In Search of Lost Communities



“I loved this book” is a feeling often expressed or implied in my blog entries, but normally it is the words of a text that I loved, and not the physical form. Lost Communities of Virginia is extraordinary for the combination of photographs and text and the beauty of the pages and cover. The book is the product of the Virginia Tech Community Design Assistance Center project to identify and tell the stories of vanishing Virginia communities.  The 30 profiled in the book’s chapters were among 2600 surveyed for the project which is ongoing.

Southside Virginia memories

Three of the communities were extremely familiar to me from living along the North Carolina line:  Branchville, Boydton, and Almagro.  Branchville, population 117, a railroad town in Southampton County only two miles from Boykins where I lived in the late 1980s, is near the Meherrin River where I first began canoeing thirty years ago; I drove through it to work daily when a library director in Lawrenceville.  Very little is left of Branchville other than empty buildings, but Boydton, population 431, in Mecklenburg County is much more intact.  As a county seat with government buildings in good repair and many well kept historic homes; what Boydton has lost is its role as a commercial center.  As South Hill, Clarksville, and Chase City all outgrew the county seat in size, businesses were lost to Boydton.  Living in Danville for ten years, I thought of Almagro as a run down neighborhood of the city, and drove through it almost daily without recognizing that it was once a distinct community of its own with self-sufficient African American businesses.  With all these “familiar” places, Lost Communities of Virginia was a revelation allowing me to see them as they were in their heyday and appreciate all that had been lost.

Appalachian explorations

The book inspired me to drive to several communities featured in other chapters, nearer my present home in Martinsville.  Three were recently explored in an early fall trip to Giles County (via Montgomery): Newport, Eggleston, and Riner.  Newport is memorable for its architectural beauty, while Eggleston’s natural setting in view of majestic palisades along the New River is awe-inspiring. Riner is noteworthy for the utter “lostness” of its old main street that is surrounded by modern suburban development spilling over from Christiansburg. On a trip last weekend to Tennessee, I visited Mendota en route and Mouth of Wilson on the way back.  Mendota is breathtakingly beautiful in its mountain valley setting, and its homes and community are very well preserved, whereas Mouth of Wilson has crumbled almost into nonexistence; the book explains that a widening of the road US 58 would wipe out what little is left of its former glory.

The Lost Town of Cashy

Three lost communities of North Carolina featured in Pell Mellers and my chapter of Carolina Genesis , and the lure of nostalgia drew me back there for many visits.  My mother’s family memories reside in  the 19th century farm community Okisko and the 18th century port Nixonton, a few miles apart in Pasquotank County.  Both would be prime candidates for a Lost Communities of North Carolina project, still surviving as residential areas but long since having lost their former business or government buildings.  In Bertie County where my Johnsons lived in the 18th and 19th centuries,  the former county seat “Old Cashy” left only scattered remnants after the seat of government was removed downstream on the Cashie River to its present site of Windsor, then called Gray’s Landing.  The most heartfelt homecomings of my genealogical pilgrimage were those exploring the land along both sides of Will’s Quarter Swamp above its confluence with the Cashie River, where these Johnsons resided since the mid-18th century.  Harry Louis Thompson wrote an excellent brief article about the Lost Town of Cashy in 1961 which is available on the web in full. It summarizes the findings later published in his book with the same topic. This excerpt captures the evanescence of the town:

As far as towns go, Cashy might qualify as one of our present cross- road communities. One major difference existed; however, the bulk of the land on which the town loosely sprawled belonged to one man-James Castellaw. The road into the town area has been referred to as the “Eden House-Murfreesboro Post Road,” and we know that for years the mail traveled by horse back from the Edenton Ferrys to the Court House and on to Hertford and Northampton counties.  As early as 1748, both Cashie and Will’s Quarter were bridged, and represented the first bridges vessels approached as they came up Cashie. Thus, it is only natural that a trading and business area developed there…“Cashy Bridge” was a floating bridge of Cypress sills and plank, with posts and rails. It was chained to trees on each bank to prevent its drifting down river. Across the bridge lay Bertie Court House. The Court, Prison, and Stocks lay on the peninsula formed by Cashie and Will’s Quarter Swamp, facing the fork of the main road as it turned each way to the two bridges. The grounds, as previously shown, were laid on with rail fences, and included a whipping post and stocks.

