I hope you’ve had the pleasure of viewing one of the many stunning aerial photographs of old Crozet—most taken in the 1950s—that hang in local restaurants like Fardowners or Green House Coffee (now closed), and grace many pages of Phil James’ Secrets of the Blue Ridge (2 volumes). But did you know that the talented photographer who took those historical photos still lives in Crozet? Mac Sandridge is comfortably ensconced at the Lodge in Old Trail, where he entertains his lucky friends with vivid and often hilarious memories of his 90 years living in Crozet as a photographer, movie projectionist, U.S. Marine, and Albemarle County sheriff’s deputy. He is a gentle, courteous man with a treasure trove of stories about old Crozet. You’d never know he once raided stills in Sugar Hollow or shot holes in barrels to prevent their exploding during the 1957 Barrel Factory fire!
Malcolm Wood Sandridge Jr. was born on St. George Ave. in 1932, in a stately house just past Crozet Baptist Church, where he has been a lifelong member. “I was born at home,” Mac reports. “Dr. Davis lived across the street, so when my father called him, he just came on across the street and delivered me.” His parents were Malcolm W. Sandridge Sr. and Davidson Ella Hildebrand. “My father worked for the wholesale grocery distributor Charles King & Son, and later Blue Ridge Grocery in Waynesboro, which sold groceries wholesale to all the stores around here.”
“Dr. Davis always had a cigar in his mouth,” Mac recalls. “He had an office called a ‘hospital’ on Main St. [now Crozet Ave., where Piedmont Pediatrics was until it recently moved], where he could keep one or two patients overnight. He was a great doctor. But he did like to drink. Occasionally he would drink too much and I would take him to the hospital in Charlottesville to sober up.”
Life in Crozet was very different then. Surrounded by fruit orchards on every side, the population—a small fraction of what it is now—mainly worked to support that industry. Mac led an idyllic childhood. “They told me that when I was a toddler I liked to get out of the yard, take off my jumper, and run naked down the street. A neighbor would watch for me, catch me and drive me home.
“We raised chickens, and sometimes hogs. My aunt Rachel lived with us, and when she wanted to cook a chicken for supper, she’d catch one and just snap its head off with her bare hands. The chicken would continue running around the yard for one or two minutes, and I loved to chase them. One time I raised rabbits for a 4-H project. I bought two and soon had 15! I placed an ad in the paper around Easter time. A man came with a truck and took them all for $10, the crates and everything. The guy was drunk.” Inebriation seems to be a familiar theme in his stories—probably a result of all that moonshine he would later destroy!
“I had a dog named Snowball—a pure white, fluffy eskimo spitz,” he remembered. “That dog loved to chase the post office van. Whenever it drove up the street, Snowball would chase after it. He’d run right between the wheels, all the way under it and out the other side. Then he’d turn around, come back, and do it again! It’s a wonder he was never hurt.
“There was a plank across a sewage ditch in our yard. My father told me not to walk on that plank because it was rotten. Of course, as soon as his back was turned, that’s just what I wanted to do. Sure enough, the plank broke and I fell down into the cesspool. My father fished me out, but when I ran into the house, my mother stopped me and made me stay outside until she brought buckets of water to wash me off.
“People could take the train from Crozet to Mechums River, Ivy, Farmington, or Charlottes-ville back then.” He could ride his bike everywhere—to work at the dry cleaners and later the movie theater, to the shoe repair shop in the Square, or to the drugstore for a Pepsi. He still remembers the Pepsi jingle, ‘Pepsi Cola’s the drink for you/ Twice as much for a nickel too’ —a dig at Coca Cola, which cost double Pepsi’s price. “I worked to nail apple boxes together for Paul Cale in a building down behind the Sandridge Esso Station [near where the Crozet Market shopping center is now],” he said. “I worked every afternoon, five days a week, for $1 a day.” Cale, principal of Greenwood School, also lived on St. George Ave. and later became Superintendent of Albemarle County Schools.
“The fire company stored one of their trucks in that building—which was not far from the old firehouse [in what is now the Rescue Squad building on Crozet Ave]. “One time the firemen were heading back after a fire, where they had been drinking. They drove back there and just forgot to stop, so they kept going and drove right through the back of the building!” He said with a chuckle and a twinkle in his eye.
