Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Chester and Clyde: Down the Hollow and Around the World

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The early 20th-century blacksmith shop at Doylesville was repurposed by store merchant Perminia “P.E.” Blackwell for use as a fruit packing shed. Chester Shiflett razed it after it was no longer serviceable. (Photo courtesy of Rodney Rich)

There are no friends like lifelong friends. Take Chester Shiflett and Clyde McAllister, for example. Each was born in Blackwell’s Hollow in western Albemarle. Their individual genealogies included many of the surnames common to that section of the county.

Relaxing together at day’s end some years ago in Chester’s home on a rise above the river in Doylesville, their twice-told tales spoke of lessons learned through interesting, yet challenging, lives lived to the full.

“I bought this place in ’47 when I came out of the Army,” said Chester. “Ronie [Virona Shiflett] Blackwell and her twin sister built this house in 1910. Ronie was P.E. Blackwell’s wife. He had a store over here. October ’42, it got washed away. The flood took everything. The old concrete foundation is still out there for the store. That house down there, water was coming in halfway up the living room window and going out the window on the other side.”

The Bethlehem Steel shipyards at Sparrow’s Point, MD, provided Blackwell’s Hollow native Chester Shiflett a 38-year career in welding, much like those pictured here in 1941 constructing Liberty ships at Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards in Baltimore. (Library of Congress Photograph Collection)

Clyde joined in, “I was born down the road about six miles. My grandfather Burton McAllister lived on top of the mountain there. When they surveyed through here for Skyline Drive [Shenandoah National Park] in 1928, they took a portion of his land. Eminent domain.”

“I’ve been on them mountains when I was a kid,” added Chester. “They were like bluegrass fields. You wouldn’t have had to feed cows for a half a winter. It was bluegrass up to your knees. You can’t even get through it now; it’s all grown up just like a jungle.

“When we were kids, we used to pick up arrowheads down there at Rocky Bar. A guy from New York came down to Davis’s [Store at Boonesville] and gave us a penny a piece for them. That’s back in the ’30s. We picked up coffee cans full of them.”

Clyde McAllister said, “In 1918 there was a flu epidemic. My daddy and his younger brother were down in Kentucky in a logging camp. My mother received a Western Union that my dad had passed away—to pick his body up at the train station. Hooked up the wagon and went to the train station to get him, and it wasn’t he. It was his younger brother. The younger brother had three young daughters and a 13-month-old son. His wife was destitute! She went to live with her mother, and my mother took this little boy and he became one of us. Instead of having 13 in the family we had 14.” (Library of Congress Photograph Collection)

Clyde said, “I went to milk cows for a Thomas family for about two weeks when I was 14 years old. The man who was milking the cows and taking care of the farm for them wanted to quit for two weeks and pick peaches. Back in those days, I’m talking like 1937, farm people would go to the orchards and work to get a little spending money. School started and I was still there. I missed one week of school. My mother agreed that I could stay there with them. They paid me five dollars a month. They washed my clothes, fed me and housed me, and I milked the cows. I did that, and come springtime I stayed on again. They paid me $15 a month for the summer months. I stayed there almost four years. They thought I was their kid. Good people. A lot of people from this area went down to Sparrow’s Point, MD, to work in the shipyard. Chester here did.”

Chester Shiflett, left, and Clyde McAllister shared youthful memories of Blackwell’s Hollow. WWII service and work careers took them far afield before each returned to The Hollow later in life. (Photo by Phil James)

“I finished high school at Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point in 1940,” said Chester. “My Daddy worked there as a welder. I wasn’t yet 18 and couldn’t go to work, so I got a job delivering groceries. Got a letter [from Bethlehem Steel] to go to the Training Department for a machinist apprenticeship. I went over to see Mr. Lane who was in charge. I said, ‘Mr. Lane, do you see this letter here?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I was expecting you.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to be no machinist. I’m talking to those welders, and they’re driving LaSalles and Buicks; Packards and Cadillacs. I don’t want to be driving a peanut car.’ He said, ‘Well, you’ve either got to take it or leave it!’ I said, ‘No, I don’t. Do you know Mr. John Northwood?’ ‘Yeah, I know him. Why?’ I said, ‘Well, his wife is my Sunday School teacher. I’ll have a talk with her.’—That was it! Mr. Northwood said, ‘Go back and tell Lane you’re going down to see Harry Ross in the Electric Repair shop.’ The welders there were making big money.”

“Someone in my Mother’s family went to Hershey, Pennsylvania, to work at the chocolate company,” said Clyde. “Others followed. One would go and get started and they would come back and tell how it was. My Daddy worked at Sparrow’s Point, too, and then my sister and her husband went down and he worked there. This was before the depression days. He had an old car. When they had laid them off and my brother-in-law got ready to come home, he didn’t have any money. He went to the company store. He had a gas tank and he put it up on his car. They put another tank in the back seat and got gas and came home with it. From there he went to work on a farm doing orchard work for the Fox Brothers up here at Batesville, spraying trees.”

Lucille Davis, on left, and Carrie Maupin Davis, with hammer, make repairs to a tenant-house-turned-hunting-lodge at Rocky Bar Farm near Boonesville. “Russell Davis owned Rocky Bar Farm,” recalled Chester Shiflett. “They would move all the furniture out up there on Saturday nights and have dances. Preacher Shifflett played fiddle. A whole bunch of ‘em used to play there.” (Courtesy of the Larry Lamb Collection)

Life in these United States changed dramatically with our country’s entry into World War II. There was no exception for the boys from Blackwell’s Hollow, and neither did they shrink away when duty called. At age 19, Clyde entered the U.S. Navy, serving honorably overseas until 1946. “I was 18 when the war started,” said Chester, a U.S. Army combat veteran. “The day I turned 21, I got my enlistment papers. I was over there 18 months. I wish I could do that again, but I can’t do it now.”

Yet, the tone was somber as they reflected on the fate of several of their friends from The Hollow during the war: Avis, killed; Lewis, leg shot off; Lawrence, two bullets from a burp-gun through an arm; Davis and Billy, prisoners-of-war…

“But, Clyde, boy-o-boy, here we are, you and I, still buddies. Born only a couple miles apart, and we go separated that far… yeah, those were good ol’ days.”

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 © 2003–2018 Phil James 

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