First of all, I want to thank everyone that has reached out to let me know how much they enjoy and have missed my stories about our local pioneers. 2021-2022 was a very challenging school year due to the pandemic and it took every available minute to try to get students (and teachers) back up to speed.
Speaking of school and teaching, Mr. Fred Clifton has been on my mind a lot lately. Mr. Clifton devoted his entire life to the education of young people and preserving local artifacts for future generations. Going forward, I will describe him as Fred for the purpose of this story, but I would never address him in person as anything but Mr. Clifton.
Young Fred was born in Vesta, Virginia in 1895 to Lupert Morton Clifton and Laura Rosabelle Cockram. He was the paternal grandson of Andrew Martin Clifton and Martha Jane Boyd and maternal grandson of Alex Cockram and Sarah Wood. When his grandpa Alex passed away in 1909, his grandma Sarah moved in with young Fred, his parents, and siblings. I suspect that sitting at his grandma Sarah’s knee is how he learned so much about 19th century local history.
After attending the local one room school in Vesta, (I can’t confirm if it was Free Union) Fred attended Central Academy at the foot of Lover’s Leap Mountain. He earned his high school diploma from the Presbyterian school.
On June 5, 1917, Fred registered for the draft at DeHart’s Mill in Meadows of Dan. The registrar, W. E. Helms, described Fred as tall, slender, with blue eyes and brown hair. Fred enlisted in the United States Army on October 2, 1917 and served as a bugler until the Armistice on November 11, 1918.
After returning from World War I, Fred married Selona Helms, the daughter of Abraham Madison Helms and Rosa Belle Thomas. The young couple moved to Williamsburg where Fred earned a Bachelor of Science degree from William and Mary in 1928.
Upon completion of his education, Fred and Lona returned to their home in the Blue Ridge mountains where he began his career in education. After teaching several years, he became the principal of Woolwine High School. Fred recalled that on weekends, he and Lona would stay on the mountain with her parents. When it would come a big snow, the main roads off the mountain would be blocked. Fred and Lona would start at Beulah Edwards’ store and head down the Rock Castle road on Fred’s Model T roadster. Fred said that it got so treacherous, Lona would get out and walk, no matter how deep the snow!
Fred later became the much-loved principal at Meadows of Dan and worked as a storekeeper and postmaster too. He was a great friend and cousin to my mother’s family and my mother has kept all the beautiful cards and letters that Fred sent to our family. I have always admired Fred’s penmanship which is second to none, as you can see from the example above.
My first memories of Fred are when I first visited the Patrick County Historical Society Museum. At the time, the newly opened museum was in the former office of Dr. B.A. Hopkins on Buena Vista Avenue. My classmates and I walked down the big hill from Stuart Elementary to the crisp, white building and discovered all kinds of treasures.
My favorite exhibit (as a 10-year-old girl) was the tusks from a wild boar that was killed by German Belcher in Woolwine. They were donated by Fred Clifton. As I walked from display case to display case, the name Fred Clifton appeared over and over on donation cards. In fact, Fred and Lona Clifton donated most of their vast collection of mountain life artifacts to the new museum.
I periodically visit the Patrick County Historical Society Museum to look at the new and changing exhibits, but guess where I always head to first? Yep, you guessed it, directly to the wild boar tusks donated by Fred Clifton. It is comforting to me that in this crazy world of pandemics and mass shootings, I can visit something from my childhood that stays constant. Does that make sense?
Sadly, Lona passed away in 1976 and didn’t get to witness Fred being awarded the Distinguished Patrick Countian award in 1982. Around the same time, Fred participated in the Patrick County Oral History Project that was done by Reynolds Homestead. Fred’s voice was recorded recounting his life experiences and the stories he grew up hearing about the mountain people. These recordings are touching and bittersweet, but if you miss hearing your grandparents’ voices, these are a wonderful substitute.
In 1985, William and Carolyn Franck of Martinsville donated $200,000 and 72 acres to establish a park overlooking Lovers’ Leap, but the one stipulation was that it must be named Fred Clifton Park. Fred lived to witness the dedication of the park before his passing in 1989. Fred bequeathed his home, land, and remaining artifacts to the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College. Even in death, Fred was always thinking of others.
As I mentioned earlier, Fred Clifton has been on my mind a lot lately. As a man that devoted his life to the preservation of mountain history, would his heart be filled with as much sadness as mine, if he were to see the destruction at Lovers’ Leap and the loss of the second little bear?
Thank you to Shirlien Belcher for providing images for this story. Woody may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.