Secrets of the Blue Ridge: The Sounds of a Healthy Mountain Hollow

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Ripe watermelons were only one of many reasons to bring family and neighbors together for a celebration. (Photo courtesy of the Via/McAllister Collection)

Once upon a time on some ridge tops not too far away, some outsiders made contact with the citizens in eight counties of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. They said, in so many words (ready?), “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help you.”

The outsiders explained that they had a plan, a win-win plan: they would help the mountain residents by removing them from their homes in the hills, and then scatter them about down in the lowlands where everyone else was already living. They would then erase all evidences showing that those good citizens had ever been there, convert the mountains into a giant playground, and invite those packed tight in the cities to pile into their cars, drive up, and for 25¢ a carload, browse around and see where their newest (and now bewildered) neighbors had lived—and thrived—for generations.

Sugar Hollow’s Moormans River has never wanted for those who would relax in its refreshing waters. (Photo courtesy of the Via/McAllister Collection)

So, what had life in these mountains looked and sounded like until then? Let’s take a gander at the very bottom end of the South District of that so-called playground for the masses, before “help” arrived. We find Three Notch’d Road traversing the mountain top at Woods/Jarmans Gap, still connecting the capital at Richmond with the state’s hinterlands at Staunton. Albemarle County was on the east side of the hill and Augusta on the west.

Peter and Annie Fisher at Jarmans Gap hosted occasional taffy candy parties in their house. Attendees looked forward to lively music provided by Ned Flannagan. Visitors to Anna Rodgers’ home on the Jarman/Fretwell property could count on some of her excellent cooking, as could in-the-know travelers through Jarmans Gap. Anna also watched after the children of her neighbors when the parents traveled off the mountain overnight.

Just down the hill on Moormans River’s South Fork, Joe and Winkie Wood’s place seemed to have something going on all the time. Visitors stopped by, often spending the night. Square dances were held in a room built by Joe’s father Alex for just such occasions. Sometimes Joe called the figures, other times his banjo accompanied son Russell and daughter Helen on their mandolins. Bellwood School teacher and Richmond native J.E.K. Flannagan sometimes joined in with his fiddle. At other times Ebb and Fount Taylor, with their banjo and violin, filled the Woods’ house with dance music. The African American Taylor brothers lived in Augusta on Rt. 340 north of Dooms.

Charlie McAllister’s steam traction engine powered one of several commercial saw mills in greater Sugar Hollow. (Photo courtesy of the Via/McAllister Collection)

Speaking of Joe and Winkie, they named their home Bellwood; “Bell” to honor Winkie’s Belew family along with “Wood” to recognize Joe’s side. That name was also given to the county school where the white kids living around Jarmans Gap attended, and to the fruit farm that Joe and his sons managed on their own property. Bellwood’s teachers boarded with Joe and Winkie Wood. Over on the North Fork, Via School (aka Black Rock) teachers boarded with William and Cora Via. Lower Sugar Hollow’s teachers usually lived with the Wood family, who took in boarders. Teachers in that area could plan on paying around $18/month for room and board.

Musicians were never lacking around Sugar Hollow with the likes of the Blackwell and Daughtry boys’ string ensembles, and hide tanner Tom Carr’s lively fiddle playing. It didn’t take much of an occasion for a dance to break out with live music somewhere around the Hollow.

Anna Rodgers (1879–1960) welcomed all who passed by her home on the Jarman/Fretwell property, just below the mountain top on the east side of Jarmans Gap. (Photo courtesy of the Mowry/Daughtry Collection)

Visiting with friends, neighbors and families, on and off the mountain, was a regular part of life. Likewise was lending a hand when there was a need. Everyone was dependent on everyone else in the mountains, as with delivering babies. There were eight midwives spread out on the Moormans River’s South Fork, North Fork, and in lower Sugar Hollow. Newborns were in good hands with that saintly group of ladies!

Valley farmers purchased mountain properties for seasonal pasturage, and hired locals to protect their cattle, maintain water sources and keep fencing in good repair. When their stock needed attention, Joe Wood was called upon to splint an injured leg or treat illnesses. In the lower reaches of the Hollow, blacksmiths Hiram Wyant or African American Tom Barnes could shoe your horse, mule or ox, as well as repair your wagon or fabricate a brand new one.

Four churches, from Jarmans Gap to Black Rock Gap and down to the foot of Sugar Hollow, helped meet the spiritual needs of the citizenry while providing a supportive social arm.

What to eat? Every family raised their own garden crops and understood how to preserve enough to last until the next growing season. They knew the pressing need to stock their own larders when the seasons provided the opportunity. There was cow’s milk, hog meat, wild game, fish in the streams; apple, peach, cherry and paw-paw trees; nut trees galore. Honey, sorghum molasses, jams and preserves sweetened their table.

A portable sorghum mill was set-up seasonally in the Hollow to squeeze the juice from sorghum cane to produce molasses. Likewise, a steam-engine powered threshing machine made its rounds to separate food grains from straw. Neighbors helped neighbors throughout those processes.

Manganese mines, below Turk’s Gap near Crimora, employed workers from Sugar Hollow. Cash wage jobs were available in the Hollow as well. Harve’ Howdyshell and son Richard cut timber and produced barrel staves. They moved their specialized equipment and accompanying workers’ shanties when new timber sources were needed. They donated their wood scraps to help heat Sugar Hollow School; these scrap materials were moved by the students to the school. The stave mill drew enough workers from both sides of the mountain that Crimora’s Plaine & Koiner Store opened up a branch outlet near the mill.

There was no sweeter sound in the mountains than that of young and old blending their voices in praise to their Creator. Bluffdale Church, 1915. (Photo courtesy of the Via/McAllister Collection)

Licensed fruit brandy distilleries were operated by John T. Ballard on the South Fork and Bob Via on the North Fork, employing a number of mountain workers. Summer campers, beginning in the mid-1800s, purchased eggs, milk, butter, and hired locals to set up camps and cook for them. Augusta County’s Black Rock Springs Resort, reached via the North Fork through Black Rock Gap, purchased similar staples.

Steam-run sawmills were as ubiquitous as fruit orchards in the mountains: on Middle Mountain and Buck’s Elbow near Jarmans Gap was George H. Craig’s sawmill camp, turning out lumber, logs, and extract wood. “Big Dan” Via and sons operated one on the North Fork, as did Charlie McAllister on the lower Moormans.

George Rice Via and son John ran a water-powered grain mill and sawmill on the lower Moormans where J.J. Wonderlick had operated in the 19th century. Another 19th century water-powered mill, identified with Walton or Tate, was downstream from there. Chestnut oak bark was in demand by industrial tanneries in the Shenandoah Valley. Landowners saved this valuable commodity when selling timber rights, and reserved bark rights when selling land.

Now, about that help you said we needed… 

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 at [email protected]. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2023 Phil James 

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