September - November 2007 â€¢ Marion, Virginia
Sherwood anderson In Virginia
by Don Francis
Sherwood Anderson was
attracted to the mountains of southwest Virginia by
the climate, and, perhaps, by the prayer of a hard-working farm wife.
Having spent the summer of 1924 in New Orleans, enduring its oppressive heat
and humidity, Sherwood wrote to several friends. He inquired if they knew
of some place to which he could go, where it was cool and where it wouldn't
cost much to live.
Among the replies was one from Julian Harris, who published a newspaper in
Columbus, Georgia. Julian was a son of Joel Chandler Harris, a Georgia
humorist, publisher of the "Atlanta Constitution", and author of the Uncle
Remus stories. Julian suggested that Sherwood get in touch with Mrs.
Caroline Greear, at Troutdale, Virginia. In a memoir written in later
years, Caroline Greear told of hard times that prompted her to write to
guests who had stayed at a small summer resort in nearby Ashe County, North
Carolina. She told them of her wish to accept boarders. Mrs. Julian Harris
was the only one to respond, and she promised to send some guests, if she
could. Apparently Sherwood's letter to Julian Harris arrived at about the
same time that Julian's wife heard from Caroline Greear. Caroline later
wrote that "Mr. Anderson would have been surprised had he known that I
always looked upon his coming to Virginia and to us as an answer to as
heartfelt a prayer as I had ever prayed in my life."
Anderson and his wife, Elizabeth Prall, rode the train to Marion, Virginia,
then took the Marion and Rye Valley Railroad, a lumber train, to Troutdale.
The Greears had prepared a bedroom for the Andersons, and Caroline prepared
a sumptuous country farm dinner for the family and guests. The Andersons
settled in, and the Greears were fascinated by Sherwood's endless questions
about the family, the neighbors, and the countryside about. Sherwood told
Caroline that they would like to stay on a while, and he asked how much she
would charge. She hesitated, thinking about $12 a month being the usual
charge in the village, and she was shocked when Sherwood offered $1 a day
for each of them. She thought that was a huge amount for staying in a farm
home. In her memoir, she remembered that "His coming was one of the
grandest things that ever happened to the Greears."
Sherwood came to like the area so much that he bought a small farm when he
found it available. He arranged with Bill Wright at the bank in Troutdale
to have the title examined at the Grayson County court house in
Independence, deed prepared, and payment made to the owner, who recently had
been widowed. With the encouragement of John Greear, his host, Sherwood
arranged for Marion Ball, a local builder, to build the house, two-story
stone, with two one-story log wings. Bill Spratling, a friend who taught
architecture at Tulane University, drew up plans for the house. They were
of little use, however. Sherwood writes that neither he nor Ball could read
blueprints. He named the farm "Ripshin", because it was the name of one of
the two creeks that converged on his property.
The house was completed in 1926. Late that year, Sherwood suggested that
they go to Paris for a while. Elizabeth thought that might help
reinvigorate his enthusiasm for writing. In Paris, they had close contact
with many American writers and artists who flocked to that city. Sherwood
seemed unable to get excited about writing, and they returned to Ripshin.
In the fall of 1927, he learned that the two newspapers in Marion were for
sale. He decided that he would like to settle down to publishing, so he
bought the "Marion Democrat", published on Tuesdays, and "The Smyth County
News", published on Thursdays.
Sherwood decided that his subscribers were most interested in local news, so
he didn't attempt to provide national and international news. He rarely
used photographs, because it was too expensive, and, because the readers
were more interested in reading the news. He raised the yearly subscription
rate from $1.25 to $1.75, on the theory that his readers would have more
respect for the paper if they paid more for it. It wasn't long before
Sherwood created a fictional reporter for the paper, Buck Fever. Buck
commented on happenings in Marion and in Coon Hollow, Buck's home town. No
one was safe from newspaper comment from Buck, even Sherwood, the boss.
Buck became the object of letters from his girl friends. Dr. W. D. Taylor
says that the Buck Fever column carried on a newspaper tradition begun in
England by Addison and Steele, and adopted later in America by Benjamin
Sherwood devoted himself fully to the newspapers. He wrote about every
aspect of the daily lives of his readers. He wrote about the need for
cleanup of a town lot near his office, which he referred to as H. L. Mencken
Park. After it was cleaned up, the citizenry called it Sherwood Forest, in
appreciation. He wrote about the need for a school for blacks. He wrote
about boxing matches, baseball games, and the doings of the Kiwanis Club,
the Rotary, and the Odd Fellows. He covered Town Council meetings and court
cases involving theft, vandalism, domestic disputes, and the production and
consumption of alcohol. His reports usually included his wry wit, humor, or
morals to be drawn. The Marion Band was a favorite of his, and his covering
of their activities and needs brought donations from Anderson's writer and
In January, 1929, Elizabeth went to California to visit relatives. Sherwood
wrote to her, asking her not to return to Virginia. The marriage came to an
end, and Sherwood continued to get the papers out. His older son, Robert
Lane Anderson, came to work with him at the papers, and gradually took over
most of the duties of editor and publisher. Sherwood transferred the papers
to Robert Lane legally in January, 1932.
Sherwood had met Eleanor Copenhaver, whose family was prominent in Marion,
in early 1929. She had attended the University of Richmond, then Bryn Mawr,
and received a master's degree in political economy in 1933 from Columbia.
Twenty years younger than Sherwood, Eleanor began her forty-year career with
the YWCA in 1920. They married in July, 1933. Eleanor's work in the
Industrial Division of the YWCA helped open Sherwood's eyes to the realities
of hardships of working people in America.
Largely through Eleanor's work in the Industrial Division, Sherwood
discovered the labor movement. The plight of poor white mill workers in
southwest Virginia and bordering North Carolina and Tennessee reminded him
of his hard-working mother. He was struck by the fact that many of the mill
girls were only in their early teens. Sherwood and Eleanor attended a
meeting where the mill workers were being organized by a labor union. The
enthusiasm in the room affected Sherwood deeply, and he recognized a kind of
"religion of brotherhood." He determined that he would share the sense of
purpose of these men and young girls in his writing in the years to come,
and he remained true to this resolve.
Much of Anderson's writing for his remaining years reflected his interest in
the plight of poor and disadvantaged people. He traveled extensively,
visiting mills and factories, talking at length with workers at the mills or
in the lobbies of small hotels where he stayed. These people felt they
could tell their tales and stories of hardship to him.
Late in 1940, with the unofficial approval of the U. S. State Department,
Sherwood planned a lengthy trip to South America. He wanted to learn
first-hand the working people, and to write about them. He arranged with
magazines to publish his writing, financing his trip. Sherwood took Spanish
lessons in preparation for this project. On February 28, 1941, he and
Eleanor boarded ship in New York City. At sea, he became sick. When the
ship docked at Cristobal, on March 4, he was taken to a hospital at Colon,
where he died on March 8. Eleanor had his body returned to Marion, where he
was buried in Round Hill Cemetery.
Anderson, Elizabeth, and Gerald R. Kelly: Miss Elizabeth; 1969
Anderson, Sherwood: Sherwood Anderson's Memoirs, edited by Ray Lewis White,
Anderson, Sherwood: The Buck Fever Papers, Edited by W. D. Taylor, 1971
Greear, Caroline: Sherwood Anderson as a Mountain Family Knew Him; The
Summer 1989, Vol. XIV, No. 2
Townsend, Kim: Sherwood Anderson; 1987