Secrets of the Blue Ridge: The Sugar Hollow Boys and the Great Bear Hunt of ’95

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This rustic rock shelter is located in the Calvary Rocks and Black Rock region of Shenandoah National Park’s South District. These shallow refuges, though not underground caves, such as might be coveted by bears and spelunkers alike, provided ready protection for prehistoric nomadic people. Photo by Anna Elisabeth Porter.

Way back in the late fall of 18-and-95, with crops put by and the chilled breezes hinting at the hardships of another mountain winter, a few of the fellows down in lower Sugar Hollow made designs for one more good outing with their hunting dogs before conditions got too raw to navigate.

Willie James, 29, a subsistence farmer like many of his neighbors, and a responsible father of four, and 43-year-old Rice Via, who operated the hollow’s water-powered grist and saw mill, knew they could count on William Washington “Wash” Via to join with them. Eighty-two-year-old Wash, whose grandfather had fought in the country’s War for Independence, and whose father served in the Virginia Militia during the War of 1812, was not one to pass up a good bear hunt. Few could hold a candle to his intimate knowledge of the nooks and crannies of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains.

George Rice Via (1852­–1907) and his wife Cornelia (Duff) had eight children, three of which died quite young. Rice, as he was commonly known, was a farmer and operator of the grist and sawmill that was located between today’s second and third bridges in Sugar Hollow. Courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection.

Completing this intrepid gang of four would be storied mountain man Oscar Early, 47, a scion of the namesake of the village of Earlysville in Albemarle County. Early was recalled in dramatic fashion by Rev. D.G.C. Butts, pastor of White Hall’s Mount Moriah Methodist Church, 1895–1898, in his autobiography From Saddle to City.

“Up in the very heart of the Blue Ridge in Sugar Hollow, near the head of Moorman’s River,” wrote Rev. Butts, “lived Oscar Early, a great big-bodied, big-hearted mountaineer. He could entertain by the hour with mi­raculous stories of mountain adventure, hair-breadth escapes from bears and wild-cats, and the successful chase of the hundred different kinds of varmints that infest those parts.”

To make their way to Oscar’s house, he continued, “One should leave [White Hall], in summer of course, after an early breakfast, strike out up the banks of Moorman’s River, crossing that stream twenty-three times in the ten miles to Mr. Early’s home.

“On the right as you approach the summit, is a spring of the purest water, as beautiful as a fountain in a park… at the end of the climb either from [Black Rock] Springs on the west or [Sugar] Hollow on the east.”

John Henry Via (1878–1960) was the oldest son of Rice and Cornelia (Duff) Via. Married to Edna, he succeeded his father as operator of the gristmill in western Albemarle’s Sugar Hollow. Courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection.

As the fearless foursome departed Early’s mountain home with hounds in the lead, little did they know that newspaper patrons across the state would soon read an account of their epic outing.

Crossing the mountain crest at Black Rock Gap, Wash Via could still recall, from a half-century earlier, the plans set forth by the Paine’s Run Gap Turnpike Company to construct an improved road from the floor of the Valley to Charlottesville. Reaching this juncture, the group from lower Sugar Hollow had traveled over eight miles from Rice Via’s mill to this remote spot, every step of it uphill, a climb of over 1600’ vertically.

The Richmond Dispatch published a letter from a Charlottesville reader who was privy to the events that transpired over the next 24 hours or so that fall day in ’95. The Alexandria Gazette and the Shenandoah Herald out of Woodstock also carried the missive. “The hunting party had not been out long when they started four immense bears. The dogs ran them all the af­ternoon, and about night ran one of them into his den in a cliff of rocks.

The Black Rock Gap Road (aka Paine’s Run Road in Augusta County) extended from Albemarle’s Sugar Hollow on the east side of the Blue Ridge, to near Harriston in the Shenandoah Valley. An early-1900s group from Black Rock Springs Resort took good advantage of the less-travelled roadway for a picnic beside a water crossing. Photo by Lewis Price Mowry; courtesy of Bob Daughtry.

“Night coming on, the hunters concluded that they could do nothing until morning, so one or two of the party were de­tailed to watch the den while the others went home, intending to come back next morning and try to get Mr. Bruin out. During the night, the other three bears came to the den, it evidently being their habitation also, but were frightened off by the campfire. These had been separated from the fourth one during the hunt, the dogs following the one already run to lair.

“Sun­day morning the other gentlemen came back to the den, and with picks and shovels endeavored to dig down to his bearship. In the meantime, Mr. Rice Via sent his dog, a valuable hound, into the orifice, and in a few minutes heard a squawk,’’ and the dog failed to re­turn.

“This got Mr. Via excited, and he de­termined to go in and rescue his dog. The entrance to the den was a long, horizontal passageway about two feet high and probably two feet wide. Mr. Via prepared a torch, and fastened it upon a long pole, which he thrust into the opening before him, and entered without knife, gun or defensive weapon. He had not gone far when the bear seized the torch and extinguished it. Several times this occurred, but finally Mr. Via located him, and found his fine dog in a dying condition.

This c.1934 topo map notes familiar place-names and displays an overlay of the route of the Sugar Hollow boys’ epic 1895 bear hunt from Sugar Hollow (lower center) to Calvary Rocks (upper left) across the mountain in eastern Augusta. Courtesy of the Phil James Historical Images Collection.

“He backed out of the hole, asked for his gun, and while some of the other men pushed in the torch Mr. Via succeeded in shooting the bear in the head, killing him instantly. Mr. Via then came out and his son [17-year-old John Henry] went in to bring out the dead bear.

”The den was a large aperture, prob­ably 20 feet square and 10 feet high, and was approached from the passageway above described by an inclined plane. The man went through this pas­sage, entered the den, pulled the bear to the passage, and then endeav­ored to pull him through, but found he was unable to do so. He lay down on his breast and grasped the bear, and the others caught hold of his feet and brought both man and bear to the light. The bear weighed easily 200 pounds, and was as ‘fat as butter.’ The participants in this hunt are nat­urally very proud of their achievement.

“It is stated that one of the other bears chased on this occasion was larger than the one killed. It is also said that there is one in the neighborhood that will weigh 400 pounds. The bear den is near ‘Calvary Rocks,’ about two and a half miles from Black Rock.”

Time was when providing for the family table required a concerted, community effort, with some sacrifice, perhaps the unexpected feeding of an overnight campfire, and an adventure that would come to be the stuff of local legend. 

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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