National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

National Register of Historic Places Program:
Women's History Month Feature 2013
Mt. Airy, Augusta County, Virginia

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.

 

[photo]
Mt. Airy
Photograph courtesy of the Virginia State Historic Preservation Office

Located in Augusta County, Virginia, Mt. Airy is a Shenandoah home that was constructed around 1840 while under the ownership of Major James Crawford, and was later associated with the famous American folk painter Anna Mary Robinson “Grandma” Moses (September 7, 1860 – December 13, 1961). Grandma Moses was a prominent painter who started creating pictures in the 1930s from her memories as a farm wife both in the Virginia Shenandoah Valley and the New York Hoosick Valley. Moses moved to the Shenandoah Valley in November of 1887, with her husband Thomas Solomon Moses. Mt. Airy was the first house she and her husband owned in their married lives---they bought it for $6,000 and lived there from January 1901 to September 1902. While living there their last child was born, Hugh. Even though they moved to New York, Anna kept her contacts in Virginia, and occasionally visited the Shenandoah Valley region. By the end of her life, Grandma Moses would be a household name and her paintings adorned a large variety of products, including plates, fabric, and advertisements---she left at least 38 paintings depicting scenes in Virginia. Mt. Airy Occupies a 400-acre parcel and is set atop a hill overlooking the Augusta county government center to the north and agricultural land on the east, west, and south, The house is a brick, two-story, five-bay, single-pile house with a central passage. Mt. Airy was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on August 22, 2012.

[photo]
Mt. Airy
Photograph courtesy of the Virginia State Historic Preservation Office

Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma Moses) was born on September 7, 1860, to Russell King Robertson and Margaret Shanahan in Washington County, New York. She was one of ten children. She grew up on their family farm with occasional visits to her father’s flax mill. In her childhood she occasionally had the opportunity to express herself artistically. In her autobiography, she speaks of painting leaves, making corncob dolls, and drawing maps at school. Her father encouraged her in these activities, but her mother thought Anna’s time was better served by working on household chores and tending to the other children. Anna’s father was partial to art himself.  His family built wagons and was one of the first companies to start painting the wagons, including monograms. While her father was recovering from an illness, he painted landscapes on the wall of the family home.

At the age of 12, Anna left home to work as a hired girl to other families. While working as a hired girl for the Sylvester family, she met Thomas Solomon Moses, a hired hand at the same farm. On September 20, 1887, the two were married. They traveled south by rail within hours of their marriage, intending to go to North Carolina where Thomas had a possibility of a job at a ranch. Tired from traveling, they decided to spend the night in Staunton, Virginia, before continuing on their journey. That night Thomas went to the local drugstore where he met Mr. Bell, who soon convinced the newly wedded couple to look after his family farm. They resided on the bell farm from November 1887 to November 1888.  Anna, who liked to manage her own money, became successful at churning butter and selling it to the local grocer.  Her butter was locally acclaimed, and soon she received an offer from Christian Eakle that if they moved to his dairy farm, he would pay fifty cents for every pound of butter she could produce. In November of 1888 Anna and Thomas moved to the Eakle Farm.

[photo]
Mt. Airy
Photograph courtesy of the Virginia State Historic Preservation Office

Anna and Thomas spent seven years at the Eakle farm, also called Belvidere, from 1888 to 1895. Here Thomas took produce to the local market, while Anna’s butter industry grew. She received over $3,000 annually for her butter. Anna and Thomas had their first five children while living at Belvidere. Three of these children would survive to adulthood. While living here Anna’s sister and her husband, Mattie and Charlie Pebbles, moved down from New York and helped with the farm and children. It was while living here that Anna began to be referred to as Mother Moses and would sign her letters in this matter. In February 1895, Belvidere was sold at auction because of Eakle family financial issues. The Moses family next lived at the Dudley farm, which they rented for $700 a year from February 1895 to June 1901. She stopped her butter production during this period. It was also while renting the Dudley Farm that her daughter, also named Anna, was born.

When the Dudley family decided they wanted to move back to their farm, Anna and Thomas decided it was time to purchase their own home. They bought Mt. Airy in Verona for $6,000 and lived there from January 1901 to September 1902. This was the first house the couple owned. While living there their last child was born, Hugh, and the whole family was baptized at the Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Staunton. Thomas was by this point very homesick and wanted to return to New York and Anna thought Mt. Airy was too far removed from schools. They sold Mt. Airy to the Hoover family and some adjacent land to Maxie Myers in 1902.

Mt. Airy was constructed ca. 1840 while under the ownership of Major James Crawford. Occupying a 400-acre parcel, it set on top of a hill overlooking the Augusta County government center in the north and agricultural land on the east, west, and south. The region where Mt. Airy is located-the Shenandoah Valley of northwestern Virginia between the Blue Mountains and Allegheny Mountains, was first reached by Anglo-Virginians and by British colonial Governor Alexander Spotswood and his Knights of the Golden Horseshoe in 1716. In the 1730s and 1740s, two distinct cultural groups migrated through Pennsylvania to settle in the region, the Germans and the Scots-Irish. The Germans mostly settled in the northern, lower valley while the Scots-Irish moved into the southern, upper valley. Each group brought with them their own cultural house type. The Germans brought the three-roomed Flurkuchenhaus while the Scots-Irish predominately recreated the small cabins of their ancestors. However, there was a third cultural group in the area, the English. The group was a minority of the population, but a majority when it came to government and cultural influence. The English constructed a building type that would become known for its ability to display wealth and show cultural affiliation to the English gentry. In eastern Virginia, the English house type was a two-story, double-pile, central-hall plan known as the Georgian house. As adopted by the English, Germans, and Scots-Irish in the Shenandoah Valley in the early 19th century, the house would change in form to a two-story, single-pile, central-hall plan, that would become known as the l-house. The l-house was not only a manifestation of one’s wealth, especially if it was constructed of brick, but was also a symbol of acculturation. Germans and Scots-Irish abandoned their own cultural house types to construct this new English model. One such l-house was Mt. Airy.

