From left: Jack Clark, Junior Steppe, Neil Clark, Paul Payne, Elbert Dale, Bobby Graves, and Al Francis.
Al Francis, right, worked as an engineer in a New York nuclear plant when he met his wife, a journalist working to shut the plant down. "I didn't want to work there anyway," says Francis, who arrived in White Hall 30 years ago and spent the remainder of his career for the Albemarle County School system where he established remote temperature controls to allow energy savings.
Nazi POWs picking peaches in Crozet? Check. An Albemarle County farm boy surrounded by Ethiopian tribesmen carrying spears? Believe it.
The Albemarle County area called White Hall might not look like much more than bucolic countryside for those just driving through, but folks stopping at historic Wyant's Store any weekday morning may learn that things aren't always as they appear– and, if they listen up, they'll hear some wild stories being told by a group of men who call themselves the Liar's Club.
"That's what we're called because our stories are hard to believe," laughs Elbert Dale, an octogenarian who serves as the group's informal president and who– like some of the other half dozen men here on a recent weekday morning– has been coming to Wyant's Store regularly since he was a boy in the 1930s and '40s.
"We used to play ball in the street out front there," says Dale, gesturing out the front door toward Garth Road as several other men nod and smile at the memory. "There wasn't much traffic," he adds.
In fact, if an anthropologist wanted to get a glimpse of life in Western Albemarle County through the middle and latter parts of the 20th century, she'd hit gold here at Wyant's Store. The group– racially diverse though homogenous by gender– offers something increasingly rare in our ever-more transient society: continuity of place and the type of tight-knit family-like relationships built over decades and solidified here in a store that was opened in 1888 by A.K. Wyant. Today it's owned by his great-grandson, 66-year-old David Wyant.
"I bought it so it would stay in the family," says Wyant, who rents the store to his brother, Larry, and who's also well known for his role as an NFL referee over the past two decades. He mentions a 1918 fire that destroyed the building, wiping out a second-floor dance hall that was a hot-spot for turn-of-the-century socializing in White Hall, and describes horse-tying posts that were out front and used into the late 1950s. That prompts another recollection from Dale.
"Dan Maupin tied his horse to one of those posts during World War II," he laughs. "The horse spooked and jerked it right out of the ground." Dale, known as someone who can fix anything and is a master woodworker, made two rolling pins out of that post and gave one to Maupin as a gift.
Looking at framed photos and news accounts about the store hanging on the walls, it's apparent the current one-story building hasn't changed much in the intervening decades even if the boots, jeans, livestock feed, and bulk groceries once sold here have made way for modern convenience store items like prepackaged snacks, drinks and various household supplies.
The Liar's Club members themselves, however, are a constant, and Wyant, educated as an engineer, says their wisdom "knocks my socks off at times. These people have learned the country ways, and know things some people will never be exposed to. It's the way they grew up."
While the Wyant family may be among the best known in White Hall, they certainly aren't the area's only long-timers.
"I live in the same house I was born in," offers Army veteran Neil Clark, 78, who, like Dale, attended the segregated White Hall Elementary School, a stone's throw down Garth Road toward Charlottesville. There, white children in grades 1-6 were educated two grades to a class until the 1950's, when the county consolidated students into Crozet High School, which became the old Crozet Elementary School and is the current home of the private Field School.
The stories fly as the men recall Nazi prisoners of war held in 1944 less than a mile north of the store.
"You could see them through the fence," recalls Dale, who says security was relatively lax at the prison, which originally served as the Civilian Conservation Corps camp, a Depression-era U.S. Army program that put young men to work in the Shenandoah National Park building Skyline Drive.
Indeed, according to historical documents in the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, 260 Nazi POWs arrived in White Hall in August 1944 and stayed until the war's end. They were allowed work-release to pick peaches at nearby orchards, and, according to contemporary news accounts and interviews, the prisoners caused no problems other than occasionally etching a swastika into a peach.
"I worked with some of them in the peach orchards," Dale recalls. "They were very nice, disciplined people, good workers. They loved it here. A lot of them wanted to stay, but when the war was over, they shipped all of them back."
Those Nazi prisoners may have been one of the first encounters with foreigners for Dale, but a long Air Force career measuring coordinates for satellite use took him to some of the world's most remote locations before he returned home to White Hall with stories he's still telling today.
There's the time he was dropped by helicopter in a remote region of Ethiopia in 1955 with instructions to carry a load of equipment up a hill to the designated location.
"The chopper had to leave us because the wind was too high," Dale recalls. Suddenly alone, he says, he and a fellow soldier found themselves surrounded by tribesman carrying spears.
"I didn't know what to do," says Dale, who grabbed some cargo rope and bowed to the "biggest one with the biggest spear," presenting the rope as a gift. He gestured to the pile of equipment, then says he pointed up the hill where the equipment needed to be carried. Apparently, the gift was accepted.
"He smacked another guy on the rear with it, and they all just helped us carry our stuff up the mountain," Dale recalls with a laugh, before launching into a litany of the other far flung locations he's traveled: New Guinea, Borneo, Korea, and Vietnam, where, in 1956, after the French had been conquered, he and four other American soldiers were sent in to take satellite surveys. "We couldn't go in wearing military clothes, so they took us all down to a western store and dressed us like cowboys with Stetson hats and Levi's," Dale recalls.
Stationed up in the mountains at a rat-infested camp, Dale says one night he was actually bitten by one on the toe, so he set about building traps from the materials they had on hand.
"At night," he recalls, "a squad of Vietnamese soldiers came up to guard us, and when I'd take a rat out of the trap, they'd put it in the fire and cook 'em and eat 'em. The meat looked really good," he says, "but I never tried it."
While the average age of Liar's Club members makes them no spring chickens, Dale says they welcome anyone with an open mind to the group, where stories are told and politics are debated, but disagreements– even over hot-button topics like gun control– never ruin friendships.
"That's how it should be," notes Dale, a proud Obama supporter who notes that that puts him in the political minority of this group. But he considers himself and all the other members to be true patriots, a statement that prompts several "'God Bless America's" around the table.
"We respect each other's opinions," Dale says. "I don't see much of that going on in this country anymore."