The Herbert Cold Storage facility, now the English Meadows building, made ice for the train cars to chill fruit while it was being shipped all over the country. There were no refrigerated cars back then. Trays of the best peaches or apples were put in the box cars with big blocks of ice packed in each end to keep them cold while they travelled. “Our home ice boxes also had no electricity, so people would buy a big block of ice to chill their food. The man delivering ice would cut off big chunks to sell for a nickel. We kids would run behind his truck in the summer to pick up the ice chips that fell when he chopped it, and suck on them.”
Mac graduated from Crozet High School, in the building where Field School is now, in 1949. Most days he would walk through Leonard Sandridge’s back yard and across the creek to get to school.
“I loved taking pictures from an early age. When I was a right young man, maybe 15 or 16 years old, I fixed up a studio at home. My friend Hubert Gentry had a nice darkroom, so we worked together to develop our own film. He later had his own studio in Blacksburg.” He went on to study Business Administration at the Jefferson School of Commerce.
During his senior year of high school, Mac was hired to run the projector at the Crozet Theater, located across Main St. from the Square, next to the Cold Storage building. He worked there in various capacities through the mid 1950s. “This is when I started taking aerial photographs. Rod Beitzel, who worked at Barnes Lumber Co., had a pilot’s license. He rented a plane from the Milton airport to fly me over Crozet to take photos. We did this several times. Hank Tiffany also flew me in his private plane a few times.” He developed these black and white photographs himself in his own studio above Crozet Drugstore (now the Mudhouse), provided rent-free by Conway Stanley.
A year after graduating from high school, Mac joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. To his surprise, within a few weeks of joining he was called up for duty on a patrol ship in the Mediterranean during the Korean War. About 100 reserves were sent, and they marched up Main St. in uniform to the Charlottesville train depot, as if on parade. There they were shipped south to Parris Island for basic training.
“We sailed around the Mediterranean and did training exercises, so we’d be ready whenever needed to sail through the Suez Canal to Korea. We visited Greece, Italy, Spain, and France. I have a picture of me holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” he recalled. “As we sailed from port to port, we were told our next destination was TOP SECRET. Nobody knew where we were going except the captain. But lo and behold, when we arrived at the next port, the very same women were waiting on the shore to greet us who had been at the last one! Lucky for me, we never saw action.”
After four years in the Marines, Mac returned home and began a career as a professional photographer. He moved to Richmond to work at the Dementi Studio at 2nd and Grace Streets—still operating as the oldest photography studio in Richmond. He lived above the studio, and learned to take commercial photos of houses, power lines, the Blue Ridge Parkway, school pictures, weddings, and funerals. “A lot of times the family would ask us to take the deceased out of the casket, stand him up, and take a photo with the family— because they never had one taken when he was alive. I didn’t enjoy that at all.” Mac later joined Allied Arts in Charlottesville.
In 1957, Mac was hired as an officer by the University of Virginia police, and within six months joined the Albemarle County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy. “We learned on the job. There were only the Sheriff and six deputies back then to police the entire county. We served in shifts and were on call 24 hours a day. My territory was the whole western part of the county. I served the Sheriff’s Department for over 30 years, and retired in 1991.” Many of Mac’s most interesting stories date from his work as a sheriff’s deputy.
In 1957, the Higgs & Young barrel factory on Railroad Ave. burnt to the ground. They were afraid the big oil tanks might explode, so they asked Mac to stand across the street and shoot holes in them with his .44 magnum pistol. His photo of the barrel factory fire appeared in Life Magazine.
Morton Frozen Foods workers caused the most problems for Mac while he was a sheriff’s deputy. The workers would get in fights, get drunk, and carry on. Once Mac charged a man for the murder of a man who was having sex with his wife. He caught them in the act and shot the man in the back of his head. When Mac asked, “How did you avoid hitting your wife?” the man answered “I shot him on the rise.” This story still makes Mac laugh.
There were a lot of stills up in Sugar Hollow in those days making illegal moonshine whiskey. They’d be hidden off the road in the woods. Mac often accompanied the two federal officers assigned to Charlottes-ville on raids to break up those stills. Most of the time, someone would turn them in, maybe even their wives. Otherwise, the feds would find them by checking near stores who were selling a lot of sugar. “Busting up those stills was wonderful. We tried to catch them red-handed, usually early in the morning or late in the afternoon, while the still was in operation. The federal agents loved to go in there running and shooting their guns, hollering and carrying on. After we’d run down the moonshiners and caught them, we’d smash the drums with axes. One time we brought the still back and set it up on the courthouse lawn so people could see what it looked like. They took pictures with it.
