The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Early Roads Controlled Destinies

By William P. Swartz, Jr. © 1985

Issue: March, 1985

early roads controlled destiniesDr. Benjamin Beckham is at left rear. His son, Col. Benjamin Beckham is the driver in this 1919 photograph taken from a glass lantern slide. Photograph courtesy of Ferrum College.It is difficult today to realize how much the Southwestern Virginia people were affected by the roads of the area in use 75 years ago. Two influences have changed the entire complexion of Floyd, Carroll, Patrick, Grayson and Franklin Counties in the past 50 years. First was the building of good roads. Secondly was the government subsidy on the application of lime and ground limestone to agricultural land. The amount hauled from Austinville alone would be equal to a mile or more of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As a result, what was at one time red clay, eroded and unproductive areas in these counties today is green, beautiful and attractive. It has all come about since 1935. The modernization of the county roads made it possible.

Few people realize today how difficult travel was in the early 1900's. I cite two examples. Dr. B.M. Beckham, who founded the Ferrum Training School (now Ferrum College) in 1913, and later the Mountain Mission Schools in Floyd and Patrick Counties, told me that he was moved to found the Ferrum School because there were no school facilities other than the most elementary and fragmentary and "because there were no roads for the people to get to any [schools]." Because the people were so confined by the lack and poor condition of the roads, he resolved to build a school facility where the youth could be educated and their lives changed. The conclusion is, that the poor means of communication caused Ferrum College to be founded.

A second example of the road conditions and resultant travel limitations of 70 years ago is still very vivid to me. In the 1916 to 1921 period, my mother would take me from our home in the Shenandoah Valley to spend a part of the summers with my grandfather, Mayor C.C. Worrell on his farm about three miles southwest of Hillsville. It was a major train journey requiring a day and a half to Galax. But there was still another five hours of difficult travel by carriage over 14 miles of clay roads. We would have been better off on one occasion traveling by buggy. What happened was that two of my uncles, Grieg Worrell, who worked in the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. and E.E. Worrell, who was supervisor of Elementary Education for Virginia in Richmond, owned my great-grandfather Worrell's farm on the old highway 58, just west of 1-77.

In 1915, the Wilson administration decided to sell at auction, all of the White House carriage equipment, as autos had replaced them. My Uncle Grieg attended the auction and bought for approximately $100.00 a handsome Victoria that had cost about $2,000 in 1889. Drawn by two horses, it had a very high coachman's or driver's seat in front with a wide passenger seat in the rear protected by a wide folding top. After replacing the rubber tires with iron ones, it was shipped to Galax where Dexter Goad, the farm caretaker received it.

In the summer of 1916, my Uncle Grieg arranged his vacation to visit my grandfather at the same time that my mother and I did. We all arrived at Galax at the same time and of course, my uncle was anticipating greatly our all three riding in grand style from Galax to my grandfather's farm in the White House Victoria. Dexter Goad met us and we must have left Galax about 11:30 am with my mother and uncle in the carriage and I was sitting on the coachman's seat with Dexter. All went well for the first couple hours except there was no seat back and my back became so tired, I thought it would break in two. (I was about five years old.) But, when we left the Galax-Hillsville road near Woodlawn, trouble began.

It had rained the previous day and the road was 18 inches deep in mud. The Victoria had 4'6" rear wheels and 34" front wheels. You can imagine what happened to that heavy carriage. From time to time the mud was up to the front axle. The horses would pull for minutes and have to rest. At times a hoof would get stuck in the mud and my uncle would get out and stick a stick down in the mud beside the horse's hoof so that the horse could move his foot. It was about dark when we finally reached my grandfather's house after traveling 14 miles in almost eight hours. It was one of the most fatiguing days of my 73 years.

At that time, another uncle, Dr. Thomas H. Worrell had completed his M.D. education and training and had returned home to begin his medical practice in 1914. He had built a new house on my grandfather's farm. He had bought two horses to ride in his medical practice because frequently he would complete one call only to have to attend another. By 1916, he decided to get rid of the horses and buy a Ford Roadster. He then let his patients know that he would drive his car as far as he could and they would have to bring him a horse to ride the rest of the way. This did not work out and he had to buy another horse to ride where his car could not travel.

