Love of the Land, Hard Work, and Innovation Preserve Family Farms
Before tourism, before the Interstates, before modern tractors, hard-working families turned the stony land of the foothills into productive orchards, forests and farms. Some of these families remain on the same land their great-great-grandfathers worked, and the state documents them in the Virginia “Century Farm” program. The program, which began in 1997, includes farms that family members have occupied and labored on for at least a century, and that return at least $2,500 from farm products or services each year.
“This is an important part of our history, and also our future,” said Jennifer Perkins, who manages the program under the Virginia Department of Agriculture. “We should honor them.”
Anyone who farms knows it’s not an easy business, with more unforeseeable challenges than most of us are comfortable with. But the two Century Farms in the Crozet Gazette’s coverage area have survived by adapting, changing when necessary, and raising children and grandchildren who want to continue.
That’s not to say that farming is for everyone, said Peter Jones, who still remembers falling asleep on the tractor while baling hay at Smallwood Farm, just outside Crozet. “That was it for me,” he said. After college, he went on to work in higher education and then property and casualty insurance. Jones loved the family farm, though, and after living and working in North Carolina, built his present home on the ancestral property. While he spoke, his son Alexander, 15, was taking an after-school shift making hay at the nationally respected horse breeding operation that also raises Angus cattle. Also pitching in was Peter Mellen, relieving his mother, Robin Mellen, who had just spent her day making hay in the late May sun.
Peter Jones’s and Mellen’s father, Bernard Showalter “Pete” Jones, died in 2011, the result of a disastrous fall down the stairs. He was 89, but his children believe it was well before his time. At 87, he was still riding at Foxfield twice a year. “I put a stop to that when his horse reared up,” Mellen said. “That wouldn’t have happened with his favorite horse. I’m not sure he ever forgave me.” One interesting thing about him, his children said, was his habit of going barefoot around the property. Jones said he didn’t put shoes on until January and February.
Not only was he riding and jumping in his ninth decade of life, but he was gardening, joyfully overseeing life on the farm, which once included pigs and chickens, and fishing whenever he could. He was an enthusiastic hunter of wild gobblers on Buck’s Elbow Mountain and a key figure in the horse breeding that came to be the farm’s main business in the ’60s.
Before that, there was a sizable dairy herd on the property, Jones said. The family milk business was a venerable one, probably started in the 1800s, before Smallwood split off from a much larger property called Rose Valley Farm and took its sensible name from a small patch of woods. In its heyday, milk was marketed under the Jones family name, and the dairy cow operation continued through the lives of O. H. “Hess” Jones and Maude S. Jones, Pete’s parents. In the mid-20th century the farm changed its focus.
This was partly the result of a blizzard in the early ’60s, when much of the herd was lost to mastitis. The family turned their resources to horse breeding, the first love of Phyllis Jones, Pete’s wife and, under her guidance, they’ve produced many fine sport horses. “We can handle everything from Welsh ponies to Clydesdales,” Mellen said. They’ve also bred Australian shepherds.
The shepherds and ponies are striking, but it’s hard for visitors to keep their eyes off Friend or Foe if he’s out of the barn. “Friendly,” a huge, beautiful stallion, is remarkable for his size, strength and quiet temperament. He’s won multiple stakes and his offspring, particularly “Mr. Buff,” who recently retired, have won more than $1.6 million.
Phyllis Jones is a matriarch who pitches in every day of her life, Mellen said. At 83, “She’s up every morning and out at the barn by 7:30, cleaning stalls.” One of her talents is the ability to size up every horse, an important skill, with unfamiliar horses coming in every day to be bred. “Every horse is different and she just knows how to read their signals.”
The young Phyllis’s introduction to the scion of Smallwood followed a tale of intrigue and international drama. Phyllis was an accomplished rider and enrolled in Hollins College under pressure from her parents. “She didn’t especially want to go to college, so chose the horsiest place she could,” Mellen said.
While there, she became the protege of the mysterious Countess Judith Gyurky, owner of a number of Hungarian Clover horses. The countess had used various plots to survive two world wars with her horses and became convinced that neither they nor she would last long in the Soviet Union. She sold everything she had, came to Virginia, found a place near Batesville, and made a home for what was left of her horses. It wasn’t long before the remnants of her once magnificent herd arrived: 13 mares, stallions and foals, half-starved from their ocean voyage. The countess sold her jewels, lived in a barn and took odd jobs to support the horses, plucking chickens and working as a line cook. She also took a job as a riding teacher at Hollins and convinced her star student to leave college and come ride for her at Port a Ferry Farm. Through the network that links even the most isolated of farmers, Phyllis met and married Jones.
Mellen inherited her mother’s love of horses as well as her ability to communicate with them. “I grew up riding every day,” she said. As she took over more and more of the breeding, she had no illusions about leading a glamorous life at high-stakes races. In reality, she spends a lot of time on a tractor, or in the barns, or supervising the breeding, or dealing with veterinarians. She’s the one who’s often there when a foal is born. “Theoretically, all should go well without much help,” she said. But the way the baby is positioned (like a little diver, with its folded legs in front, she explained) means that intervention is sometimes necessary. There are plenty of other emergencies of every kind, her brother said, including when a cow or horse gets out, “most likely on a Sunday or holiday.”
