Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Keeping in Touch: Roads, Phones and Radios

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Lifelong farmer Samuel Gilmore Bailey (1874–1961) and his wife Rosa (Mooney) Bailey (1877–1960) at home near Ivy. Their portable radio kept them informed on current local, state and national news stories, in addition to entertainment broadcasts. Courtesy of Selma Morris Bailey.

In these modern times, we sometimes hear pining for those days-of-old: when you knew everybody in town… when you were broken down on the side of the road and someone would always stop to help… when there was more to running a business than the sound of the cash register. The list goes on and on.

To keep up with what was happening in big towns, those with a nickel picked up a copy of the daily news. In rural villages, where nickels were harder to come by and frugal folks with a nickel could be “tighter than bark on a tree”, up-to-the-minute local news could be had for free on the front porch of the general store, over in the barber shop, or down at the filling station.

Crozet native and Daily Progress newspaper manager John W. “Junior” Gentry Jr. (1907–1990) relaxed at home beside his console radio. Courtesy of the W. Hubert Gentry Collection.

In 1861, at White Hall in western Albemarle County, Wilbur F. Davis, 21-year-old son of the pastor at Mount Moriah Methodist Church, kept a diary of those precarious days. He wrote, “In March, I went on up home to White Hall… It was becoming more and more evident every day that war was coming on. Day after day the men of the Village met in the P.O. at Antrim’s store at mail time. The daily Richmond paper was taken out and I acted as reader to the listening crowd… The company of residents of White Hall and immediate vicinity, I remember with much pleasure. We were drawn together by intense feelings and experiences… Geo. Brown, C.W. ‘Buck’ Antrim, Jim Wyant, Jno. J. Pace, Ira Maupin, and others.”

During the early 20th century, when the next greatest things since sliced bread were being revealed at a dizzying pace, autos, phones and radios were enabling an eager public to keep in touch more easily with what was going on. The telephone might save you a trot down the road to check on an ailing neighbor, or place a delivery order with the local storekeeper. Owning an automobile meant that you could travel further and faster than one ever could have imagined possible with a horse. When telephones were the new contraption that everyone wished they had, the phone directories included step-by-step operating instructions for new subscribers.

The 1927 Albemarle Telephone Company directory detailed 19 “Rules” for the use of its telephones. Businesses and their owners were among early adopters of that new-fangled mode of communication. Phil James Historical Images.

The Albemarle Telephone Company, later the Piedmont Telephone Co., included on the inside front cover of its 1927 directory, 19 rules “for the use of its telephones.” These business folks were intent on running a tight ship. “Rule #1: conversations limited to three minutes… #3: no profane or indecent language… #7: answer your phone promptly, otherwise the calling party may tire of waiting and hang up; #8: when your telephone bell rings do not remove the receiver from the hook until the bell stops ringing; #9: in answering a call, do not say “Hello”! State your number or name… #12: the use of the telephone is limited to the subscriber, his family or employees in his interest. Subscribers have no right to allow its use by other parties. Instruments may be removed if this regulation is disregarded. Refer those desiring the use of the telephone to the nearest pay station.” (Sometimes it might have been easier, and less expensive, to have simply mailed a postcard!)

At E.O. Woodson’s blacksmith shop in Greenwood, the longtime status quo encountered the future of transportation when two touring cars arrived, one needing help with a tire problem. While an observer on horseback watched over the procedure, E.O. Woodson, who once said that he “can repair anything but a broken heart,” got these pioneering adventurers back on the road. Courtesy of E.O. Woodson Jr.

And then there was the battery-operated radio. During the day you could practically keep in touch around the globe through live reporting of the news from a nearby city. In the evening when work and chores were all done and the supper dishes were dried and put away, with the twist of a knob everyone in the family was whisked away, or so it seemed for a short while, by the musicians and storytellers who arrived via the airwaves to entertain and educate.

During the late 1950s and ’60s, ballad and folksong collector George Foss (1932–2002) spent time among the residents in the mountains of western Albemarle recording songs and stories. His visits with Mervin Sandridge (1924–1978) in Brown’s Cove were among his favorites. “My mother used to play the banjo, and my daddy, he used to play the fiddle,” said Mervin Sandridge. “When the telephone first came out, they’d go somewhere and sit down and play on the telephone. Let people listen to ‘em, like a party line—sort of like their own private radio station. There wasn’t a radio… Everybody along the line would pick up and listen. When the first telephones came out, they had that old-fashioned kind fastened on the wall, you know, stand and ring for hours before you’d get anybody.

“I learned to play the banjo from my mother originally and then learned later from the radio. Yeah, just listening to the radio. The first one I ever saw had a car battery—the wet battery. Then one come out in a little bitty suitcase and had a dry cell battery. Lawdy mercy, on Saturday nights you’d go to somebody’s house [with your radio.] Then you’d go somewhere else another Saturday night. It was like that, just ‘round and ‘round. Everybody wanted you to come on Saturday night and play the Grand Ol’ Opry. Before the radio, they used to want you to come around to play [live music], but when the radio came, they wanted to hear the radio.

Black Rock Springs Resort, near the mountaintop corner shared by Albemarle, Augusta and Rockingham counties, never had a telephone (or electricity) on premises. Guests, however, always arrived with news from the lowlands and the latest newspapers. Phil James Historical Images.

“In the mid-thirties was when radio came in here. On the early radio they played a lot of country music. That was all we heard, just regular old hillbilly music from Nashville. That was the main one if you got music. That was just on Saturday nights. They used to come on at nine o’clock, stayed on ’til one. People got to playing less music for themselves and listening to more on the radio. Electric came in here somewhere right around 1938, ’39, and everybody got radios then.

“About that same time, the [Shenandoah National] Park came up through here. Then the Skyline Drive came through. It was like the radio and the electric and the park coming in and the roads coming through, all just about the same time—that’s when everything changed, right then.” 

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 © 2003–2023 Phil James 

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