Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Local Views, Local Voices, Local History

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A horse and buggy navigated its way across The Square in Crozet in 1915. Prior to the installation of an “undergrade crossing” in downtown Crozet in 1917, traffic volume along that principal east-west highway beside the Crozet Depot averaged upwards of 1,100 railroad track crossings per day, increasing to 2,000 daily during fruit harvests. W.F. Carter replaced his earlier, smaller cold storage facility with a massive six-story unit that, in 1922, was acquired by Thomas S. Herbert Cold Storage & Ice Company. Photo courtesy of the William F. Carter Family.

A well-composed photo of an empty theater auditorium is among only a few vestiges of what was once a principal entertainment destination in western Albemarle County. Live performances by the likes of Grand Ole Opry stars Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, and Cousin Minnie Pearl, delighted audiences, as did Old Dominion Barn Dance singer Sunshine Sue Workman. Local-boy-made-good Billy Vest sang and yodeled his way across the silver screen with Gene Autry, and he later performed on the Crozet Theatre stage several times for the home folks.

“I took one picture of the inside of the Crozet Theatre,” said Mac Sandridge. “I worked at the theater my senior year [at Crozet High School] in ’49 and ran the projectors for a while. When they rebuilt the theater after it burned in 1948, Ed Daughtrey called and asked if I would help out there some. I started selling the popcorn, and just a few weeks later, he put me up in the projector booth. William Miller ran the projectors at the theater and worked at the Cold Storage. He was the one who trained me. I ran the projectors about every night that we were open then, and I used to put up all the posters. We had big posters printed up and I would go out once a week—Ed Daughtrey let me use his car—and I’d drive all around. He had a ’48 Dodge with a fluid drive. That was great.”

Early morning sun crept into Crozet during the fruit harvest season of 1946. C&O freight workers were already active on the trackside dock. Photo by Cecilia Harvey Simpson; courtesy of Don Davis.

Ernest L. Sandridge (1881–1951) was a native of Browns Cove in western Albemarle County and farmed that area much as his ancestors had done. By 1919, he had grabbed an opportunity to relocate his family to the prospering village of Crozet, where he worked as a liveryman, and purchased the grain mill and feed operation of Benjamin F. Jones. With a nod to the rapidly passing old ways, he continued to offer hay and grain. Looking ahead, as motivated young men are apt to do, in 1923 he opened Crozet’s first full-service gasoline filling station east of the village and lived in the house next door. Their household was a busy one with children growing up, marrying, and subsequent arrivals of grandchildren.

“I loved visiting my grandfather in the ESSO service station,” wrote Suzanne Cale Wood. “My family lived with my grandparents next door in those very early years.  Females really never went inside the station that I can recall.  I would sit in there with my grandfather, and he was very generous with all the snacks, soft drinks, and ice cream that were sold inside.  He always kept gum in his jacket pocket. All I had to do was ask.

Crozet Theatre was gutted by fire in October 1948. Mac Sandridge ran the projectors there in 1949 during his senior year at Crozet High School. Before opening the doors one evening, the aspiring photographer and future U.S. Marine and Albemarle Deputy Sheriff composed this image of the neatly refurbished auditorium. Photo by Mac Sandridge.

“By that time, my grandfather had health issues, and he had turned over the work load of the oil business and filling station to others. …Leonard Sandridge Sr., Joe Sandridge and J.T. Sandridge were often there. I called my grandfather Bing, and he was often assigned the job of babysitting me since he was not working.  I would even walk with him to the barbershop, and run around (inside and outside) while he got his shave and a haircut—another “male only” spot that I was allowed to be in.  He spoiled me terribly. We set up a lemonade shop in front of the service station and my cousin Carolyn Powell, brother Bill, and I were allowed to sell our lemonade to travelers buying gas.  I suppose you might say my grandfather let us be his competitors for a bit.  With my grandmother furnishing the lemonade, we were getting 100% profit.”

In 1946, Cecelia Harvey Simpson (1913–1990) arrived in Crozet with her husband John Henry Simpson, who was a supervisor with the Fruit Growers Express Company. FGE was a pioneer in moving perishable products, such as meat and produce, in refrigerated railroad cars.

Crozet businessman Ernest L. Sandridge paused in his front yard just east of the C&O passenger depot, overcoat in hand, on a damp day in the 1930s. His gasoline filling station just to the left of this photo was Crozet’s first full-service station when it opened in 1923. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Cale Wood.

In that era before the widespread adoption of mechanical refrigeration, John Simpson’s responsibilities took him to railroad towns like Crozet that had ice plants contracted to FGE. Upon arriving, he would hire a team of local men to clean and replenish the ice in wood-sided Fruit Growers Express boxcars specially equipped to transport perishables. With the cargo’s value dependent on arriving at its destination fresh and on time, and with the ice melting at a rate of 45–55 pounds per hour, tight schedules were kept, and good route men like Simpson were highly regarded.

During fruit harvest seasons, scores of transient laborers, pickers, packers, truckers, etc., moved from orchard to orchard, county to county. While in Crozet, the Simpsons roomed in the home of newlyweds Frank and Edwina (Gentry) Wyant, who had taken up housekeeping in the former Bateman house on Main Street, where Edwina had grown up, next door to the Methodist church.

Emmett Lester Washington and his wife Thelma established Crozet Shoe Repair in 1949. Washington apprenticed under Henry Smith, a factory-trained shoemaker at Crozet, and worked with shoemaker Dan Bishop and storekeeper George Pollock. He recalled with pride that Nancy Langhorne Astor, Viscountess Astor of England, would bring her shoes to him to be rebuilt when she visited her American family at Greenwood. In addition to his training as a shoe repairman, the diversified businessman was a master leatherworker, a woodworker, a weaver of chair bottoms, barber, and school bus driver. Apart from his work, he was a respected leader in Union Mission Baptist Church. Pete McCauley stepped three doors down from his Modern Barber Shop to take photos of Mr. Washington just prior to his retirement from the trade. The former apartment building that housed Crozet Shoe Repair was razed in 1994.
Photo by Ray P. “Pete” McCauley.

Fortunately for the village’s posterity, Cecelia Simpson traveled with camera in hand. During the time that she and John stayed here, she photographed candid scenes in the downtown area including the house where they roomed, views down Main Street and up Railroad Avenue, Herbert’s Cold Storage, and the C&O passenger and freight depots. A special quality captured within her images was their inclusion of the townspeople: passing across the street, waiting for the bus, looking off the downtown railroad overpass, and working on the freight dock.

Yet, it was the abiding stewardship of her photographs by her family, and their desire to see her works bring to others an appreciation for things past, that brought those images back into the light. Might we each be inspired in similar, local ways by their excellent example. 

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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