March 20, Paine Run Road – We had monopolized Herbert’s evening. He had been as gracious as we could have hoped. He let his dinner get cold. He answered my questions patiently.
He showed us his bar. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the bacchanalian abandon which must have occurred here in the old days when the Via boys got to drinking. My imagination is too poor to conjure up scenes of such fantastic revelry.
We returned to the kitchen and prepared to leave. Before we said farewell, I resolved to take another run at Herbert and see if he’d open up a little about Christopher Columbus Via’s stolen bones.
I asked again. He shrugged his shoulders and said the ghoulish expedition was the brainchild of his older brother Clarence.
Clarence, who had moved his family to Washington state where he had been stationed at Fort Lewis, was back for one of his occasional month-long visits. Herbert was up from Baltimore. They were hanging with Arnold on the porch of the home place, drinking beer, trading insults and hurling spent cans into the yard. When they got good and drunk, Clarence said there was something he couldn’t get off his mind.
It was Christopher Columbus Via, their great-granddaddy. Born in 1850, Christopher Columbus Via, was the richest man in Sugar Hollow as the 19th century drew to a close. While growing up, Clarence had heard tales about buried treasure, and he couldn’t stop wondering if old Chris had been laid to rest with some of his considerable fortune.
“He knew there had to be some money in there or something, because Chris was pretty well off,” Herbert said. “He was one of the richest Vias back there in Sugar Hollow. Chris hired all the other Vias back there to work for him, to run the sawmill and work in his government still house and apple orchard.”
Of the trio, Herbert expressed the least enthusiasm for the adventure.
“I said I ain’t going over,” Herbert says. It had been so long that Clarence had been out of Sugar Hollow that he didn’t know where the graveyard was.
“I said, ‘I’ll go over there with you and show you where the graveyard is, but I ain’t gonna dig nothing.’ Arnold said “I will.’ And I didn’t. I didn’t dig nothing.”
(Editor’s note: It is my great fortune Kenny Via took the initiative to interview Arnold in 2006 for a college paper. Arnold was dead-on lucid then, and he gave his great-nephew a full and rich account of this morbid episode in family history. Kenny generously forwarded the interview, without which this story would have suffered greatly. Naturally, all of Arnold’s input comes from that interview.)
Arnold wasn’t filled with misgivings. He wasn’t the kind of guy to succumb to trepidation. The more he thought about it, the more the idea of getting to the bottom of Christopher Via’s grave intrigued him.
By the time the sun rose over the Shenandoah hills in the morning, he was all-in.
“We didn’t get to sleep until about 3 o’clock in the morning, and when we got up early Clarence and Herbert tried to renege on me,” Arnold said. “They sobered up a little and changed their minds. But I encouraged them. I got their asses in the car, and we took off for the mountains. We got our shovels and picks and tools in the car and we took off.”
They drove to the end of Paine Run Road, which used to connect with a backcountry access road into Shenandoah National Park. You can still hike into the park from there. They drove up over Skyline Drive and onto the eastern slope of the mountains.
“We got up to the top,” Arnold said. “This graveyard is on top of a mountain, because the old people used to feel that the higher up you were buried, the closer you were to heaven.”
When they got up there, Herbert directed his brothers to the exact location of the Via family graveyard. Then he stepped aside and let his brothers go to work.
“So we got in there and started diggin’, and we was diggin’, and we was diggin’, and we was diggin’,” Arnold said. “And this graveyard was slate rock all the way down. My dad used to say that it took two weeks to dig a grave in it up there on top of this mountain, and now I know why. But we did find a wall, like a tomb, and so we just kept diggin’ and hoping that we were in the right place.”
As the misty Blue Ridge dawn gave way to the light of day, nerves got jittery. Herbert was already freaked out. Now Clarence was starting to fret, too. But they kept right on digging.
“So we was diggin’ away and all at once the fog lifted, the sun came out, and we was a little frightened because this is pretty risky business,” Arnold said. “At the same time a damn aeroplane come flying over top of our heads. We didn’t know if it was a park ranger or what it was – even though the grave is on private property.”
With Herbert up on top looking for trouble and trying to hold it together, Arnold and Clarence delved deeper into the hard earth of the Blue Ridge hills. It was tough going, but they’d come too far and exposed themselves to too much jeopardy to turn back now.
As they dug deeper, the earth took on a muddy consistency. They kept digging. And digging. And digging.
They kept digging until they ran smack into old Chris Via.
“Herbert didn’t do much diggin’, but Clarence, he digs, and then we notice a kind of a round thing in the mud,” Arnold said. “And I took my hand, and wiped the mud off of it, and that was his skull! So I knew we were in the right spot. So I dug the mud from around the skull, and I found a couple of collar bones – loose collar bones. And I put one of them in my teeth, and I came up out of the grave and run up after Herbert – and Herbert run!”
