By René White (Feather)
As many reflect on the past year, this 88-year-old reminisces over the past century as she closes her Pine Grove convenience store, the “Village Market,” on Dec. 31, 2011, after serving a northern Shenandoah Valley community for the past 42 years.
Louise Tapscott McClaughry was born on July 13, 1923, just after the short Depression of the 1920s and after women were granted the right to vote; Warren Harding was President. Known as “Ms. Louise” to her friends and customers, she was born in the upper-side of the Shenandoah Retreat along the western slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains nestled between the Appalachian Trail to the east and the Shenandoah River to the west. She is like the mountain she loves, rugged with an unpredictable beauty that might not be found any place else.
While the 1920’s were roaring across America with the first radios, first recorded records, first highways, first stringing of city telephone-lines, random indoor plumbing and overall sustained economic prosperity, Ms. Louise and others survived and thrived on the mountain. It was a simple life. A life people loved.
Kids went to school very near where they lived by buggy pulled by a horse or ox, or walked. She recalls walking through the woods about a quarter mile on a path to her Pine Grove Elementary School (now converted into a local home), equipped with one room, one teacher and two out-houses, one for girls and one for boys. She attended first to sixth grade there with people like her future husband, Ray McClaughry.
Ms. Louise’s parents, Charles and Lillian Tapscott were born in the late 1800s and drove a “second-hand” Model-T Ford with a rumble seat. Speaking endearingly of her mother, Ms. Louise said she washed clothes using three wash pots and a stick to scrub, rinse and starch. Her mother also had a “corn-crib” for the cows and chickens where she would nail an apple-tree board against the wall to construct a “doll-baby” house for her.
“It was my play house,” she said. “All the little girls in the neighborhood had their own play houses and together we played from house to house.”
One of Ms. Louise’s favorite things to do as a child was playing with dolls that she cut-out from men’s and women’s pictures in “Sears and Roebuck” mail-order catalogs. She describes playing for hours with her “newspaper families” on the steps, until her little brothers “came kicking around.”
High fashion for her was “feed-sacks” and “flour sacks” (sacks used for holding animal food, seed or flour), “broom-stick skirts” (bunches of fabric fashioned to a skirt with a band around the waist) and rolled up “whoopee socks” (1920’s slang for “to have a good time” socks).
She remembers when times were really good her mother bought “a pretty little dress from the Sears and Roebuck catalog for a dollar.” During those days, the Sears and Roebuck, Co. was the largest retailer in the United States.
By the time she was seven-years-old, Ms. Louise knew little about the 1929 Wall Street Crash or the Great Depression. Yet, at an early age, she learned to take care of everything she had especially the things that matter the most, like family and friends.
In the 1930’s, there was no text messaging, no I-Tunes and no Internet in America. Many Americas were reading their first printed Life Magazine, watching Bette Davis at the movies or attending the first World’s Fair. But here, people relied on kerosene lamps for light, ice buried from the river to cool food, and adaptability while patiently waiting for electricity.
“It didn’t matter in those days,” Ms. Louise said, “We found a lot more to do and were happier than kids are today.”
Ms. Louise and her friends found most of their entertainment at home and in nature. Throwing water on each other and picking and canning blackberries and huckleberries. Then, there was poker and a love of playing cards she learned from “Bubba”, a local bee owner.
“We played for matches. I had a quarter every week and I bought penny match-boxes. They called me ‘Sally,’ I don’t know why. One day, this one man was shaking his pocket and kept asking ‘how many boxes you got left Sally’ and his pocket caught a fire.”
Amused and pleased she said back to him, “How many matches you got left now?”
They moved from penny match-boxes to pennies then nickels. When they started playing poker with dimes, Bubba said to her, “You’re not playing for big money,” and he and the “men-folk” moved deeper into the woods to play away from the kids. Once she slipped to the woods. “I didn’t dare play,” she said. “They sent me back home and I got a whipping from my mama.”
