Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Mountfair’s Extraordinary John Stone

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Victoria Shifflett Morris (1895–1964) (left), a noted singer of old ballads, performed at the White House for President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Orilla Madison Keyton (1889–1953), a neighbor of Mrs. Morris at Mountfair, was sought out for her repertoire of old ballads. She often was cited by those to whom she had passed down her traditional songs. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Folk-Lore Society collection, UVA Special Collections.

A new graded school at Mountfair in rural western Albemarle County opened in the fall of 1916, consolidating three one-room country schools. Students passed between stately porch columns to enter the inspiring edifice that contained four large classrooms on two floors plus a window-lined basement auditorium with a raised stage. Teacher Mrs. Fanny M. Bruce, a great believer in books, established a school library.

Mountfair was very much alive at this time, having a post office, two stores, a gristmill and blacksmith in the heart of the village, in addition to a stave mill, a barrel heading mill, and a sassafras mill that offered wage-providing jobs. Several large estates in the area employed year-round and seasonal laborers in farming and orchards.

John Stone, public school teacher and longtime president of the Virginia Folk-Lore Society, was an avid seeker of English and Scottish ballads and of that passing generation of singers. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Folk-Lore Society collection, UVA Special Collections.

John Stone (1877–1955) arrived at Mountfair in 1919. The Culpeper County native, and son of a Baptist preacher, had two decades of teaching experience, having already taught in the counties of Louisa, Nelson, and Northampton on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Possessed of seemingly boundless energy, Stone nurtured a passion for the ballads of old.

The Virginia Folk-Lore Society was founded in 1913 by U.Va. Professor of English Dr. C. Alphonso Smith (1864–1924), its purpose being to “discover, collect, publish and thus preserve the folk-lore of Virginia…” Public school teachers throughout the state were charged, “in the name of education,” to search systematically for ballads surviving in their communities.

As the Society’s first president and archivist, Smith heeded the call of Harvard Professor Frances James Child, who had sounded an urgent alarm that the antique songs of old England and Scotland, passed down through generations by oral tradition, were vanishing with the decease of the last of the elders who carried them.

Maude Sheplett [Mrs. Bryce] Walton (1889–1991) of Boonesville (photo inset, and pictured standing between doors) sang the ballad “Young Hunting” for John Stone at Mountfair, western Albemarle Co., in November 1919. During that time, adjacent to Mountfair School, Maude’s husband Bryce was working at Dorsey Wilberger’s barrel heading mill. Although the Waltons’ home was only seven miles away, they rented this house close to his job site and stayed there as a family until the work contracts were finished. The Waltons’ temporary residence made for mighty easy pickin’s for the far-ranging ballad hunter Stone. Photos by W.B. Hawley, Moorman’s River, VA; courtesy of Larry Lamb.
John Stone sat in the gallery at U.Va.’s Cabell Hall for one of Professor Smith’s Summer School sessions in 1914. While listening to Dr. Smith talk of the work of saving the surviving ballads, Stone recalled, “Right then I decided that I had found some use for my fondness for singing old songs. I became a ballad hunter.”

To illustrate his passion as an apt seeker of the elusive songs, Stone wrote to Professor Smith in November 1915: “In Culpeper one day, I walked fourteen miles, raised four blisters on my feet and walked lame for a month. The next day, in spite of the blisters, I walked seven more, but finished with versions [of four more ballads].”

Smith, with a nod to John Stone, remarked to the Society at its next meeting, “If we ever select a flag or standard for our Society, I propose for its heraldic device a hurrying heel or fleeting foot glorified with four large blisters and underneath it these inspiring words: ‘In hoc signo vinces.’ (‘In this sign you will conquer’).”

Mountfair School in western Albemarle County opened in 1916, replacing three one-room country schools, including the nearby Antrim School, Brown’s Cove School, and Bluff Dale School located between Doylesville and Sugar Hollow. It was closed in the 1950s, and its students were transferred to White Hall School. Courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection.

Stone was elected president of the Virginia Folk-Lore Society in 1916, keeping that position into the 1940s. In September of ’16, the eminent English ballad authority Cecil J. Sharp, accompanied by his secretary Maud Karpeles, visited Albemarle County for ten days at the invitation of Prof. Smith. During this visit and another in 1918, Sharp and Karpeles ranged amidst the western foothill communities from Afton on the Nelson County line, through Greenwood and Crozet, and north into Brown’s Cove. Later, John Stone, by virtue of his extended residency at Mountfair, had additional success collecting between White Hall and Boonesville.

Numbered among the singers encountered by these and other ballad hunters along western Albemarle’s foothills were Raz Shifflett and his daughter Miss Etta and her brothers at Blackwell’s Hollow; Miss Hazel L. Garrison, “Aunt Het”, and Hill Jackson at Brown’s Cove; and Mrs. Ella Wood at Doylesville.

On Frazier’s Mountain above Mission Home, they were received and entertained by Podger Garrison. John Stone remarked about Mr. Garrison, “Podg’ not only sings ballads, but he also makes them. He sang two of his own compositions for me. One was about a coon hunt and the other about a mock fight in the snow.”

In the Mountfair community (John Stone’s base of operation for several years), singers included Wesley Batten and Miss Ruby Herndon (a student at Mountfair School); and Mrs. Orilla Madison Keyton, Ozro Keyton, Mrs. Victoria Shifflett Morris, Maude Sheplett Walton, and Newell Walton.

At White Hall, in November 1920, Thomas C. Clark, 77, sang 15 verses of the ballad “Sweet William and Lady Margaret” for John Stone. “He learned this ballad when a boy of 15,” Stone noted, “from James Ripitoe, a boy of about the same age and son of Capt. Ripitoe [of Sugar Hollow], at that time sheriff of Albemarle. Mr. Clark was unable to recite the words, but could sing them. He said he had not sung them more than a few times in the last twenty years.”

C. Alphonso Smith, Professor of English, UVA, 1909–1917, and founder of the Virginia Folk-Lore Society. In 1917, prior to the selection of a publishing editor for the Society’s ballad collection, John Stone wrote to Smith, “I may be an oddity; but these old songs are my personal friends, and I’d hate for such valued acquaintances to be introduced to strangers by one who maybe doesn’t appreciate their full worth.” Photo courtesy of the Virginia Folk-Lore Society collection, UVA Special Collections.

For two months during his summer teaching break in 1921, and again for a month in 1922, the inimitable Mr. Stone embarked on far-reaching ballad collecting trips, traversing the Commonwealth to seek ballads among the counties which had not yet been accounted. Of one particular instance he wrote, “Hoping to find an old man who I had been told could sing songs, I started up the side of White Top, the highest mountain in Virginia. I found the man [Mr. George Hart], and sitting there on the mountain-side on a green bank under a large tree, I wrote from his singing and dictation seventeen ballads ranging in length from twenty-eight stanzas to a fragment of one stanza. For nearly six hours I did not get off the ground. The old man’s dinner bucket was at his elbow, but he did not lift the lid. He told me he had gotten up from the supper table to sing and had stopped to wash his face for breakfast. The next day a gentleman told me the statement was true because he was there at the time. The singer could neither read nor write. Four times on my trip into that part of Virginia, people told me that when they were young they had sung all night.”

The passing of that sturdy generation has left us poorer, but not nearly so than if the energies and passion of a multitude of teachers such as John Stone had not recognized the inherent worth of those singers and the songs they had hidden in their hearts.

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

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