Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Signs of the Times

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Mechums River Depot at milepost 192 on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway marked the beginning point of Claudius Crozet’s Blue Ridge Railroad project. The original depot there opened in December 1852. (Photo courtesy of Ruby Starke Sandridge)

Better read those signs carefully before you make your choices.

A hand-lettered sign hanging from an exposed ceiling joist above the cash register at Tarry’s Store near White Hall said, “Look. Look. CASH or NO go. No credit. No Loans. Massie Tarry.” Unfortunately, a pair of armed robbers did not pause to read that bluntly stated directive in March 1955 when they rushed into Tarry’s establishment intent on making a withdrawal.

Massie Tarry rebuilt his store alongside the Doyle’s River north of White Hall following the destructive flood of 1942. Years of experience dealing with the public led to his hand-lettered sign posted above the cash register: “Look. Look. CASH or NO go. No credit. No Loans. Massie Tarry” (Photo courtesy of John Hughes)

Without too many words, the 73-year-old African- American proprietor told them that was a bad idea, and then let fly with a soft drink bottle, whereupon the one with a .22-pistol shot him just above the heart. When Tarry reeled from the impact, the other assailant ran around the counter and stabbed him twice in the shoulder. The 300+ lb. storekeeper managed to stay on his feet, countered with a fusillade of drink bottles and drove the two out of his store, collapsing in the parking lot as the thwarted bandits roared north in their ‘47 Mercury.

Public facilities initially were racially segregated at the Great Smokey Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks. A 1938 Guide Map for SNP identified the “Lewis Mountain Picnic Ground for Colored People.” The Lewis Mountain Negro Area at Skyline Drive milepost 57.5 was opened in 1940. The Negro Traveler’s Green Book, until it ceased publication in 1967, directed its readers to Camp Lewis Mountain. (Photo courtesy of National Park Service)

By the grace of God, within moments Leonard Sandridge Sr. and Charlie Gray pulled up to the store in their Sandridge Oil Company delivery truck from Crozet. While one of them knelt alongside the wounded Tarry, the other made haste back to Piedmont Store at White Hall and placed a call to Albemarle Sheriff W.S. Cook. Twenty-four hours later, Cook had the bad guys behind bars with their signed confessions in hand, while Mr. Tarry (1883–1966) was on the road to recovery, resting comfortably in the hospital.

Signs. How would we get along without them? They advertise and identify businesses and events; show us what’s playing at the movie houses; tell us where to turn; and lead guests right to our doorstep. They can alert us to danger, or give us information as to what’s what, and who’s who.

The entrance to Crozet Drive-In Theater was on Rothwell Lane off Jarmans Gap Road. The outdoor theater operated from the summer of 1951 until the early 1960s. Len Lamm and others through the years have preserved its marquee signage. (Photo by Phil James)

Antique photos of cities and towns have much added interest when early signage is shown, almost a story in a story. In the heyday of traveling tent circuses, advance teams of workers with brushes, glue and paper signs would plaster colorful advertisements in host towns along the show’s circuit. Burma-Shave signs once entertained travelers on otherwise desolate stretches of highways out west. Ubiquitous campaign signs are a source of political pride for some—and a bane to others.

In Charlottesville, Arthur L. “Stubby” Stubbs (1914–2002) is recalled as a civic-minded banjoist who wrote and recorded a popular song for the city’s Bi-Centennial Celebration. He was also a sign painter. In an era before large vinyl wraps, he hand-painted colorful logos on the large fleet of trucks and trailers for Morton Frozen Foods in Crozet, helping to advertise that brand all across the country. He would sign his work with a small caricature of himself wearing a bowler hat and a short cigar clenched in his teeth, and the name Stubby beneath.

Waldo Johnson (1923-1990) was an African-American WWII veteran whose artistic talents led him first into a career as a sign painter and installer in Charlottesville. He advertised as “Waldo E. Johnson, SIGNS, Special rates on Truck & Taxi Lettering – Panels – Real Estate Signs.” In 1966, the soft-spoken former U.S. Marine Corps Corporal made a career change when he assumed the challenges of art teacher at Albemarle High School, and, for years afterward, inspired and encouraged young artists.

The original Piedmont Store building at White Hall is the oldest extant country store in Albemarle County. Joe Jones preserved this colorful sign from the 1950s era when his father Clarence operated that business. (Photo by Phil James)

When the highway bandits left Massie Tarry’s in a cloud of dust and flying pop bottles around noon on that fateful spring day in 1955, it was later discovered that the attempt near White Hall was their third in three months. Their ill-conceived plans had proven moderately successful in their first two hold-ups—before they encountered more “man” than they had bargained for during their third. Additionally, the Sandridge Oil Company team had noticed the model of their car when it passed through White Hall a few minutes earlier, and had passed that tip along to the sheriff. This was not the bandits’ first run-in with the law, and the experienced lawman, with able back-up, soon located them.

The Crozet Angels car club was representative of the avid teen car culture of the 1950s. V.L. James designed and ordered these custom plates for display on the cars of his fellow club members. (Courtesy of the V.L. James family)

Warily watching in their rear-view as they had headed north, the foiled perpetrators, who were not unfamiliar with the area, might have gauged their getaway progress as they passed by the signs for Joe Blackwell’s Store at Doylesville, Roy Blackwell’s Store at Mountfair, Shifflett’s Store in Brown’s Cove, Lucy Ruebush Walton’s Store in Blackwell’s Hollow, and Henry Davis’s Store on the corner at Boonesville.

It was a real good chance that they did not turn right at Davis’s Store because that would have taken them back past Edgar Morris’s Store north of Free Union. They had robbed Mr. Morris three months earlier, a crime they later confessed to have undertaken after they “got the idea for the robbery from a movie they saw that day in Charlottesville and decided to try it out.”

Oh, if their hearts could only have been pricked in some way by the hand-lettered sign above Tarry’s cash register, instead of being blinded by the marquee lights advertising the movie “Drive a Crooked Road” at the Lafayette Theater in downtown Charlottesville. 

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: www.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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