Pioneering Woman

Grandma Moses broke the glass ceiling from down on the farm.

Long before the women’s movement and long before the world knew her as Grandma Moses, Anna Mary Robertson Moses—the prolific American primitive painter who took up painting in her 70s and became a media sensation in the mid-20th century—was a pioneering entrepreneur and businesswoman in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

As the 50th anniversary of Grandma Moses’ death approaches in December, a small group of Augusta County residents are trying to save Mount Airy—an aging farmhouse set on a windswept knoll, which was the first house that Grandma Moses ever owned—and to chronicle for posterity the busy 18 years that she and her husband spent in the area from 1887 to 1905, rising from tenant farmers to middle-class property owners.

Immediately following their wedding in New York State in 1887, the 27-year-old Anna, and Thomas, 25, boarded a train and headed toward North Carolina where Thomas expected to have a job waiting for him on a horse ranch. The couple, however, took the wrong train out of Washington, D.C., and had to spend the night in Strasburg, Virginia, amid the company of boisterous deer hunters who occupied the inn where the couple was staying.

When Anna and Thomas arrived in Staunton the next day, Anna was tired from the sleepless night and wanted to rest before they resumed their trip on Monday, so she and Thomas found a boarding house and took a room. While Anna was resting, Thomas went out looking for shaving supplies. He returned with much more. He had received an offer to rent a farm of approximately 100 acres just outside Staunton, near the hamlet of Swoope. The farm’s current tenants were former teachers and intended to return to the profession. Anna agreed that they should rent the farm, and so the couple abandoned their plans for North Carolina.

The “Bell Farm” became the couple’s first home in the area. They had arrived with $630 between them, saved from her 15 years of work as a companion to the elderly and his lifelong work as a farm hand. The couple bought livestock—cows, a team of horses, and chickens—and spent the next year selling their produce and milk in Staunton.

In May 1888, Anna had what she called “some good churnings” and began producing what would later become her highly prized butter—prominently imprinted with “Moses”—from a recipe she had brought with her from New York. At that time, locally-made butter was selling for 8 cents a pound, but Anna’s butter was in such high demand owing to its superior flavor and consistency that she sold hers for 12 cents. A local merchant who seemed to be poking fun at Anna’s Northern heritage dubbed it “Yankee” butter. She would wrap her rolls of butter in her best linen napkins, place them in new milk pans and cover them in wet burdock leaves to protect them from the heat.

Demand for Anna’s butter grew quickly. J. Wellington Spitler, the Staunton merchant who was paying Anna 12 cents a pound for the butter, soon increased the payment to 15 cents because his customers were clamoring for it. Then Spitler’s wife, the daughter of prominent farmer Christian E. Eakle, helped put Anna on the road to even higher profits. When her father sampled the butter, he offered to pay Anna 50 cents a pound if she and Thomas would lease his 605-acre “Belvidere Farm” on the South River. Eakle had an eager customer for Anna’s butter waiting in the wings—his brother Benjamin E. Eakle, superintendent of the upscale White Sulphur Springs Resort in Greenbrier, West Virginia.

The couple moved to Belvidere in November 1888. According to Anna Moses’ own estimate, she was soon producing about 160 pounds of butter a week at Belvidere. By one calculation, her annual income from butter sales exceeded $3,000. (The annual wage for industrial workers then ranged from $380 to $435.) “This would have been a huge income for that era,” explains Franklin Johnston, a former industrial troubleshooter now living in Staunton who has used deed books, death certificates, local histories and Grandma Moses’ memoir to help construct a record of the years that the artist and her family spent in Virginia.

At Belvidere, Anna grew busy helping her husband with his twice weekly trips to the market in Staunton where he sold their produce during the growing season, and giving birth to two children: Winona, on Dec. 2, 1888, and Loyd, exactly three years later, on Dec. 2, 1891.

In the mid-1890s, Anna—then two months pregnant—and her husband were forced to move from Belvidere when the owner fell into debt and the property had to be sold at public auction, reflecting the dire economic downturn that was sweeping the country. They set up housekeeping at “Dudley Farm,” which comprised 374 acres on Middle River. Anna gave birth there to a son, Forrest, on May 17, 1893, and to a daughter, Anna, two years later, on Aug. 28, 1895.

The Moses’ lease on Dudley Farm required them to pay a year’s rent of $700 in advance, which was an enormous sum for the day. But the couple had saved that much in cash, attesting to their hard work, and what Grandma Moses would often refer to as her “Scotch thrift.”

