Secrets of the Blue Ridge: A Salute to Albemarle’s Farming Legacy
Albemarle County was populated with farmers from its very inception in 1744. Many remnants yet remain of small, once vital communities where rural families gathered to check mail, catch up on the news, and trade for staples that they could not grow at home.
Sprawling estates of an earlier day were subdivided again and again as land wore out under the burden of a tobacco economy. The Agricultural Society of Albemarle, organized in 1817, endeavored to educate landowners to such tenets as crop rotation and better methods of raising fruits and vegetables. At one time, its innovative, progressive practices were heralded throughout the young nation.
One of the most obvious absences from the local real estate scene today is affordable farm acreage. The Southern Planter magazine in 1893 carried this print ad for Albemarle farmland: “Albemarle County. The great fruit, grain and stock section of Virginia. Climate healthful and fine. Scenery beautiful. Near the great markets, with good transportation facilities… Good soil at low prices. Sheep protected in this county by a good dog law.” Improved farmlands were offered at $9–10/acre.
Mount Fair was one of the several estates established in the 18th century by members of the namesake family of the Brown’s Cove section of western Albemarle. James W. Early obtained this property before the turn of the 20th-century. Among the local hands that hired on to help with the operations of Early’s farm, grain mill, and general store was Laurie Sandridge (1890–1951). His son Homer (1916–2004), while standing on a hill nearby the stately old manor house, described his family’s experiences while living and working on Early’s big farm.
“This land here all used to be Mount Fair,” said Homer, with a sweep of his outstretched hand. “When I was real small, my Daddy worked here. I was born in a log house on the bank of the [Doyle’s] river. Between here and Doylesville is less than a mile. The road just followed the river. I remember you crossed the river—you forded the river—three times. That was a real old house that we lived in. He built a house down here in the bottom and we moved across into that along about nineteen-and-eighteen.
“Had a hog lot right over there. They would let them out and let ’em run over the woods. Most of them were raised for the owner’s consumption and consumption of the people who worked on the place. Back then, when you worked for somebody, they furnished you so much. I remember hearing my Daddy say that during WWI—he had four children then—his pay was $16/month. Flour was sold for $18/barrel during the war. But he didn’t have to buy any flour. He was furnished with flour, meal, a couple hogs, a cow to milk. That’s what came along with all of his compensation.
“Then about nineteen-and-twenty-one we moved to the store. The fellow that owned it, James Early, died while we were here. He was also running the store up there at Mount Fair. That was a part of his estate. Mrs. Early sold that store up there and about an acre, acre-and-a-half of land to my father. We moved up there and he started running the store. That was a big move.”
Farm labor was far from limited to only sturdy males. By necessity, everyone had an important role to serve. The early 19th-century idiom “A woman’s work is never done…” was likely a nod to the farmer’s wife. Virginia Wood Sandridge (1917–2013) was raised at Walnut Level Farm above the village of Mountfair, where a major annual event was the arrival of Totsy Wood’s steam-driven threshing machine. For several days, the family’s usual chores were increased by the fervor of activity brought on by the additional harvesters.
“Mother would give them breakfast and then dinner. Great day in the morning, cooking for all of them at one time. She had 17 men to feed. Isn’t that something? But they raised everything. Had their own chickens and hogs. Had six to eight hogs to butcher every fall. It was 13 of us. Took a lot of meat. When they had to butcher hogs, all that sausage to work up, cold pack and fry. We’d help out when we got bigger.
“My grandmother always made lye soap. All us girls asked how she was going to make it. She said with the chittlin’s out the hog. Daddy would take those chittlin’s down to the river, and Grandma and Mother would go down there. We would help some, but it nearly made us sick. Open up them chittlin’s and wash them; you know the river was coming down. Wash them out and take ‘em back to the old kitchen in a tub. Make a fire in the fireplace, put those chittlin’s on there, and make homemade soap. Put lye and chittlin’s together and it turned out to make lye soap. You’d cook it down and let it set overnight and block it off in just little blocks. It was something to see. Those overalls and things they had to wash on that farm. Took that old lye soap and scrubbed them on a board.”
Whether laboring for a subsistence wage, sharecropping for an absentee owner, orcharding on the mountainsides, or managing great estates on fertile bottomlands, Albemarle’s farmers contributed significantly to the wealth and welfare of their county and state. Some thrived. Some just survived. Some moved on. Post-WWII industrialization and improved transportation enticed many to depart from the agricultural labors of their ancestors and take clock-punching jobs in town. There they exchanged the familiar rhythms of the seasons for the relentless hustle of industrialized society.
As leaders in their respective communities, the work of farmers did not stop when the barn door was closed for the day. They still found time and mustered energy to serve in their churches, on county boards of supervisors and local school boards, on farm bureaus, as well as throwing their support to local youth sports. Were any group of hard-working citizens owed a hearty salute and a rousing “thank you,” one would have to search long and hard to discover one more worthy.
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 © 2003–2020 Phil James