Why Crozet? Phil James: History Finds Its Keeper

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Phil James answered questions at The Lodge at Old Trail in February. Photo: Michael Marshall.

Why Crozet? a long-running monthly feature, highlights the reasons we love living in Crozet and the unique rural villages, towns and countryside that surround it. This month, we talked to local historian Phil James, a long-time Gazette columnist, author, and popular speaker, about his life’s work and the events and people that shaped his path. 

He’s the man who usually asks the questions, but when Phil James appeared at The Lodge at Old Trail in February, it was clear that the standing-room-only crowd had plenty of questions for him. Many were long-time Crozet people who wondered about the fine points of their own history; others were recent residents who were surprised to learn that Crozet once had a movie theatre and a doctor who visited patients high up in the hollows on a sure-footed horse.

There was another thread to the questioning. The audience was curious about the speaker’s own experience. What was it like to interview the aging representatives of another era? What are some of the secrets of the Blue Ridge (the title of James’s books and ongoing work) that are still unknown? 

James, who writes a monthly column for the Crozet Gazette, expanded a little more on his background and process recently. He’s always had a sense of haste, he said, of time running out. In his public appearance, he told the audience, “When I started out, if you were younger than 80, I just didn’t have time for you.” He knew he had to quickly capture the words and images of the oldest story-tellers first. 

He had an advantage over historians who might come in from outside to hear the everyday stories passed down by rural families. His was one of those families. “I am a blue-collar guy,” he said. “My two older brothers and I were the first generation in our family lines who were not farmers born into a full-time farming family.”

A standing-room only crowd assembled at the Lodge at Old Trail last month to ask Phil James questions about local history. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

When James graduated from Albemarle High School in 1970, he worked as a machinist trainee at Sperry Marine in Charlottesville. Soon afterwards, he became interested in his family genealogy, and he had to struggle a little to get it. As the youngest son of a youngest son, he said, he never met any great-grandparents, and had only a few childhood memories of his two surviving grandparents. His dad had died when he was 20 years old, so “Apart from my mother, I had no one to ask these questions except a few extended-family elders, and the community elders who had known ‘my people.’” He studiously collected birth dates, wedding dates, family names and deaths, but was still dissatisfied.

“By the mid-1980s,” he said, “I wanted more than just names, dates, and places. “I wanted stories!” He craved the details: where were his people’s houses and farms, what crops did they raise, where did they shop and worship? What was day-to-day life like in their time?

To find the answers, James methodically visited neighbors, asking them about older family members. As he did, he realized that he was interested in their stories, all of them, whether or not they included memories of his own family. He had a feeling that this was to be his life’s work, and quoted his longtime friend, Larry Lamb, also a history buff: “History finds its keeper.”

“I tried to visit the oldest ones first,” he said, “but time and again I would read obituaries of ones I never got to visit.” Each new death filled the young man with great regret, not only because of the grief they left behind, but because he knew each elder took countless untold stories to the grave. 

In his talk at the Lodge, he acknowledged his wife, Sally, and thanked her publicly for allowing him to take the next step. He said he never would have come to her with a plan to leave his job and work full-time on his passion, but she approached him with that very idea. “Making such a life choice, at age 48 in 2002, was anything but easy,” he said. “I brought no security to the table. No savings, no more regular paychecks, no insurance.” 

Sally was willing to adjust an average blue-collar lifestyle to subsist on one person’s income, and the couple made a leap of faith. It has now been 22 years. “We continue to trust God to supply our needs and He has been faithful,” Phil James said. Sally has never complained about the sacrifices, but encourages James in his work every day.

The Crozet Gazette wasn’t founded until 2006, so there wasn’t a regular outlet for his work. Phil and Sally planned to publish a book or two. Older history buffs wondered if they were going to live long enough to see that book, James said. His reply: “I hoped that I would live long enough to see that book.”

Many of those who asked that question actually did die before the first Secrets of the Blue Ridge was published in 2010. “I pray now for grace to live long enough to honor their lives and to share their stories with those who care about such things,” James said. “I do feel that burden.”

In addition to Sally, James thanked his 4th grade Virginia history teacher, Mrs. Isabelle Dunn Bing. In those days, the state history was required for all school children, and James considers that year the highlight of his education, as well as the one where he received the highest letter grades. Mrs. Bing didn’t stop at the classroom lessons; she traveled with her classes to some of the places she’d taught them about. 

Although James has become the go-to person for Crozet history, his work extends to poignant  events that had an enormous impact on a much larger population. He’s collected information about local railroads, Appalachian ballad singers, the eviction of the mountain families to build the Shenandoah National Park, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Mountain Mission Workers, and once-thriving communities that are long forgotten.

It’s a job that James continues to pursue into his retirement years, and he knows he’ll never accumulate everything needed to fill in all the pieces of what he calls the “unique and precious lives” of those who came before. His is an authentic people’s history that requires endless searching through shoeboxes and dusty family albums. He has many stories that could be used in his Crozet Gazette columns if there were appropriate images, he said, and he’s glad to acknowledge those who allow him to copy their treasured family photos and vintage objects.

Why does he do it? James sees it as a way to honor those who came before. He’s grateful for any personal encouragement that comes from those who believe, as he does, that his work is important. He quoted a 2013 note from Rev. David Wayland, whose great-great grandfather, Jeremiah Wayland, hosted Col. Claudius Crozet at his home in Pleasant Green. James acknowledges Jeremiah’s son, Abram, as the “father” of the village of Crozet. Abram dispatched his teenage son, Charlie Wayland, on horseback, bearing a petition asking the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway to establish a rail stop near their home at Wayland’s Crossing.

Generations later, David Wayland wrote to Phil James in a message that still inspires him: “You represent a lot of history and important collections, and attitudes, and the ability to save things that represent all of us. And we are glad you are there. A lot of us feel that way. No one else is doing it.” 

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