1929: A Sperry comes to Sperryville

Much was going on in Rappahannock County in 1929. A tornado devastated Woodville, Lee Highway – a southern transcontinental highway – was being finished, the original Sperryville bridge was under construction and the “small town nobility” was involved with endless parties, dinners, card games and travel. All these social events were noted weekly in the “Blue Ridge Guide,” the forerunner of the Rappahannock News.

The Old Stage Coach Inn is seen at the immediate left. The view is down Main Street in Sperryville, looking toward the west. A two-horse wagon is coming down the dirt street, probably during the summer time in this undated photo from the Estes Collection at the Rappahannock County Historical Society.
The Old Stage Coach Inn is seen at the immediate left. The view is down Main Street in Sperryville, looking toward the west. A two-horse wagon is coming down the dirt street, probably during the summer time in this undated photo from the Estes Collection at the Rappahannock County Historical Society.

Elsewhere, the stock market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929, and unbeknownst to all, the Great Depression was about to start. The roaring ’20s, with their jazz, flappers, gangsters, bootleggers, rampant financial speculation and youthful dissolution, were finally coming to an end.

Mixed in with all this was a small news item from the Page News and Courier of Nov. 12, 1929, repeating a story from the previous week’s Blue Ridge Guide.

‘Old landmark torn down’

“One of Sperryville’s landmarks, and perhaps the oldest building in Rappahannock, the Old Stage Coach Inn, commonly known as the White House, is being torn down by the Highway Department. The stone is being used for the fill of the new bridge. It is to be regretted that on account of disintegration, that it becomes necessary to demolish this old landmark, which was visited yearly by a number of tourists, and it was a strange coincidence that one of these, Mr. H. B. Sperry of Akron, Ohio, great-grandson of the builder and founder of Sperryville, should have visited Sperryville during the time the house was being torn down. Col. Menefee, the present owner, gave Mr. Sperry several pieces of hand-carved timber taken from this building, which he will have placed in his handsome home in Akron.”

Was is possible that a descendant of the original Sperry, the namesake of Sperryville, visited the village in 1929? Was this person real?

The real Henry B. Sperry

Henry B. Sperry was indeed real. He was born in 1863 and lived in Tallmadge, a suburb of Akron, Ohio. He was 66 when he appeared in Sperryville in the fall of 1929.

As to Henry being the great-grandson of the one whose name was used for the village, this needs to be checked out. Henry was the great-grandson of a Lyman Sperry, born in Connecticut in 1772.  Lyman had supported the cause of the American Revolution, being a lieutenant in a local Connecticut militia unit, and thus entitled to settle on land in Ohio. Lyman used this option and left Connecticut in July 1819, arriving in Tallmadge, Ohio on Sept. 7, 1819.

It is here that Sperry’s story of being the descendant of the founder of Sperryville and builder of the Old Stage Coach Inn falls apart. 

There was only a narrow window of opportunity for Lyman Sperry to appear in Sperryville. The first evidence of the village having that name is from the John Wood map of Culpeper of 1821 (Rappahannock was not split off from Culpeper County until 1833). Lyman would have had to deviate from a fairly straight-line route from Connecticut to Ohio to drop way down to Virginia to pass through the area of Sperryville, build the Old Stage Coach Inn, and move on to Tallmadge.

Detail of the John Wood map of Culpeper County of 1821. It is notable that Sperryville is assigned a small square to denote its location, while other places, such as Woodville, Washington, and Flint Hill, make use of a large rectangle with dots for houses. Sperryville in 1821 was equivalent to the site of a mill.
Detail of the John Wood map of Culpeper County of 1821. It is notable that Sperryville is assigned a small square to denote its location, while other places, such as Woodville, Washington, and Flint Hill, make use of a large rectangle with dots for houses. Sperryville in 1821 was equivalent to the site of a mill.

This was not possible. He was traveling with others, including some relatives. A genealogical source describes that he left Waterbury, Conn. in July 1819, with “an ox wagon drawn by two yoke of oxen and one horse wagon.” With him was “his son Amadeus and son-in-law Samuel M. Stone, who each owned a yoke of oxen and a wagon in company with their household goods, farming and other tools.” They traveled some 68 days through New York to Pittsburgh, and then on to Tallmadge. They spent the winter of 1819 in a log house, and “in the fall of 1821 Lyman built a double log house.” Later, he moved to a frame house close by, where he lived the remainder of his life.

Lyman was part of a contingent of 23 families who traveled together from Connecticut in that summer. He was a farmer, fairly religious and was starting another family with his second wife (he had 14 children in all). Henry’s father, Ira Sperry, was born Nov. 24, 1817, before the company left Connecticut, and was almost two-years old when the contingent reached Tallmadge on Sept. 7, 1819. It is highly unlikely that Henry’s great-grandfather, Lyman Sperry, ever even came close to Sperryville.

But why would Henry be in Sperryville in 1929 and tell such a story? He was a very reputable man. The 1928 Akron City Directory notes he was president and treasurer of the Baker-McMillen Company, and his son, John Sperry, was vice-president and general manager of the company, which still exists today. Both lived in Tallmadge in 1928.

