Secrets of the Blue Ridge: The Stories Pictures Tell

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US Civilian Conservation Corps’ Camp Albemarle, 1933. Photo: Phil James Historical Images.

The trio of aviators, grinning from ear to ear, posed with their custom-built flyer: one at each wingtip and the third stationed at the cockpit controls. In that summer of 1938, their aspirations were limited only by the wild-blue-yonder skies above the mountain summits that surrounded their airfield.

Blackwell’s Hollow Aviation (BHA, as it might have been known) was established by a company of three enterprising brothers: Paul, George and John Fisk, ages, respectively, ten, nine, and five, along with oversight from their parents Rev. Freeman J. and Edith Forstrom Fisk.

Aspirations aside, BHA’s local route necessarily was restricted to the steep hillside descending from its field of operations located between St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church and Virginia State Route 810, south of Boonesville in western Albemarle County. The brothers’ sole documented single-winged conveyance sported a fuselage fabricated from a stenciled wooden Pittsburg Steel Co. nail keg, a six-foot wing fashioned from seasoned oak fencing, and a simple wooden propeller sawn from pine or poplar.

Blackwell’s Hollow Aviation, 1938. Photo courtesy of John C. Fisk.

Specs on the craft’s power plant stowed away inside the rustic fuselage are lost to the ages. When the brothers’ high wing monoplane made contact with the sloped runway, it sped along on dependable, repurposed steel pulleys: early prototypes, one might say, of modern day run-flat tires.

Oh, the stories that a good picture can tell, and which no clever caption could contain. An earlier adage referencing a picture’s value at “a thousand words” has been attributed to early 20th century newspaper illustrated advertising.

A motley collection of young men stood, kneeled and sprawled out for the camera in a field at White Hall in June 1933. The backdrop included rows of military-style tents with distant mountains. The “boys,” as they were called, were among the early recruits selected from among the nation’s hundreds of thousands of unemployed to participate in one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plethora of New Deal workfare agencies legislated during the Great Depression.

Ivy tornado, 1959. Photo courtesy of John C. Fisk.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.) (1933–1942) successes became stuff of legend, reclaiming and restoring forests and croplands, and building infrastructure in state and national parks, including the Virginia State Parks system and Shenandoah National Park. The federal program provided the enrollees’ basic needs during their hitch in camp, while sending 80% of the boys’ pay back home to help alleviate the myriad of hardships brought on by the depression. Fortunate participants learned basic work skills, trades, discipline, and respect for authority as well as for one another.

The White Hall camp quickly progressed from learning to erect tents to live in on day one, to constructing all-weather barracks, a mess hall, and bathroom and shower houses. Along with garages for equipment storage, they constructed facilities for education, entertainment and leisure. The group’s usual work was performed on private lands, preventing and suppressing fires through the building and improving of fire roads, bridges, lookout towers and communication links. Their final masterpiece was the construction of Lake Albemarle off of Garth Road near White Hall.

Natural disasters and human suffering serve up dramatic pictures with poignant back stories. On September 30, 1959, an F3 tornado, spawned by Hurricane Gracie, the strongest storm of the 1959 hurricane season, devastated a remote farming community near Ivy, in Albemarle Co. Photos taken of its aftermath revealed some of the “death and destruction” encountered by the first ones to arrive at the scene.

Mission Home Hospital, 1923. Photo: Phil James Historical Images.

Eleven fatalities were accounted for along the tornado’s path, including ten members of the Ervin Morris family. A neighbor in that community, John C. Fisk, with camera in hand, was able to maneuver his way to ground zero soon after rescue parties had completed their work. Scenes that he captured showed home sites swept nearly clean of structures and their contents, a collapsed barn containing supplies used in the local apple industry, and orchards ripped asunder and filled with storm debris that had been deposited hundreds of yards from its origin.

One photo by Fisk was of a car impaled with a heavy wooden beam and crushed under storm-driven debris, including construction materials, logs, tree limbs, a mattress, linens and clothing. As in every such disaster, the unseen human toll can be fathomed only by those whose lives were impacted directly. For others, pictures are preserved for posterity, lest we forget their suffering.

Mission Home, on the border of Albemarle and Greene Counties, provided much needed services to the greater mountain missions work of Rev. F.W. Neve, the Episcopal Archdeacon of the Blue Ridge who oversaw the establishment of Christian outreach posts in the mountains from Greene and Rockingham Counties northward. Small remote stations were administered by laborers in the faith, but due to the individual worker’s very local reach, they could offer few additional helps that a larger, more central location might provide.

At the county line where Bruce and Shifflett Hollows meet, a church was established for the local community and a “mission home” constructed for area church workers. Mission Home was designed in size and with amenities to provide those laboring 24/7 in the mission field a place for rest and recharging, as well as offering a greater degree of services to parishioners. Additionally, beginning in 1906, it provided faster communication with the outside world via an official U.S. Post Office station. A grade school and health preventorium were added later.

There exists a small antique photograph of what might be described as a “tiny house” by present-day standards. It shows a view of the Mission Home Hospital, a wonder to behold for those living far from health care facilities in the lowland cities. The clinic offered welcome hope for those too ill or infirm to be moved off the mountain. The adjacent mission home provided visiting physicians a comfortable place to stay when called upon.

Getting back to the whimsical Blackwell’s Hollow Aviation group, their lives contained real stories, too, of adventure, triumph, tragedy, and remarkable accomplishments. Paul Freeman Fisk, the eldest brother, lost his right arm below the elbow following a vicious dog attack during his early youth. Years later, after achieving a degree in business administration, he followed the trade of horology, achieving many awards for his excellence in clock making and repair. Additionally, he served for decades as organist in his church.

Middle brother George Roy Fisk, pictured in the cockpit of the Blackwell’s Hollow Flyer, tragically lost his life at age 17 in a swimming mishap at Albemarle Lake. He attended Meriwether Lewis High School near Ivy.

Youngest brother John Charles Fisk was a lifelong craftsman, following the trade of carpentry, including hand-hewn log cabin construction and stone masonry. In his latter years, he meticulously hand-fabricated an ornate Kentucky long rifle, including the rifle barrel’s internal rifling. His longtime interest in photography and local history continues to educate and encourage succeeding generations.  

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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