Moon­shine and mem­o­ries:

A cabin full of Rap­pa­han­nock in­trigue be­gins a new chap­ter

Rappahannock News - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOHN MCCASLIN Rap­pa­han­nock News staff

From the time Nils Ay­lor was 11 years old his grand­fa­ther would set him on the path to a rus­tic log cabin that fronted F.T. Val­ley Road “to pick up his medicine from Doc­tor Crop.”

“That’s the only name I ever knew, ‘Doc­tor Crop.’ My grand­fa­ther would say, ‘Go see Doc­tor Crop and get my medicine.’ We lived right over there,” says Nils, point­ing south some dis­tance from the cabin. “He was a scruffy old man. And it was al­ways dark in here. It was scary.

“I would knock on this door, and he knew me of course, and then he would walk over and lift up a board and pull a gal­lon of ’shine out of the floor.”

It didn’t take long for Nils to reach the con­clu­sion that Dr. Crop was no or­di­nary doc­tor and his rem­edy wasn’t en­tirely medic­i­nal. But that suited the teenager, who by then was en­rolled at Rap­pa­han­nock County High School, just fine.

“I would pull up here in my old ’62 Chevy, grab a bot­tle — un­der­age — and my friends and I would go hike Old Rag. And let me tell you, it wouldn’t be long be­fore I

was preach­ing a ser­mon up there,” he laughs.

It is by sheer co­in­ci­dence that Nils, who to­day owns and op­er­ates Ay­lor Lawn & Farm in Culpeper, has re­turned all these years later to the long-aban­doned 19th cen­tury cabin that for him holds so many mem­o­ries.

He’s been hired to help dis­man­tle its valu­able logs of chest­nut — trees once plen­ti­ful in these Blue Ridge Moun­tains — for re­lo­ca­tion to Criglersvi­lle in Madi­son County, where they will be painstak­ingly chinked to orig­i­nal form by build­ing preser­va­tion­ist Ti­mothy Robin­son of Heart­land Restora­tion.

“I’ve saved some­where be­tween 20 and 30 cab­ins in this county, and in ev­ery case it’s the sto­ries sur­round­ing the cab­ins, not the cab­ins them­selves, that are so im­por­tant. It’s the his­tory in­side of them,” the builder says.

Robin­son ought to know. He has his own per­sonal con­nec­tion to the tiny log home and the ag­ing man who lived there with his “mistress,” Lois, for so many years.

“I got many bot­tles here,” re­veals the builder, although he didn’t know the boot­leg­ger as Dr. Crop. “He went by sev­eral dif­fer­ent names. I would al­ways tap three times on the door so he knew it was me.

“He had whiskey, vodka and gin,” Robin­son con­tin­ues, walk­ing over to the few sur­viv­ing steps lead­ing to the small loft. “He kept it right here un­der the stair­case.”

Robin­son re­mem­bers be­ing at the Rap­pa­han­nock County Court­house sev­eral decades ago when the moon­shiner was brought be­fore a judge — not the first or last time the law caught up with him.

“The judge said he was go­ing to fine him $300 dol­lars,” Robin­son re­calls. “And he said, ‘Judge, if you do that you’re go­ing to make me have to charge my cus­tomers more.’”

There was no short­age of cus­tomers. From all county lo­ca­tions — and all walks of life — men, women and even an 11-year-old child would call at all hours at the cabin, its front door barely a car’s width from the well-trav­eled high­way. The cabin, in ef­fect, was an early ver­sion of a drive-thru liquor store, il­le­gal though it was.

And while they paid a bit more for the liquor, for the boot­leg­ger’s cus­tomers a quick stop at the dark­ened cabin was far more con­ve­nient than driv­ing to Culpeper, Madi­son or any­place else to pur­chase the state-con­trolled bot­tles that, like to­day, aren’t sold in Rap­pa­han­nock County.

“If they shut him down one day he’d re­open the next,” re­calls Rap­pa­han­nock County na­tive Bill Fletcher. “He was an in­te­gral part of the com­mu­nity, ful­filled a com­mu­nity ser­vice, a com­mu­nity need. And he was

al­ways fair to the old timers.

“He never made a lot of money — just enough to live on,” Fletcher says. “As far as I’m con­cerned, Usters should be ad­mired for what he did.”

Usters?

“Usters Dod­son!” Fletcher ex­claims.

“He was my fa­vorite un­cle,” re­flects Sper­ryville re­tiree Thaniel Dod­son. “Peo­ple didn’t know about his good cre­den­tials. They only knew that Un­cle Usters sold whiskey at that cabin. They had no idea that he was a World War II vet, a pa­triot.

“He never talked much about his war ex­pe­ri­ence, but he had a lot of it — he was in some big bat­tles, es­pe­cially in Ger­many” his nephew con­tin­ues, while sort­ing through a circa 1910 candy box brim­ming with old fam­ily me­men­tos and pho­to­graphs, in­clud­ing one of Usters in his U.S. Army uni­form.

“Eng­land, France, Ger­many, Bel­gium, Nether­lands, and I be­lieve Ice­land,” Thaniel reads from notes sur­round­ing his un­cle’s wartime de­ploy­ments. “I don’t know what mil­i­tary out­fit he was in [dur­ing one such de­ploy­ment] but he wore a white out­fit and skis.”

