The front door of Granddaddy’s modest four-room country bungalow opened into a parlor that was used only for rare special occasions. It was almost never a route taken during day-to-day activities. The parlor’s interior doorway remained covered with a drape so heat and dust from the rest of the house did not escape into the dimly lit, reserved area. Likewise, the window coverings were kept tightly drawn to protect upholstered furniture from unnecessary fading.
Apart from slipping past that drapery to explore, as young children are wont to do, the only time this writer was “officially” in the parlor room was at age 14, during Granddaddy’s funeral which was conducted in his home, with the open casket bearing his body placed in the parlor.
Family and friends knew to enter around back, past the pump house, and up three steps to the storm door leading into an enclosed, shed-roofed porch. Three more doors were encountered on the porch. Straight ahead was the home’s real back door that entered into the living/dining room. This one room was where visitors settled in. A potbellied coal stove, the only source of heat, was near the center of the room.
Off the porch through a doorway to the right was a simple kitchen, containing, most notably, a small table with two chairs and a Montgomery Ward 1930s-style Hoosier cabinet. A pitcher pump mounted at the sink was the only form of indoor plumbing.
The third door on the back porch was the most intriguing of all. It was in the floor and opened by way of a cable and pulley system. Steep steps led down into the darkness. Pulling a dangling string turned on the single naked light bulb revealing a hand-dug, dirt-floor basement with rough-sawn floor joists overhead.
Only twice was I privileged to enter into that underworld. The sole lingering memory from the first trip was seeing several stacked crates of Dr. Pepper soft drinks. I thought Granddaddy must have been one of the richest people in the world. In my world, at least, he ranked right up there. Back in the early ’40s, Daddy was a route salesman for Dr. Pepper. From that time forward, it was the only soft drink that Granddaddy kept on hand. Whenever the popular brand was mentioned, Momma always recited that company’s “10, 2, and 4” jingle.
The other time I went into the basement was on the day of Granddaddy’s funeral. The men-folk, wary of additional weight that would be bearing on the floors of the small country house packed with mourners, pressed a few extra floor support posts into strategic areas. It was a grown-up feeling being allowed under the house in their good company.
Around back of the house, shielded from the gaze of curious passers-by, a small grape arbor stood next to the pump house that also housed the wringer washer. Down a path from there, bearing right at a corner of the expansive garden, the first small building encountered on the left was the family’s two-hole johnny house. Next on the left was a long, low-roof shed containing garden and hand tools, shelves and bins filled with important shed stuff, and feed for the milk cow and the several head of sheep that were raised for meat and wool. At the far end was a diminutive stable area where the hand-milking was done.
On nearly every trip to Granddaddy’s, following the obligatory piece of time spent sitting inside and listening to the old folks talk, I was permitted to go outside and explore to my heart’s content around back of the house.
Every town and village has “around back” places that the general public seldom sees. Businesses, being for-profit affairs, always put their best face forward to welcome customers. Sidewalks are swept and parking areas policed for neatness. The establishment’s coat of fresh paint might end where delivery services are turned into an adjacent alleyway.
Around back, heavy doors, barred windows and protective lighting are intended to dissuade the bad guys from even attempting an after-hours incursion. There are the loading platforms, discarded packaging and moldering collections of whatever is the specialty of the house, be it past-prime fruits and vegetables, appliance skeletons, or inoperable vehicles and machinery.
Jim Crow laws and local customs brought the segregation of races in many areas of public life and interactions, and another meaning to “around back.” The village of Crozet was no exception to the rule of that day. At the C&O train depot, the entrance to the waiting room and ticketing window, adjacent to the baggage room at the back end of the building, was identified with “Colored” signage. Eating establishments, including the soda fountain at the local drug store, denied the seating together of the races.
“The Blue Goose building down here on Main Street was segregated,” recalled Frances Walker Hill. “It’s the same building now as it was then. You came on around beside this building to the back door of Mrs. Mae Owsley’s kitchen. If you wanted a chicken sandwich, or salad or something, you had to come to this back door and Miss Mae would have Lillian Spears fix it for you and give it to you at the back door. You couldn’t come in that front door and get it.
“If you didn’t know it—like you was riding out and you would say, ‘here’s a tavern,’ a eating place—if you stopped there with your girlfriend or something, y’all couldn’t eat in that dining hall. They would sell you the food, but you had to go around to the back door to get it.”
Jane O’Neill Graham grew up during the 1920s and ‘30s at Pleasant Green, Abram Wayland’s 19th-century homeplace at Crozet. Among her treasured recollections of those years of her life were the spaces, places, and people that were around back of their rambling old manor house.
“There were several out buildings on the place,” she wrote, “including an ice house, wood house, barn, grain house, and a small dairy house with spring water flowing through to keep the milk, butter, etc. cold. Down the hill on the creek was a little house where ‘Ant’ Betty’ lived. She was a black woman who helped in the house and also did all the laundry. We loved to go down and visit with her.”
In its extremes, being directed “around back” might have been considered a sign of familial privilege, or, in a darker era, an ill-conceived social mores. May we move forward perpetuating the wholesome joys of our past and setting only good examples for others to follow.
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 © 2003–2020 Phil James