Community column: Memories from Giles painstakingly assembled
We live in a special place. The plenitude of mountains, vales, rivers, creeks, fields, and forests offer something for everyone. Many of us explore these wonders regularly. We hike, bike, camp, climb, swim, paddle, or stroll among and through these treasures. But few of us study these gifts the way that Curtis Caldwell has.
Caldwell is a Giles County native — born “up Big Stoney Creek” more than eight decades ago. He grew up here, among the small Appalachian communities connected by the natural waterway and the rail line that ran along it. Upon graduating from high school, he eventually landed a job at Standard Lime, where he worked for 33 years.
Caldwell had never imagined himself a scholarly or writing type. He does read The Roanoke Times carefully, though. The March 23, 1997, New River Valley Current (the precursor to The Burgs) featured a story by Ray Cox titled “Up on Stony Creek.” Reveling in attributes of the place and its people, the piece tumbles and flows like its namesake — which is, indeed, spelled both ways by equal numbers. Caldwell, who prefers the variation with an “e,” was inspired by the style and topic.
“It was a nice article,” Caldwell recalls, ”but I thought Big Stoney deserved a lot more than a few pages in a newspaper.” And so he began a five-year effort to capture the essence of this distinctive locale, culminating in a book titled “Up on Big Stoney Creek.”
For Caldwell, that approach covers everything imaginable — teachers who taught on Stoney Creek, photos of the schools where they worked, names of local preachers and “doctors who visited the sick,” deed information on major tracts of land, churches in the valley, tidbits and witticisms from times now fading fast behind us.
The document contains hundreds of photos. Caldwell went door to door in some cases, asking people to share information and images. Word got out, and some items arrived unsolicited. Caldwell describes such an instance: “A boy in Roanoke sent me a picture of his mother playing basketball for Kimballton from 1936. They played on dirt floors. Had to take brooms and clean up the court before the game.”
Caldwell’s book pays tribute to natural history, but it is equally dedicated to the industrial — especially the railroad and the lime mines. A Potts Valley Branch timetable from 1931 shows stops at Norcross, Kimballton, Crafts, Interior, Kire, Foley, Pettit, Ray, Waiteville, Laurel Branch, and Paint Bank. The journey from one end to the other took slightly over two hours, traveling 37.3 miles. A handbill from 1913 announces a special Sunday train “to accommodate those wishing to attend this Great Tent Meeting at Paint Bank.” Fares range from 35 cents to $1 round-trip.
A photo of employees from the Kimballton Lime Company around 1930 includes names for 26 of 28 men, including Caldwell’s own grandfather Woodie. Something in the solemn line of workers is mesmerizing. Or maybe it’s the insights from Caldwell: “Some of them walked two miles to get to work. Nothing was guaranteed. They had to go in and beg for the chance.”
Caldwell praises those who helped him assemble the collection, namely several daughters and a granddaughter. Linda Martin, the elder of five daughters, has been a mainstay. She also contacted me with this story idea.
Peggy Caldwell admits they had no feel for the magnitude of the project when her father began researching. The book was five years in the making. He followed with a sequel, “From Here to Yonder,” covering Ripplemead to Paint Bank. That collection is mostly photographs, but it contains my favorite author’s commentary: “My advice to everyone is to remember the Golden Rule, and take an interest in the Historical Society. If you are a senior citizen, join the Wellness Center, stay active and healthy — it’s the only body we will ever have.” Respect for others, the past, and your health — yes, I’d say those are some pretty good guidelines from the banks of Big Stoney.
Giles County hosts its Civil War Weekend today and Sunday, always a lively event. See gilescivilwarreenactment.com for details.
By Catherine Van Noy
Special to The Burgs | 639-3330
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