The nephew pauses for a mo­ment: “He did tell me one time about a big bat­tle [dur­ing the win­ter] when one of his bud­dies got wounded. They didn’t have a medic to grab him out of there, and they had to take his buddy and put him un­der a ma­nure pile. This ma­nure is mixed with hay, and you know ma­nure keeps you warm, it’s hot un­der there. So, they put their buddy un­der­neath there, but he told me they never knew whether he made it or not.”

Hav­ing sur­vived the war, Usters re­turned home and be­came a “con­vict guard” near Winch­ester, although the vet­eran’s job was short lived.

“He came to re­al­ize that some of the guys he had a gun over were World War II vets and he couldn’t con­tinue work­ing there be­cause he was hold­ing a gun over his ‘fel­low man’ is how he put it,” his nephew says. “So he quit.”

Usters then moved to Castle­ton “and while he was there he man­u­fac­tured some good whiskey, and sold it of course — and drank it,” Thaniel says with a wink. “And then in the early 60s he moved to the cabin on 231 [F.T. Val­ley Rd]. But in­stead of mak­ing the whiskey he bought it from the ABC store, paid the taxes on it, and resold it to the lower class, the mid­dle class, and the higher class.

“That was way of life, that was his in­come — no so­cial pro­grams for him,” Thaniel ob­serves. “He took care of a lot of peo­ple.”

Lo­cal law en­force­ment dur­ing the nearly three decades Usters was in busi­ness would only oc­ca­sion­ally knock on the boot­leg­ger’s door, and their sup­pos­edly unan­nounced vis­its — usu­ally on the heels of a cit­i­zen’s com­plaint — nor­mally re­sulted in a fine at most.

Rap­pa­han­nock County’s most re­spected lawyers, in fact, took turns rep­re­sent­ing the moon­shiner when­ever he did go to court.

“The last time he was ar­rested he had been set up with marked twenty dol­lar bills,” Thaniel says. “I think he had to pull 30 or 60 days [in jail], I can’t re­mem­ber which. But af­ter that episode he quit sell­ing whiskey. He said he was tired. And his health was fail­ing.”

And then came De­cem­ber 19, 1989, a Tues­day.

“To make a long story short . . . I spent the whole night with him,” says Thaniel. “He wouldn’t let me take him to the doc­tor. He could have gone to the VA [hos­pi­tal] or any­place, but he said, ‘No, I’ll be al­right.’ He was breath­ing hard, he had heart dis­ease and he was a di­a­betic.”

Robin­son re­mem­bers be­ing at the Rap­pa­han­nock County Court­house sev­eral decades ago when the moon­shiner was brought be­fore a judge — not the first or last time the law caught up with him. “The judge said he was go­ing to fine him $300 dol­lars. And he said, ‘Judge, if you do that you’re go­ing to make me have to charge my cus­tomers more.’”

So his nephew left his un­cle for the day, and “when I came in from work that evening I called down to the cabin. It was dark, and Lois an­swered the phone. And I said, ‘How’s Un­cle Usters?’ And I heard him say, ‘Lois, who are you talk­ing to?’ And I heard her say, ‘Thaniel, he says he’ll be down shortly.’

“And while I was talk­ing to her I heard a gun­shot go off. I knew right away that he killed him­self be­cause of his ex­pres­sion the night be­fore. I could read his mind. And that was the end of an era.”

Robin­son, as irony had it, pulled up to the cabin within min­utes of Usters’ death. He walked in to find the moon­shiner mo­tion­less on the sofa, the stock of his gun rest­ing against his shoul­der.

“He was 74 year old when he died,” notes his nephew, who to this day has taped to his re­frig­er­a­tor not one, but two iden­ti­cal 1973 news­pa­per clip­pings from the Rap­pa­han­nock News show­ing four mem­bers of the Rap­pa­han­nock Sher­iff’s of­fice pos­ing with 25 bot­tles of whiskey con­fis­cated from Usters’ cabin.

“As you can see one of the pho­to­graphs is com­pletely faded,” Thaniel says. “So I put up an­other one. I fig­ured some­body might come by some day and need to look at that pic­ture.” An­other wink and smile. “What’s amaz­ing,” Thaniel says, “is that if Un­cle Usters was liv­ing to­day he could prob­a­bly ob­tain a le­gal li­cense and man­u­fac­ture his own whiskey and his own beer and set up a lit­tle booth some­place.”

BY JOHN MCCASLIN

Nils Ay­lor shows how ‘Dr. Crop’ would lift a floor­board of his rented cabin and pro­duce a gal­lon of il­licit whiskey. Be­hind Ay­lor is Mark Siess, who re­cently pur­chased the cabin for re­lo­ca­tion to Madi­son County.

PHO­TOS BY JOHN MCCASLIN

Sper­ryville re­tiree Thaniel Dod­son sorts through old fam­ily pho­to­graphs of his fa­vorite un­cle — a mis­un­der­stood moon­shiner who served his na­tion dur­ing World War II.

One week af­ter its re­moval, only the chim­ney is left stand­ing at Usters Dod­son's old cabin on F.T. Val­ley Road.

The moon­shiner’s cabin on F.T. Val­ley Road was pho­tographed one last time last week on the same day it was taken down.

Usters Dod­son — aka. ‘Dr. Crop’ among other names — pos­ing in his U.S. Army uni­form dur­ing World War II.

Build­ing preser­va­tion­ist Ti­mothy Robin­son of Heart­land Restora­tion is quite fa­mil­iar with the F.T. Val­ley cabin that he is now re­build­ing in Madi­son County.

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