Small towns can have big histories.
Such again is indicated by the example of the Botetourt County burg of Nace, examined here recently in response to a reader’s question. As often has been the case with these sketches, more details arrive in subsequent mail.
Additional Nace memories come to us through the pen of George Dewey Shay Jr., whose family name was attached to nearby real estate.
“My father’s family lived in the area,” he wrote. “My father was born in 1898 in the house that once stood at the corner of Nace Road and Houston Mines Road.”
A cousin approximately named Bage (correct spelling uncertain, Shay allowed) was one of the station masters at the old whistle stop.
“I found his picture on the wall of the Greenwood Restaurant a few years ago,” he wrote.
Nace Road was the main thoroughfare through what is known as Shay Hollow. Grandfather Hiram Shay and cousin Bage had places along the way. Grandfather Shay grew tomatoes for the local canning factories, of which the choice was extensive back in those days.
As an aside, don’t get the wrong idea about the term “factory.” Generally, what we’re talking about is a large room with a few lightning-fingered ladies making pennies on the hour doing piece work canning.
As we already know, aside from agriculture, the local economy in that part of Botetourt County was also based on mining iron ore. There was other mining as well, Shay pointed out.
“There was a manganese mine a little way up Houston Mines Road from the Shay house that was mined as late as 1900, but had to be shut down due to water seeping into the shaft faster than it could be pumped out.”
Apparently, there was a pretty decent mother lode of element symbol Mn up there on the mountain.
“According to my father the shaft was 10 by 10 feet and the vein of manganese was solid at the bottom when abandoned.”
This fact got a subsequent generation of Shays to thinking.
“In the early 1950s, my father Dewey Shay and his brother Harry tried to get a mining company interested in opening the mine. At that time, manganese was in short supply and companies were making plans to mine it off the ocean floor.”
Manganese is said by Encyclopedia Britannica to be “roughly similar” to iron but is harder and more brittle and is second only to iron among transition elements in its profusion on the earth’s crust. Most manganese is produced commercially for use as an alloy in steelmaking.
The mining company with which the negotiations took place seemed interested, going so far as to estimate how many truckloads of the element could be extracted per month.
Alas, right of ways got in the way. The road nearest the mine by this time was passing through a trailer court, the residents of which weren’t going to put up with the resulting big truck traffic and accompanying dust or mud depending on season. Another potential access route was so steep and rough road construction was cost-prohibitive. The proposed project died there.
The story of Shay Hollow for subsequent generations of Shays did not end there.
“About 10 years ago, my oldest son was looking for land in Botetourt County. He found a location he liked and took me to see it. To my surprise, it was where the old Shay house had stood. The old house was gone but a newer one was built on the other side of a small stream.”
The mention of Houston Mines investor Tredegar Iron Works, the long-gone Richmond manufacturer, caught the attention of William Noell Jr. of Lexington, who was startled to say it was the first he’d heard of the firm in a while. Tredegar was a leading supplier of ordnance and material for the Confederacy. The company was owned in its heyday by Botetourt County native Joseph Anderson.
“In years past, I worked for Albemarle Paper Manufacturing Company, down on the James River, in Richmond — now Ethyl Corp.,” Noell emailed. “In the late ‘50s, Albemarle [F.D. Gottwald] purchased the abandoned/deserted properties of Tredegar Iron Works ... on the rapids of the James River for some expansion of the company.”
An unexpected and unmatched opportunity was thus revealed.
“At the time of purchase, Bruce Gottwald and I toured the deserted historic site, picked up some artifacts, including Confederate money, looked at history, and enjoyed exploring the past facilities. I came away with a very large confederate flag.”
Old Tredegar facilities became reimagined and Noell had his office in part of it until 1963. (Today the old iron works is the site of the American Civil War Museum at Historic Tredegar.)
By the way, along with more on Anderson and other interesting holdings, Mary Anne Rader Obenshain’s “Troutville, Virginia: A History of Early Years,” referenced here previously, is also available along with other good reading and viewing at the Botetourt County Museum at 3 West Main St., Fincastle. The museum is closed for now by the pandemic.
People being cooped up these days and all, a good story to share can come in handy. Richard Ikenberry has one in which the plotline ran through Nace.
Back in the 1950s when the story was first heard by the latest teller, the source was Tazewell Orren Hunt.
Hunt, Ikenberry’s great uncle, operated a general merchandise and grocery store in Buchanan ”east of Main Street, up the hill and across the railroad tracks.”
Later in life, Hunt was living in Norfolk but was a frequent visitor with family in Franklin County. It was during that time that Ikenberry and the great uncle were occasional croquet competitors, Lucky 8 if weather forced competition indoors.
The story related to dairy farming, which was a bigger business then. Because rodents are a nuisance in such operations, a farmer will take whatever help he can get. That point prompted the great uncle’s yarn.
As most any man of the land can tell you, the common blacksnake is hell on small varmints and other pests. The story goes a well-known mill owner with a Nace address had a dandy of a resident blacksnake and little in the way of trouble with rats and the like from an intimidated local varmint community.
For those who do not know, blacksnakes are nonpoisonous and nonthreatening when left in peace by human neighbors.
“One day a man came into the mill and informed the owner that he had just killed the large black snake lying on the sacks of grain on the front dock,” Ikenberry related in writing.
The miller, reacting poorly to that news, fetched his firearm and dispatched the snake murderer “on the spot.” Given this was something like a century ago, the legal ramifications of the act are murky at this point. That left Ikenberry, for one, to wonder.
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