enjoyed retelling tales of their former neighbor Lem James and life in old Sugar Hollow. (Photo by Phil James)

“Uncle Lem used to come and spend a week or so at a time with us and we just loved it,” said Irene. “He didn’t have a home. He’d just stay with his children. Just go around place to place. He and his wife Cornelia lived with Uncle Wash Via (b.1815) and Aunt Susan (Ballard). They had their [four living] children while they lived there. Oh, Uncle Lem said they were the best five years of his life. Nealie died [in March 1899] and they buried her [with her tiny infant son in her arms] there [on the south shoulder of Pasture Fence Mountain above Sugar Hollow].”

Miss Mattie Maupin (1856–1935) who lived nearby wrote, “Lem James’ wife was buried last Sunday. The poor creature did not live but a few hours after the birth of her [fifth] baby. They put off too long sending after Dr. Miller from Rockingham. He took the child but it killed her. Lem has been very sick since her death, he took it so hard. Left four little children. [Cornelia] asked Lem not to separate her little ones.”

V.L. James displayed a treasured family relic: a walking stick hand-carved and used by Lem James of Sugar Hollow. (Photo by Phil James)

Lem honored Nealie’s final request. Eleven months later, he married Sallie McAllister, a wonderful helpmate, who raised Lem’s four youngsters as her own, along with a fifth child born later to extended family.

“Lem said Aunt Susan and Nealie would knit socks at night by the fire,” recalled Jimmy Daughtry. “When he left there, Aunt Susan gave him five pair of wool socks that she knitted. All made from the wool sheared from their sheep.

“He had an old bull tongue on a wooden plow and four times he drove corn with that bull tongue. It had a narrow shovel on it when you plant with a bull tongue. He’d go down one side of the row and sow, and come up the other side. Then he’d go down the middle and back. Uncle Wash would come along behind with his hoe and hill up every stalk. By early evening, they’d stop. They never did rush. He said a lot of times, they’d be in bed and the sun hadn’t quite gone down. Five o’clock the next morning they were out there going again. He said they made tremendous crops of wheat and corn. 

Warren James prepared to open a package of 10,000 bees to install into one of the dozen or so hives custom-made in his woodshop. Inspired by stories of his great-grandfather Lem’s prowess as an expert hunter of bees and bee trees, Warren and his wife Leslie harvested their raw wildflower honey to sell at the Crozet Farmers Market. (Photo by Phil James)

“Uncle Lem and I wanted to go fishing, but we didn’t have any poles. So we went down to the hardware and picked out a reed pole. Well, he got the biggest and the longest pole they had. His was a whopper. Our garage was 18’ long. We put it up in there. Hung it up on the rafters and it was as long as the garage was. I got a smaller size. He showed me how to plat the hook. I always just tied a knot, but he said, ‘Oh, that won’t be right’. You had to plat it. I couldn’t do it now, but he showed me, and we platted the hooks on each line and we rolled them up and put them up in the garage. When he died that pole was still up there.”

Longtime Waynesboro businessman and Sugar Hollow native Purcell Daughtry recalled, “Lem James would go in the mountain and hunt bee trees. He had a big thing for finding them. Must have been an expert with bees. He rented them to the orchards for pollination. That’s the way he made a living.”

“When he’d see a bee fly, boy, right then he was going where the bee tree was!” said Irene Daughtry.

Cornelia Frances James Wyant (1879–1932) was a younger sister of Lem. She married Hiram C. Wyant in 1898. Their son Emory (1911–2001) said, “I worked with Uncle Lem up in the apple orchard for several years. He was the foreman at Ellison’s Orchard, about two miles from White Hall going toward Crozet. Ray Warrick lived close by.

Lem James with his great-nephew V.L. James Jr., c.1938. Lem and his wife Sallie (McAllister) raised V.L.’s father Virgil. Lem’s intimate knowledge of the mountains around Sugar Hollow, love of the outdoors and passion for hunting were passed down in that family. (Courtesy of Phil James Historical Images)

“He loved to hunt and he loved his honey—his bees. But I think that was in the James family. Nearly all of them liked bees. My Gran-dad [John-N James] was a bee hunter. He hunted bees in the mountains and everywhere, hunting bee trees. He had little binoculars that he watched the bees with. He said that the way you hunt bees, you don’t go where they’re sitting on flowers. You find where they’re watering at. They go to the closest water. He’d take a little flour with him, drop a little on the bee, and watch him fly away. You watch which way he goes and how long it will take him to get back. With the flour, he would know that bee when he came back and he knew how long he’d been gone. He could almost go right to the tree. He’d recognize that bee because he had flour on his wings.

Lemuel Hiram James passed away in 1946. The man who always preferred being in the outdoors attracted little attention and left behind no tangible worldly goods. Warren James (1942–2017), a great-grandson of Lem, was proud to be a fourth-generation beekeeper. When dealing with the challenges of that age-old craft, he would often ask the question, “Now, what would Lem do?” The fifth and sixth generation apiarists of that family today join others whose memories and traditions keep alive the legacies of a Blue Ridge Mountain man. 

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 

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