In following a Facebook page, Memories of Northern Rockingham County, VA, I was drawn to the occasional posts by John Coffman. I asked if he would be interested in being interviewed for this paper, since he has a wealth of information about the history of the area. He has published several books, delving into family histories, and times past. John has a colorful history himself, with a myriad of interests. You can read about one of his collections, and the search for an elusive moth, in the February issue of the Chimney Rock Chronicle.
I recently presented John with a list of questions, in no particular order. He rose to the occasion in fine style. Here, in his own words, is John Coffman.
On the Facebook page, Memories of Northern Rockingham County VA, someone commented that they felt you were the main source of memories. Since you have written several books, do you feel the title fits?
No, that’s a little strong remark. First off, I am a habitual collector, one who collects everything. I have collections of dozens of subjects. It’s habit forming. Everything I’m interested in, I want to collect it. I could write a story on every collection. With this subject I have always been a collector of old photos. Especially the ones that were of my ancestors. Also old tools used by my ancestors in by -gone years which consisted of two generations of blacksmiths. I could never be a blacksmith, I found out you have to be a metallurgist to be a good blacksmith. All kinds of metal looks the same to me.
I have been given a lot of old photos of which I cherish greatly. I grew up in a time period where we farmed with horses. I learn quick. My memories are varied being around farming practices in this time period. I just tell it like I have lived it. Nothing high tech about that. A lot of memorabilia was saved for me. That might be a reason it seems like I know a lot. I have kept it all.
Two collections come to mind. I would usually only get to town (Timberville) about once every week. On one of these trips (1948 – 49), I noticed the great variety of match book covers that were lying in the side ditch along the streets. A very odd thing for me to get interested in. Businesses that no longer exist were printed on them with the weird telephone numbers. I begin in earnest to collect them. Eventually, I had bags full of them. I honestly don’t know what happened to them. I wish I had them now to look at.
It was in 1969 that I started my collection of Butterflies, Moths, and finally Beetles. I now have 165 glass topped insect drawers, made by myself in my woodworking shop. In 2020, I concentrated mostly on micro beetles, ones you can’t see without a microscope. That year I added 1800+ specimens, all of which had to be curated into the collection through a microscope. I have several species of feather-winged beetles, the smallest of all known beetles to science. Their wings look like feathers. They are less than 1mm. All have to be mounted on pins with points and labeled. This year I had to stop collecting as I was informed that I had Glaucoma, I’ve lost my sight in my left eye and can’t see very good with the other one due to a cataract surgery gone bad.
Talk a bit about where you were born. A lifelong Rockingham County resident?
The best thing you could have here is my book, “Hupp, Virginia, where I got my start”. I lay it all out on the table, starting approximately in 1850, from a diary kept by my grandfather, John D. Mills, on into the Civil War and up to my childhood. I was born in 1938, about 5 miles east of Timberville, at a little settlement called Hupp, Va. comprised a church, blacksmith shop, country store, post office, 2 residences, and a barn all surrounded by apple trees. A very pretty place in the spring when the apple blossoms were blooming.
I guess you might say the Mills (my mother’s side of the family) owned Hupp. It was located in the Mash section of Rockingham Co. When I was approx. 6 yrs. old, my family moved north on Rt. 619 toward New Market which was in the Marsh section of Rockingham Co. I lived my whole life in Rockingham County. Everybody gets the Mash and the Marsh confused. The Marsh section begins in a low place behind Mrs. Annie Taylor’s house. (Gone now) She was the last living wife of a confederate soldier in this area.
How did you make your living after getting out of the army?
After getting discharged I had preference points on any job you were seeking that pertained to the government. A job came available at the Timberville Post Office. I put my application in and took the civil service test. With test score and my preference points I got the job. After about 6 months, me, my wife Kay, and kids, Michele and Joni, decided to take a vacation on a trip out west. I always liked it out west, never at the beach. When I was stationed at Ft. Lewis, near Tacoma, Washington, I always liked going to the field on maneuvers. It gave me a chance to walk on strange (to me) ground, look at strange birds and plants. Especially that grand view of snow-covered Mt. Rainier poking itself up thru the clouds every morning.
We bought a camper for on the back of the pickup. The day came and we took off at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon. We got as far west as Yellowstone Nat. Park., before heading back east, circled around thru Kansas and headed home. My family didn’t think much of it at the time but things have changed in past years. We soon began making yearly trips west with the help of Joni and husband Tony. We have been in every state except Nevada and California.
During this time the Post Offices were downsizing. Shutting down small offices, sending all mail to the bigger sectional centers. The first day back at work (1962) they informed me that I didn’t have much of a job left. I only had 4 hours per week to work. Knowing that 4 people couldn’t live on that, I had to start looking for a job. Long story short, I found a job at the Henkel Press in New Market. Kay had quit work to raise two kids and do all the other work. She had her hands full.