At Will’s Quarter Bridge to the Swamp side lay Castellaw’s Mill Pond, started prior to 1748 under an act of the Colonial Legislature of 1715. These mills were of such importance and such scarcity that the act made mill sites public property upon which any man might put a water mill if the landowner did not do so. We can presume that in its original state the mill processed meal and flour; but it couldn’t have been many years before a sawmill also existed there, as we find evidence of sawed timber as early as 1800 from the pond.

I am forever grateful to Harry Louis Thompson for his kindness and generosity to me as I worked on Pell Mellers, and more so for his benevolence to Bertie County and Johnsons in particular.  He safeguarded the Johnson family cemetery when the surrounding land was sold to a timber company, and he preserved the site of the old Hoggard’s Mill, where I kayaked in the millpond, with a covered bridge across Will’s Quarter Swamp just above its confluence with the Cashie.  This is an satellite view of the Hawkins-Johnson cemetery, surrounded by planted pines in a tree farm, with Wills Quarter Swamp to the lower right.

johnson cemetery

Newman’s Ridge

But in none of these places have I had the same sense of “lostness” of a community and yet the same overwhelming feeling of the presence of its past that I felt while hiking along the top of Newman’s Ridge with Toby Gibson recently in Hancock County, Tennessee. After decades of pursuing wild and remote corners of Virginia and North Carolina, I confess that east Tennessee outdoes either state in wildness and remoteness. (So does West Virginia.)  Toby’s ancestors on both paternal and maternal lines have lived on Newman’s Ridge for more than two centuries. Today one can drive across Newman’s Ridge on two north-south paved roads, along which people still live.  But across the top of the ridge the old road is long abandoned, and where once dozens of cabins overlooked Blackwater Valley, there are very few signs of past habitation.  The cabin of Mahala Mullins has been reconstructed down in the valley, and can be seen in winter from its former ridgetop site.  Within living memory the portion of the Ridge overlooking Vardy was inhabited but now it is hauntingly empty.  In my mind’s eye the vivid descriptions in Jesse Stuart’s Daughter of the Legend brought the Ridge back to life as he saw it in the early twentieth century. Anyone who loved the novel will be very moved by a hike along Newman’s Ridge.   Experiencing it with a descendant of all the original landowners was a special window to the past that strengthened the sense of time traveling to a Lost Community.

More than once I’ve been perplexed by the proclivity of writers and online commenters far away from Appalachia to define Melungeons as extinct and/or legendary, when I know them to be alive and real.  The community that lived along the road at the top of Newman’s Ridge is indeed “lost” and therefore extinct, every bit as much as the swampland crossroads of “Old Cashy” where I hiked in search of my Johnson ancestors.  But everyone who lived in the 19th century is extinct, and many communities of that era are lost. Their descendants are alive and real, and like all genealogical researchers if they start digging enough, will find that many family and local traditions are legendary with an uncertain basis in fact.  Many lost communities are nearly forgotten, like Old Cashy has been in two and a half centuries after its brief heyday.  But for a variety of reasons Newman’s Ridge haunts the memories of people throughout Appalachia and even the United States.  It is remembered through the haze of legend; fiction books about Melungeons now far outnumber factual treatments. The mountain still stands and the people of the Ridge survive through their scattered descendants;  so all who wish to see the reality behind the legends can do so if they are willing to visit Hancock County.

The Vardy Community Historical Society hosts special events twice a year, homecomings in spring and fall.  Biennially the Melungeon Heritage Association joins VCHS in a celebration in June of every even-numbered year where visitors from many states are welcomed.  I am looking forward to the 2016 gathering already, where dozens of first-time visitors to Vardy and Big Stone Gap will discover Melungeon heritage while meeting dozens of Tennesseans and Virginians who feel drawn to return again and again by ties of kinship or historical interest.