She admits receiving a “switch” or “razor-strap” over her back-side often because of hitting her brothers “with anything she had.” Smiling she called her brothers “Mama’s pets.” Way back, she remembers learning to do her three brother’s chores and liking it!
For chores she said, “I gathered the eggs in. Hauled hay. I tried to milk a cow, but she kicked me and upset the bucket.” An upset, she said, is an exhilarating event. The new road brought a lot of upsets like: “The pig-truck upset. Lumber upset. Orange truck upset.”
In those days, not many cars traveled through because of the ferry down the river, gravel roads and small bridge over the river. But when the second bridge and State Road (SR) 7 went in place in the 1930s, traffic opened from D.C., crossed the summit of Snickers Gap in the Blue Ridge and in front of what would become Ms. Louise’s store. Later, Horseshoe Curve was added. Transportation slowly improved consolidating local networks of small roads linking farms, mills, residences and churches. Soon, the public school-bus began transporting mountain children into local Berryville, an 18th century town and the current county seat.
For fun, she and her “buddies” waved by the road-side as floats passed on their way to Winchester for the annual “Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival.” Festival crowds today exceed 250,000 each year. As more new roads connected the mountain with the valley, Ms. Louise never disconnected from her mountain home and still calls any stranger who passes through, “friend.”
Ms. Louise’s mother promised her when she turned 16-years-old that she could smoke cigarettes if she wanted to. She had pretended to smoke as a child and was looking forward to the adult experience. On her birthday, she recalls marching down to the store (then located across from her current store) and selected a pack of Lucky Strikes because the pretty packaging, lit one up and only made it half way down the road before she became sick enough to never want to smoke again.
In 1940s, as women like Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner graced the silver screen, Ms. Louise, between two World Wars, “made a living” cleaning and mopping for two elderly sisters on the mountain. She earned 25 cents an hour.
After graduating at age 18 from Berryville High School, she married Ray McClaughry, her childhood sweetheart, 11 months older than her, at the Justice-of-the-Peace in Hagerstown, Md. They grew up on the same road attending Pine Grove’s Elementary School and Episcopal Church, doing jig-saw puzzles and, of course, playing cards.
“For fun” she said, “Mama would make me skirts for Saturday night country dances. Me and my buddies danced in barns and fire houses. We went to “Ridge Way” and “Barden” in Winchester to listen to local guitar and violin players.”
She recalls when the older people were not raising livestock, crops and orchards, their fun was to look for White Lightning. She remembers them saying, “‘Let’s go get White Lightning.’ They would go up the mountain to visit this tall man. His wife wore a lot of rouge. We won’t mention them by name,” she said. “But they lived over on the mountain. I asked my mama, ‘Why did his wife wear all that rouge?’” ‘I guess it covers up all her weak spots,’ mama would say. One day, Bubba said ‘the Sheriff’s got them up there and found something on the mountain. I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
As she got older, she learned they were distilling moonshine up in those hills.
In those days, her community was a retreat for the rich who invested in the stock market and escaped the un-air-conditioned cities for the cool mountains. There were log cabins, stone houses, farms and tenant houses.
She and her husband moved into their first home, a little wooden house beside the Shenandoah River. Unfortunately, the 1943 flood moved Ms. Louise’s home eight inches and right off its foundation.
During World War II, the Army drafted her husband and shipped him to Alaska where he helped build a road from Alaska to Canada, a precursor to the interstate highways that would be built a few years later. Meanwhile, Ms. Louise worked at the A&P grocery store on Berryville’s Main Street. At that time, A&P was the largest food retailer in the nation and as well-known as McDonalds and Google are today.
Today there are no A&Ps left in Virginia.
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After World War II ended and her husband returned home, the couple built a new home from his military savings. She and her husband saw a grown-man cry after losing $800 dollars in the stock market, so they said, “No indeedy,” to the stock market. Instead, she and her husband invested in property. As the area gradually built up, they began a sequence of moving, renovating, and building homes.
At one time she and her husband owned 17 deeds.
