"I am thinking this on top of a mule half way between Bon Air and Richmond. Steady there, Belle! You have done nobly the first five miles, there’s only four more to go!
"Belle, you may surmise, is the mule. I met her first early this morning at Mr. Clyde Overby’s farm. We have become very close friends since then.
"It was Belle or nothing, boss. The train service is very spasmodic. We were a little late in starting from home because it took a bit of time to bring Belle around to a properly co-operative point of view.”
Ruddock, a kindred proto-Hat kind of guy, needed to cowboy up because he was among the many Richmonders caught in the great snow of Jan. 24 and 25, 1940, when it stormed for 22 hours and left 21.6 inches at what was then called Byrd Airport. It was Richmond’s biggest snowfall of the 20th century; it was in the top five of those recorded here and it was the coldest. The storm followed a hurricane track from the South and whomped Richmond.
However this present predicted skyfall occurs, (anything could happen), the event won’t get close to the Big One of 1940.
The winter of 1939 to 1940 was white and cold; there’d been five snowfalls starting on Dec. 24. Lakes froze 10 inches thick and created daily skating at Byrd Park. On Jan. 21, excited enthusiasts strapped on their blades and crowded the main lake in such numbers that newcomers waited for space. Street and sidwealk clearance wasn’t as frequent or efficient as (sometimes) it can be today, thus even before the large storm, pedestrians and motorists alike were inconvenienced by poor conditions. But they mushed on with mostly good humor.
On the night of the storm, buses and taxis quit around 10 p.m. The trolleys managed to operate until midnight, with track-clearing machines going ahead of them, before muffling to stalled halts throughout the stilled city.
A couple on a date found themselves marooned on the Barton Heights car at First and Duval streets. The swain had promised her mother to get her home at a reasonable hour until Mother Nature’s intervention. Around 3:30 a.m., the young man roused the dozing passengers for their signatures on an affidavit that he’d been stuck on the car with them and the girl. He returned to his sweetheart and continued with one of those intense until-dawn conversations.
Snow-removal equipment was rudimentary and scarce; the city contracted at least four steam shovels to assist in street clearing. Gamble M. Bowers, director of the city’s public works, was blunt in his assessment of the blizzard: “We are not equal to it in equipment or men. Nevertheless, we are doing the best we can.” Overnight temperatures plummeted to 7 degrees below zero and didn't get above 22 the next day.
Snow stayed on the ground for two weeks and three days.
Mayor J. Fulmer Bright issued his version of a chivalrous only-necessary-personnel-need-report decree on Jan. 25. Female employees were given the day off, while male workers had to come in. The mayor walked to City Hall from his house in the 400 block of W. Grace St.
School Superintendent Jesse Binford closed schools for the first time since the last huge and deadly storm, that of Feb. 4 to 6, 1899. Then, the snow piled up 17 inches, but it was followed by rains and a flood. That caused a school closure of 10 days. This time, Binford said teachers and pupils could have off Friday, but would be expected back on Monday. (The city didn’t have a school-bus system, either.)
On Thursday, Jan. 25, George W. Wilson of 1105 W. 43rd St. used his waxed skis to get to the Lee Bridge and then walked to his downtown office. A Belmont Avenue milkwagon deliveryman plucked up snowbound pedestrians to ferry them to the nearest clear street. Postal workers hauled sacks of mail, like Santa Claus, from Broad Street Station.
Ruddock, the reporter, made it to his newspaper offices in about three hours. The nine-mile trip home, however, apparently took him — and Belle — five hours.
My guess is Ruddock kept getting stopped for pictures and by well-wishers.For the record, some of the bests of the worsts of regional snows:
• Jan. 27-29, 1922. Some 19 inches were dumped on Richmond, with temperatures ranging from 22 to 24 degrees. Children were admonished not to “not hitch their sleighs to autos.”
• Feb. 6-7, 1936. A solid foot of snow fell. The James River froze hard enough dispatch Coast Guard vessels from Tidewater to break a Texaco gasoline barge stuck just west of Rocketts Landing. Habormaster Capt. J.E. Reynolds fell through the ice, but bystanders rescued him then warmed the man by an impromptu bonfire.
• Jan. 24-25, 1940. Snow topped at 21.6 inches while the mercury bottomed at 2 degrees.
• Jan. 5-6, 1980. Weddings were not called off due to the 13-inch snowfall. The rabbi and priest who married Dr. Michael Markowitz and Dorothy McCaughan met at the bride’s mother’s Fan apartment, rather than the West End at 4:30 p.m., instead of 7 p.m., as planned.
*Jan.6-7, 1996, "The Blizzard of '96." Some 2 feet of snow fell on the region. The state and Richmond region took another week to dig out. A few roofs collapsed. Several deaths were attributed. On Jan. 14, the government declared Virginia eligible for disaster relief.