Flush with their discovery, they kept going, looking for the buried treasure of Christopher Columbus Via. The skull sat on the rim of the grave, and Herbert tried not to look at it. They recovered a couple teeth and a few pearl shirt buttons, but that was it.
They had made a considerable, if illegal, archaeological discovery. Yet the danger hadn’t disappeared. Finally even Arnold figured it was time to get the hell off the mountain.
“So we gave up on the idea that there was any treasure in the grave,” he said.”So we bagged it all up – about eight bones, loose bones and the skull, and the teeth, and the buttons – and we rushed back to the car and headed home.”
Herbert recalled they might have uncovered a couple small handles from Chris Via’s coffin.
The rest? The worms and the rodents and the years had had their way with the king of Sugar Hollow.
“They didn’t embalm people back in those days, especially not in the hills,” Herbert said. “The animals used to dig at those graves before they started embalming people. Ground hogs dug holes in all those damn graveyards.”
Arnold was excited about excavating old Chris’ skull and bones, but Clarence’s quest for Via treasure came up empty. And now he had to go home to Washington.
The boys drove him back to Baltimore and on to Dulles Airport.
“He was pretty well stewed when he left my place to catch a plane,” Herbert said. “He had a pint in his pocket and a skull in his carry-on handbag. The airport had an observation deck, and we stood up at the top and watched him go up the steps to get on the plane.
“I had to work 11 to 7 that night. A 2 o’clock in the morning my wife called me. My wife, she never called me at work. I didn’t like calls at work, and my wife had orders don’t call me unless it’s very important.”
Clarence’s wife, Gwen, had called Herbert’s house from Tacoma. She was beside herself.
“I got on the phone, and she says, “Gwen just called me and Clarence’s luggage showed up but he didn’t get off the plane. Where’s he at?'” Herbert said. “I said how the hell can I tell you where he’s at? I don’t know anything about him. We watched him get on the plane. Clarence evidently was drinking so much they wouldn’t let him get on the plane.”
Clarence eventually caught a flight to Seattle. When he returned to Tacoma, he bought a 10-gallon aquarium and used it to exhibit his great-grandfather’s skull. Eventually the aquarium ended up in the room of his son, Eugene.
That’s where they stayed on exhibit until Clarence died.
“When Rufus and I came to Tacoma to see Clarence two weeks before he died, Gwen made us bring it home,” said Shelley Via Smulsky. “Rufus wouldn’t let me bring it on the plane. We boxed it up and sent it ahead.”
Back in the hills of northern Virginia, Christopher Columbus Via eventually found his way back to his great-grandson Arnold.
“Shelley and Herbert give ’em back to me for my birthday present,” Arnold said. “So I had them in a little fish aquarium out on my front porch. After I closed in my front porch with crank out windows, I put them out there on display.”
Arnold later passed old Chris along to a relative who had come to visit and was researching a book on the old Vias. He lost track of them afterward, though he suspected the skull’s new owner of launching an expedition to return Christopher Columbus Via to his original resting place.
“I’ve seen him three times since then, and I haven’t heard one word out of him about them damn bones,” he said. “So I assume, and I figure, since he’s kept his mouth shut, that he sneaked those damn bones back up there and stuck them in the grave.”
Not that Arnold didn’t derive his share of morbid fun out of the great Via grave robbery. He especially liked it when relatives who had come for the annual Via-hard family reunion would go up to the graveyard to pay their respects.
“They carpool and they go up to the graveyard and clean it all off real nice and clean,” Arnold said. “Lay down the flowers and make it look respectable. And I start grinning at these idiots when they put stuff on Chris’ grave, ’cause there ain’t nothin’ in there to be puttin’ flowers on it. But they don’t know any different.”
Well, that’s the story of the Via boys’ assault on Christopher Columbus Via’s grave. Having heard Herbert’s side of the story, we could safely bid him adieu.
Before leaving, we forced poor Herbert to pose for photographs. He asked where we were headed, and then invited us to camp out for the night at his place.
We were thrilled. Instead of trying to find our way to another god-forsaken Walmart, we’d be camping on Paine Run Road. It doesn’t get any better than that.
We drove into Grottoes to get some groceries at the local Food Lion. Then we returned to Paine Run Road.
Of all the many and inspiring days we’ve spent on the road in this troubled country, this one has to rank at or near the top. We had a lovely afternoon at the Smulsky house, then spent the evening with 83-year-old Herbert Via.
Now we camped under the stars which hung above the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains, way up there where Christopher Columbus Via may or may not be resting.
And we couldn’t help but feel good about that.