Robert and Ruth Pflug hosted four of their neighbors one afternoon in 1982, to reminisce about earlier days lived at the head of Brown’s Cove, at the foot of Brown’s Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Albemarle County.
Benjamin Brown Sr., patriarch of the family for whom that area is identified, settled in western Albemarle c.1745. One of his grandsons, Thomas Harris Brown (1785–1872), has been credited with building the brick portion of the plantation house that eventually came to be dubbed “Headquarters.” Following more than a century of ownership by succeeding generations of that family, in 1875, Alman (or Almond) M. Bruce (1838–1917) purchased the house and farm property.
Stories and laughter filled the parlor of old Headquarters as three first cousins, grandchildren of Almond Bruce, regaled the Pflugs with their memories of times spent at that storied place. The honored guests were Hilma Powell Yates (1901–1983), Julia Bruce Blake (1903–1996) with her husband John R. Blake (1909–1996), and Lucille F. Bruce (1915–2000).
“Hilma came here when she was a little baby,” said Julia. “She was only 16-months older that I am. I was born here.”
“We’d go outside with rag dolls and things that we played with,” said Hilma. “Had a good time. We looked forward for Christmas to come, too. Uncle George [Bruce], he always sent us a little toy. I’ve still got my little cup and saucer sitting out. He would give us some little remembrance, something to play with.”
“We hardly ever had a tree when we were small,” recalled Lucille, “but Santa Claus came. He came in this door here. We’d hang the stockings. Daddy [John L. Bruce (1880–1960)] was just like a child at Christmas as we were. He’d get up at four o’clock in the morning to see what Santa Claus had in his stocking same as we did.”
“They used to have big parties at Christmas, too,” said Julia.
“Big old fireplace,” added Hilma, “and they would have a fire, Christmas logs and everything.”
Julia continued, “We were tiny kids then and we weren’t allowed to go in there, but we would go and peek in the door, and they would be having a ball and we were out there looking. They were being social and having a good time, sometimes dancing.
“Momma [Bertha Baber Bruce (1880–1955)] would bake all kinds of pies. People would get tired of dancing around, they would go in there and cut a piece of custard pie and have coffee.”
“Grandfather used to have parties in the hall and in the big parlor,” said Julia. “Mr. Jeff Brown (1847–1917) was a very fine violinist, and he would come over and play sometime. My Granddad could play, too, but you’d hardly ever get him to play. Once in a while, if you’d beg him, he’d play.”
Hilma added, “People would come from around White Hall, and the Browns, the Powers people, they would come from all around. Danced old-fashioned waltzes. Things of that kind.”
“And minuets,” added John. “I tried to, but I never was good at it.”
Ruth asked, “Julia, when was it that you met John?”
“That was in ’27,” replied Julia.
“I had been shucking corn for Lucille’s father the same day I first saw Julia,” said John. “I was 17 years old. It was October, and they were making apple butter and she was sitting with a group of young people. We’ll be married 51 years this Christmas Eve.”
“And John,” Ruth continued, “what were you doing here?”
“I had driven the school bus for four years,” John replied.
“My mother [Fannie Maupin Bruce (1876–1943)] finally succeeded in getting the school bus through here to get us to school to educate us,” said Lucille. “My sister rode a horse from here to Mountfair School each morning to catch the bus to go to school… John was the first school bus driver. He stayed here until he graduated from Crozet High School, and I graduated from high school and my sister.”
“I slept right upstairs,” said John. “There’s two rooms up there, and I stayed in the one next to the end. There was no heat up there back then. This room here [the parlor] was the only one that got any heat in it. When I would come back from going to see Julia, I would get in the bed and put the lamp on the floor and hold my feet over the lamp.”
“In the morning, how many were here in the house?” asked Ruth.
Lucille said, “Mother and Grandmother [Virginia Caroline Sprinkle Bruce (1844–1932)] fixed the breakfast, and then Mother would have to get off to [teach] school. Before school, we had to get up and go milk by lantern light, way, way before daylight. Take a lantern and go up there in the barn. Hang the lantern up. Milk the cows. Come back. Then we would have breakfast. Mother would fix the milk and put it in the spring box.
“On the backside of the big long table we had a bench the length of the table. Dad and Grandmother sat at the head of the table. My dad sat on one side and I sat next to him. One of my aunts, she was a school teacher, she sat next to me. On the other side would be my mother, my sister, and Uncle George Bruce. That consisted of our family when we were going to school.”
“What did they grow at Headquarters?” Ruth asked.
“We had a vegetable garden,” said Lucille. “A big potato patch right back of our kitchen. All of our fruits, grapes, cherries. Nothing was hardly ever bought except sugar and coffee, and maybe a loaf of bread which would be a treat like maybe pound cake is to people now.”
“I came up here in ’27, and it was the most prosperous-looking place of that kind I ever saw,” said John. “Never saw so much fruit and everything in my life.”
“They farmed their own land on the upper end of the place all the way up into the mountains,” said Julia. “The apple trees are gone now, and the wheat. We worked from daylight ’til dark. Didn’t know whether it was a long day or a short one.”
But the stories they told showed it was a wonderful, rich life.
Credit is owed to John R. Jr. and Carolyn L. Pflug for preserving and making available the original audio recording from which this story was excerpted.
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