Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Jack of Many Trades

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John L. “Jack” James Jr., standing before his father’s fruit packing shed near White Hall in the mid-1940s. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

Crozet High School Principal Clarence W. Miller strode across a field on John L. James’s farm near White Hall one school day during the fall of 1933, his eyes intent on the figure atop a tractor working the land. The operator recognized the imposing figure approaching and, supposing the reason for his visit, eased the machine to a halt. 

This was not the first time that Principal Miller had ventured out to address a pupil’s recurring absence from school, and soon he cut straight to the chase. “Jack,” implored Professor Miller, “do you want to drive a tractor for the rest of your life?” The teenager with an eighth grade education replied, “That will suit me just fine.” The purpose for his visit completed, the educator returned to school, and the young farmer, with his school days now behind him, to his work.

During the decades of the early and mid-20th century, varied opportunities existed for men with limited education (by today’s academic standards) and with a propensity to give a try to a new endeavor. For some, like John “Jack” James Jr., growing up on a small farm had exposed them from a young age to early rising, manual labor, problem solving, working in step with others, and, oftentimes, making do or doing without.

Others attained useful real-world experience via the rigors and discipline of military service, or through depression-era workfare programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of many of the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) successful efforts to provide temporary economic relief through employment in meaningful work.

The James Gang, l-r, back row: Jack, John Sr., Aubrey; front row: Warren, Meredith, Aubrey Jr. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

Jack married his life mate Susie Pearle Rea at Christmas-time in 1936, just months before his 18th birthday. In 1940, with their then two-year-old son Meredith, they moved away from life on the farm into the town of Waynesboro. There, Jack went to work as a degreaser at Wayne Manufacturing Co., the only time in his life, he noted years later, when he punched a time clock. In 1941, he returned to White Hall to work for his father, a peach orchard foreman for J.W. Montague and T.S. Zirkle’s M-Z Orchards. He performed a myriad of orchard labor jobs from pulling spray hoses in the orchard to pruning, picking, packing and hauling fruit. At the advent of WWII, his military physical confirmed a chronic shoulder separation injury incurred at birth; thus, he was exempted from military service.

In summer 1942, following the arrival of second son Warren, the family again departed the farm and moved into the working-class neighborhood of Belmont in Charlottesville. For the following decade, Jack pursued a bevy of different occupations, each involving driving. He drove a delivery route at Monticello Dairy, followed by driving for the Dr. Pepper Bottling Company. He drove a cab for Yates Taxi before trying out his hand as a taxi owner/operator. On the morning of the first day of that adventure, he was greeted at his own backdoor with the task of changing a flat tire before he could pick up his first fare.

Crozet’s Morton Frozen Foods’ business increased exponentially after its purchase by Continental Baking Company in 1955, when its product distribution went nationwide. White Hall native Jack James managed the local company’s truck traffic during those years of great expansion. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

In the early ’50s, he began to build up a modest fleet of trucks, operating as James Transfer, an independent mover of freight. With Susie Pearl raising the boys at home and keeping the company’s books, he gradually increased that business, employing additional drivers and enduring the usual inconveniences of vehicle maintenance and repairs, along with a grievous city code that forbade the parking of commercial trucks on city streets.

Shortly after the arrival of boy number three (this writer), he leased the Ivy Road Texaco Service Station just west of University Shopping Center, allowing him additional space to park and manage his truck fleet and perform necessary repairs. Of course, this property included the responsibilities of managing a gasoline filling station which happened to include an ice cream parlor that catered especially to the female student body of St. Anne’s School, conveniently located up the hill behind the station.

Morton Frozen Foods arrived at Crozet in 1953. In mid-1954, Jack sold his James Transfer business, trucks and all, to K.M. Baker at Lovingston, and assumed management of Morton’s growing fleet of tractor-trailers.  Responsibilities included the hiring of drivers and mechanics, dispatching trucks and driver teams, fleet maintenance, and investigating accidents involving Morton trucks. In 1955, Continental Baking Company in Rye, New York, purchased Morton’s, whereupon the frozen food company’s sales increased exponentially and distribution went national. 

Susie Pearle (Rea) and Jack James with their firstborn son Meredith, c.1938, relaxing on the runningboard of their Model-A Ford roadster. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

In the early 1960s, Jack resigned his management position at Morton’s, took on a small dairy operation in White Hall, and, along with son Warren, contracted the feed and grain hauling for H.M. Gleason Co.’s Gleco Mills on Rt. 29, south of Charlottesville.

This was followed by his becoming an independent contractor for Charlottesville’s Daily Progress newspaper, taking over an afternoon home delivery route encompassing approximately 1,000 customers in western Albemarle County. During his years with the Progress, the six-day newspaper began its transition to a morning publication and expanded to seven days/week. As if that regimen were not enough, in the late 1960s, he leased the former Bradley’s Gulf Service at Crozet, operating it as Blue Ridge Gulf Service with automotive technicians Randolph Pugh and Curtis Waller.

John Lemuel James and Ida Susan Coleman were born in western Albemarle’s Sugar Hollow in 1889. Their 1911 marriage begot three children. L-r, back row: Virginia Frances, Ida, John Sr.; front row: John Jr., Aubrey Olin. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

For many of his years, in addition to his “day jobs,” he kept his hand in some aspect of farming, tending daily to a small cattle herd and a palomino saddle horse. In 1973, Jack took the Civil Service examination, a requirement for application as a part-time U.S. Mail delivery driver. Before those exam results were received, he entered the hospital where, unexpectedly, he observed his final birthday and departed this world.

John “Jack” James Jr. (1919–1973) was truly a jack of many trades throughout his busy life—as were, by necessity, many others in his generation. We would be remiss, though, if we did not revisit that oft-abbreviated or misquoted proverb in its entirety. The original adage, coined centuries ago and intended as complimentary, stated, “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” 

Warren James stands beside one of his father’s trucks, c.1951, on Monticello Road in Charlottesville. Jack James established James Transfer and operated it until 1954, when he was hired to manage the truck traffic for Morton Frozen Foods at Crozet. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

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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