Why Crozet: Practical Skills Prove Valuable in Difficult Times

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Vicky Brunjes: “Life is full of things we can learn.” Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

This article is sixth in a series

It’s important, where we live and why. That’s why county planners began community input into the master plan by asking new residents why they came here, and long-time neighbors why they stay. Besides the beautiful views, clean air, good schools and independent businesses, it was clear that the community values its people. Crozet and its surrounding countryside is home to people who have all kinds of practical skills forgotten by our more urban neighbors. As the Crozet area begins to open up, we find that those who have always valued self-reliance—some of them in a vulnerable class who will still wait a while to venture out—have put their knowledge to good use during lockdown.

Making something from nothing

If you’d like a lesson in survival on a desert island, or during a pandemic, Vicky Brunjes would be a good teacher. She can transform a handful of seeds into bread, a dead tree into furniture and bowls, a bag of raw wool into a warm garment. To say that she likes to fend for herself is an understatement: she has learned to make, grow, or re-purpose a great deal of what’s needed to sustain her life. On top of that, she’s a nurse who spent 15 years working in one of the most demanding specialties there is. “I’ve always been this way,” she said.

Some of her how-to projects were intentional, others were suggested by circumstance, as one interest led to another in her life. When her children were young, she resolved to be at home, and raised turkeys, chickens and lambs on a farm in North Garden, providing meat and eggs for her family. 

“All of my children named lamb curry as their favorite dish, which made them kind of unusual among their friends,” she said. Naturally, she learned to butcher and dress the fowl, and to find uses for the mountains of wool that piled up at shearing time. She already knew how to knit and sew, so she took up spinning and weaving, making sweaters and other wool clothing for the family. 

She’s found that everything has a part to play. A tree fell down, so that was a source of stools, chairs and tables. It also provided the inspiration for her to learn to turn wooden bowls, and she made 50 of them. Looking for a source of lightweight clothing for summer wear, she grew cotton to spin and weave.

When her children were school-age, she and her husband, Peter Brunjes, moved to a home in Ivy, and she went to nursing school. While she worked as an oncology nurse, first at U.Va. and then at Martha Jefferson Hospital, she maintained a garden limited by shade. Retired for eight years now, she was able to expand her fascination for making something from nothing by buying a plot of nearby land in a sunnier spot specifically for a garden.

A sourdough loaf from home-grown wheat, threshed and milled by hand. Brunjes also made the runner from wool she sheared, and the bowl and table from a tree that fell. Photo: Malcolm Andrews

Wanting fresh whole-grain bread, she planted wheat, barley, and rye, and learned to thresh and mill it at home. “Threshing is tricky,” she said. So, in addition to the three kinds of wheat she grows, she buys sacks of whole grain to mill, grinding bags of flour for friends who now can’t find it in stores. She’s tried milling mixtures of different grains, even grinding dried beans into flour. “You can’t buy the kind of quality that you get from making things yourself,” she said.

She loves to experiment: “I always have several kinds of each crop going in the garden,” she said. “I always say I have a little of a lot of things.”  Besides the wheat, she’s growing oats and is contemplating growing her own rice this year. She’ll sow different kinds of corn, one for eating fresh, one for popcorn, one for grinding into cornmeal, one for its pleasing color. She raises peanuts and artichokes, and four different kinds of potatoes. In mid-May, strawberries were just coming in, and she has all the typical summer vegetables underway as well. 

Brunjes cans tomatoes and green beans, makes jelly and jam, and freezes some of her harvest. But her main goal is to have a steady stream of fresh food. “I would like to have something from the garden every week, year-round,” she said.

There’s no sign that her curiosity is diminishing. She said her life is still full of things to learn. And there are a few things she hasn’t tried yet, but may in the future. For instance, she said, “I’ve never made shoes.”

Ten Weeks and Counting

In mid-May, Anne Chapin had not been to the store for ten weeks. Although it was a little longer than she usually waits between trips, Chapin is no fan of shopping. “It’s not that I mind the actual shopping so much. It’s just that I don’t like wasting the time,” she said. Chapin, an educator, has a kind of four-part strategy that’s kept her and her husband, Curtis Peterson, well-fed and happy at their home in White Hall.

Anne Chapin in her White Hall garden: “I always thought it was part of being a grown up.” Photo: Malcolm Andrews

She’s the first to say that a large part of her success has been luck. “I’d just stocked up right before,” she said. “And I did a really big shopping trip because we had expected to host a large party here, which was called off, of course.” Expecting to cook for a crowd, she laid in a store of onions, garlic and beans: “If they showed up today, I could probably still feed forty,” she said, “although I’ve been making smaller batches of chili from time to time.” She also tends to keep track of what’s in her pantry to reduce her time on the road seeking provisions. As it happens, she was training for the Boston Marathon, so she’d been paying a lot of attention to keeping nutritious food on hand. 

There’s more than luck afoot, though: the second part of her pandemic plan is the homesteading skills the couple has developed over time. The weather did cooperate somewhat to provide the present bumper crop of greens overflowing in the greenhouse, but she’s the one who kept an eye on the weather and rushed out with blankets, rugs and sheets to give them cover during frigid nights. 

