A sizable crowd was in attendance for the spring meeting of the Albemarle County Historical Society on the evening of May 6, 1943.
Many of the people who crowded into the Albemarle County Courthouse were there to elect University of Virginia English professor Atcheson L. Hench - unanimously - to the position of president of the society.
But for many in the audience, the highlight of the evening involved the remembrances of an elderly man who recalled Charlottesville as it had been during the final two decades of the 19th century. When all the electing and procedural housekeeping had been taken care of, James P.C. Southall was introduced.
Southall had been born April 4, 1871, in Norfolk. After earning a degree from Richmond College, he came to UVa in the late 1880s to further his studies in physics.
After earning a master’s degree in 1893, Southall was hired by the Miller Manual Training School to teach physics and mathematics. He left the area in 1898, when he received a fellowship from Johns Hopkins University.
Southall subsequently would go on to teach at Hobart College in New York and Alabama Polytechnic Institute. In 1914, he joined the faculty at Columbia University, where he remained until his retirement in 1940.
During his career, Southall made tremendous contributions in the field of geometrical and physiological optics. In 1910, he wrote “Principles of Geometrical Optics,” and in 1918, “Mirrors, Prisms and Lenses.” The professor’s last major work was the 1941 book “Introduction to Physiological Optics.”
But on that pleasant spring evening in 1943, his subject had nothing to do with his life’s work, but rather his early life in Charlottesville.
Southall said that during his student days, the university was “almost a separate and distinct community, a kind of Olympus, where the intelligentsia reigned and looked down with much forbearance and good nature on the widespread ignorance of town and county.”
The eloquent gentleman described Main Street shop by shop as it was “years before there were primitive street cars on Main Street connecting the village with the lordly university.” He portrayed from fond memory the interior of John Watson’s drug store, where “all the gossips used to congregate.”
And then there was Eisenmann’s Saloon, a bar that was referred to by students as the “gentlemen’s thirst parlor.” The professor was heartened to report that the venerable establishments of Keller and George, the Charlottesville Hardware Company and William Wood’s haberdashery and emporium for men’s clothing were still where they had been in his youth.
Southall laced his talk with humorous anecdotes. He might have elicited the biggest laugh of the evening when he talked about Charlottesville in the summer.
“It seems to me that, next to Calcutta, the two hottest places on earth in summer are Norfolk by the sea, where I happened to be born, and Charlottesville in the delectable mountains of Piedmont Virginia,” Southall opined.
“My uncle, of Norfolk, used to maintain that if anybody had a real hankering to see what the fiery furnace of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego was like, he could unhesitatingly recommend for that purpose Charlottesville in July.”
Of course, the aforementioned three young men are biblical figures from the book of Daniel. The “fiery furnace” mentioned was where King Nebuchadnezzar had them thrown after they refused to worship a statue.
The men’s faith in God protected them from the flames. If Southall advanced any advice on how to remain cool in Charlottesville during the summer, it wasn’t in the article about his talk, which appeared in The Daily Progress on May 7, 1943.
The story did include how Southall finished his shared reminiscence.
“Nearly all my adult life was spent far from my native state,” Southall said. “However, three years ago, I cut loose all my ballast in New York, pulled up my stakes and settled down here in Charlottesville again, just as natural and just as satisfied as if I had never been absent a single day.”