From the time Nils Aylor was 11 years old his grandfather would set him on the path to a rustic log cabin that fronted F.T. Valley Road “to pick up his medicine from Doctor Crop.”
“That’s the only name I ever knew, ‘Doctor Crop.’ My grandfather would say, ‘Go see Doctor Crop and get my medicine.’ We lived right over there,” says Nils, pointing south some distance from the cabin. “He was a scruffy old man. And it was always dark in here. It was scary.
“I would knock on this door, and he knew me of course, and then he would walk over and lift up a board and pull a gallon of ’shine out of the floor.”
It didn’t take long for Nils to reach the conclusion that Dr. Crop was no ordinary doctor and his remedy wasn’t entirely medicinal. But that suited the teenager, who by then was enrolled at Rappahannock County High School, just fine.
“I would pull up here in my old ’62 Chevy, grab a bottle — underage — and my friends and I would go hike Old Rag. And let me tell you, it wouldn’t be long before I was preaching a sermon up there,” he laughs.
It is by sheer coincidence that Nils, who today owns and operates Aylor Lawn & Farm in Culpeper, has returned all these years later to the long-abandoned 19th century cabin that for him holds so many memories.
He’s been hired to help dismantle its valuable logs of chestnut — trees once plentiful in these Blue Ridge Mountains — for relocation to Criglersville in Madison County, where they will be painstakingly chinked to original form by building preservationist Timothy Robinson of Heartland Restoration.
“I’ve saved somewhere between 20 and 30 cabins in this county, and in every case it’s the stories surrounding the cabins, not the cabins themselves, that are so important. It’s the history inside of them,” the builder says.
Robinson ought to know. He has his own personal connection to the tiny log home and the aging man who lived there with his “mistress,” Lois, for so many years.
“I got many bottles here,” reveals the builder, although he didn’t know the bootlegger as Dr. Crop. “He went by several different names. I would always tap three times on the door so he knew it was me.
“He had whiskey, vodka and gin,” Robinson continues, walking over to the few surviving steps leading to the small loft. “He kept it right here under the staircase.”
Robinson remembers being at the Rappahannock County Courthouse several decades ago when the moonshiner was brought before a judge — not the first or last time the law caught up with him.
“The judge said he was going to fine him $300 dollars,” Robinson recalls. “And he said, ‘Judge, if you do that you’re going to make me have to charge my customers more.’”
There was no shortage of customers. From all county locations — and all walks of life — men, women and even an 11-year-old child would call at all hours at the cabin, its front door barely a car’s width from the well-traveled highway. The cabin, in effect, was an early version of a drive-thru liquor store, illegal though it was.
And while they paid a bit more for the liquor, for the bootlegger’s customers a quick stop at the darkened cabin was far more convenient than driving to Culpeper, Madison or anyplace else to purchase the state-controlled bottles that, like today, aren’t sold in Rappahannock County.
“If they shut him down one day he’d reopen the next,” recalls Rappahannock County native Bill Fletcher. “He was an integral part of the community, fulfilled a community service, a community need. And he was always fair to the old timers.
“He never made a lot of money — just enough to live on,” Fletcher says. “As far as I’m concerned, Usters should be admired for what he did.”
“Usters Dodson!” Fletcher exclaims.
“He was my favorite uncle,” reflects Sperryville retiree Thaniel Dodson. “People didn’t know about his good credentials. They only knew that Uncle Usters sold whiskey at that cabin. They had no idea that he was a World War II vet, a patriot.
“He never talked much about his war experience, but he had a lot of it — he was in some big battles, especially in Germany” his nephew continues, while sorting through a circa 1910 candy box brimming with old family mementos and photographs, including one of Usters in his U.S. Army uniform.
“England, France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, and I believe Iceland,” Thaniel reads from notes surrounding his uncle’s wartime deployments. “I don’t know what military outfit he was in [during one such deployment] but he wore a white outfit and skis.”
The nephew pauses for a moment: “He did tell me one time about a big battle [during the winter] when one of his buddies got wounded. They didn’t have a medic to grab him out of there, and they had to take his buddy and put him under a manure pile. This manure is mixed with hay, and you know manure keeps you warm, it’s hot under there. So, they put their buddy underneath there, but he told me they never knew whether he made it or not.”
Having survived the war, Usters returned home and became a “convict guard” near Winchester, although the veteran’s job was short lived.
“He came to realize that some of the guys he had a gun over were World War II vets and he couldn’t continue working there because he was holding a gun over his ‘fellow man’ is how he put it,” his nephew says. “So he quit.”
Usters then moved to Castleton “and while he was there he manufactured some good whiskey, and sold it of course — and drank it,” Thaniel says with a wink. “And then in the early 60s he moved to the cabin on 231 [F.T. Valley Rd]. But instead of making the whiskey he bought it from the ABC store, paid the taxes on it, and resold it to the lower class, the middle class, and the higher class.
“That was way of life, that was his income — no social programs for him,” Thaniel observes. “He took care of a lot of people.”
Local law enforcement during the nearly three decades Usters was in business would only occasionally knock on the bootlegger’s door, and their supposedly unannounced visits — usually on the heels of a citizen’s complaint — normally resulted in a fine at most.
Rappahannock County’s most respected lawyers, in fact, took turns representing the moonshiner whenever he did go to court.
“The last time he was arrested he had been set up with marked twenty dollar bills,” Thaniel says. “I think he had to pull 30 or 60 days [in jail], I can’t remember which. But after that episode he quit selling whiskey. He said he was tired. And his health was failing.”
And then came December 19, 1989, a Tuesday.
“To make a long story short . . . I spent the whole night with him,” says Thaniel. “He wouldn’t let me take him to the doctor. He could have gone to the VA [hospital] or anyplace, but he said, ‘No, I’ll be alright.’ He was breathing hard, he had heart disease and he was a diabetic.”
So his nephew left his uncle for the day, and “when I came in from work that evening I called down to the cabin. It was dark, and Lois answered the phone. And I said, ‘How’s Uncle Usters?’ And I heard him say, ‘Lois, who are you talking to?’ And I heard her say, ‘Thaniel, he says he’ll be down shortly.’
“And while I was talking to her I heard a gunshot go off. I knew right away that he killed himself because of his expression the night before. I could read his mind. And that was the end of an era.”
Robinson, as irony had it, pulled up to the cabin within minutes of Usters’ death. He walked in to find the moonshiner motionless on the sofa, the stock of his gun resting against his shoulder.
“He was 74 year old when he died,” notes his nephew, who to this day has taped to his refrigerator not one, but two identical 1973 newspaper clippings from the Rappahannock News showing four members of the Rappahannock Sheriff’s office posing with 25 bottles of whiskey confiscated from Usters’ cabin.
“As you can see one of the photographs is completely faded,” Thaniel says. “So I put up another one. I figured somebody might come by some day and need to look at that picture.”
Another wink and smile.
“What’s amazing,” Thaniel says, “is that if Uncle Usters was living today he could probably obtain a legal license and manufacture his own whiskey and his own beer and set up a little booth someplace.”