March 20, Paine Run Road, Harriston, Va. – Becky nudges me as if to shake me from a stupor. I’d been spiraling deeper and deeper into Via family history and lost track of time. It was past 5. We’d held court in the Smulsky living room for more than four hours.
Didn’t seem that long at all. But she has a point. We oughta give Shelley and Ed their lives back. So we get up, exchange hugs, take a few more pictures and shuffle toward the front door. I ask about Paine Run Road. Shelley says it’s practically around the corner.
The thought of dropping in on Herbert Via, the last surviving son of Shake and Cora Via, hadn’t really crossed my mind. My mind is like a one-lane road in an abandoned mining town in the middle of a desert. There are long periods of time when not much crosses it.
Now that Paine Run Road lies just eight miles away, it seems like a good idea to at least do a drive-by. I’ve heard a lot about the lore of Paine Run Road. I’d intended to visit Arnold there last March. It’s time we got an up-close look at the old home place.
We say our final goodbyes and make for the behemoth. I inch the camper backward, careful not to tread on Ed and Shelley’s lawn. We get out on the road, turn east on 612 and in a few minutes we’re heading north on U.S. 340 in the direction of Harriston, Paine Run Road and the Via family home place.
Now things are happening. I’m a bit giddy in the aftermath of our long afternoon in Waynesboro. I’d plunged deep into the colorful annals of the Via family and just scratched the surface. They are relentlessly colorful.
Soon we we’re on top of Paine Run Road. Even in 2013, it’s just a little country lane that branches east off 340 and winds for about a mile in the direction of Shenandoah National Park before turning into an unpaved road. We are here.
The old home place sits at 607 Paine Run Road. The wooden fence running along on the road’s edge is plastered with no trespassing signs. It’s a little depressing.
More than a little depressing. As Arnold declined, Shelley said, he got taken in by some young grifters. They bled him dry. When they worked him for the money he no longer had, he took out a reverse mortgage on the home place.
Now he’s dead, and it ain’t home no more.
We decided to trespass anyway. We’d come a long way to commune with the ghosts of Via history, and it’d be silly to back down to signs put up by some faceless banker.
As we stroll about the grounds, I think about characters who lived and died, loved and hated, worked and played here over the past century. I think of the colorful Vias of yesteryear, of Cora and Shake and their brood. I think of poor Arnold, such an independent, delightful iconoclast worn down by age and left vulnerable to the depredations of con artists. It just ain’t right.
After wandering about the home place for a good 20 minutes, we return to the behemoth. It’s parked on the street in front of Herbert’s property. As we approach, a big, old sedan cruises up Paine Run Road. It comes at us at a glacial pace. Maybe 4-5 mph. Old man at the wheel. When he pulls into Herbert’s driveway, I can’t believe our luck.
It’s Herbert. Instead of turning left toward the house, he drives onto the grass, arcs in a gentle 360 and heads back toward the road. I intercept him before he can get away.
He rolls down his window and gives me a curious look. I try to explain just who the hell I am and why I’ve come.
I fail at this.
I say it louder. He shrugs and asks if I’d like to come in for a spell.
This is one of those days when everything comes up roses. I run back to the camper to grab laptop and camera. I catch up to Herbert as he’s exiting the car. It is a delicate, painful operation. It requires exquisite caution. He moves with deliberate care. He takes no risks. A fall would be disastrous.
I ask if he needs a hand, and he waves me off.
He’s obviously one determined, ornery cuss.
Herbert Hoover Via was born on Paine Run Road on April 24, 1929. He is 83 years old, and he looks like he could fall off the edge of the earth any second now.
Once inside, I again try to explain myself. I say I’m friends with his great-nephew out in Washington. Kenny Via. Eugene’s youngest boy. I show him photos of Kenny’s family.
He looks at a photograph and smiles.
“Hell I’m 83 and I got more hair than that,” he says.
Once we settle down, I ask the question I’d neglected to ask Arnold last year at the veterans hospital in Martinsburg. The question about the day three Via boys went up on Via Mountain to rob their great-grandfather’s grave.
