Secrets of the Blue Ridge: War and Peace–and Christmas in the Mountains

Parishioners departed for home following a Christmas program on High Top Mountain in Greene County. Mission services were first held in an old school building at that place. Photo courtesy of the Larry Lamb Collection.

Memories of Christmases-past rest deep in certain old souls, waiting quietly there to be called forth by melodies, fragrances, an old photograph, or delicate tree ornament. Secretly we yearn for a former time when our surroundings seemed a little safer, family and friends a little closer, and life, even in the throes of undeniable hardships, a bit gentler.

A century or so ago, World War I released its survivors back to the communities from which they had been called two years prior. Only weeks following the armistice of 1918, Frederick W. Neve (1855–1948), storied Archdeacon of the Blue Ridge, reflected on those grim years of worldwide conflict. “I have always thought,” wrote Neve, “that the greatest battle of all would come after the war was over and peace had been proclaimed.

“It is so easy to drift back into the old ruts and grooves and to allow the great sacrifices of the war to have been made in vain. This would be a greater tragedy even than the war itself. It would mean that the war had really been lost, even though it seemed to have been won.

A Christmas dinner party at Upper Pocosan Mission in Greene County. Following a visit to Pocosan Mountain in 1918, Archdeacon Neve wrote, “… the road was about as steep in places as it could possibly be without being an actual precipice.” Photo courtesy of the Larry Lamb Collection.

“We are at the turning point in the world’s history, and if we are not willing to make the effort to reach higher ground and to build up a better and higher civilization than the one that is passing away, we shall sink to a lower level than ever before.”

Miss Margaret Proffe (1877-1964) was the Resident Teacher in 1919 at the new schoolhouse at Blackwell’s Hollow Mission in western Albemarle County where 42 scholars were enrolled. She wrote, “Our little church never looked prettier in its holiday dress of evergreens, than it did this year during our Christmas tree festival!” Photo courtesy of the Larry Lamb Collection.

Archdeacon Neve, working from his home base in the village of Ivy, was himself facing renewed challenges with his outreach to the underserved in the more isolated mountain reaches of Albemarle, Greene, Rockingham and Page Counties. Called from England in 1888 to serve full-time between churches at Ivy and Greenwood, in 1890 Neve established (in his spare time) a mission outpost in the nearby Ragged Mountains. By the time of the signing of the armistice, his outreach efforts entailed 39 mission points, comprised of 27 churches, 15 schools, two hospitals, several dedicated homes for workers, along with the principal responsibility of raising the funds for their staffing and operation. Additionally, regular ministry took place at the Children’s Home in Charlottesville and the County Home for the elderly.

From Mission Home, straddling the border of Albemarle and Greene, one worker shared, “Now that the war drums beat no longer and battle flags are furled, we feel less reluctant about bringing forth our needs. The problem of even keeping warm in the mountains brings a great and real need, and that is a sawing machine to saw our winter’s wood.”

Community gathered to lay the cornerstone for Grace Church at Red Hill. From horse and buggy to motor car, from overcoats, stocking hats and gloves, to short pants and bare feet, the diversity of the attendees illustrated the importance of a new house of worship to a previously underserved neighborhood. Photo courtesy of the Larry Lamb Collection.

Work came to a near halt in several of the mountain communities because of the Spanish Influenza pandemic, from that visitor that silently tagged home with the returning soldiers. “The weather at this time was truly frightful,” wrote Anne Mackall Turner, a mission worker caring for the ill on Frazier Mountain above Mission Home. “The mountains were sheathed in ice and snow, making walking difficult and dangerous. I do not know how we could have managed without our good friend Mr. George Frazier, who brought us wood, water, and other necessities, and was, in fact, the only medium between ourselves and the outside world; for we found ourselves boycotted by one and all on account of influenza, of which they have almost a superstitious dread.

“Entire households were stricken with influenza and unable to wait on themselves or each other. Miss Winegar and I carried them proper nourishment, etc. A mother and child were in the advanced stages of “flu,” and no hope held out for their recovery. The little son had breathed his last beside her before I reached the house, and the next day the mother died. The mother and child were buried in the same grave, in the church-yard at Mission Home, Miss Winegar conducting the services, as Mr. Lewis, after his recent illness, was physically unable to face the exposure of the weather.”

High atop Tanner’s Ridge in Page County, between Pine Grove Church and Big Meadows, men from that mountain community banded together to dig out from a heavy snowfall.Photo courtesy of the Larry Lamb Collection.

Yet, throughout the archdeaconry, as around the world, Christmas was approaching. At Holy Cross Mission, near Batesville, a sale of Christmas toys was held, and plans were made for starting a clothing bureau.

Mollie Maddox wrote, “We have regular preaching twice a month at Forest Lodge, Hickory Hill and Red Hill, when no one is sick, or Mr. Walke’s car doesn’t give out, or the horse can pull through the mud. Our Christmas gifts were all the more appreciated, as we were not expecting much this year on account of the war and war prices. ‘Santa Claus’ was mighty good to us.”

At St. John the Baptist Mission, Neve’s original outreach point in the Ragged Mountains, a worker wrote, “We are now looking forward to the blessed season of Christmas when the words, “Peace on Earth” will have a still deeper meaning, and we are preparing a small entertainment in connection with the tree which we hope to have on December 27th.”

A child clutched her Christmas doll babies at one of the missions in the Archdeaconry of the Blue Ridge. Volunteer mission workers and donations of support for this faith outreach came from individuals and churches far beyond the borders of Virginia. Photo courtesy of the Larry Lamb Collection.

“Perhaps this is the time to tell you,” wrote a visitor to the Christmas celebration led by Miss Juliet Pretlow at St. Luke’s Mission at Simeon, “about the three boys who took their lanterns on the rainy Christmas Eve and went to the mountain for greens with which to decorate the church for the Christmastide. When the morning came, the materials were all at hand and the good work went on most merrily…

“The benediction was pronounced by Mr. [Rev. W. Roy] Mason, and the people, gathered from far and near, were eager to start on their homeward way, while the words of the last hymn lingered in their minds:

‘Mild He lays His glory by,

Born that man no more may die,

Born to raise the sons of earth,

Born to give them second birth.’

“In parting, someone said, ‘And now we shall look forward to Easter.’ May we all catch this spirit of ‘looking forward.’” 

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: or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2019 Phil James


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