The Dudley Farm was not equipped for large-scale butter production, so Anna and Thomas turned to milk production instead, which required Anna to wash 60 to 100 bottles a day to keep up with Thomas’ growing milk route. They remained at Dudley Farm for six years, until the owner decided to reoccupy the property.

This time the couple decided to buy instead of rent and paid $6,000 to purchase Mount Airy, a 177-acre farm in Augusta County, finally settling into the first home of their own. The focal point of the farm was a circa 1830, two-story farmhouse erected with handmade bricks and featuring chimneys at each end. Anna’s last child, Hugh Worthington Moses, was born at Mount Airy on Aug. 30, 1900.

The family did not live at Mount Airy long—less than two years—because Thomas was growing restless to return to New York State. Anna wanted to remain in what she termed “that beautiful Shenandoah Valley,” because all of her 10 children—her “little rebels” as she called them—had been born there. One lived only six weeks, and four others were stillborn. They are buried in the Laurel Hill Baptist Church cemetery in Augusta County, under a tombstone inscribed, “Moses Babies.”

As Anna and Thomas began making plans for their return to New York in 1902, their first step was to sell Mount Airy. They realized an 18 percent return on their investment and added to their growing nest egg, according to Johnston.

The couple had planned to rent rooms in Staunton as they settled their affairs, bought winter clothing for the children and prepared for the return north. But they could find no accommodations because Staunton was then, as it is now, a busy college town, and students and teachers had spoken for all the available rooms.

Anna and Thomas, somewhat reluctantly, then purchased a 20-acre farm within what are now the Staunton city limits. They would live there for about three years, from September 1902 until December 1905. A postal worker who was staying with the couple named the farm Mount Nebo after the place from which Moses (the biblical character) departed. One of Anna’s most famous paintings, “Moving Day on the Farm,” was her memory of Mount Nebo.

During the years they lived at Mount Nebo, Thomas hired himself out to manage a nearby farm, and Anna launched another business, this time in potato chips. Potato chips originated in Saratoga Springs, New York, and it’s probable that Anna sampled them as a young woman, perhaps at a county fair. She learned how to make them, and her potato chips—like her butter—caused a sensation in Staunton and beyond. She began selling them for 25 cents a pound but, within days of their introduction, the price reached 30 cents a pound.

Her production soon increased from one pound per week to 10 pounds, and subsequently to barrels of potato chips. Profits from butter and potato chips, born of her ability to create markets for products that had no following until she introduced them, permitted Anna to create a degree of wealth largely unknown by farm wives of the time.

“There is a lingering myth that the Moses family was a poor rural family. In fact, Anna was atypical in what she accomplished as a rural entrepreneur at the end of an age when women were expected to stay home, do their chores, raise the kids and leave matters of business to the men,” Johnston says. “A realistic appraisal of what Anna Moses really accomplished can be lost in focusing only upon her life after she was famous.”

Anna probably could have earned a nice living either from an expanded potato chip business or a return to making Yankee butter had she remained in the Augusta County area. But the couple left in 1905, as Thomas’ homesickness grew worse. By the time of their departure, the couple had accumulated enough household goods, including a cow and a coop of chickens, to fill a railroad car. They bought a dairy farm in Eagle Bridge, New York, where Thomas would later die of a heart attack in 1927. Grandma Moses remained a widow for the next three decades.

In her 70s, years after Anna had returned to New York State, she began creating the endearing primitive paintings of rural life that made her famous around the world. But she still remembered her friends and neighbors in Augusta County with visits and letters.

Nancy Sorrells, a member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors and president-elect of the Augusta County Historical Society, has pushed for years for formal recognition of Grandma Moses’ life in the area and the preservation of Mount Airy.

Sorrells says Mount Airy, located on land occupied by the Augusta County Government Center in Verona, has been stabilized for now, and she is hopeful that a long-term plan can be created for preserving it. “We are working to develop agritourism in the county, and Grandma Moses and Mount Airy would fit right in.”

It is believed that about 40 of Grandma Moses’ paintings were drawn from her memories of her life in the Shenandoah Valley. The State of Virginia recently agreed to place a historical highway marker near Mount Airy to commemorate the artist’s years in the Commonwealth.

Reminiscing in later life, Grandma Moses expressed a wistful longing for the area where she came as a young bride, gave birth to her children and established herself as a successful businesswoman.

“Give me the Shenandoah Valley every time,” she said. •

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum