Secrets of the Blue Ridge: A Memorial to Workers

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A rail maintenance crew on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway’s Mountain Subdivision prepares to depart Crozet at early light for another day of track inspection and repair. Sadly typical of many group images, workers in this photo are unidentified. (Photo courtesy of Frances Walker Hill)

Imagine for just a moment: if a memorial were raised to every worker who ever bent to a task, every plot of land that one passed by would be brimming with testimonials honoring those who once had labored in that place. Mile after mile, countryside to town, around the globe, and nary a name might we recognize.

In chapter 44 of the Apocryphal writings of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, verses 7–9 make mention of such a dilemma:

Aubrey O. James Sr. (1912–1993) was the eldest of three siblings. Married and the father of two, he grew up on a farm near White Hall, worked commercial peach orchards with his father, and was an independent dump truck owner/operator. Like many in western Albemarle County, he was pleased to take advantage of indoor, year-’round industrial manufacturing work when Morton Frozen Foods opened in Crozet in 1953. (Photo courtesy of Junior and Betty Jane Kent)

“All these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times.

There be [some] of them that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported.

And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.”

One purpose of Secrets of the Blue Ridge is to reflect on the labor—and voices where possible—of previous generations so that we are not completely ignorant of the ones who were here before us.

Sanford N. Hill Sr. (1905–1988) and his bride Frances Walker Hill (1919–2011) were trusted domestic workers in homes ranging from Ash Lawn (now Highland, former home of President James Monroe), to private residences at Farmington Country Club. They lived contentedly in their home on McComb Street in Crozet where they cherished the pleasant company of family and friends. (Photo courtesy of Frances Walker Hill)

Expertly laid stone walls that have defined boundaries for generations continue to amaze travelers on the byways in the Greenwood section of western Albemarle. African-American master stonemason Robert H. Green (1892­–1981) constructed some of them, and their longevity is a silent testimony to the skill of their maker.

Yet one needs not the ability to lift and stack tons of stone, as did Mr. Green. At the tender age of five, Vera Viola Via (1914–1964) contracted a severe case of poliomyelitis from which doctors allowed scant hope for her survival. Left twisted and deformed, she was shunned for a period even by an elementary school teacher. Yet she persevered with her family’s support, graduated from college in 1942, and dedicated herself to research and writing of the history of Albemarle County.

Leonard M. Morris (1893–1969) was the husband of noted ballad singer Victoria Shifflett Morris, and the father of three boys. A farmer and laborer, his image here was excerpted from a photo of apple pickers and packers at Walnut Level Farm near Mountfair. Agnew Morris Jr. remembered Leonard fashioning corn-cutting knives from wooden billets and discarded saw blades. Blackwell’s Store at Doylesville sold those sturdy, handcrafted tools. (Courtesy of Phil James Historical Images)

Over the next 22 years, more than 800 articles of her research were published in newspapers and magazines, even as she served on historical boards and committees. Some believed that near the end of her too-short life, it was only by pure will that she completed some final assignments before her heart and frail body gave out. The works she left behind contain a virtual storehouse of knowledge of our shared past that would not exist today without her efforts.

Virginia Wood Sandridge grew up at Walnut Level Farm near Mountfair in western Albemarle County during an age when the old ways had not yet given way to the new. “People up there worked like Turks,” Virginia said. “Couldn’t nobody stand to work like that today. They’re not strong enough. My grandmother always made lye soap. Those overalls and old clothes they had to wash on that farm, they couldn’t use the powder that we use today. No way! Took that old lye soap and scrubbed ‘em on a board.

“Old Aunt Martha Jackson would help Mother to cook for the thrashing machine men. They would have 17 and 18 men to feed when they were thrashing wheat and corn. If they didn’t finish, Mother would have some of them to spend the night. Then, of course, Mom would have to give them breakfast, and dinner too. Great day in the morning—cooking for all of them at one time! It would take two or three days sometimes.”

Neither was the work demand only for adults, especially in the African-American community. Frances Lelia Walker (Hill) was eight years old when she first was called upon to work in some of the homes in her neighborhood. “When Mr. Jack Phillips went down to the barber shop,” Frances said, “he used to walk. My mother’s house was right there on the corner. He would stop there and tell my mother that his wife wanted Frances to come up and help her. Go up there and wash dishes. Time for vegetables, go up there and help to pick ’em in the garden. Time for peaches, help peel peaches to can. Go down there to Babe Foster’s house next to the service station and help his wife wash and iron clothes.

“How many times have I and my sister pulled our wagon up there to Herbert’s Cold Storage and got ice on Sunday when we came back from Sunday School? We didn’t have to come on Main Street. Came back of there and brought it to the back of the Blue Goose building to Mrs. Mae Owsley’s kitchen. She ran the hotel there. Lillian [Spears] would have cooked the custard and got everything ready. We turned the ice cream freezer and that was an eight-gallon one, so you know how big that was. On Sunday, ice cream was their main dessert.”

John W. “Junior” Gentry Jr. (1907–1990) was born in Crozet, the youngest of seven siblings. Raised with the Gentry family work ethic of farmers, orchardists, and merchants, Junior rose to General Manager of the Waynesboro News-Virginian newspaper. Moving over to the Daily Progress newspaper at Charlottesville, he soon became President of that publication, then locally owned by the Lindsey family. (Photo courtesy of Hubert Gentry)

During the 1890s, Rev. Daniel Gregory Claiborne Butts (1848–1930) was for three years a resident in the Methodist parsonage at White Hall while shepherding by horseback a 75-mile circuit of seven churches.

Fellow theologian and Crozet resident Dr. John J. Lafferty (1837–1909) wrote a description of his person, shared here in part. “Rev. D.G.C. Butts is in height about 5’5”, yet compactly and strongly built. He is capable of endurance, works hard and stands the drain upon his energies without fatigue. Few men can perform the same amount of toil with equal ease. His carriage is as one who enjoys life. He never is debtor to the forge of another Carnegie.”

Hobart E. Shifflett (1923–1998) was married to Virginia, and widely known as the go-to man at hog butchering time in the Mountfair area. He is seen here assisting at the scalding pan just prior to hand-scraping the hair from a hog carcass. (Photo courtesy of Eldon “Sonny” and Mary Morris)

Following the close of his ministry, Rev. Butts was called upon to write down some of the experiences from his “50 years of unbroken service in the Itinerancy.” His published 1922 memoir From Saddle to City described those various assignments with a special emphasis on recollections of beloved members of each church where he had served. Among those recounted in old Albemarle were Oscar Early (1848–1912), his wife Mary Susan (daughter of Bezaleel Brown), and their adopted daughter Anna. A visit to their home required advanced notice, 23 stream crossings in the ten miles between the parsonage at White Hall and the Earlys’ home high upon the mountainside above Sugar Hollow, and an overnight stay.

In the preface to his book of recollections, Butts wrote, “If the story brings out on canvas the names of men and women whom the world never knew, and so had no chance to forget, the object of the writing is attained.” 

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 © 2003–2019 Phil James 

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