Secrets of the Blue Ridge: The Farmers’ Retreat: of the Farmers, by the Farmers and for the Farmers

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The George A. and Mattie (Fretwell) Mowry house at Piedmont, Augusta Co. G.A. Mowry’s father, George W. Mowry (1811–1867), was among the initial founders of Black Rock Springs in the 1830s. The horse and wagon belonged to photographer Lewis P. Mowry (1884–1953) whose glass plate negatives helped to document Black Rock Springs before it was destroyed by fire in 1909. Photo by Lewis Price Mowry; Courtesy of Bob and Judy Daughtry.

When the dog days of summer slinked in with their oppressive heat and humidity in the 1800s, many of the well-to-do in the eastern United States loaded up their carriages and set out for the springs region of Virginia. From the late-1700s onward, the healthy and the infirm sought out the mineral and thermal springs in the southern Appalachian Range: one group for social relaxation and the other hoping to “take the cure” for one malady or another.

Today, only a handful of those once-highly-favored destinations survive, most others having fallen victim to fires, evolving social patterns, the automobile era, and more reliable medicines.

One such summer destination was the Union Chalybeate Springs, established c.1830s nearby the corners of Albemarle, Augusta and Rockingham counties that coincide on the summit of the Blue Ridge. Its name and condition changed through the years with its varied owners, but since 1869, it was more commonly known as Black Rock Springs.

Lower cottage row at Black Rock Springs. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

The most storied era in that summer resort’s history, 1885–1909, began with a land purchase made by what some may have considered an unlikely group of investors. In August 1890, the Rockingham Register wrote, “The springs are in a cul-de-sac of the moun­tains, and are owned by a company of farmers from Rockingham, Albemarle, Augusta, and Greene counties, originally bought by a company of twenty, who conveyed to the Black Rock Springs Improve­ment Company, 100 acres of land including the springs. The balance of the purchase, comprising over 1400 acres of rich mineral land, was retained by the original company. The spring grounds were divided into lots, roads and promenades, and cabins erected around an elliptical drive-way. There are over twenty cabins—as they are called here; elsewhere they would be termed cottages—already erected, and a good hotel capable of entertaining over fifty guests.

“This ho­tel is managed by Mr. Wm. P. Mayo, of Charlottesville, who has for a number of years been the manager of the University of Va. boarding house. The terms are very moderate, $25 per month; $7.50 per week; $1.50 per day. These terms are certainly moderate enough, but this resort was built ‘of the farmers, by the farmers and for the farmers.’

Black Rock Springs Hotel, c.1886–1909, the centerpiece of “the farmers’ retreat” in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Augusta County. Photo by Lewis Price Mowry; courtesy of Bob and Judy Daughtry.

“There are two small stores on the ground, ten pin alley, &c., a magnifi­cent ball room, and during the season danc­ing every night. There are at pres­ent between two and three hundred on the grounds, the majority of who are from the neighboring counties with a sprinkling from other States, and by the 10th every cabin will be filled.

“Balls, parties, high teas, walks, ten-pin parties, cards, visiting, glee clubs, trout fishing and hunting are some of the pleasures indulged in. The Friday night balls are a feature of the springs and attract large crowds from adjoining counties.”

Sattie Della (Good) Mundy lived near Port Republic in Rockingham County. She said, “My father [John M. Good (1854–1936)] and his brother owned one lot that was on the lower row, and they had a cabin, two rooms upstairs and two down for bedrooms. They had a big long shed kitchen that ran the length of the whole house and had their horses tethered in along the backside of the cabin.

A group of farmers in the region of Albemarle, Augusta, Greene and Rockingham counties organized as the Black Rock Springs Improvement Company in 1885. They built a new hotel and sold lots where private cottages were constructed. Photo by Lewis Price Mowry; Courtesy of Bob and Judy Daughtry.

“There was a big platform there close to the springs and they had a long trough that all the people who lived there brought their milk, their butter, their fruit or what have you, and put it in containers in that trough of water. That preserved it ’til they could get it used.

“We would go in the summer time. The families would load up their vehicle with vegetables and go and stay two weeks, but not all of them at one time. There’d have to be somebody to take care of the farm. They’d milk cows. They didn’t milk to sell milk, cream, or anything, but they always had cows on the farm. They were all farmers, and there were things that had to be tended to. The family would divide up and different ones go. Then they would leave and somebody else would come in the cabin.”

Minor C. Miller (1889–1968) of Mt. Sidney, Augusta County, wrote, “My grandfather’s cottage had four main rooms and a kitch­en, and most of the other cottages had been built on the same plan. All of the cottages had wide porches. There were easy chairs, couches, hammocks, and a fair amount of read­ing matter. Kerosene lamps and lanterns gave light, but when the sun had gone down and supper had been digested, most people thought about going to bed. It was always possible for men and women to assemble on the porches and talk about the experiences of the day or other things of common interest, or to plan for short or long hikes the next day. People came to Black Rock Springs to find a change in the daily routine of life, and Black Rock Springs gave them just that.

The typical cottage at Black Rock Springs, c.1886–1909, was a two-over-two configuration, with covered front porches and a shed roof kitchen in the rear. Courtesy Phil James Historical Image.

“There were always lots of children at the springs. Most of them were the grandchildren of the people who sat on the porches. I remember carriage-loads of cousins, and a few invited friends, who made weekly visits to the springs and brought their ‘folks’ good things to eat and enough to last through next week.”

Staunton’s Vindicator newspaper noted, in August 1899, “Black Rock Springs resort seems to be on a boom. Great trains of wagons and buggies are coming and going daily. This is the farmers retreat. After the hard summer’s work is over they come here for a much needed rest, and if there is a place on earth that a man can rest, it is at these springs, for there is nothing here to disturb his peace of mind.”

“My parents and my grandparents descended from a long line of industrious and hard-working people,” continued Minor Miller, “but they usually found time to give a proper concern to things or values which were generally regarded as belonging to the lighter side of life. My father and mother enjoyed the quiet life, which they had together in the mountains. They enjoyed reading and being out of doors. With each succeeding year, they looked forward eagerly to going to the springs.”

Following its total destruction by fire in November 1909, Black Rock Springs was rebuilt to a degree, but never regained its earlier charm. By 1932, having been unceremoniously absorbed inside the borders of Shenandoah National Park, it passed into pleasant memory shared only by those who had experienced its former pleasures. 

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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