It starts Friday, and this year, the theme is sports, a fertile field to cover.
I spoke with festival co-founder and organizer Emilie E. Raymond, a VCU history professor, about the slate this year and what it indicates about the festival.
“We’ve drawn on more community partnerships since it’s a sports theme,” she says. “One of our goals is have a solid academic component. But film is such a democratic medium, and being an urban university like we are, we can connect to the Flying Squirrels and the River City Roller Girls as a way to enhance the conversation.”
As in years past, there’s a mixture of classic and contemporary with some eccentricity thrown in — which are hallmarks of the region that the festival represents. As is often case with SFF selections, the films deal with the South's identity struggles through varied approaches.
If tennis is your game, the 10 a.m. short program Saturday at the Grace Street Theatre is your ticket.
Althea is a work-in-progress and festival goers are getting a sneak peak at the documentary presented by its director, Rex Miller, who was also cinematographer for a recent SFF entrant, The Loving Story. The subject is the ground-breaking tennis player and golfer Althea Gibson, who emerged from the toughest streets of Harlem to dominate the segregated sport ahead of Richmond’s own Arthur Ashe. This is followed by Arthur and Johnnie, about the younger brother of Arthur Ashe.
Johnnie went through one tour in Vietnam and Arthur, after graduating from UCLA as a member the ROTC, attended West Point. U.S. military regulations forbid family members to serve simultaneously in the same theater of war. With Arthur poised to potentially be sent over, Johnnie, while still in the field, made a fateful choice.
“It’s a real tear jerker,” Raymond says. “There aren’t many films about Arthur Ashe, and this one is moving and well done, and it was just made last year.” Post-movie discussion features Jolynn Johnson Smith, a granddaughter of Walter Johnson, who coached both Gibson and Ashe alongside Eric Perkins and Tom Hood, co-authors of Richmond–One of America’s Best Tennis Towns.
Little league baseball gets its due at 1 p.m. Saturday at the VIrginia Historical Society with the screening of Mickey starring Harry Connick Jr. in a role penned by legal thriller novelist and baseball enthusiast John Grisham. “It had a very limited release, so it’ll be fun to see on the big screen,” Raymond says. The guests include Richard and Kathy Verlander, 2008 Little League Parents of the Year and authors of Rocks Across The Pond. They’re also the parents of major leaguer Justin Verlander. Show up early and he kids can meet Nutzy the Flying Squirrel.
That day at the vHS is special, too, for another reason. Prior to the screening, the institution is hosting a host a Virginia baseball memorabilia collection drive from noon to 1 p.m. The Verlanders are donating a game-worn 2009 All-Star jersey signed by Justin and a framed and numbered 2011 no-hitter commemorative plaque.
The South is also known for horses and fast cars, both of which get their representation. On Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the Virginia Musuem of Fine Arts, there's a screening of the 2010 film Secretariat. Penny Chenery, played by Diane Lane, undertook the management of her father’s Meadow Ridge Stables in Virginia and brought the racehorse Secretariat to Triple Crown victory. Discussion follows with Kate Chenery Tweedy, author of Secretariat’s Meadow and daughter of Penny Chenery. Kate was a consultant for the movie and worked as an extra.
“It’s really a great and understated movie,” Raymond says. “Diane Lane as Penny goes against the old boys club and achieves what plenty of people thought wasn’t possible.” And John Malkovich is in the film, too, which is always enjoyable.
At 4 p.m. on Saturday back at the Grace Theater is Richard Pryor in Greased Lightning, about NASCAR driver and Danville native Wendell Scott. Raymond says, “It’s an unusual film for Richard Pryor, he’s not cursing or playing it for laughs. But we wanted to include NASCAR but not with something you always think of. His family is still seeking to get him recognized by racing history in a more significant way.” And there's Pam Grier. Which is also always enjoyable.
Discussion follows with William F. Scott, Sr. and Warrick F. Scott, Sr., Scott’s son and grandson, who established the Wendell Scott Foundation to preserve the driver’s legacy. Moderated by Connie Nyholm, CEO/Owner of Virginia International Raceway.
Then at 7 p.m. comes Whip It! with Ellen Page as a Texas girl who overcomes her self-consciousness to become a roller derby champion. The film, which was Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, will be shown by Shauna Cross, who wrote the book about her own roller derby experiences and the screenplay for the subsequent move. Afterward, there’ll be conversation with Cross, Channel 8 film critic Morgan Dean, and River City Roller Girl Thistle Hurt. “The Ellen Page character is trying to overcome her beauty pageant obsessed mom, so, the film is about her asserting her own personality, whether she knows it or not.”
And it'll likely be the only movie panel this year where you’ll hear Thistle Hurt speak about how real or not is the portrayal of her game.
Most of the films are free. See all the details here.