Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Small Town Livin’— Crozet Style

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Lester Washington and his wife Thelma owned and operated Crozet Shoe Repair. Other family members lent a hand when needed at this singular African American-owned business on Crozet’s Main Street. Photo by Ray P. “Pete” McCauley.

Crozet in the 1950s and ’60s, still had that cozy, small town feel. Economic times, for many, had improved with the availability of steady manufacturing jobs at Acme Visible Records and Morton Frozen Foods where both highly and lesser skilled neighbors could count on a regular paycheck at week’s end. A plethora of hometown businesses continued to employ locals, and the Trailways bus passed through daily heading east and westbound, picking up and dropping off those who needed a ride to and from work in Charlottesville and Waynesboro.

The iconic Seal’s (formerly Ballard’s) Sinclair station, flanked by Tomlin and Kent’s grocery store, enjoyed high visibility on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Rt. 240. Photo by Mac Sandridge.

Shift changes at the plants always led to long back-ups at the stop sign in front of the Sinclair filling station next to the C&O underpass. Come Friday, similar lines could be counted on when everyone queued up at the teller windows inside the Peoples National Bank next door to the Superette on Main Street: no drive-through tellers or cash machines to hurry you on your way in those small-town days—just more time to chat with your neighbors.

Friday evenings offered other opportunities as well. Crozet Theatre, on the street corner across from the drug store, always promised a double-feature, as did, during summer months, the Crozet Drive-In Theater out Jarmans Gap Road. The village’s four grocery stores— Jack Wagner’s Red Front on The Square, Moses and Virginia “Pete” Sandridge’s Crozet Superette beside the bank on Main Street, (Virgil) Tomlin & (Early) Kent’s on Railroad Avenue, and Tom and Betty Starke’s Market across from Acme and Morton’s— were stocked up and braced for Friday’s and Saturday’s food shoppers. And they all offered free delivery. If you weren’t at home when your order arrived, no worries: your bagged groceries were carried inside (doors were routinely left unlocked) and perishables were placed in the fridge. The grocers were keenly aware, too, of the time when the theater’s second show ended because that meant another late-night rush from that crowd before they finally pointed their cars and pickup trucks for home, or rode along home with their groceries on the delivery truck.

Carl Morris’s Crozet Pool Room, next to Vivian McCauley’s Modern Barber Shop, could always count on its regulars. Junior Welch’s Television and Radio Service, on Railroad Avenue in a storefront between Tomlin & Kent and the Sinclair station, kept a television playing in his show window for after-hours advertising purposes, often drawing a small crowd of onlookers to that captivating invention not yet common to all households. Dabney and D.W. Sandridge’s A&H store, in the former S&S Food Center building on The Square across from the C&O passenger depot, was the local department store of that day, filled with housewares, small and major appliances, furniture, TV sales and service, plus toys and bicycles.

Moses and Virginia “Pete” Sandridge and their stellar staff ran Crozet Superette on Main Street, next door to Peoples National Bank. Previously, Moses and his brother Jimmy owned the S&S Food Market on The Square. Many Crozet businesses were operated by husbands and wives, fathers and sons, brothers or cousins. Photo courtesy of Greg Beitzel.

The air-operated welcome bell was dinging time and again on the wall at Roy Bradley’s Crozet Gulf Service at the corner of Main and Jarmans Gap Roads, at Lester Seal’s Sinclair (offering S&H Green Stamps) on the corner of Railroad Avenue and White Hall Road, and at J.T. Sandridge’s Esso Service Station on Rt. 240 east of the Fruit Grower’s Co-Op. Starke’s Market, across from Acme and Morton’s, also included a full-service Amoco gas station with lubrication and hand-wash bays.

For this youngster of the 1950s and ‘60s, few places could top Nannie Wagner’s Red Front Five & Ten, on The Square between Crozet Hardware and Red Front Market. For those of us who were chronically short on spending change but long on wishes, a quick trip to the back corner of the store where the toys and novelties were shelved always included the company of Mrs. Nannie Wagner or one of her co-workers.

They would busy themselves with straightening shelves only a few feet away while we picked up, looked at and put back 5¢ boxes of caps for toy pistols, bags of Mexican Jumping Beans sure to entertain and amaze our friends, pea shooters, marbles, tin toy cars with friction motors, or what-have-you on that particular day.

Having inventoried the toy shelves without making a purchase, and with a dime still burning hot in our pocket, we made our way back to the front of the store, past a low rack of magazines and comic books, just wishing that we could look at a few pages of the newest editions but knowing there was no chance of that happening under the watchful eye of the proprietor(s). At last, one’s gaze settled on the case right beside the front door, the true purpose of the visit—the glass-front candy case.

Looking down on The Square from the third floor of Herbert’s Apple Cold Storage, c.1950. This view changed little except for the names of the stores, but the cars aren’t nearly so cool-looking now. From right-to-left, going up the sidewalk, were Crozet Drug, Red Front Market, McGregor’s Insurance (later Red Front Five & 10), George Pollock’s Crozet Variety Store with its “Freezer Fresh Ice Cream” marquee (later Crozet Hardware), and Dan Bishop’s Shoe Repair. Across the alley was the S&S Food Market (later Sandridge’s A&H Store.). Photo by Mac Sandridge

Then the pressure would set in. What was it going to be today? So many choices… wrapped penny candies including all the popular favorites, baseball card wax packs with a stick of bubble gum inside, candy cigarettes (for ten-year-olds who wanted to pretend like they were grown-up big shots to their little friends), Bazooka bubble gum wrapped with a Bazooka Joe cartoon, or if it was early Saturday afternoon, maybe 10¢ worth of chocolate covered peanuts.

Sandridge [Standard Oil] Filling Station, founded by Ernest L. Sandridge, c.1923, was located on Rt. 240 east of Crozet, a few doors down from Fruit Growers Co-Operative. Cousins J.T. Sandridge Jr., on right, and Leonard Sandridge Sr., later owned and operated separate divisions of that original business: J.T. Jr. with Sandridge [Esso] Service Station, and Leonard Sr. with Sandridge Oil Company. Photo by Mac Sandridge; courtesy of Leonard Sandridge Jr.
A dime’s worth of those sweet, coated peanuts might last through the TV show Shock Theater that came on at two o’clock. That, too, was a risky proposition, for more than once during a showing of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Werewolf or some other too-lifelike ogre, you might have to leave the TV set and find Momma for a few minutes, just to steady your nerves long enough to return to the show, or else slip carefully back into the room and, without watching the television’s picture for too long, turn off the set. Whew, another close call. And, look, there are still some chocolate peanuts left in the bag. Saturdays are the best!

Crozet could smell like fresh cut wood when you passed Barnes’ Lumber Company, or like leather when you entered Lester and Thelma Washington’s Crozet Shoe Repair, or perhaps like fresh-baked honey buns and donuts if you passed Morton’s when those delectables were being cooked.

The sounds of this small town included the noon buzzer at the lumber company, an occasional air horn blast from one of the tractor-trailers at Morton’s, the fire department’s celebratory siren at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the familiar squeak of the heavy front door into Conway Stanley’s Crozet Drug store or Norman Gillum’s Crozet Hardware, and always, the rapid sounds of passenger trains speeding through town, or the long-drawn-out metal squeals of railcar wheels turning slowly along the sidetrack as railcars were dropped off or picked up.

For those of us who grew up in such a small town, we could never have known at the time how truly blessed we were, or how ephemeral those experiences would prove to be. 

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 © 2003–2022 Phil James 

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