An unfortunate house fire in 1975, (involving Ms. Louise’s brother) shocked the community and influenced the organization of the first community fire-department. Ms. Louise and others held bingo nights, Saturday night dances and sold lunches to raise enough money to build the first community fire-house. Her husband volunteered for two years until his health prevented him from taking the intensive training needed.
Later, local resident and friend Dorothy Gordon, now deceased, donated three acres on Retreat Road for volunteers to build the current “Blue Ridge Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company 8.” The original building, a large green structure on the lower entrance to Pine Grove, can still be seen off SR 7.
Over the years since Blue Ridge Company 8 was founded, volunteers have saved thousands of lives, helping residents, truckers, tourists and hikers passing through.
“Ms. Louise is the most dedicated member that our fire department’s ever had,” said Jason E. Burns, Blue Ridge fire chief. “She’s considered an active associate member with voting rights and keeps us straight,” he chuckled reflectively. “She carries the most pride of any member in the station.”
For the recent Berryville parade, Burns said, “I told her I’d take her in the new buggy, the ALS-8!” Ms. Louise sat proudly in the company’s new Advance Life Support chase vehicle beside Burns, whom she has known since he was born.
In the 1950’s during the atomic age, women across America wanted Elvis, the girdle, and glamour. They were lured by Hollywood curves, waists, and uplifts. But, what Ms. Louise wanted was to race cars.
She admits that she drove the cleaner’s truck “a little too fast,” during work and enjoyed racing her brother’s car along her Pine Grove picket fence. One of the “track fellas” in Winchester, signed her up for the “Powder Puff” derby. During her initial practice, she crashed her “Miss Pepsi” car, but went on to compete in seven races; an ironic transformation, having learned to drive at age 14 with “Charlie” the state trooper in her daddy’s Model-A Ford.
“I couldn’t wait for Sunday to come to get out of church and head for the race track. We was all Chevrolet people. The other people was Fords. We’d chant ‘Chevrolet,’ ‘Chevrolet.’ I won five of seven races and a belt buckle. The last race was a trophy race and I was out front. This girl was going to pass me. She hit the guard rail. Flipped over on my motor. It didn’t hurt me. But it hurt my pride, cause I thought I was going to win the race,” she said.
During the start of the Daytona Beach Super Speedway and the first Daytona 500 in 1959, she and her husband earned enough money to buy a few houses in DeBary, Florida on the east and Largo, Florida on the west. They lived in Florida two weeks out of the year and attended Daytona races with their Episcopal Church Pastor the late Reverend and Mrs. Paul Shultz and their daughter Ruth, who still lives in DeBary.
Once, back in Virginia, after witnessing a couple of terrible wrecks on SR 7, one involving small children and another involving her brother and a bolt of lightning, Ms. Louise ended her racing days. Ever since, she admits to driving slower and slower and proudly boasts of her 74-year clean-driving record.
In 1969, Ms. Louise and her husband opened the “Village Market.” Ms. Louise learned convenience store operations from the little gas station owner down the street after helping the family during a time of need. When it closed suddenly and with the community at a loss, Ms. Louise opened her store providing essentials like bottle-drinks, bread, hunting licenses, gas, and babysitting.
When Anthony W. “Tony” Roper first ran for local sheriff, Ms. Louise warned him “You better be a good sheriff or I’ll whip your butt like when you was a baby.” Ms. Louise helped babysit for him and his sister and rented a home to his parents.
In the 1970s and 1980s, President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system began to impact Pine Grove, changing everything. SR7 expanded, became Harry Byrd Highway, straightened and bypassed Pine Grove. While the improved road increased traffic over the mountain, crossed the Shenandoah River bridge and descended straight into Winchester, less traffic in Pine Grove meant less business. SR7 is now a four lane highway, approximately 70 miles long, filled daily with hundreds of drivers unaware of Pine Grove, the delicious breakfasts at Pine Grove Restaurant and live music played at the Horseshoe Curve Café.
In 1984, Ms. Louise began leasing her store. With enough rental properties, her husband retired and built an annex on Reverend Shultz’s house in Florida where they lived three months out of a year. When they moved into their own house in Florida, they began to visit Florida six months out of the year.