By any measure, Henry was a very talented individual. After attending Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio, he joined his father in running a successful sewer-pipe business. Henry was sent to Chicago for two years to assist the manufacturing agent for the company, spent five years on the road for the Union Sewer Pipe Company and five more in the sewer-pipe business in Huntington, Penn.

Henry next bought a silica brick plant in Akron and ran it until 1904. He also received a patent in 1900 for inventing a portable machine to make 4,000 bricks a day, particularly fire bricks. Henry, having good connections and money, later assumed the ownership and became president and treasurer of the aforementioned Baker-McMillen Company. Back in 1929, their specialty was wooden handles, knobs and spirit levels. Henry was a go-getter, a man with a flair for diverse businesses, a pillar of the community and a 32nd Degree Mason to boot.

Henry’s son, John, also talented, had much to do with Baker-McMillen Company manufacturing an unusual product – a glider kit. John had been an aviator, a first lieutenant in the 22nd Aero Squadron, “The Shooting Stars,” and saw aerial combat in World War I. After the war, with aviation becoming a romantic and daredevil endeavor – with popular heroes like Charles Lindbergh and women like Amelia Earhart and Ruth Elder – John talked his father into backing a new line of work in aviation. Baker-McMillen’s first glider, designed by a Frank R. Gross, was the Cadet, produced in 1929.

Was Sperry sightseeing, visiting Luray Caverns, on his way to Washington, D.C., to file a patent for the glider, or getting the then-Army Air Corps interested in the use of gliders to train pilots in the basics of flying without the expense and possible loss of costly aircraft?

Col. Carroll Menefee: another interesting individual

In driving through Sperryville, Henry could not have helped but notice the Old Stage Coach Inn being demolished. Did he inquire about the building and learn that Col. Carroll Menefee owned it? Or did Henry know Col. Menefee (of the Virginia National Guard) previously through their both belonging to the Masons?

Sperryville in the 1920s. The “Lee Highway Hotel,” now “Hopkins Ordinary” is where Henry B. Sperry likely stayed on his 1929 visit to Sperryville. Col. Carroll Menefee’s house is directly across the street. The current “Corner Store” is discernible in the background on the right. Photo submitted by Bill Loomis to the Rappahannock News of July 7, 1983.
Sperryville in the 1920s. The “Lee Highway Hotel,” now “Hopkins Ordinary” is where Henry B. Sperry likely stayed on his 1929 visit to Sperryville. Col. Carroll Menefee’s house is directly across the street. The current “Corner Store” is discernible in the background on the right. Photo submitted by Bill Loomis to the Rappahannock News of July 7, 1983.

Menefee, born in 1876, was 53 years old when Sperry showed up in Sperryville in 1929, a dozen years younger that Henry. Menefee was active in local and district politics and community affairs; notably, he was on the staff of Virginia Gov. Westmoreland Davis. He worked in the advertising consultancy and contractor business, raised prize-winning Langshan and pit game chickens and liked to wear spats.

More to the point, he was a “Royal Arch and Knight Templar Mason and Shriner, past master of his lodge, past district deputy grand master of district four, and representative of the Grand Potentate.” In fact, in August 1920, Menefee had hosted the Sperryville Lodge’s “Golden Jubilee” 50-year celebration by inviting area Masons to his home in Sperryville. More than 400 Masons attended, enjoyed a lavish meal in his side yard, listened to inspiring oration and responded with song and cheers. More than 100 autos lined the streets at his house and there was a great honking of car horns when the event finally broke up late in the evening.

Sperry was a 32nd Degree Mason (the highest level one can apply for; the 33rd degree is conferred), and according to a brief biography, he was a member of the “Blue Lodge at Cuyahoga Falls, the Chapter and Commandery at Akron, and Lake Erie Consistory of Cleveland; also to the Masonic Club.”

Possibly Sperry and Menefee had met when 14,000 Masons from all over the U.S. came together on Nov. 1, 1923, for the laying of the cornerstone of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Va. Menefee also possessed the original grant to the land on which the city of Cincinnati was built, and it’s possible Sperry knew of it.

One can conjecture almost anything from diverse facts. In any event, the story of Henry B. Sperry being in Sperryville in 1929 made the Blue Ridge Guide, and somewhere along the line some misinformation about his being the great-grandson of the founder of Sperryville and builder of the Old Stage Coach Inn came into being.

In the end, there are other, more likely contenders for the naming of Sperryville. Other Sperry, Spery and Spirey names are noted in Elizabeth Johnson’s book, “Rappahannock County, A History.” The Rappahannock County Historical Society also has a small file on these Sperry, Spery, Spirey, Spenny, Spinney and Spirry individuals.

As to the Old Stage Coach Inn – that is another story.

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Don Audette
About Don Audette 22 Articles
Don Audette has a place in Sperryville, is a longtime member of the Rappahannock Lions and writes about local history in his "Yesterdays" column for the Rappahannock News.