Halifax County, Virginia
Collins Ferry Farm - This old house on the Halifax County side of Staunton River upstream from Brookneal, known as the Sam McIvor house and the Thacker house, was the home of the late Holt Edmunds Carter. This article was written by Kenneth Cook for the News & Record.
(Editor's note: This story has appeared previously in The Union Star, once as a feature article in the 1940's, and again within recent years as a part of the "Captain Staunton River" Series. All copies of the earlier printings have been exhausted, and because of reader requests for reprints, we are once more presenting the story here as written by Sue Markey Caldwell from information in an earlier article in The Union Star based on recollections of the late E. L. Ridgeway of Brookneal. Repeat.)
The road to Collins Ferry went past Stovall, past the Sam Hubbard home, and through the Collins farm itself. Once the road crossed the Staunton River, it ran by the Marshall Brooks and Glover Epperson property near Edge, in Campbell County. The house itself has been called, at different times, Collins Ferry, the Thacker home, and the Sam McIvor home.
A road that crossed a river at the wrong place, treacherous currents, imprudence - these, and perhaps something more sinister to those who believe in such things, seem to have been responsible for a series of ugly accidents at a mill crossing which now exists only in memories.
On St. Valentine's Day in 1761, according to a patent recorded in Williamsburg, land located on Buffalo Creek, not far from the Staunton River between Stovall and Edge, was granted to James Collins.
During the course of time, on the Halifax County bank of the river, near the old Collins house, was erected a large mill, equipped to handle wheat, corn and logs.
(See the location of Collins Mill Dam on this Staunton River Atlas, page 16)
A road crossed the river there, and it was on this through fare that farmers from Halifax County made their periodical journeys to sell tobacco in Lynchburg, in the days when tobacco was sold nearly year round.
Two factors made the crossing at "Collins Ferry" naturally difficult. First, severe currents eddied around several islands in the river at that point. Then, the road approach at the mill and the river was downhill, and winding - a hard proposition for the man trying to brake a heavily-laden wagon.
In 1881, Josh A. Ridgeway and his family moved into the Collins Ferry home, and Ridgeway took over management of the mill and the ferry.
An evil star seemed to shine over the move, for it was shortly after this that Nelson Black, a colored man employed by Ridgeway's father, started down the steep hill. He was headed toward the mill with a mule team hauling a heavy load of logs. Somehow, when he reached the mill, the wagon turned over, and Black was crushed to death under the massive load of logs. Whether a brake failed to hold, or whether the road was muddy, the first fatality for the Collins Mill area was on the books.
Not long afterwards, a visitor to the mill slipped and fell from the upper floor of the building, breaking his leg. But Josh Ridgeway's troubles were not at an end when the visitor to the mill finally received treatment - in itself a difficulty in those times of long distances and few communications.
There had been trouble between Ridgeway and a man named Les Thacker about a road, since Ridgeway's arrival on the scene. He had only been operating the mill for four short years when he ran into Thacker in the old Stovall store. Somehow, bad blood rose again between the two men, and in the heat of the discussion, Thacker took out a gun and killed Ridgeway. Some extenuating circumstances must have been found, for it is known that Thacker later simply moved to Brookneal.
Mrs. Ridgeway, alone and with children to support, seems to have borne her grief within her self, for she continued the operation of her husband's business more or less single-handedly, as best she could.
But just one month after Ridgeway's death, In June of 1885, heavy spring rains had filled the Staunton River, and the force of the freshets caused the currents in the river to be even more unpredictable than usual.
Paul Adams, the Negro ferryman, doubtless took up his pole to accommodate passengers on the ferry with reluctance when he saw three loaded wagons coming down the hill.
All three wagons were carrying tobacco to Lynchburg market, and it is easy to visualize the discussion which took place about the ferry across the river. Adams finally convinced the drivers of the wagons that he would have to try the smallest vehicle first, to see how it negotiated the heavy river. They prepared to cross; first a two-horse team and wagon, then a three-horse team and wagon, then a three-horse equipage, finally what must have been a terrible load, pulled by four animals.
The wagon drawn by two horses were taken safely across.
Charlie Beale and Tom Abbott prepared their three-horse team for the trip, and were on the ferry with Adams, as he pushed away from the shore. The current caught the heavily-laden ferry, and smashed it against a massive rock in the stream. It began to capsize. In a desperate attempt to gain safety, Abbott and Beale leaped off, trying to ride two of the horses to land. Both men and all three horses were carried under the surface and drowned.
Adams jumped toward another big rock in the swirling currents, but he missed, and shared the fate of his passengers. It is difficult to appreciate fully the emotions of the driver who had reached the opposite shore safely, as he waited for his friends there, only to have a long, sad, weary trip ahead.
It is hard to comprehend the feelings of Zack Collins, who stood on the Halifax bank watching, holding the lead horse of his four-horse team, seeing his companions drown, with no further thought of the Lynchburg trip in his mind. Slowly, he must have turned to take his heavy load back up the hill, glad he had not crossed the Staunton, because death must have sat on the other side of the river that day.
Only a year later, Mrs. Ridgeway and her fatherless family finally had to stop trying to run the mill and ferry and move away. But though the tragedies had strangely started when the family had come to Collins Ferry, they did not cease when Jim Mullins took over the work there.
Somehow a loaded pistol was left within reach of Mullins' two small sons, who could not resist playing with the weapon. The grim reaper was on hand again, and one of the youngsters was shot and quickly died.
A little later, Mullins shot himself in the arm inadvertently while an a hunting trip near his home. In those days of few doctors and fewer drugs, the wound killed him.
Eventually, fate stepped in the person of the late E. R. Monroe, who had acquired the Collins Ferry farm. He moved the ferry east of Melrose, where the crossing was much smoother, and it is believed the old mill was torn down and the materials used for tenant houses. (Maybe one way to exorcise evil spirit, if such there are, is to destroy their home.)
But the old home still stands, one of the more venerable in the county, and in recent years, the hands have worked simply to provide hay and grain for quiet cattle who have not seemed to fear the watery death met by men and horses, or the tragedies involving deadly weapons.