Herbert waves his hand as if to swat away a mosquito. He moans.
“Arnold couldn’t keep a secret for nothing,” he says. “He wasn’t supposed to tell nobody. He’s got a mouth. He couldn’t keep a secret if his life depended on it. I jumped his dadgone ass. I said, ‘Arnold stop telling these damn stories.'”
It appears Herbert’s in no mood to discuss the great Via grave robbery.
Born four years apart, Arnold and Herbert were close friends and mutual antagonists. They were brothers and buddies and sparring partners. They teamed up to build this house. The fashioned it out of knotty pine and rough-hewn love. They even built a bar in the rear. Herb’s Bar. Must have seen some times here.
They built the handsome closed-in porch at the Smulsky house. They got into each other so deep then Shelley worried they might come to blows.
But their friendship persevered. As the years unraveled and the family dwindled, they were the Via boys of Paine Run Road. They were neighbors for decades on opposite sides of the gravel road till Arnold’s health deteriorated and he went away. Still, Herbert looks like he wishes he could bring Arnold back just to whack him a good one upside the head.
Herbert appears dangerously frail, as if a big wind could blow down the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge hills and knock him into oblivion. I ask how he’s making out.
“I fall a lot,” he says. “I can’t get up once I fall, so I have to be very careful.”
He says he’s got a list of phone numbers in his pocket. He has others memorized. He keeps a cordless phone with him at all times. If he falls, he calls.
“I called my buddy who lives just a short distance down the road,” he says. “I got a doublewide down there on seven acres of ground down there, and he rents that property. If I call him, he’ll be up here in five minutes.”
His wife, his second wife, lives a half-mile away.
“She left me,” he says. “I’m still married to her. She comes over to wait on me pretty regular.”
Herbert left Paine Run Road at 19. He met a girl at the Grottoes movie theater and got married. They moved first to Lancaster, Pa., where his wife had family. He got a job in a textile mill. He returned to the Shenandoah when he was laid off and got a job in Waynesboro.
Eventually he left for Baltimore, where he worked in Bethlehem Steel’s shipbuilding plant on Sparrow’s Point. He stayed there 31 years before retiring as a supervisor.
His memory, while it contains a few cracks and fissures, is stronger than his body. Especially on the subject of the old days growing up in Harriston.
“Life was very hard,” he says. “I was born just before the Depression. We had to carry wood out of the woods to fire the wood stove. Mom didn’t want to run out of wood while she was cooking a pot of beans on the stove. It was all rough living.”
Donna — I’m not if she’s a relative or a neighbor — arrives with a home-cooked meal. Herbert says he’ll eat later. We’re robbing Herbert of his supper.
His mother, Cora Belle Via, once did all the cooking around here. Cornbread and pies and biscuits and fried squirrel. You name it. Old-time fare.
“She was a wonderful cook,” Herbert says. “My mother made sure she canned 300 jars of food in the root cellar every summer. We had two big gardens. We’d dig potatoes and dig potatoes and dig potatoes in the fall of the year. We put about 50 bushels of taters in that big bin in the cellar. We raised onions, huge onions, a lot of onions. We put them in another bin and they last us all winter.”
It was rough living. No modern conveniences. No utilities. The simple life.
The Via boys attended school in Harriston. It was heated by a potbelly stove. All bathroom breaks took place in a nearby outhouse.
Herbert didn’t graduate from high school. Curtis, Cora’s ninth child, was the first to complete high school. He graduated from Wilson Memorial High in Fishersville, about 15 miles south of Paine Run Road.
“I went to work in the textile mill in Grottoes when I was 16,” he says. “My mother made me quit high school to get a job because my father didn’t make very very much money. Work was hard to find around here. If you did find work it was a dollar a day.”
Herbert got better than that at the Duplan mill six miles up the 340 in Grottoes.
“I started out at 40 cents an hour,” he says. “The mill was very noisy. A lot of noise. That’s probably why I can’t hear now. It was so noisy you’d have to get right close to my ear to even hear someone talk.”
