Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Touchstones, Progress, and Posterity

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Crozet merchant A.E. “Elmer” Rea (1886–1980) signed a lease agreement with the Sinclair Refining Company in 1936. The iconic architecture of the village’s Sinclair filling station, captured c.1949 by photographer Mac Sandridge, endured along with its full complement of automotive services until that corner’s major makeover into a contemporary convenience stop in 2001.

Granny’s patchwork quilt. Granddaddy’s old straw hat. Poppa’s pocket watch. Momma’s timeworn Bible with sentimental treasures pressed between its pages: a dried flower, a lock of child’s hair, a faded photograph, a handwritten note. There are things that we hold dear and no price tag could ever define their worth.

Family reunions and special occasions can offer up tastes of the past in the form of time-honored recipes lovingly refined in an ancestral kitchen. The vegetable or flower garden might yield an heirloom variety carefully preserved and passed down to faithful stewards.

However, the world in which we live exacts change, too. A hand-wrought log structure and the era that it represented is covered over and forgotten in needed expansions. A Corinthian-columned edifice that represented the hard labors and resulting prosperity of one generation is razed for a parking lot required by the next. Progress is seldom a respecter of persons, nor, by its very nature, is it often a protector of the past.

A water-powered gristmill was in operation by around 1790 at the confluence of Lickinghole Creek and Mechum’s River in western Albemarle County. Traffic past its front door picked up greatly after 1805 with improvements to Brown’s Gap Turnpike. Successfully operated by generations of dusty millers, its demise came as a result of a consuming fire, not floodwaters, in 1951. (Photo courtesy of the John W. “Bill” Clayton Jr. family)

The Commonwealth of Virginia in the 1920s and ’30s exacted a terrific price from hundreds of its citizens, old and young alike, living in the eight counties where a proposed national playground was to be established. Today, relatively few of Shenandoah National Park’s millions of visitors who strain at the speed limit imposed on its Skyline Drive realize that the forests lining that roadway conceal countless vestiges from other eras.

Scattered across 311 square miles of wooded hills and hollows are decaying gateposts and hewn log remnants, magnificent stone chimneys and moldering stove parts. Forged hand tools, decorated ceramics and children’s toys lie nearby once-protected springs of drinking water, each remnant bearing a silent testimony to the futility of the U.S. Department of Interior’s intent to remove all evidences of human habitation.

While pressing ahead with the expulsion of then-current residents, little consideration was assigned to other touchstones of history entrenched in those hills. There also existed pre-European traces of Native Americans and their sacred burial places, evidences of commercial interests that helped build and fuel a growing nation, scars left from wars fought across its blue ridges, and the now all-but-forgotten homes, schools, churches and cemeteries of those simply brushed aside.

Afton House in Nelson County east of Rockfish Gap was established in 1869 to serve the increasing public traffic arriving on the newly renamed Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. James R. Goodloe (1828-1911) welcomed visitors and presided over the hotel’s many social happenings for 50 years. That summer resort’s bucolic pleasures came to a sad end in 1963 when the original hotel was destroyed by fire.
(Courtesy of Phil James Historical Images Collection)

History is local, and it has been made in mountaintop gaps, at railroad crossings, and all along rural roadways. But Virginia’s story is our nation’s story, and there is much more to that saga than a quiver full of U.S. presidents. Goodwin and Rockefeller envisioned a day when a restored Colonial-era Williamsburg would pass along important lessons to another generation.

At Mechum’s River Depot, only a partial stone foundation and adjacent watering trough survive to whisper the stories of an important gristmill and busy turnpike at that place. In Brown’s Cove, there exists a former movie theater established by Randolph Louis White (1896-1991), founder of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Tribune, a newspaper that served the African American community 1954–1992.

A.C. Bruce’s Store was at Greenwood Depot alongside the circle where railroad locomotives were once turned about. Arthur Bruce (1862–1942) was appointed Greenwood postmaster in 1901, during a period when the post office was located inside his store. (Photo courtesy of E.O. Woodson Jr.)

The c.1814 Ficklin-Wayland House at Pleasant Green in Crozet is a true touchstone for that town’s beginnings. Benjamin Ficklin’s association with tobacco cultivation and his son’s involvement with the legendary Pony Express were followed by the Wayland family’s legacy of propagating the renowned Albemarle Pippin apple, a culinary delight of the Queen of England. Jeremiah Wayland had a business relationship with Colonel Claudius Crozet, the town’s namesake. Jere Wayland’s son Abram was instrumental in the establishment of the village and advancement of its early business district. A potential developer of Pleasant Green and surrounding property recently stated to the Crozet Gazette, “… if there’s something to be preserved there, I can assure you that it won’t be treated like other homes in the recent past.”

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp Albemarle was established at White Hall in 1933. For nine years, that facility housed rotating groups of 200 young men who enrolled under the Emergency Conservation Work Act during the Great Depression. They labored mostly on private lands performing forestry conservation-related jobs. During 1944–’46, Camp Albemarle was repurposed for 21 months to house German WWII prisoners-of-war who were made available for hire in local agriculture. Most of the camp’s buildings had been sold for salvage by the late 1940s. (Photo courtesy of NACCCA/CCC Legacy)

Each C&O railroad station from Charlottesville to Waynesboro (there were eight of them) had an adjacent hotel, advertised locally and promoted regionally by the railroad. Nineteenth-century railroads opened up the country for any who could afford a ticket to ride. Progress. Affordable automobiles in the early 20th century promised unfettered independent travel to all who could pay cash for a few gallons of cheap gasoline. Many of those new drivers then rode right past their little country mercantiles en route to the electric lights in town. Progress, yes, but at a terrific cost to the self-sufficiency of their old neighborhoods.

The log-bodied Corbin Hollow School in Madison County was lost, along with hundreds of other buildings including homes, churches and schools, with the 1936 establishment of Shenandoah National Park. Sisters Ruby Walton (Knight) and Nellie Walton (Ford) of Blackwell’s Hollow in western Albemarle taught and served the students at this remote schoolhouse. (Photo by Arthur Rothstein for the U.S. Resettlement Administration)

Today, many of the small railroad towns of old exist in name only. Depots and hotels gone. Post offices closed. Family-run stores repurposed, or gone. Good farmland has raised its last crop, houses. Inevitable progress, so they say.

As time moves on, so do our elders. The legacies, remnants—and responsibilities—of those lives pass to another generation, just as the previous ones passed down to them. Quilts and straw hats, souvenirs and real property. The prudence of choices made today will be weighed upon the scales of posterity. Drive slowly. 

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