Please welcome guest author Emily Kale. Kale is a writer for the Marketing and Communications Group at The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, at Virginia Tech. This piece was written for Black History Month and originally appeared in the Roanoke Times on February 22. It is reprinted here with permission.
Nothing in life is arbitrary.
That’s not to say that everything in life is connected in a deep, dark underground world kind of way but sometimes, if we dare to scratch the surface a little, we can see the web that entangles all of us.
Living in Blacksburg for 15 years now, I have driven up Nellie’s Cave Road many times, and now that I have kids, Nellie’s Cave Park is a favorite spot in town. You can go for a hike, play ball, throw some “shoes” and catch a tee ball game all on a Sunday afternoon. But I always wondered about this elusive cave. I asked everyone in the neighborhood, “Is there a cave, is there really a cave?” yet nobody seemed to know. I guess my 4-year-old daughter finally got tired of hearing me ask the same question over and over again so she switched it up and queried, “Mommy, I wonder if there is a Nellie?”
Little did I know it was that question that would actually help me find some answers.
Born in 1832, Ellen was an African American woman with no formal last name who simply went by “Nellie.” She was sold into bondage and purchased by Blacksburg’s prominent Hogue family, who owned a tract of land in the Prices Fork area near what is now Walnut Springs. When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, approximately 3.1 million of the 4 million slaves in the U.S. were given their freedom, including Blacksburg’s own, Nellie.
After the Civil War ended, an African-American man by the name of Gordon T. Mills bought 100 acres of rolling, rocky, land (near what is now Nellie’s Cave Road) from his former owners and planted crops anywhere a plow could go. Gordon met Nellie soon after and the two were married straightaway, cultivating the land and raising 11 children together. The Mills property was no stranger to visitors and saw its share of early adventure-seekers who came in hopes of exploring an elusive cave that was casually referred to as “Nellie’s Hole.” If you ever see it, you’ll know why. Just a stone’s throw from the road, the cave looks like a massive void in the ground. After a brief descent downward, it opens up to an expansive cavern stretching on for miles, and early explorers have mapped it all the way to Cambria. It has been compared to a ballroom with magnificent calcite stalactites. When I first heard of the cave I was told that it could “fit an entire school bus” inside of it. Aubry Mills Jr., great-great grandson of Nellie Mills, who still resides on the historic property, laughed as he told me “Dear, you could fit a FLEET of school buses!”
Early adventure-seekers would light the way with bonafide torches and write their names and the date using smoke from the fire. Since the cave is a stable environment, maintaining a balmy 78 degrees, these etchings are still preserved in the limestone to this very day. These explorers came to call themselves the VPI Grotto and set up a pretty crude caving operation, guided only by carbide lamps and curiosity. However, explorers have since found a species of bat previously thought to be extinct and a centipede that was on the endangered species list.
Nellie Mills enjoyed the attention and sold homemade snacks and sandwiches to these early Virginia Tech students, the first pioneers of the caving club, and she sold baked goods to those who came down to the neighborhood to explore and have picnics. She had quite a set-up going for her, and continued this until hear death in approximately 1924. Aubry and his brothers saw the cave as their playpen growing up, home to the “coldest and best tasting water in the world.”
Aubry Mills Sr. taught his boys how to hunt, fish and ride horses. Everyone in the neighborhood would spend spring and summer evenings tending to gardens and crops. Wintertime was hog slaughtering season, and the meat was cured in a neighborhood smokehouse with hickory chopped down from the surrounding woods. If you wanted water, you got it from a spring. If you wanted milk you got it from a cow. The tight-nit community was completely self-sufficient.
When I started my query about Nellie’s Cave, I ran into an unexpected roadblock when all of my library search returns were flooded with news stories regarding the paving of Nellie’s Cave Road. Before the road was paved, it was just an unnamed gravel path that started from the end of Grissom Lane and led up through the Mills property, and Aubry’s cousin William would simply hitch a wagon to his big white horse, aptly named “Abe,” whenever he needed to head into town. But in an all out battle spanning several decades, developers ultimately steam rolled right through the property in order to shave a few minutes off the commute of residents in the new Woodland Hills area.
Although the county’s decision to condemn the land and pave the dirt road sparked charges of racism, Supervisor Joe Stewart said “Although I haven’t been there and I don’t know this, I think the road might actually help these people. They might actually benefit from it.” And as a sort of consolation gift to the Mills family, developers said they would name the road after its matriarch, Nellie.
The Mills were justifiably upset about losing their hard-earned peace and having their land disturbed. When I recently spoke with members of the fifth-generation Mills family, I could tell their wounds were not fully healed, and they are still bothered by the road, which increased traffic 1000 percent. Aubry Mills Jr. told me how, just two years ago, a car came speeding through their living room, right where we sat.
The Mills are some of the last remaining members of the once flourishing Blacksburg black community. Overall, there has been a pronounced decline of the black population in Montgomery County since 1860, mainly due to oppressive Jim Crow laws and the “separate but equal” mentality of that era. From a high of nearly 25 percent before the Civil War to a low of three percent a hundred years later, the black community has dwindled. Thankfully, increasing numbers of black students at Tech are raising the population.
And the next time you drive up Nellie’s Cave Road, think of Nellie and her legacy, and be awed by the enormous cave that is hidden right beneath the street.