If I told you I was from Schuyler you probably wouldn’t have a clue. If I told you I was from Walton’s Mountain, a wave of recognition would most likely flash across your face. If I told you that Jim Bob played the piano at my wedding, you might even be fascinated. If I told you there was no real mountain and no Waltons, you might be disappointed. Well, there is no mountain, and there are no Waltons. (The television series was based on the Hamner family of Schuyler. Earl Hamner who was the author of Spencer’s Mountain and the producer of the acclaimed Waltons was a native of Schuyler.) The depictions of the small southern town and it’s hospitable people are otherwise accurate. I, however, did not grow up there during the Great Depression but in the 60’s and 70’s. The popularity of “The Waltons” brought an influx of people from all over the world. I’m sure the sheer volume of these visitors helped improve the stale economy of that period.
Schuyler is a town in Nelson County which is located in central Virginia. It is cushioned in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The way of life there is a bit simpler and a little slower than most places. There are twisting country roads. Some are still gravel. There are rivers and streams for fishing, swimming, and tubing. Today’s (2009) population is 1,345, and was much less when I was a child. There are a few businesses but mostly homes. Most homes have a little land with sheds, gardens, and animals. It is what most people would consider ideal country living…peace and quiet, fresh air, and no traffic. The beauty alone is breathtaking, especially in Autumn with red, yellow, and orange foliage mixed with the green.
The house that I lived in until I was ten was a large Queen Anne-style house. The house was built circa 1890 for the manager of the Alberene Soapstone Plant. In the day, Schuyler was a thriving community. The house was built on a bluff overlooking the plant from one side and overlooking the Rockfish River from the other side. The property contained a reservoir which was originally constructed as a swimming pool and later became storage for emergency water in addition to the water tank that sat on a hill directly above it. There were a few other buildings such as another house my brothers said were slaves quarters when in actuality they served as an office and a workshop. Beside that was a tiny building that housed a fire hose. Our property was the only parcel that held a fire hydrant. Both the hoses and the hydrant were kept under lock and key, and never used the entire time we lived on the premises which was about ten years. There was also a stable (to my dismay we did not own any horses!) that was positioned directly above the river. From there you could see the steel suspension bridge, the powerhouse, and the dam. The day after Hurricane Camille (Aug 1969), I remember watching the ruins float down the river while perched in the window of the barn. (We called the stable a barn.) The flood washed out the bridge, the power plant, and a piece of the dam. I carry a three inch scar on my right forearm from that morning. As I was running through the barn to get to the window, I scraped against a pane of glass that was resting upon a large wooden utility spool. I probably should have gotten stitches, but considering the devastation and death that Camille brought to our county the night before, my wound was quite low on the totem pole. I wear that scar like a badge of honor. It is a reminder of the horrifying events of that night and a remembrance of how fortunate we were that we lived in safety, high on the hill away from the raging temper of the Rockfish River.
The house itself (inside and out) was an amazing piece of architecture. It had a slate roof and a wrap around porch with turned posts and decorative brackets, a small side porch, and an additional screened porch. It was considered a two-story home, but it did contain a third story attic which consisted of two rooms with secret hiding places in the walls. It also had a full basement that stored coal and the workings of the radiator heat system. It had a soapstone base and two soapstone chimneys. Two of the five bedrooms had window-seats. The laundry room had deep double sinks made of soapstone. The kitchen countertop was black marble. There were three fireplaces with mantles, one of which was exquisitely carved wood from the floor to the shelf.
The house was a structure of art to the average passerby. I was petrified of it. My two brothers used to tell my three sisters and I that Skeleton Joe lived in the attic. I, being the youngest, fed off their fear. According to my brothers, Skeleton Joe was a REAL human skeleton that the previous house owner used for medical study. And I scarcely remember some kind of a tale about a murder with a pitchfork. (which also was not true!) I remember hearing the tree branches tussle against the house in the wind at night, and I would be too afraid to sleep because I thought it was Skeleton Joe coming after me.
The older kids in my family grew up and moved out leaving my sister and I alone in that big house with my parents. I remained haunted by the tales of my older brothers, and no reassurance altered the stories I carried in my head. I was frightened being in that house unless my father was home. He was a tall man with big muscles, and I thought he could beat up any living thing, so I figured the ghost Skeleton Joe didn’t stand a chance.
I had lots of freedom and lots of buildings and land to explore, and I must say I did my share. My neighbor twins, Donna and Debbie, and I used to dig underneath the barn for treasure. We found remnants of a red blanket that we were positive had contained the remains of a mummy. We uncovered lots of slate that had fallen from the roof and shards of pottery, but never any bones. I guess you could say that cultivation of friendship was the treasure we unearthed.
Shortly, before my tenth birthday, we moved from that house to a parcel of land owned by my father’s family. The property was still in the Schuyler zip code but was not considered part of the village of Schuyler. The intent was to live in a trailer until my father built a house for us. That didn’t happen. At least not while I was still there. They became complacent living in the trailer and did not build their home until after I married and moved away. I felt homeless in my heart during those years. I developed close connections to the land and the streams. I mean, who considers a trailer home? There was a creek that ran through our property, and I spent a lot of my time there. As a child I played in the creek and near the creek with my cousin, Cindy, almost every day of my life. As a teenager, we still hung out by the creek and talked or waded up and down the stream. Alone, I spent much time on the rocks creek side with a notebook in hand for writing or a book to read. I often just sat out in the woods and contemplated life.
In my mid-thirties, I went to see the house. I had planned to knock on the door and ask if I could walk the grounds to show my husband and children where I grew up. The gracious owner not only allowed us to walk the grounds but invited us in to tour the house. It did not seem nearly as large as it did when I was a kid. The sun filtered in through all the windows casting an open and cheerful tone throughout the entire house. I didn’t see anything remotely scary about it. Maybe the only scary part had really been Skeleton Joe…and he wasn’t home that day! I couldn’t find the secret compartments in the attic. I was a little sad about that but more saddened that my favorite lilac bush had been cut down. The old barn had fallen into disrepair. The owners leveled the area and then landscaped it which made the entire estate look very different from my memories. Even the rock wall that separated the barn area and the vegetable gardens was gone. It was an astounding variance between my childhood memories and what my adult eyes actually observed.
I moved to Virginia Beach in 1983. My husband and I bought our current home in 1991. It was one of the first homes we looked at, and it called out to both of us. The realtor kept insisting that we look at this house or that house. We think she just wanted us to settle on the most expensive house we could afford. We kept being beckoned back to that house, so we bought it. It is not extravagant by any means, but it soothes my soul. I live in my house, and I work from it. It is almost like a second skin. I am truly comfortable there. So, my roots may be in Schuyler, but my home is in Virginia Beach.
**end notes After writing this piece, my father informed me that the tale of Skeleton Joe was indeed not just a tale but in fact, was somewhat true. One of the precious occupants of the house was a medical doctor who had an office in the attic. He did have a cadaver skeleton that he used in reference when explaining ailments to patients. I guess my brothers named him Joe. There also had been a pitchfork murder in a neighboring town, just not in that house.