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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Life in early 1900s Charlottesville, Virginia

Dabney fondly recalls life in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the turn of the twentieth century. He discusses the various sources of entertainment for the old and young alike, particularly the Confederate reunions.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

DANIEL JORDAN:
You grew up in Charlottesville. Perhaps you could comment a little about life in Charlottesville in the early 1900's. Are there any recollections of it that might have made an impression upon you?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I was born in a house that's still there on Gordon Avenue. I don't know the number. The last time that I went by there, it was something called the Blue Ridge Health Center. (laughter) It was built by my father, he was the architect and I think that he said it cost $1500. It has been enlarged some, but it was plenty big enough for the family, even so, originally, it was just an ordinary frame house on a nice big lot and I think that it had four bedrooms and a living room and dining room, and a study which Father inhabited. There was nothing unusual about it, it was no architectural gem at all, just an ordinary house built about 1900. He and my mother were married inI grew up there for four years approximately and then we moved to a house on Rugby Road at the top of the hill, which is still there. (Number 703) It was a somewhat bigger house. It was bought from my aunt who had bought it from somebody else and I have very few recollections of the first house in which I lived, but I remember a great deal about this other, which was on a ten acre lot Of course, it (the area) is all built up now, and the lot is probably an acre and the rest of it has been sold off. Charlottesville, as I mentioned, was probably between 5,000 and 10,000 people during my youth. There were practically no automobiles and everybody rode in buggies or hacks. We had a surrey with a fringe on top like the one in Oklahoma!, the musical show and one horse which pulled the surrey. I rode the horse occasionally around for fun. It wasn't a riding horse and I wasn't a rider either, I fell off on Rugby Road and broke my arm when I was about ten years old. I was galloping down Rugby Road and the horse suddenly decided to turn left into Gordon Avenue and I just kept going straight and landed on my right arm and broke it. That was almost the last time that I ever rode. It didn't scare me particularly, but that horse wasn't any good anyway to ride and so, I did very little riding. I played games with the other boys around there all the time,-baseball, football, and track, and basketball, and tennis, and I went swimming in the reservoir up on the mountain near the University Observatory.
DANIEL JORDAN:
You said that you were a scout?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, I was a Boy Scout. It is really remarkable to think back to that reservoir which was just a few hundred yards off the beaten highway, near the Observatory. Everybody went in without a stitch on, including university students, and it is amazing to me that some of the ladies of the community didn't just happen to walk by there. say. We made a lot of noise, shouting and yelling and jumping in and diving in and all that. And nobody ever thought of wearing bathing trunks. I played a little golf at that time over on the university golf links which have now been obliterated by the dormitories. I went fishing in the pond. There was a pond where the Nancy Astor tennis courts are. I robbed birds' nests and went on hikes and just indulged in the usual pastimes, There were no movies until I was older and of course, there was no radio or t.v. Everybody walked everywhere and didn't think anything of walking a mile or two I always walked over to classes at the university a half or three quarters of a mile, either once or twice a day. It never entered my mind that there was anything unusual about that, nor did it seem so to anybody else. There was an ice pond in front of our house, and we cut the ice there in the winter and put it in the ice house, which was in our back yard. I had a harrowing experience there one time. The ice house was under the house where we kept the surrey, and there was a trap door in the middle of the floor. Usually, the trap was down and you could just walk in there. Well, they had the trap door up, propped with a stick for some reason, there was no ice in the ice house, and it was seventeen feet deep. The lid, as I say, was propped up with a stick I was about six years old and I was walking around, looking down in to the hole, and all of a sudden, I jarred the stick, or something. The stick fell from under the trap door, which banged down and knocked me in to the hole seventeen feet head first. Although I fell on my head it didn't seem to hurt me much, but naturally, I let out a horrible yell and a colored man who was nearby rushed down the ladder and salvaged me and carried me up the ladder, I had a few bruises, but that was all. It was a rather remarkable escape.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Were there any memorable events in Charlottesville, or occasions that stand out in those early years?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Nothing much except the circus. When that came to town, we were always excited for days, and went down and waited for hours for the circus to show up with the animals and clowns and beautiful ladies in tights on horseback. One or two cages were always closed and you would have to go to the circus to see what was in those. At the tail end of the parade there was always a tin calliope tootling some kind of tune.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Did they have any reunions of confederate veterans back in the early part of the century?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
They certainly had them, but I don't think that they were in Charlottesville, to any extent. They were always in Richmond. They had huge ones there every five years or so. They had meetings of the local camp of Confederate veterans in Charlottesville, of course, and we saw these old fellows in their faded uniforms around all the time. We always went out to the cemetary on Memorial Day and decorated the graves and somebody would make a speech. That was fairly close to the Civil War, of course, just forty years or so. My father's father had been in the war and had a bullet in his chest the rest of his life. He was a captain on Gordon's staff.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
This was Virginius?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes. And Father was a red-hot Confederate always, although he didn't want to fight the war over again, he was very emotional about the Confederacy and what his father had been through.