[photo]
Mt. Airy
Photograph courtesy of the Virginia State Historic Preservation Office

The house contains a rear one-and-a half-story, brick ell addition, constructed ca. 1850, which was common for early 19th century Shenandoah Valley l-houses. The main block of the house has Federal-style details, including a steeply-pitched roof with an exterior brick corbelled cornice, gable-end chimneys, windows topped by lintels that are flanked by bull’s-eye blocks, interior molded chair railings, and elaborate fireplace mantels. Mt. Airy survived the Civil War, which ravaged the Shenandoah Valley, intact. Major James Crawford sold the property in 1877 to Juliette O. Daingerfield and her husband, Leroy Parker Daingerfield. Leroy was a captain in the Civil war and was reported to be one of the first amputees for the Confederates, losing his left leg from injuries sustained in the Battle of Phillipi on June 4, 1861. The Dangerfields’ sold the property to the Moses family in 1901. Mt. Airy has back and side porches which were added in the late 19th century.

The Moses family moved to Eagle’s Bridge, New York, but not before living briefly on a house called Mt. Nebo that was closer to the schools and town. Grandma Moses stated that in her autobiography that she was homesick for the Valley, stating that she felt as if she were in a swamp in the much lower mountains of New York. She stayed in touch with her friends from Virginia, in both the form of writing letters and occasional visits, and she called her children “rebels” because they were born in the South and held the beliefs of the southerners. She maintained her connections to the Shenandoah Valley throughout her life. Her husband died suddenly in 1927 at the age of 77. When asked about her life, it is the years between her birth and Thomas’s death that Anna would cite as the most important. However, it is the years after his death that made her so well known. At that time, their son Hugh and his wife moved in to take care of the family farm. Anna, without a house to fully care for, started her most successful industry—painting.

[photo]
Mt. Airy
Photograph courtesy of the Virginia State Historic Preservation Office

Grandma Moses, a name she revived when she had grandchildren, briefly dabble in the arts before Thomas’s death. It was only when her hand became too arthritic that her sister Celestia suggested Anna start to paint instead. Anna followed her advice. One statement of hers that is often quoted is that if she hadn’t started painting, she would have raised chickens, meaning painting was something just to keep herself occupied. She gave away her paintings or occasionally sold them for five dollars. An act of fate at a drugstore would bring Grandma Moses’s images into the homes of many people and once again change the course of her life.

On Easter, 1938, Louis Caldor stopped at the Hoosick Valley Farm Drugstore where some of Grandma Moses’s paintings were on display in the window. Caldor was intrigued by the paintings, bought all of them, and went straight over to Grandma Moses’s house to meet her and see if she had any more. Caldor became Moses’s advocate. A while later Caldor came back with a gallery that wanted to display Moses’ work, Otto Kallir’s St. Etienne in New York City. The first exhibit of Grandma Moses, “What a Farm Wife Painted”, was at Kallir’s gallery in the autumn of 1940. A New York newspaper promoted her to the nation as Grandma Moses. Gimbal’s department store Thanksgiving display was the next exhibit and the first time Grandma Moses went to New York City. As she spoke to the crowd, people became infatuated with her. This was the start of her artistic career. By the end of it she would paint over 1,000 paintings, become a household name, be associated with advertisements, have her paintings depicted on products like tiles, dishes, and fabrics, receive the Women’s National Press club trophy from president Truman and become an American phenomenon.

Grandma Moses’s paintings were mostly of memories from her life. They included images of her childhood and married life. She depicted the years most important to herself. Typically the paintings showed an expansive landscape with multiple figures in the front, often conducting a task she had done or seen on the farm. Art critics often spoke of her work with disdain, but the American people could not seem to get enough. In a time when people feared atomic bombs and memories of the Great depression lingered, Grandma Moses paintings depicted a life Americans wanted to identify with. Her work was also in great contrast to the then current art movement known as cubism (popularized by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso), but still had an air of modernity with her flat figures, which as her work progressed became more abstract.

She left at least 38 paintings depicting scenes in Virginia. The paintings were not catalogued by location, but many titles describe the setting she was painting. Of her titles, eight mention Belvidere, three mention Mt. Airy, and 11 mention Staunton or the Shenandoah Valley. Another prominent theme from Virginia was the “old Mill” of which she painted at least six paintings. Virginia does not hold claim to many nationally known painters. The other known Virginia painters may include: Lucien Powell who, unlike Moses, was a trained artist: Georgia O’Keeffe, a trained abstract painter born in Wisconsin in 1887 and moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1909, and P. Buckley Moss, another folk artist born in 1933 who moved to the city of Waynesboro from new York in 1964. Yet Grandma Moses is perhaps the most famous. Even today, 50 years after Grandma Moses’ death, products with her images are still sold and she and her paintings are taught to millions of school children nationwide.

Excerpted from Amy Ross Moses, Mt. Airy, NRHP nomination, Virginia SHPO, 08/22/2012

Full file on Mt. Airy