Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Virtual Happenings at the Crozet Crossroad

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The Sinclair service station lot, on the northwest corner of the crossroad in downtown Crozet, was occupied in earlier days by Jim Woodson’s blacksmith shop, the Lyric Theater, and A.E. Rea’s Meat Market. Courtesy E.B. and Naomi Hicks Collection.

Would that we could just try on a pair of those fancy new glasses that allow the wearer to see interesting things that aren’t really there. (Or are they?) A good place to slip them on for a test drive would be at the crossroad in downtown Crozet.

If those imaginative specs had a dial on them, and you twisted it hard toward the “old days” setting, do not be surprised to find yourself sitting in the middle of a quiet grove of stately oaks on a gently rolling landscape. Peering off downhill to the south toward Lickinghole Creek, movements that you make out might be Native Americans preparing a meal of fresh fish, or knapping some projectile points.

With a slight tweak of the dial, Peter Jefferson could happen into view. The year would be 1734, when he was “appointed Surveyor of the Road from the Mountains [at Woods’ Gap] to Licking hole Creek…” Listen closely and you might hear his hatchet notching three distinct marks into the trees along that famous route that passed directly through the heart of Crozet. (It would be nine more years before his son Thomas was born near Shadwell, and another 55 years before this village’s namesake was born to a wine merchant in France.)

This photo, showing the concrete foundation being poured for the six-story Cart. Courtesy W.F. Carter Collection.

With a glance to the west, the year is 1827, and at Pleasant Green farm, the Rev. and Mrs. Benjamin Ficklin are welcoming their second son Ben into the world. A life filled with great adventure awaits that child whose exploits will include the founding of the Pony Express mail service between Missouri and California. Should your new glasses be readjusted to see a dozen years hence, lo and behold, who do you greet passing through from the east but the Colonel himself, C. Crozet, surveying a possible line through the Blue Ridges for a steam railroad, a mechanical wonder just as amazing as your fancy glasses. Do not be surprised if the inquisitive engineer asks to take a look-see through your odd-appearing spectacles.

Crozet’s downtown crossroad, viewed here c.1958, anchored the business nucleus of the ever-evolving and expanding agricultural community, until industrial manufacturers moved here in the early 1950s. Photo by Mac Sandridge.

Careful, now, and watch just where you are standing. It is May 1862. A steam locomotive with an assemblage of cars filled with Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate troops is passing through from Mechums River, followed by more foot soldiers, mounted cavalry, artillery, and supply wagons of every description. Spirits are high as they head west toward the Shenandoah Valley.

Almost as quickly as you can spin around, it’s March of 1865, and the tide of war has turned decidedly in favor of the Union Army. Approaching rapidly down the tracks from the west, the army of Union General Philip Sheridan is methodically working its way east toward Charlottesville, laying waste to depots, stores, and bridges. Where they can find enough tinder, even the steel rails are fired and bent beyond use. In Sheridan’s entourage of staff is the legendary George Armstrong Custer, golden locks flying in the breeze and a date with infamy posted upon his horizon.

Settling back into the shade of the oak grove and giving a small turn forward on the old-days dial, you see young Charlie Wayland ride past on his horse. It is 1875, and the 14-year-old is carrying a petition around to local farms on behalf of his father Abram Wayland of Pleasant Green. Construction plans for the monumental Miller Manual Labor School of Albemarle had gained approval from the General Assembly. Anticipating a surge of freight shipments at Mechums River Depot, local farmers agreed to petition the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway for a flag stop in their own neighborhood. Their farm products could be expedited, and business visitors might find this new stop a convenient access point to the busy construction site.

Prior to construction of a safe underpass beneath the C&O railroad in 1917, travelers through Crozet had to navigate this blind at-grade approach, seen here from the north side of the tracks. Courtesy Rufus Holsinger Collection.

Hallelujah! The farmers’ request was granted, with the company’s only stipulation being the petitioners’ agreement to the C&O’s choice of names: “Crozet”! It was 1876, the nation’s Centennial year, and the future looked bright indeed.

The virtual scenes at the Crozet Crossroad now spin into overdrive. 1877, the farmers construct a diminutive depot, and Abram Wayland is appointed station agent and postmaster; 1878, E.R. Mays opens the village’s first store, Miller School opens and the first teachers and students arrive, and business picks up at the little flag stop; 1880, Charles Lee “Charlie” Wayland opens Crozet’s second store; 1881, Crozet’s third store is opened by J.T. O’Neill, Miller School constructs an all-weather macadam road surface from the Crozet depot to their campus, and the local farmers’ wives hang out shingles advertising for “summer boarders” at their homes nearby the railroad; 1883, local nurseries advertise fruit and ornamental trees shipping from Crozet, Miller School relocates its freight and post office from Mechums River to Crozet; 1885, James M. Ellison opens his Liberty Hall Hotel along with a feed store and yet another general store business.

The C&O RR designed a coal bin siding for Miller Manual Labor School in 1887. It was expanded during the early decades of the 20th century with the establishment of the Crozet Fruit Growers Cold Storage and Ice Manufacturing Company. Courtesy W.F. Carter Collection.

Whew—might need to give those nifty glasses just a moment to cool down! The little crossroad village is becoming a community and attracting serious attention around the region. More and more varied amenities arrive to entice even more visitors to consider a move to the little-town-that-could. Blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, and a physician are in place, and new retailers have dry goods, yard goods and fresh foods arriving daily by train. Plant nurseries, sawmills, feed mills, a cannery, and orchards are employing workers; houses, churches and a school are being built, and newspapers in even the state capital are shining a light on the happenings. Then, with a flip of the last page of the calendar, a brand-new century arrived.

Within a decade or so, the four corners of the busiest crossroad in rural western Albemarle County enjoyed electric lights, running water, the Lyric Theater, Crozet Hotel, Crozet Hardware, Crozet Drug Store, a multi-story refrigerated cold storage warehouse, Crozet Cooperage, and a commercial Square, modern in every way. A tidy little yellow and brown passenger station and freight depot welcomed mail trains multiple times a day, and dispatched travelers to all points north, south, east and west.

Now, which of those stores is selling those fancy glasses? We might just have to get us a pair—or two. 

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 © 2003–2021 Phil James 

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