How do they see the future of Smallwood? Since at least two members of the next generation are already stepping up, both Jones and Mellen expect it will continue to thrive. “Then I’ll retire and see the world,” Mellen said. Then she corrected herself. “No, I won’t. I want to be right here.”
No one knows exactly why New Jersey osteopath Harry Chiles (Henry Linden Chiles VI) moved from New Jersey to Crozet, nor how he met John Wimbish Montague, who had been in the textile business in New York, but in 1912 the two men planted a couple of peach orchards on modest tracts in Batesville and Crozet that have blossomed into a multi-generational family business. Their partnership was solidified when Harry’s son, Henry VII, married John’s daughter, Virginia. The Montague family kept a home in New York, and that’s where they married in 1923.
The orchards, which as far as the family knows, did not have a name in the early years, expanded, adding apples to the thriving peach business. The firmer fruits could be shipped to Europe and family lore has it that the queen (either Queen Elizabeth, the queen mother, or Elizabeth II, the present queen) bit into an Albemarle Pippin apple, loved it, and ordered more. Pleased with this fact, the owners gave the growing business the name “Crown Orchards.” Cynthia Chiles, granddaughter of Henry VII, said there’s no way to prove this family story, but they’ve shipped internationally for quite some time.
The males in the Chiles family have been named even more consistently than the Tudors. Henry VII and Virginia named their son “Henry VIII,” and he grew up in the fruit business. “Dad (“Dad” is Henry VIII) was in the army when his father died in 1956,” Cynthia said. The army released him and the young man––just 18 or 19––had to make a decision about the future of the family business.
“My grandmother and aunt told him they’d be glad to sell the business, so he had to choose,” Cynthia said. “They left it to him whether or not he wanted the life of an orchardist.”
Obviously, the teenager chose a life of hard work, overcoming obstacles as they came up, and is still at it 68 years later.
“Dad was the visionary, the one responsible for the expansion of the business,” Cynthia said. He was a one-man show for many years, then later with his wife, Ruth, and three children, whom Cynthia called “free and cheap labor.” She said for a long time, he’d drive the tractor, pick the fruit and pack it. He embraced technology, increased the acreage, supported other orchardists throughout the state, expanded the selection of fruit as well as the varieties, and was always looking for a way to do things smarter and better. He believed there is always a way to make things work, his daughter said.
“At 87, he’s still the first one to work and the last to leave, seven days a week,” she said. In his years guiding the business, he added cherries, blueberries and strawberries, then he and Ruth came upon the “pick-your-own” concept early in its introduction nationwide. “We lost a lot of the crop in the early ’70s, and it didn’t seem worthwhile to bring in a picking crew, so mom put a notice in the Daily Progress, inviting people to come in and pick peaches.” The next year––a better one––they thought they’d go back to hired labor, but even before peach season rolled around, they started getting calls from former pickers. They were amazed but said, “I guess we’re doing this,” Cynthia recalled.
Having people come and pick meant there were hungry crowds there all through the season, so the Chiles added ice cream, vegetables in season, popcorn, candy and all kinds of fruit-related products and activities, including the popular pancake breakfasts. For 30 years or so, they’ve grown grapes for other wineries and, just last year, began welcoming people at their own Chiswell Estate Winery.
The young Henry found a partner for life in Ruth Dollens, who grew up in Midway. “Not sure how they met, but I think they probably always knew of each other, growing up.” Cynthia said. “She never questioned the life she married into.” But her interests were as broad as Henry’s were focused. She didn’t just support the business, she worked at it in a dozen different ways and grew the retail outlets at Carter Mountain and Chiles Peach Orchard. She didn’t just join the PTA, she became the president; she wasn’t only the first woman in the Crozet Lions Club, she directed their blockbuster variety show for 50 years. She not only joined and generously supported Tabor Presbyterian Church, she played the organ, directed the choir, and volunteered whenever needed.
Like Henry, she had to make a choice, Cynthia said: “She could sit at home waiting for him to come home from fixing the tractor at midnight, or she could go bowling, or to choir practice, or to the Lions Club. She loved to laugh, loved to have fun, and really loved a good joke.” It wasn’t unusual for her––and sometimes the three children as well––to finish dinner and go back to the packing house in season.
Before cell phones, before texts, before e-mail, Henry and Ruth organized their complicated life by leaving notes on the kitchen table: Cynthia thinks she still might have a few to remember her mother, who died last year.
The three children—Cynthia, Henry and Sarah––grew up picking up over-ripe fruit from the orchard floor and, like their parents, never shrank from hard physical work. Any child, cousin, niece or grandchild is welcome to work for the family business if they want to.
What’s ahead for the century-old business? “We don’t know for sure in these challenging times,” Cynthia said. “Labor has been a problem for a while, gas prices hurt us, so we’re perhaps more cautious these days.” Still, she’s very mindful that people are struggling to afford food, regardless of what it costs to produce it.
The family received a warm welcome from the regional wine world for their new wine venture, and recently dipped their toes into competition with the Monticello Cup, a local wine-judging event. “It was great to be there with our friends and neighbors,” Cynthia said. All three of the Chiswell Estate wines they entered—the 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2020 Rosé, and the 2020 Petit Manseng––were awarded silver ribbons. Since she’s new to this, “I don’t know whether this is one of those things where everyone gets a medal, or not,” Cynthia said. “But, whatever, I’ll take it.”