Historian and Author Tom Perry's thoughts on history and anything that comes to mind.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Bill Bryson Comes To Critz

Many might know Bill Bryson for the book and movie A Walk In The Woods about his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail with an old friend. They didn’t get to walk it all, but they did get portrayed in a movie by Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. Those of us who have read many of Bryson’s travel books know that he came to Patrick County, Virginia, way back in the late 1980s.

            In The Last Continent: Travels in Small-Town America published in 1989, Bryson writes about coming through our neck of the woods. In the warm and fuzzy way that Bryson writes, I type with my tongue held firmly in my cheek, yes sarcasm, something I am known for, he rips us to shreds.

            When I first saw Critz and Patrick Springs in the index, I should have known what was coming, but still I read on, only to find that the sharp tongue of Bryson landed in my home county. In chapter eleven beginning on page 123 Bryson begins telling of his aversion to highway historical markers as his father apparently stopped and read everyone he encountered, out loud to his wife and three children. Bryson’s father sounds like my kind of man, but apparently, this left deep emotional scars in the offspring. Specifically, his father would nearly kill the entire family by pulling back out in the highway unaware of the myriad of trucks that nearly flattened their vehicle. His father always said the same things. “Well, I’ll be darned…Yes, that was really very interesting.”

            Bryson apparently traveling west to east along Highway 58, Bryson was trying to get to the Booker T. Washington National Monument to the north east in Franklin County, Virginia. He “spied a side road leading to a place called Critz.” Bryson turned his Chevette, yes that’s right a Chevette, towards Critz saying, “My first rule of travel is never go to a place that sounds like a medical condition and Critz clearly was an incurable disease involving flanking skin.”

            Bryson turned, no doubt, on to the Abram Penn Road heading towards Critz and the Reynold Homestead, which was either horribly marked or he chose to ignore as that might lead to all sorts of anti-tobacco comments or to make Critz sound a little more civilized. Bryson does write with an agenda especially in his politics.

            He grew up in Iowa, but then moved to England, where he still lives, I believe at least part time. Many of his books deal with Europe or the English language. Anyway, back to Critz.

            Bryson got lost. He passed through Sanville, Pleasantville, Preston, and then back to Sanville for a third time when he stopped to ask an older man, who was “taking his dog out to splash urine around the neighborhood” for directions. The old fellow then “launched into a set of instructions of the most breathtaking complexity” for five minutes. Describing the instructions as something like a description of Lewis and Clark’s journey west. The old man took Bryson to Preston, by the old McGregor place via the “drover’s road”, but not to take the road to the left towards “Dead Man’s Creek” as the bridge is out and Bryson would plunge into the stream.

            Bryson thanked him, continued on, where he took the wrong fork in the road and eventually came back by the same old fellow, who was gesturing at him “excitedly” and shouting. Bryson “plundered” back to Highway 58, two hours after setting off for Critz. “Sourly, I pulled back onto the highway and drove for many long hours is silence.”

            He did not make it to Booker T. Washington or Monticello as he had hoped. I think he doesn’t realize how close he was to making it at Sanville, he could have turned north and made his way to Highway 57 and then to 220 and north to 40 and on to visit Booker T.

            So ends Bill Bryson’s visit to The Free State of Patrick and along the border of neighboring Henry County. It was before the days of smartphones, which Bryson swears off. He must have passed by the Reynolds Homestead and the historic highway marker denoting Abram Penn, which would have brought memories back of his father, which he must have shut out. “The day had been a complete washout. I had no lunch, no life giving infusions of coffee. It had been a day without pleasure or reward.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Vagabonds Visit Virginia







On August 29, 1918, with the shadow of World War One looming over the entire world, a group of famous men and their entourage visited Martinsville, Virginia, as part of a thirteen day “circle tour” into the “Land of Dixie.” The group included Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, Thomas Edison, the world-famous inventor, Harvey Firestone, Jr. the man who put tires on the cars and naturalist John Burroughs.

The group made a two-week summer trip calling themselves the “Vagabonds” from 1915 until 1924. In 1919, the trip included fifty vehicles including a kitchen camping car with a gas stove and ice box built into the vehicle. Later trips included President of the United States, Warren G. Harding. The group were the subject of news reels that promoted Ford cars and Firestone tires, filmed by a cameraman from Ford Motor Company.

Ford called Edison his “boyhood idol” and the two had summer homes Florida together. Edison navigated with his compass sitting in the “perch,” the front seat of the first car. Edison often recited chemical formulas or told tall tales to the group. The group slept in personal tents with power for lights supplied by Edison generators.
The group left Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on August 18 on a nearly two-week excursion. They traveled through West Virginia to Hot Springs, White Sulphur Springs, Princeton, Bluefield, and then into Virginia visiting Lebanon, Abington, and Bristol, before visiting the Great Smoky Mountains and Asheville, North Carolina, where they stayed at the Grove Park Inn. The group had dinner at the Rotary Club in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, before making their way back into Virginia and a visit to Martinsville on August 29, 1918.
Naturalist John Burroughs kept records and photographs of their trip. “A plunge into the South for a Northern Man is in many ways a plunge into the Past. As soon as you get into Virginia, there is a change.” Burroughs was in his seventies during the excursions. He taught the group bird calls and how to identify birds. Firestone said, “We never knew where we are going.”
The entourage included six cars: two Packards, two Model Ts, and two Ford trucks. They had seven drivers/helpers and plant pathologists, Professor R. J. DeLoach.  This was 1918 when the vehicles could move along about 18 miles an hour on roads that were mostly dirt or a “Macadon” surface. Counties, not states, took care of the roads. Many roads were taken care of by the people, who lived along the roads, so it was hit or miss when it came to quality of the road ways this group encountered.  Many times, there were toll gates with costs such as two cents for cars and five cents for trucks.

Henry Ford was age 55 in 1918 and wanted to “reconnect with nature” on this journeys.  Ford chopped wood and loved to hike and even rode wheat harvesters. Once when a radiator broke, Ford fixed it himself.
Sometimes wives joined the group. Firestone once brought a butler. At night around the campfire, the “Vagabonds” ate ribeye steaks and talked about everything from Mozart to Shakespeare.
Once when a vehicle broke down, a local man inquired of the group and was told, “I am Thomas Edison. I am Henry Ford.” The local looked at Burroughs, who had a long white beard and skeptically asked, “Are you Santa Claus?”
From Martinsville, the “Vagabonds” went on to Roanoke and the Natural Bridge before overnighting at the Castle Inn in Lexington, Virginia. One of their stops included the Old Hambrick Mill, which is no longer standing in Franklin County, Virginia, along the Blackwater River near Gogginsville, Virginia.
On September 1, 1918, the group went on to Staunton, Virginia. The group completed their trip “road weary” in Hagerstown, Maryland.
There were apparently other visits by individual members of the group such as Thomas Edison in May 1906 when he stopped in the area on his way to Lincolnton, North Carolina, to investigate supplies of cobalt to use in a storage battery. He was called “the greatest man in the country” by a local man. Edison replied to the compliment asking, “What about Teddy?” referring to then President Theodore Roosevelt.  Another visit by Edison, Firestone, and Ford reportedly in 1910 on their way to Fort Meyers, Florida, where they had homes.
You can learn more at this link of John Burroughs Our vacation days of 1918.