In Augusta County a large limestone outcropping on a small triangular plot of land marks the place where U.S. 11 toward Staunton and U.S. 340 to Waynesboro meet. Each time I drive past it I recall the summer when I was five years old and helped harvest potatoes in that area.
For approximately a year my family rented the Hessian house located at this intersection.. Hessians were German mercenaries who fought for the British during the Revolutionary War, although many deserted and joined the colonists. They were offered 50 acres of land by the colonists as an incentive to desert the British army. Approximately 5,000 Hessian soldiers remained in America and Canada after the war ended.
Hessians were skilled in masonry and became builders of these gray limestone houses that are found here and there throughout the Shenandoah Valley. With their 21 inch thick walls, massive chimneys and strong, built–to-last-forever stone facades, these houses are easily identified. Our house was said to be the birthplace of singer Kate Smith in 1907; I can say for certain it was the birthplace of my younger brother, Clinton seventy four years ago on Halloween night in 1939. Today the house has been converted to house the main office of an economy motel.
My dad planted potatoes in the patch of land near the limestone rock. When he was ready to harvest them, he hired Tim, a thirteen year old neighbor boy, to help by leading the horse along the row of plants while Dad managed the plow, freeing the potatoes. My task was to pick up the potatoes and deposit them in the bushel baskets.
Before we completed the job, Dad’s toothache became unbearable. He told us he would have to go to the dentist and have it pulled – that Tim should help me pick up the potatoes, and he would return and finish the job as soon as he could.
Before long all the potatoes were in the baskets. Tim said he thought he could handle the plow if I would lead the horse. I agreed, happy with the promotion to a more interesting position. I grabbed her halter and proceeded to walk along the row. But each time old Gray lifted her head my feet were lifted off the ground. My mother witnessed this from the kitchen window and came running and shouting for us to stop. Her intervention ended our harvesting for the day, and I returned to the house for a much needed bath.
That year at the Hessian house I also had my first entrepreneurial experience. Instead of a lemonade stand, I decided to sell pears. Two large pear trees grew in our front yard and the fruit was plentiful and delicious that year. I asked my mother to buy me some paper lunch bags and filled them with pears. Then I wrote on my chalkboard “Pears – 10 cents a bag” and erected it where it could be seen by travelers on each of the highways.
My parents were amazed that so many cars stopped to buy. It inspired my dad who decided to build a fruit stand when we moved again in the fall, this time to a home we bought on Lee Highway near Verona.
For over five years he operated the fruit stand. He also stocked cheese crackers, candy, peanuts, potato chips and other snack foods. Slender bottles of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, orange and grape Tru-Ade, and squat fat bottles of Bireley’s Pineapple drink bobbed about in icy water in old fashioned red Coca-Cola container. His intention was to attract tourists as they traveled route 11 in those days prior to the interstate, and many did stop to sample local products. But the fruit stand also became a gathering place for locals who stopped in for refreshment or to play checkers and share stories.
I started school at Mt. Sidney that fall – the beginning of my formal education that would continue until I received my Masters degree at Virginia Tech in 1977. But the informal lessons I learned from the potato patch and the pear stand were practical experiences that demonstrated what I could and could not do successfully.
Long live life’s little lessons!
– Mary Jo Shannon