At Shelley’s, I learned both Shake and his father-in-law, Edward Harris, had done time in federal prison for making moonshine. Herbert has only vague memories of the family still.
“It was just another way of making a dollar,” he says. “I think it sold 50 cent for a pint or something like that.”
He never learned the traditional mountain craft of distilling homemade whiskey.
“My mother learned it,” he says. “My older brothers learned. They were with my father. I was too young to help. I was at the still one time when I was 6 or 7 years old, carrying wood to keep the still hot all the time.”
He does, however, remember long hours in the garden under the blazing summer sun.
“As soon as us kids got old enough, mother made us hit the garden,” he says. “We’d work every day in the garden. And she’d take us up on that mountain near Buzzard Rock every morning, every one of us that was home, and we’d pick huckleberries all day. And then we’d clean ’em and put ’em in a gallon crocks and she sold ’em to people from Waynesboro.
“We sold a lot of huckleberries. She sold enough to pay the taxes on the home place. After she sold enough to pay the taxes, then she would start canning the huckleberries.”
They had a milk cow which grazed in a five-acre pasture across Paine Run Road, where Herbert’s land sits now. Herbert recalls the cow as a thirsty old girl. The kids pumped a lot of spring water and filled up a giant tub to satisfy the cow.
“We had to pump that water and fill that tub two or three times a day,” he says. “That old cow would come and drink that thing dry. Sometimes she was so thirsty, after she drank the whole damn tubful, she would holler to let us know she wanted more.”
Each fall they would butcher four or five hogs, providing meat and lard for the unpredictable winter. It wasn’t a pretty job.
“All the older ‘uns would help scraping all that hair off,” he says. “My father would hire an old colored guy to help, and he would get the chitlins. We didn’t have to worry about them, he just carried them away. After you killed the hog you’d put it in a big, old scalding tub, just lay ’em right in there. That water was real hot, almost boiling. It loosened the hair and it would scrape right off.”
When he’s sitting in front of you relating stories about the hardscrabble existence the Vias carved out on Paine Run Road, he doesn’t seem like a frail old man. Brown eyes twinkle with mischief. A smile illuminates his face and takes years off his countenance.
He’s not in any mood to give up.
With five older brothers away at war, he was the oldest boy in the house. He had to chip in to support the family economy. He worked in local cornfields, making 10 cents an hour for eight hours a day.
“Soon as I got uh, 13 years old I think, about 12 or 13, I went to work in the corn fields for local farmers,” he says. “It was a short walk from here. That was hard work. You cut the corn by hand with a sickle, shock it up, tie a string around the top of the shocks about eight foot in diameter. Then you tear the ears off each one of them and pull the husks off the ears and pile the corn up. Then a man comes with the wagon and loads it all up.”
His memories of his father, William King “Shake” Via, are less than positive.
“He was mean,” Herbert says. “I can’t remember no beatings from him. He didn’t beat any of us kids, but he was mean to Mother. Real nasty all the time.”
His mother, the former Cora Harris, was the head of the house, the unbending matriarch. She smiled little. She laughed less. She was a Bible-toting, sober-minded Southern Baptist.
Among the many things she couldn’t abide was fighting.. And with a family of 12 kids, fights were a virtual inevitability.
“My mother would tear us up if we got to fighting and carrying on,” he says. “All them boys, we always had a little round going. My brother Lorendis, who was two years younger than me, we’d get in five fights every day. He was a picker. He wouldn’t stop picking. When we’d go to the garden, he always made sure he got behind me weeding the carrots or what have you. Every time he got behind me, he’d throw a clod of dirt and hit me in the back my head. Mama’d chase him out of the garden, and he’d sit up in the apple tree and laugh at me.”
He came of age during the Depression, and says tough times etched themselves in into Cora’s stern face.
