Going from Esmont School to Albemarle High School was quite a change for us 12 Seventh Graders. We were constantly getting lost, but once we one we got familiar, we all rose to the top academically, thanks to our “home schooling” at Esmont Elementary.
Another time the village rose to protect itself, was dealing with its largest employer, the Slate Quarry. The Quarry cut slate without using a filtration system, thereby releasing all the slate dust into the air the villagers breathed. It took years to realize that the men working there mostly died with emphysema and living in “dust darkness” by 4:00 in the afternoon was bad for public health. When I sat at my piano to practice, I always had to dust the keys first; on my initial visit to an eye doctor, he looked at my eyes and asked where we lived because my eyes were so infected. The judge was duly impressed when my mother, the Postmaster, Mr. Heath, and others went to trial with a bag of dust which they opened and lightly dropped on the judge’s desk sending off a plume of dust into the air. The company had to install filtration systems.
The four stores were Pace’s, Purvis’, Douglas’, Steeds’ and for a while, Paynes'. Purvis’ Store was the hub of most activity in the village. It was the busiest, had a big front porch for visiting, had the only TV in the village, running water, indoor plumbing and one of the few telephones! Friday night fights were a big attraction, along with Ed Sullivan, Lucky Strike Hit Parade and later the soap operas. My mother would give me 25 cents, so I could go to the other stores and buy candy. Mr. Steed’s store was unusual, it was big and dark, and he looked like the men on Smith Brothers cough drop boxes. He wore long black sleeve protectors and didn’t have much to say.
Esmont village was populated by white people. The black people had their villages: Porter’s Precinct and Chestnut Grove. There was at least one small store in Porter’s, but Purvis’ Store was the main grocery store, so everyone shopped there. My parents provided the much-needed service of delivering the groceries which was good for business and was a great service to those without transportation. I would go with my father and brother on some of the grocery delivery trips and it was a real learning experience. Most of the houses had no screens and were wide open during the warm months. Inside, you would often see babies sleeping in dresser drawers instead of cradles. Outside there would be fruit drying in the sun with bees and flies buzzing around it. These folks made everything they could including wine, canning vegetables, drying fruits, and sewing clothes made from printed flour sacks which were printed for that purpose. Many of their dishes came from Oatmeal and detergent boxes. Purchase decisions were often based on which floral print or which piece of glassware was needed.
The people of Chestnut Grove were so thankful for the help they received from my parents and we were so happy to give them jobs in our home. My mother much preferred the socialness of being in the store and was happy to turn over the homemaking responsibilities to the wonderful ladies who took care of me, my brother and the house. I loved them. They taught me to cook and sew and were my companions; Margie, Gertrude, Mandy are the ones I remember, each working at different times. My little brother, David, would give them a hard time, for example, he would get mad at Mandy and call her the “N” word. She warned him that if he kept doing that, he would turn black. So, one day after he had called her the “N” word, she secretly went over to the flu on the oil stove and got soot on her hand, then she went to David and asked him to extend his arm which she rubbed with the soot, scaring him to death! That cured him.
I hope you have enjoyed these fond memories from my youth growing up in the village of Esmont as well as the photos we have included which came from the Purvis family’s album.
We would love to receive your memories of Esmont along with photos for the website.
~Peggy Purvis Denby
Growing up in Esmont was a good thing, with lots of people and lots of kids. There were four stores and another temporary one in that small village of 500-600 people which also had a train running through it which allowed a logging business to flourish. For twenty cents, we could ride the train to Warren and back, getting covered in coal dust. The State Highway Department had an operation at one end of the village and the post office, church and school were at the other end, about a mile. Houses dotted both sides of the road and continued up Red Row Hill.
Esmont Elementary School had four rooms and seven grades. The kids walked to school where each morning we gathered outside to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. Mr. Boggs was the Principal and Mrs. Boggs, along with several others, were the teachers. They taught us so much. Having two grades in the same room seemed to work well, we all seemed to learn more, the small grade sizes helped. Kind of like home schooling. Even when the Alberene School closed and those children were bussed in, the quality remained the same; we just had more kids to play with at recess.
Recess was fun even though we only had one each – softball, dodge ball, bat. But we had those huge boulders to run and play on that was so much fun. We played “store” using rocks, nuts, leaves, etc., as items to sell.
Each room had a very tall (maybe because I was so short) coal stove to provide heat in the winter. The coal bin, a dark scary place, was in the basement where the bathrooms were, and the boys were charged with bringing up the coal for the stoves. The bathrooms had toilets with spring up seats so to use them, you had to pull down the seat and sit on it at the same time which was hard for us little folk. Because it sprang up when you got off, I had to leap off because my feet did not reach the floor!
The school was the venue for parties, bingo nights and had a closet that housed refrigerated soft drinks for sale. Mr. Boggs would ring the school bell loudly to call us together for the pledge and after each recess. He also pulled all my baby teeth by carefully tying a string around them and yanking them out. He was so handsome and gentle, but was a strict disciplinarian and swung a mean paddle when the boys got out of line. When teaching us how to multiply fractions, he asked if anyone knew the meaning of “invert.” No one knew. He called me to the front of the class, held on to my arm and ankle and turned me upside down! Everyone got it.
On many occasions, R.A. Pace’s cow would get out and come to school looking for R.A. He would leave class and take the cow back home, just down the road.
After school we would line up on the side of the road and Mr. Boggs would appoint one of us as leader. We walked in that line past everyone’s house till we were all home. We would make one stop at the Post Office, so we could buy War Bond Stamps if we wanted and get the mail to take home. When I was in the first grade,my brother, Pete was in the seventh so I would ride on the crossbar or back fender of his bike to school. The day our brother David was born, a messenger was sent to the school telling us we needed to come home so we got on Pete's bike. When we arrived, we were not allowed in because our aunts were busy with our mother. We went around to the back of the house and looked into the kitchen window and watched Mrs. Beasley, the village Midwife, give David his first bath.
Later when I had my own bike, my friend Shirley Hall was riding on the back fender. I told her to watch as I guided the bike with my eyes closed. We went off the road into a ditch very close to the store. Someone heard us crying and came to our rescue.
In 1954 when Albemarle County opened the big consolidated high school in Charlottesville, (my now sister-in-law Melva Adcock was the first graduate) Scottsville High School was still functioning. My older brother, Pete, and younger brother, David, graduated from Scottsville. However, my mother wanted us to have the option of going to Albemarle High School, which was not available to us, so she and others bought an old school bus and Mrs. Cromer, who lived on Red Row Hill, drove it to Albemarle High School. The bus broke down often, so the county relented and provided a new bus for kids from Esmont and all along Route 20 to ride to school.