The hens are a significant part of Anne Chapin’s pandemic strategy. Photo: Malcolm Andrews

She also credits Peterson for planting them: “Honestly, I thought he was crazy to plant in the winter, but it turns out that we have more fresh food then we can eat.” And the supply will not end when the greens bolt, as they’ve planted almost every conceivable vegetable in their raised beds.

Then there’s the chickens, a few hens that, though elderly, still provide the modest number of eggs needed for their breakfasts and baking. Manure from the hens and Chapin’s horse, along with household and yard waste, furnish the compost that nourishes the prolific gardens. They don’t eat much meat, so the national shortage has not bothered them. 

The couple’s self-sufficient attitude extends to the kitchen. If they want English muffins with their breakfast, Chapin just makes them, and pizza night means she raids her refrigerator stash of homemade dough rather than calling for take-out. 

She’s quick to recognize the third element of her strategy, the help of a close-knit community of friends who keep an eye on each other. She ran out of milk for her coffee, and was getting ready to make cashew milk when a friend came by, masked and gloved, with two cartons of half-and-half. Another friend showed up with some young chicks to join the venerable fowl in the chicken house, and another shared a heap of pomegranates she’d found on sale at a box store. 

The greenhouse and early gardens enabled the couple to have fresh greens long before summer vegetables came in. Photo: Malcolm Andrews

The fourth part of the pandemic plan has to do more with a state of mind than anything else, Chapin said. “If I ran out of coffee, I’d just drink tea. If I don’t have an ingredient, I’ll substitute or make something else.” She’s been able to do some work from home and Peterson, a retired businessman, has embarked on a program of musical instruction as well as extensive work in the gardens. 

“We’re low maintenance, no drama here,” Chapin said. “‘And we’ve always tried to approach things with the attitude that we can learn whatever we need to, make do with whatever we have. I just thought that was part of being a grownup.”

Learning the hard way

Fred Williamson learned as a boy to make what he needed from simple materials. The son of a missionary, he spent much of his childhood in the Belgian Congo. That’s where he discovered that he could fashion his own kites, forts and treehouses. Then, a go-kart left behind by a United Nations staff member introduced him to mechanics at an early age. “There was really no choice there but to make do,” Williamson said. 

Bees sweeten life for Fred Williamson and his family. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

His father, a Presbyterian minister, chose difficult places for his work. For his son’s teenage years, the family moved to the Kentucky coal fields, and by the late ’70s, the younger Williamson had left home and acquired enough skills to build a house and a homestead in rural West Virginia. “I just didn’t have enough sense,” he said. “I charged right into it. So, I was always learning the hard way.” 

But that’s how he got better, too. By the time Williamson and his partner, Mary Rice, moved to Virginia, he’d built several houses, figured out how to make his own solar panels, raised hundreds of bees, and learned how to tinker with cars, trucks and tractors. They brought the bees along, he said, and started on the new house in July of 1988. 

By October, they’d finished the basement, and moved inside before winter struck Sugar Hollow. Williamson did the plumbing and electricity as well as the carpentry, and the house got its final inspection by April. “I hesitate to say it was ‘finished,’” Williamson said. “In my experience, you’re never really finished.”  He’s found more projects during the pandemic, and has been improving a bird-feeding and primrose area at the back of the house.

Fred Williamson in his Sugar Hollow shop: “I just charged right into things.” Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Williamson said he’s pretty much always worked for himself, primarily using his wood-working skills. He’s best-known locally for his beautiful, hand-turned bowls. “I decided I’d specialize in them after I moved here,” he said. “They’re more accessible and there’s less time involved than in making an intricate piece of furniture that someone may or may not buy.” 

In a rural economy his other skills have proven useful, even though they’re given away freely. He’s the one neighbors call if they’re having trouble with anything from a lawn mower to a truck. “I love to be able to help out in that way.” He’s found a community of like-minded friends who have collaborated on mask-making during the pandemic, and who trade tools and materials. 

Williamson had built several houses before building his home in Sugar Hollow. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

They also gather for a blueberry-picking party every year, filling pails with the fruit of the high bush berries Williamson transplanted from West Virginia. “I’ve learned that no one is self-sufficient,” he said. “Together, we can always be more self-reliant, though, and help each other.” He gave an example: When a neighbor was building his house, a concrete truck got stuck a ways from where it was needed, its huge load setting up by the minute. Williamson was on his way over to greet the newcomers with some blueberries, saw the situation, and was able to use his scoop to transfer the material in several trips to the footings where needed before it hardened. Later, the neighbor returned the favor by using his bulldozer to push off debris left from Williamson’s finished bowls. 

Does a man willing to turn his hand to almost anything have a favorite? “I love to make toys and structures for children,” he said. In the winter, when craft shows are few and outdoor chores are less demanding, Williamson, Rice, and a small group of friends make puppets for a shadow puppet show that Williamson writes. “I am thinking this year about a dragon,” he said. “It will be the dragon’s conflict with an enemy he can’t see, a tiny microbe he can’t find, a virus.”  

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