Recently dreaming about the return of warm weather, I remembered a bright Saturday afternoon not so long ago when I made my favorite rounds along Sperryville’s bustling merchant row, where U.S. 211 is only — as it was in the old days — just two lanes, and where one can make purchases and enjoy the camaraderie of local merchants.
During the relaxed, lively conversations and family lore I was treated to that afternoon, Sonny Anderson (of Sonny’s Place), talked of his uncle, Loring Anderson. (See his photo on page 1.) Sonny, quite the gifted storyteller, spoke of his uncle, who passed away in 1994 at age 82, as a man known in these parts as larger than life. He told of Loring, a snake wrangler like no other, “walking” his rattlesnakes on leashes throughout the hamlet of Little Washington and frequently driving his pickup truck accompanied by a rattler lying coiled on the passenger seat (in a bucket).
I remembered Jonas Alther telling me once of politely declining Loring’s kind offers of a ride to school in that truck.
Loring, according to his son, John Anderson, was once asked to come into the Rappahannock News office to talk about his . . . hobby. He showed up with two live rattlesnakes, leashed with baling twine. Women were screaming, standing on office chairs. John, not a stranger to getting phone calls regarding his dad, said he was contacted by Peter Luke, then the commonwealth’s attorney. “You need to tell your dad he can’t bring live rattlesnakes into public buildings,” John recalls Luke saying, and chuckles as he recounts the story.
Loring and John Marshall Clark were considered by many as the last of the “real Rappahannock mountain men.” Longtime attorney Doug Baumgardner recalls from his boyhood here that Loring “lived large” and had “character of the highest order.” And when he spoke, Doug says, folks listened; he talked “with capital letters, animated, punching the air for emphasis.”
He was a man who lived a hard life but was generous and kind. He’d help out neighbors and friends whenever he could. “They threw away the cloth after they made him,” Doug says.
Beverly Atkins recalls that he had a “fierce countenance” but a soft underbelly, too; she was always one of the recipients of his first daffodils of the year. Loring would pick them in February and March before they’d bloomed, put them in hot water and the next morning deliver them around town.
He was known as “the snake man” and was fearless for sure, his son recalls, catching them bare handed. John recalls that his father once arrested two robbers, caught red-handed, sacking a local store in town. When he was accidently and very seriously gored by his favorite 2,300-pound bull Baby Jim, John says he never even thought to go to the hospital but wrapped the wound himself. And there were many more minor examples, like the time he walked into the Episcopal church and retrieved a wayward skunk wandering under the pews.
He loved his animals, especially his cattle and when he called, they’d come to him, John recalls. “He talked to them, truly talked to them,” John says. Loring had occasion to be with several dangerous dogs and was warned not to go near them, but John recalls that he stood his ground in front of them. Somehow they knew, this was a man to be reckoned with and they were still in his presence.
Into his 80s, Loring would still wake before dawn, go to the mountain, cut one or two cords of wood before 7 a.m. His hands were so calloused he’d use his bare hands to remove a skillet from the fire.
Sonny remembers Loring, upset with a proposed increase in property taxes, threatening to bring rattlesnakes into the fray. Bev Atkins, the county revenue commissioner, in fact remembers with delight Loring coming into her offices, carrying a brown paper sack, and with a mischievous look in his eyes, rattling it, and saying maybe it would make the board of assessors think twice about raising assessments. Upon seeing Loring as he entered the board’s meeting, all the members moved back from their chairs, stricken looks on their faces.
There was no rattlesnake in the sack but Beverly, her staff and Loring had a good laugh.
Loring was considered, “rough and tumble” but his soft side was apparent to folks who knew him. Two or three times a month, he’d cook pinto beans — firecrackers, as some called them — along with biscuits. Then he’d call the sheriff’s office to put out an alert, and they’d come in droves to Mount Marshall. As John laughingly tells me, “The wives recalled the men haven’t been regular since Loring died.”
As a boy, Doug Baumgardner said he and his friends would ride on horseback to Loring’s, convinced that Loring’s father-in-law, Ada Mae Smoot’s dad, had left a buried treasure on the property. In those days, Doug says, “Picking apples, and peaches, making hay, whitewashing fences, pulling weeds, using our briar scythes . . . to clean out brush from under apple trees, a favorite habitat of copperheads and rattlers. That is the world in which I came to know Loring Anderson. It was like the tail end of an era that’s ‘Gone With The Wind.’”
Doug had worked on his family’s cattle farm in Loudoun, “but nothing like the experience I had working in Jack DeBergh’s orchards, just a stone’s throw from Loring’s place. We were frozen in time, in a place where book learning and success didn’t necessarily correlate. In Harris Hollow, in the ’50s and ’60s, Loring Anderson majored in the natural world as measured by that time. He was one of the smartest men I ever knew.”
John recalls Pastor Burke of Gid Brown Baptist Church running into his father in town, “Lo’,” he called, “when are you gonna come to church and renew your faith?”
“What makes you think I don’t have faith?” Loring responded, and pulled out a five-gallon bucket, a timber rattler coiled quietly inside. “That, Pastor Burke, that is faith.” Pastor Burke replied, “Well, I have faith but I don’t have that much faith.”
On some warm weekend — in the near future, with any luck — along the grassy knoll at Sonny’s Place, or any of the other fine establishments down here along the only section of Lee Highway in Northern Virginia that’s still two lanes wide, purchase an item, or place a treasure on hold. And enjoy the moment, chat, laugh and savor the friendships you can find here along Sperryville’s historic merchant row.