Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Listening to the Elders: Lower Sugar Hollow

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Valley Bethel Church was on the south side of Sugar Hollow Road between the second and third bridges. Established c.1905, it was a non-denominational Christian “union” church whose attendees were most often associated with the Brethren (Dunkard) denomination. Its property was assessed c.1926 for condemnation and inclusion in the proposed Shenandoah National Park, but was eventually excluded. Church trustees sold the church building and lot in 1968. Phil James Historical Images Collection.

Sugar Hollow borders Shenandoah National Park in western Albemarle County. It may be seen as three distinct sections making up the whole: the area below the reservoir extending east toward White Hall; the individual North (right) Fork; and the South (left) Fork of Moorman’s River that feed the reservoir. A unique community of families comprised each section, and each group was quick to point out that they lived in Sugar Hollow. With the establishment of the national park in 1934, all of those communities were changed irreversibly. Only the fading echoes of the elders’ voices remain to remind us of those earlier days.

“Joel Sandridge was born in a log house used to sit on the bottom [past the first bridge],” said Sugar Hollow native James Blackwell (1919–2001). “Lived there all his life and died there. He was buried up on the hill at Sandridge Cemetery in 1865.

“Past the third bridge, the Tom Bowen spring is at the foot of the hill on the right as you’re facing [Pasture Fence] mountain. They had a pipeline run from that spring around to the house, and then just an outside stand-pipe where the water run out of it. There was no inside plumbing.”

Charlottesville’s first water intake on the Moorman’s River at lower Sugar Hollow went online in 1925. The water flowed through approx. 15 miles of 18-inch cast iron pipe, across hill-and-dale to a filter plant near UVA. Phil James Historical Images Collection.

Emory Wyant (1911–2001), another Sugar Hollow native, said, “Valley Bethel Church, where I went to church, was up here [between the second and third bridges]. It was my mother’s [Cornelia Frances James Wyant) church. It never was painted, just plain weather-boarded. It was a ‘union’ church. Different denominations could use it. But all the time we went there, no one used it but the Brethren. Used to be such a big time when you’d have all-day meetings and dinner on the grounds. Ministers from over in the [Shenandoah] Valley rode horses over on Saturday, and other preachers might come from Free Union. They stayed at our house most of the time. Preached Sunday, then rode back home. When I was a kid, I always liked to ride a new horse. I would ride their horse to water and put him in the barn.

“When I first started to church services there, the men sat on one side and the women on the other. That was the old tradition with the Brethren people. Children would sit with their mother or father. When I was real small, I sat with Mother, then later with Dad.

“The oldest person that I remember in Sugar Hollow before we moved was a black man named Rice White [c.1885–1970]. On the road up Sugar Hollow, you forded back across the river [at the second bridge] to go up on a mountain where Rice White lived. He used to say he could tell when it was Sunday because he would see us down there walking, going to church.

Charlottesville businessman George R.B. Michie (1870–1938) established a private, rustic camp at lower Sugar Hollow c.1916. The camp later became a popular destination used by private parties, Scouts and 4-H groups. Photo courtesy of the John W. Gentry Jr. family.

“My dad, Hiram Wyant (1879–1973), did blacksmith work and a little farming. Howdyshell’s barrel stave mill sat on our place [beyond the first bridge] for five years. They had two horses and about eight or ten mules and he did work for them. Other people hauled a lot of timber and bark out of the mountain. He would shoe their horses, build wagons, stuff like that.

“Dad used to cut some railroad ties off of our place, and extract-wood for tanneries. He hauled those loads to Crozet. There were so many chestnut trees up there, and a lot of chestnut was cut and hauled to Crozet. That’s how we got part of our living. People from outside would have a job they wanted him to do. Someone from Charlottesville built Michie’s Camp up there near where Uncle Will James lived, and Dad helped build the camp. He was a carpenter, too, and could do most anything.”

Lizzie Wyant Wood [1905–2017] said, “I was going to the old wooden school [across from the scout camp near the third bridge] and that got so cold ‘cause it wasn’t sealed inside. It was just boarded and you could see through the cracks. When it was cold and we come in from recess, the teacher would let us stand around that old woodstove to keep warm. They built the cement block schoolhouse while I was still going and that’s where I finished up seventh grade. That’s high as I ever went in school.”

Lizzie’s younger brother Emory recalled, “We were going to school there when they put the first dam in Sugar Hollow in 1924. They had these water pipes laying all along and we kids going to school sometimes would get down and crawl through those pipes. Cecil McAllister (1913–1999) and I grew up together, and we’d crawl through them. There was a big rock in the river beside the schoolhouse where Cecil and I would sit and feed the fish with part of our lunch when we were just little fellows. Didn’t want to hear that bell ring to go back after recess either.

A one-room log schoolhouse, with bench seats made from slab wood, was established at lower Sugar Hollow in the late 1880s. It was replaced several years later by this wood-frame building. A cement-block school building was eventually constructed on the same lot, and the former building was razed. Phil James Historical Images Collection.

“Bernard Carr and Tom Carr both had a tannery; then John Via ran it for a while, and he also had a mill. Going up the hollow, that was on the right-hand side of the river. Going by Tom Carr’s place [at the second bridge] there was a walking path. We always went up on that side of the river going to school.

“Dad was the only one to have a blacksmith shop up there during that time. Years before, the old tilt hammer forge sat by the intersection of what we called the Ridge Road. A blacksmith shop run by [African American] Tom Barnes was also there.

Stave mills were dangerous enterprises, shaping barrel staves from log billets for sale to cooperages who supplied shipping barrels for apples and other goods. Harvey Howdyshell, standing proudly in a white shirt at the center of his work crew, operated several stave mills in western Albemarle’s foothills, including two locations at lower Sugar Hollow. Photo courtesy of the Tandy Via family.

“Wes Barnes, who lived right across the river from where we lived, was Tom’s son. They tell me Wes was half-Indian and half-Black. I remember him well. He worked a team of oxen all the time. It always amazed me how he plowed those old oxen, just crept along like snails. He never did work them out for other people, just used them for himself. He had some fields over there on that side of the river. Back then, it didn’t take a very big piece of ground to live on. You just raised what you ate. I don’t know that he ever did anything else. We went up there one time and bought some locust from him and cut some locust posts off his place.”

Bettie Via Gochenour (1882–1957) met her husband-to-be Luther Gochenour when he crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains to work at Howdyshell’s stave mill. They married at her parents’ house at lower Sugar Hollow in 1899, and she and Luther departed to his home in Augusta County. Bettie wrote, “Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to us girls if the stave mill had not moved into our neighborhood. Would we have married someone else, or I wonder if we would have met some other place? ‘God has his mysteries to perform. His ways we cannot tell. He hides them deep, like the secret sleep of those he loves so well.’” 

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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