Daniel Keyser: A Rappahannock jewel

Rapp at Home’s popular “Local Voice Series” recently hosted a particularly delightful speaker, namely Daniel Keyser of Old Hollow. In his 80’s, charming, funny and filled with extraordinary tales of lore; of days gone by, of a Rappahannock barely recognizable now; of a people of the land, farmers and shopkeepers, horse and cattlemen, apple harvesters, veterans of wars, tight and supportive communities and hamlets brimming with children, churches and locales.

To a packed room of rapt listeners and with a smile, he spoke of never having presented a talk before so many people, but since he’d spent eleven years at the former Washington School — where Rapp at Home is located — and they were all sitting near his first grade room, he was totally comfortable.

Daniel Keyser said when growing up he never knew his family was in the midst of the Great Depression. Photo by Chris Green

Daniel talked animatedly of his father, who was born in Gid Brown Hollow and raised in Tiger Valley; and his mom, a Whorton, raised in Whorton Hollow and Rock Mills.

He went on to speak of Russell Wood, a farmer at Massies Corner who employed workers including his dad, providing them with a furnished house, 100 pounds of cornmeal and flour. “In 1937,” Daniel recounted, “we moved to our own place on 37 acres on Red Oak Mountain, as my dad wanted a better life. He paid $500 for the property and $25 a year in mortgage payments.”

“Nearby” he told, “was the Rolling Rock swimming hole and folks came from all over as far away as Front Royal and Culpeper to swim, picnic, clamber and jump off the rocks.”

“My parents” he went on, “were mail carriers and back then whoever presented the lowest bid won the route and my parents were the lowest bidders and so carried mail from Woodville to Rock Mills. Mom would stay in the store in Woodville while waiting for mail to arrive from Culpeper, typically around 2 in the afternoon. Father carried mail on bad days and mom on good days with horse and buggy.”

“There were only twelve houses there then, with no electricity, and no modern conveniences. We didn’t know at the time that there was a Depression going on — we were self-sufficient, canning and growing vegetables and such, we had plenty of food. We’d dig a hole in the ground two-feet deep with leaves of straw and put in potatoes and cabbage to keep from freezing and canned fruit was kept in the kitchen. We’d used cross cut or bow saws to timber the chestnut trees that had suffered from blight so all our rail fences were made of chestnut.

“We lived on the east side of Red Oak Mountain . . . Father was a fire tower watchman atop Red Oak, and folks were designated from each section of the county to fight fires. Raymond Johnson on Red Oak was the fire warden. The fire tower was leased for 99 years and in ‘74 it was turned back to the landowner as it became obsolete.”

With the audience in complete fascination, Daniel recalled: “In ‘41, an army of trucks arrived and camped out near Hope Hill and built six-by-six buildings on the rocks and each day they’d arrive . . . and stay for a time and then leave. They stayed a whole summer, and played football, and my grandfather would watch them and they thought the world of him and would take him to the local Rock Mills store for candy and such . . .

“No one knew what the men were doing there but later we found out they were searching for uranium for the atomic bomb. Cement masonry blocks remain on the current property.”

Speaking of digging, “We didn’t have backhoes to dig graves so typically three or four men were tasked. My father and two other men would dig and one time they were standing by a grave and they spoke of the body not facing east the way it should. People were buried facing east and I’ve asked preachers about it and the understanding is that when Jesus returns he’ll come from the east.”

“My dad’s first car was an open 1927 Ford, with no glass, it had curtains you snapped and on the sides we had peep holes,” Daniel continued. “You’d have to do windshield wipers by hand so my mom would do that while my dad drove. By 1950 the Model A was obsolete and were used sometimes as tractors, you could buy one for $10, it was right for folks who lived in rural areas. Dad then bought a 1931 Model A, with glass, and he used to carry mail with it from Rock Mills to Woodville.

“At the time there were no hospitals in Culpeper, Warrenton or Luray and we’d have to go to Charlottesville and dad would drive lots of folks there. He often picked up a black preacher on Sundays in it, and drove him to Castleton to his black church and we’d go to Mt. Salem, someone else would pick up the preacher and bring him home. My father was one of the only three people who had a car.”

At this point what was to be an hour-long presentation turned out to be 90 minutes and folks clambered for more. In fact, they’ve already invited Daniel back. And the seniors are planning a bus trip to take Daniel with them all around the county to share his wonderful stories with them. He is a Rappahannock jewel for sure.

Chris Green
About Chris Green 162 Articles
Chris Green (formerly Chris Doxzen) is an an executive recruiter by profession who enjoys exploring and writing about all things Rappahannock. Friends and neighbors with potential stories for her Sperryville column should email her at chrisdoxzen@gmail.com.