Ms. Louise, lost her dear husband in 1992 after 50 years of marriage. “I cried and cried,” she said. She speaks fondly of a “Dr. Hippo” from India and a black nurse who cried with her and said, “Honey everything’s going to be alright. I’ll be here for you.”
Ms. Louise went back to Florida years later to thank the nurse, but she had passed away. Dr. Hippo was still there and called her the “Casino woman.”
Ms. Louise never remarried.
In 1994 she sold her last home in Florida and describes herself and her cousin Roger as a couple of hillbillies returning home with TV and lawn mowers on top of their cars.
Pine Grove resident, Max Shelly Largent who leased Ms. Louise’s store from 1994 to 1999 said, “I call her the mayor of Pine Grove.” With traffic bypassing Pine Grove he said he saw no need to sell gas, but he did sell kerosene.
In 2006, she began operating the store again with help from Ms. Louise’s oldest employee Evelyn Tapscott, first cousin Thelma McClaughry, Cindy Mullins, and Jimmy Haile.
One of her oldest customers, Gordon Beavers of Loudoun County, Virginia is 90-years-old and still stops by regularly to pick up the local newspaper or for a cup of coffee. Local residents charge on their accounts with Ms. Louise then pay when they can. When they pay, she restocks.
With harder times and the winter setting in, she expects costs will be too high, so she will close.
In an undershirt, thermal shirt, long-sleeve shirt and sweat shirt to stay warm, Ms. Louise explained, “I wear a lot of clothes because I want to stay warm and because I don’t want to stop playing cards to go get more clothes on.”
She quips that she’s too old for drag racing but never too old to play cards. She still plays every Saturday night and carries a roll of quarters in her lunch box with a little bag of starter money.
Her customer, Carroll Wiley from Morgans Mill Road in Frogtown, Virginia tried summing up Ms. Louise’s business humbly saying, “Everything has a beginning and everything has an end.”
But this is not the end for this 88-year-old. Ms. Louise plans to keep living the life that she loves.
“I’ll find something to keep me busy,” said Ms. Louise. “Everybody has been so good to me. It’s getting rough, health wise. Times are getting hard. I can understand that when people have to buy gas they might as well buy their groceries there too.”
In a few months, she plans to hold an auction, offering to sell her store equipment, antique furniture and dishes and maybe even her mother’s wash pots. Anyone planning to attend should bring their playing cards and their poker face, there is sure to be a poker game to follow.
This small-community honors its history – not because people are stuck in the past, but because it helps those long memories build a proud and positive sense of place and identity for those living now. Like the vintage feed-sack fabric sold online, sharing one’s vivid story and memorabilia gives an accurate perspective to what is now considered valuable and necessary.
People like Ms. Louise, her neighbors and friends, explain this hardy, mountain community and our country and its character – its life.
About the Author:
Rene’ White Feather is a retired Lieutenant Colonel with 22 years active-duty service in the U.S. Air Force and is married to Chris White. Both are residents of Bluemont, Virginia. She and her husband consider themselves grateful and humble. Grateful to have neighbors like Ms. Louise and humbled that their son Jacob White is a professional fire fighter. “When Ms. Louise began volunteering with the fire department years ago, she was unaware of all the lives she would touch, including ours,” said the author. “Our son, Jacob joined the Blue Ridge Volunteer Fire Company just prior to 9/11 and now works full time with Frederick County. We can’t think of a more commendable and admirable vocation than being a professional fire fighter and Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). Saving lives of fellow citizens and countrymen in the community embodies the true American and spiritual values that we hold dear in our hearts. The job is often faceless, stressful and emotionally demanding. It takes a special breed of person to make the sacrifices to do this job day-in and day-out, even more so to volunteer. I speak for my entire family when I say we are immensely proud that Jacob is a member of both. We are grateful that Ms. Louise’s call-to-action, made such a profound impact in our corner of the world. It was an honor to share her story.”