On one occasion, his car stopped in the middle of a creek and he could not re-start it. He got my uncle Ed to bring a horse to pull the car about a mile back to the house until he could get a mechanic to come from Galax or Hillsville to fix it. My uncle Ed let his son Eddie (who was about 8 years old) come with him. They hitched a single tree to the Ford front axle. Uncle Ed mounted the horse and Eddie waded into the creek and got into the Ford with my uncle Tom, who would steer it. My uncle Ed was a little hard of hearing, so he looked back to see if the car would move alright, which it did. But when it reached the end of the creek, there was a sharp rise at the bank and the single tree connecting the horse harness pulled loose from the axle. My uncle Ed did not know it, and rode on while Eddie shouted, "Hey Daddy, hey Daddy, hey Daddy." Turning to my uncle Tom, he said, "He can't hear us. We will be here until judgment day."

In the 1920's, many of today's principle highways were only sand clay roads. US 11 from the Roanoke County line to the top of Christiansburg mountain was not modernized and paved until 1928. A "Road Opening" celebration was held at Christiansburg in the spring of 1929. The local citizenry said, "We would not have gotten a new road at all except the Treasury agents got tired of dust in their eyes while chasing the bootleggers."

The present day highway 40 from Rocky Mount to Ferrum and Henry is another example. Up until the early 1930's, it was common practice in the spring and rainy months for motorists to stop at the Rocky Mount station, go inside' and inquire of the station agent, "Can you get over the road to Ferrum?" Frequently the reply would be, "No one has driven a car over the road for several days. Leave your car in the station yard and ride the train until the road dries out." Even in comparatively dry seasons there would be low spots that would remain muddy and slow to dry out.

My dear friend, Col. Robert B. Wilson, now retired, recounts various incidences of travel in the 1920's and early 1930's, one of which was very interesting to me.

B.M. Beckham employed him soon after graduation from college to teach at the Ferrum School. Col. Wilson told me that when he left home in Tennessee he purchased a round trip railroad ticket to Ferrum and return. During the year, he and his now long-time wife Dora, Dr. Beckham's daughter and at that time also a teacher in the school became interested in each other. As the end of the school year approached, Dora did not want Bob to return to Tennessee. He declares that in some way, she managed to get hold of his return ticket which he never found and therefore he could not get back home. So he had no choice but to marry Dora in order to have a place to stay during the summer. It was during this time that he and Dora were returning from a Roanoke movie in late 1928. Somewhere between Rocky Mount and Ferrum, at a bridge approach, their headlights disclosed a car stuck in the mud and blocking the road. Bob said, "When I saw that it was a Hudson Speedster I knew what was going on."

The reason for this statement was that the Hudson Speedster was a car and really the only car of that time that could maintain a relatively high speed and cross mountains without the motor over heating. This was because it had an extra-large capacity water pump that circulated a high volume of water. Consequently, the drivers of the moonshine cars demanded Hudson Speedsters in order to out distance the Revenue Agents and also to get their cargo across the mountains. There was no situation more ticklish than to come upon a car driver with a load of "Dixie Dew" stuck in the mud and Bob Wilson knew it. In best diplomatic fashion, he got out of his car and approached the other driver with the greeting, "Well neighbor, what can I do to help you?" The other driver said little if anything but after prizing and pushing and working, they finally were able to get the car out. The other driver had recognized Bob and Dora. Before leaving, he said, "If you don't want a visit from me and some of my friends, you forget about this and don't you say anything to anyone, especially preacher Beckham." Bob said, "I thought that was sound advice.” Dr. Beckham was the Headmaster of the Ferrum School, but first and last, he was a minister and he wore the full armor of the gospel. The moonshiners feared him as much as they did the revenue agents. It was reported that they said, "Steer clear of Preacher Beckham. He will help put us in jail, then stop by the house to have preaching and praying with the women folks to get us out so he can reform us."

One final observation: It is remarkable that the roads of communication 75 years ago were as good as they were, because in many instances they were solely maintained by the citizenry themselves. The farmers would band together and set a date to work on a section of the road they used. There was no state or county maintenance authorities in many places. I recall on one occasion in 1917, my uncle Thompson Kinzer allowed me to ride with him from his house at the intersection of present day route 100 and US 221 to Webb's Store, about four miles towards Sylvatus. We came upon about a dozen farmers with teams and wagons working on the road. "What happened?" my uncle asked. "The bottom fell out of the road last night. We have been cutting brush and filling in all day. We are now putting in straw and we hope to get it covered with rock and dirt before dark." An underground stream had probably washed out a cavern.

In all these instances, the people had no highway department to call. They depended only on themselves. The result was a strong community sprit, a good neighbor relationship and a firm dependence upon themselves. Their descendants are blessed with a great heritage.