“We wasn’t the only poor people,” he says. “Everybody around here was poor. A lot of colored people lived on the lower end of Paine Run. Right on down was all colored people. They lived in new houses built like shacks, just shacks. Talk about poor, they was. One house down there had an old colored lady and Mom really liked her. She came up every Wednesday and did all our washing for us. We had a 30-gallon iron pot, maybe 40, and we’d fill it full of well water. We dumped in in till we got that pot full, build a fire underneath it and get it so it was hot when the wash lady got up here.”
I ask Herbert if he remembers her name. Polly Barber, he says. She’d soak the clothes in soapy, scalding water, fish them out with a stick and rub them clean on a washboard. Then rinse them in clean water. Talk about old-time living.
“I think mom paid her on a Wednesday 50 cents for washing all day and hanging the clothes up to dry,” he says. “And then when she went home, Mama would have one of us kids go to the garden and put a cabbage, potatoes, onions, cucumbers in a bag and give them to her.”
Polly Barber lived in an old log shack, the last house on Paine Run before U.S. 340.
“She lived with her mother,” he says. “Her name was Angie Barber. Polly’s husband got shot on Paine Run for stealing chickens from another colored guy. He knew somebody was stealing his chickens, so he rigged up a shotgun on the chicken house door so when you opened the door the shotgun would go off. That’s how Polly’s husband got killed.”
There were three small general stores in Harriston. The Vias traded with one run by a man named H.L Folz who had a farm in Waynesboro and stored hay in a barn adjacent to the store. All the locals bought their staples and supplies on credit.
Herbert remembers trips to the Folz store to buy kerosene.
“I did all my homework all the way through grammar school with a kerosene lamp,” he says. “It got dark so dang early in the wintertime. I’d carry that little gallon container with me and fill it up with kerosene and bring it back. I think it was eight cents a gallon or something like that.”
I ask Herbert about a story Shelley shared just a few hours ago. It’s about the time the Via boys took their 72-year-old daddy into Baltimore to visit its notorious flesh district, The Block.
And it all happened on Christmas Day in 1965. It also was the day the Via clan greeted its newest arrival. Kevin Via, Herbert’s first grandson, was born early on Christmas Day.
Arnold loaded Shake into the car and drove the three hours to Baltimore, where they visited the newborn in the hospital.
When they had paid respects to mother and child, they went out on the town to celebrate.
“Arnold was involved, Rufus was involved, and they took Daddy to the joints in Baltimore,” Shelley said. “I think it probably warped his mind. I think he died a happy camper.”
The Block once was famous for its rollicking burlesque houses, where no less than Blaze Starr dazzled and titillated and gyrated herself into fame. By 1965, the heyday of burlesque had passed, and The Block had grown a little seedy. It was still a magnet for soldiers from nearby Fort Meade, who came to sample its striptease joints and sex shops.
On Christmas night, the Via boys treated Shake to an eye-popping night at the Circus Bar.
“I remember it was real nice and warm day,” Herbert says. “We had a thunderstorm on Christmas Day.”
Kevin Via, now 47, wrote a rocking country song in tribute to his heritage. It’s called Paine’s Run. The opening verse makes reference to his arrival and Shake’s surprise visit:
I was born a Via boy in 1965/Little bitty baby, I had just arrived.
Thunder and lightning/It must’ve been an omen
Because nobody knew Shake was a-coming.
He came up from the mountains to see his great-grandson
It wasn’t too much later he died on Paine’s Run.
When Shake finally died on April 7, 1968, he had a happy memory to take along with him.
“We took him down on the block at the Circus Bar, me and Arnold, Curtis, Rufus and Alice’s husband, Malcolm,” Herbert said. “We all took him down to the the nightclub. Oh yeah we had a good time. Dad never been down to Baltimore before. He’d never been out of the state except to North Carolina for prison.
“I pointed out Daddy to one of the strippers right away. I said, ‘this my father. He’s from Virginia. He’s never been in a nightclub before. Show him a good time.’ I had to buy a few drinks, but it all worked out. The first thing I knew the stripper I talked to done told the other strippers. They get the word around. They pointed Daddy out and showed him a good time.”