Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Help Wanted: Jobs Available in the Mountains

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Daniel Watson Via (1864–1949) (right) operated a sawmill on Sugar Hollow’s north fork Moorman’s River. His sons Jessie (left) and Junie (middle) worked with him to hitch and drag logs from the forest to their mill, c.1901. Courtesy of the Daniel W. Via Family Collection.

When many look to the mountains today, they see opportunities for recreation and rest. Previous generations saw opportunity: resources that were in demand needed a ready supply of laborers to bring them to the local market.

Getting to Sugar Hollow in western Albemarle County a century-or-so ago was not the smooth cruise that it is today. Just living there required work, and plenty of it. Taking on additional work in addition to one’s usual load was only for the hale and hardy. Recreationists —and they were few—needed not to apply.

About a half mile west of Piedmont Store in White Hall, the road drops down Gidding’s Hill headed for the “first bridge,” which is another mile and a half ahead. Sugar Hollow Road can be defined, today, by three bridges crossing the Moorman’s River between White Hall and Sugar Hollow Reservoir. That was not always the case according to Emory Wyant (1911–2001) and others who remembered some of the old ways around Sugar Hollow in earlier days. Take a listen to one who was there…

“Where you cross the [first] bridge now, at Cecil McAllister’s cabin,” said Emory, “on up just a little further we used to cross at the ford, where a road went up to the Jim Sandridge place, Wes Barnes’, and a few other houses that were up there. The Koontz’ had a grazing farm up there. They’d drive cows across the mountain from the Valley every spring, and put them up there on the grazing farm. They’d come across at Jarman’s Gap. He would bring over probably forty or fifty head of cattle—Koontz: just him and a dog.

Thomas Overton Carr (1880–1958) operated a tannery near his home at the second bridge over Moorman’s River in Sugar Hollow. He succeeded his father Bernard Carr in the family business that was located previously on Carr’s Ridge, at the south end of Pasture Fence Mountain. Carr’s tannery utilized a horse-powered bark mill that ground various oak barks which were then soaked to extract the tannin, an astringent, used in the hide-tanning process. Tom Carr family members, pictured l-r: daughter Vinda Carr Garman, wife Mary Edna McAllister Carr, Tom Carr, and grandson Jerry Blencowe. Courtesy of Beverly Blencowe Miller.

“They finally put a low bridge in there at Cecil’s that the water went over when it got high. We bought the old Nathan Sandridge place, and lived right straight across the road from that ford. We had a garden there, and we grew [sorghum] cane every year and had a cane mill come there and we made molasses at home. We also made a lot of cider. Made our own vinegar. Yeah, you have apple butter and sorghum molasses, that’s what people lived on almost. And buckwheat cakes.

“In our yard was an old summer kitchen with servant’s quarters. Dad made a blacksmith shop out of the summer kitchen after we moved there. He was real good at tempering things. He made wagons, the wagon wheels, the spokes and tenons and all that.

Charles McKinley McAllister (1896–1977) operated a steam engine-powered saw mill near the first low-water ford in Sugar Hollow, employing family members and neighbors. His mill stood nearby Richard Howdyshell’s barrel stave mill and Hiram Chapman Wyant’s blacksmith shop, making for a noisy, busy place in the early decades of the 20th century. Courtesy of the McAllister Family Collection.

“He shod a lot of horses when they was doing all of that hauling out of Sugar Hollow. Hauling bark and all kinds of stuff. Even people from Crozet would come up with their horses and haul loads out of that mountain at one time. That’s when most of your livelihood was in timber.

“Richard Howdyshell’s stave mill sat on our place for about five years, and they cut timber off of that mountain, up there in an area they called Poplar Hollow, and brought it down to the stave mill. The stave mill had two horses and about eight or ten mules, and Dad did a good bit of blacksmith work for them. Others had sawmills and cut timber way up in the mountain and hauled it out. He would shoe their horses, repair wagons, stuff like that.

Charles McAllister’s sawmill at Sugar Hollow in the 1920s and ’30s was powered by this steam engine. Abundant supplies of wood to burn and water to convert to steam allowed for portability in remote areas. Courtesy of the McAllister Family Collection.

“The stave mill set out near the road on the right, and there were six shanties there on the left that workers lived in. They worked a bunch of people there because there were five shanties that the families lived in, and one that the single men lived in. Four or five stayed in the men’s shanty. Then there was another one that sat just across the river ford, right off to the left where you go up to Wes Barnes’.

“The stave mill had a small place like a commissary where they stocked common things so they wouldn’t have to go all the way to White Hall to get [personal items.] In 1920, they moved the stave mill on up in the hollow close to my Granddad’s place [at the third bridge], and cut some timber out of that area. They just made the barrel staves. Then they bundled them up and then sent them to a cooper’s shop to have the barrels made. It used to be they made a lot of apple barrels.

“A lot of people, earlier, made their living cutting timber in the hollow. The stave mill was there first, then later my brother-in-law Charlie [McAllister] ran a saw mill near there. It was over a little closer to our house. Dad used to cut some railroad ties off of our place, and extract wood, and haul it to Crozet. That’s what we did a lot.

Sugar Hollow was an industrious area in the 1870s, as represented on Green Peyton’s c.1875 map of Albemarle County. Sugar Hollow Road (often noted in earlier days as Black Rock Gap Road or Turk Gap Road) west from White Hall and up the left (or south) fork of Moorman’s River, served an extended working community populated at that time by two licensed fruit distilleries, a tilt hammer forge, two saw mills and a grain mill.

“I remember one time when Charlie and my sister Nettie were living at Sugar Hollow, after we had moved to Earlysville, and they wanted to bring a cow down and leave it with us. They were moving to Sweetbriar and we were going to keep the cow. He put the cow on the old Model-T truck and we started across the river ford—cousin Lacy and Charlie and myself. Well, it was a little rough as we came across there. The cow reared up with her front feet and come right down over top there. He reached up and caught her and held that cow and got stopped and got her back off. Lacy McAllister and I walked that cow almost to our home in Earlysville, and then my friends met us on a couple of horses to go the rest the way in. It was about 15 miles we walked that cow. I’ll never forget that.” 

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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