“Once I had a case in court about illegal whiskey, and I had the evidence with me in a jug. The defendant had a new lawyer who wanted to make a big deal out of everything. When I was sitting on the stand, he asked me ‘Well, how do you know that’s illegal whiskey? What lab did you send it to have it tested?’ ‘I just knew it was illegal whiskey,’ I replied.” That’s when the old judge said, ‘well hold on a minute, hand me that jug.’ He unscrewed it, took a sip, and said, ‘Yup, that’s illegal whiskey alright.’ Of course, that judge knew it was illegal whiskey anyway, because they often purchased it!
“One of my worst memories as a sheriff was of two little boys who had gone with their father to cut hay in White Hall. Coming back, they were playing on top of the hay bales in the back of the truck. The father drove under the underpass downtown, not realizing how low it was, and the boys were thrown off. One died at the scene. I took other one to the hospital, but he was dead by the time I got there. That was the worst tragedy.
“There was a big firemen’s staff then, and they had wild parties. One time I had confiscated a whole lot of illegal fireworks. The Fire Chief said he had a safe room where we could store them, and he had the only key. So we put them all in there and locked them up. In the middle of one night soon after, I got a call to head over to Crozet and investigate a lot of explosions. A bunch of firemen had gotten drunk and gotten into that room. It turned out a simple skeleton key would unlock that door! They had set off almost all the fireworks by the time I got there.”
On October 30, 1959, Piedmont Airlines flight 349 was heading from Washington to Roanoke with stops in Charlottesville and Lynchburg. It got disoriented at night and crashed near the top of Buck’s Elbow Mountain right above Crozet. Of the 27 passengers and crew, Phil Bradley was the only one to survive. “The only survivor was strapped into his seat in the back of the plane,” explained Mac. “The whole back section broke off and landed separate from the rest of the plane. That’s the only reason he survived.” Bradley wrote about his experience in The Crash of Piedmont Flight 349 Into Bucks Elbow Mt. as Told by the Sole Survivor (1997).
“I was working a dance over in White Hall the night they finally found the wreckage. They called me to head up there, take pictures and help with the recovery effort. I drove up there and came down to the site from the Skyline Drive—it was near the top of the mountain. I helped the state police, national guard, U.S. Army, and Crozet Fire Dept. to recover bodies and clean up the debris. They needed someone to spend the night so tourists wouldn’t loot the site, so I spent a couple of nights up there.
“Dr. Davis was the medical examiner at the plane crash. The U.S. army guys wanted to take the victims’ bodies to D.C. Dr. Davis got up in the Colonel’s face and said, ‘Oh no you don’t. I’m the Chief Medical Examiner here—you’re in my territory. The first body you touch, you’re going to jail.’” He had them sent to UVA. (To learn more about the crash, see the Gazette’s October 2009 issue.)
Mac was promoted to Chief Investigator in 1967, assuming the responsibility for all criminal investigations for Albemarle County. He led the investigations of bank holdups, armed robberies, and homicides all over the Charlottesville area. “I was chosen to attend the FBI Academy for 12 weeks in 1969. We got the same training as FBI agents—about different types of firearms, working a crime scene, and collecting forensic evidence.” This also qualified him to teach those investigative skills to his fellow officers. He attended retraining sessions every few years.
Working as a part-time night administrator at the University of Virginia hospital both before and after retirement, he supervised all medical center employees, advised them on legal problems, and handled public relations. The hospital superintendent commended him for “outstanding leadership qualities” as “an honest, dedicated, and efficient administrator.”
Mac was married twice and raised three children with his wife of 30 years, Effie Montgomery Sandridge. “Mac has been and always is a wonderful father,” said his daughter, Jeanette Buchner. He is funny, hardworking, smart, loving, and very generous. I like to call him the Mayor of Crozet. He taught me the importance of being a Christian, loving my family, working hard, saving money, getting a good education, and to always do the right thing. He definitely loves his birthplace in Crozet. We love him too!” And we are grateful for his many contributions to the Crozet community.
When asked for a favorite memory from his life, Mac replied, “That I’m still alive. I’ve had a good life and I enjoyed it all.”
Many thanks to Phil James, who shared many of Mac’s photos.