They were looking for someone to help another employee to operate the presses. There is where I got my first go at an offset printing press. I didn’t know where the “on” switch was. They also wanted someone that knew a bit about taking photos and developing film for photographs in the paper. I had been doing photography since I was 9 yrs. old when someone gave me a camera. That fit me to a T as I had just learned about darkroom work while in the army and liked it fine.
I worked there until the press closed down. From there the trail led to Page News and Courier in Luray, then printing supervisor at JMU. From there I came home to open my own printing plant. 1972.
There I worked long hours, sometimes I would run the presses all night. They would be running the next morning when the sun came up. I was working 16 to 17 hrs. per day. I would eat my meals on the run whenever my sweet wife would bring them to me, eating sitting beside the press while they ran.
One day I had a customer, or so I thought, but he wanted to know if I wanted to come teach Commercial Printing at Massanutten Technical Center as they were starting a new class in Printing. I thought about it awhile. It didn’t take much thinking. The working hours were much better. (1985)
That would ease up my time in the summer months to pursue my second career, Wildlife or Natural History Photography. I had been photographing wildlife since I was 9 years old but never thought I was good enough to start selling photos to publications. Finally that changed one day and I started my luck on small publications and tracts. Things went good and I soon graduated to high class publications. I’ve reached ones like World Book Encyclopedia; a coffee table book, “Virginia on my Mind”, “Georgia on my Mind”; and Hartford Agent magazine covers and a host of others. I was in all three engagement calendars, National Wildlife, Sierra Club, and Audubon, where competition is extremely tough. I was told they look thru 50,000+ photos just to pick out approx. 55 photos, one for each week of the year. I even got a shot in National Geographic magazine. I had a photo in Ranger Rick magazine, in an article on elephants, picked from my photos of the wildlife photos I shot in Kenya. I could go on and on. Later I then started selling thru stock agencies.
You attended grade school at Timberville High School. Your mother worked in the cafeteria at the same time? What does the term “overflow grade” mean – which children were in that class?
Yes, my mom started working at the cafeteria in 1945 during my first year in school. I went to the seventh grade there and then transferred to Broadway High School for the 8th grade in 1952. I know what it’s like to be home schooled. If I did something wrong the first thing I heard was “do you want to go to the cafeteria” and that didn’t mean to get a snack either. Probably a smack.
The term “overflow grade” was just a grade for pupils where there were too many to fit in for the regular grade. Mrs. Bessie Swartz was the overflow teacher. You didn’t outwit her. I think there were several grades in that room at the same time. I don’t know how they determined who went where. I don’t know as I never got put in that grade.
Tell us about your book, “Life on the Blue Ridge before Shenandoah National Park and Beyond.”
Well I still have a few left. It is a book that I derived from an old photograph album that I inherited. The photos were taken in the 1920’s & 30’s by a lady who spent a lot of time visiting with the mountain people before the forming of the park. The first part is photos of the mountain people and their ways. The “and Beyond” part is about the photographer, Bess Egan, a person who traveled widely and who had a brush with the Titanic. She was a cousin to my grandfather.
Before eminent domain made them leave, did you have family who lived there also?
No. But we had a family who had to relocate off the mountain that lived beside us. They were the nicest people you would ever want to know. I wish I had spent more time visiting and talking with them. But you see things different when you are a kid. You don’t think you have time for things like that. I also should have talked to my grandmother more about things she remembered.
You’ve written 3 books total? All self -published?
I count 4 with the 2 Volume glass plate books of photos by Dr. Welty Fahrney. All self-published. I started on April 27 and ended book 4 in August. This should have occurred sooner, I could have printed my own books. The largest job I had in my shop to print was 1000 copies of the 8 1/2 x 11, Armentrout Family History, 888 pages. Enjoyed every minute of it.
How did you come upon those 800+ glass plate photos that you wrote about in your books?
I was running a printing press in my shop one day and the phone rang. The person on the other end said, “John, this is Eddie Baker, your neighbor across the river. I have a bunch of glass plates I want to give you. I bought them at an auction and on realizing that I don’t have a darkroom and you do, I want to give them to you because I know you will take care of them”. He didn’t tell me how many he had. Wow! No more questions asked, because I was already a collector (what’s new?) of old photos. I shut the press off, jumped in my truck and headed across the river.
Do you consider yourself a local historian?
No, never did occur to me. I always let Beverly Garber have that distinction. I was always interested in the things he told me. I just found it interesting posting old stuff on Facebook of which I had plenty of.
FYI. You didn’t ask for this but I thought I would mention it.
Below are a list of subjects that I plan to write stories on if I last long enough.
*Our 11,635 mile Lepidoptera collecting and camping trip to the Arctic Circle.
*My invitation to enter a personal living hut inside a Masaii compound, Kenya.
* My wildlife photography trip with Leonard Lee Rue III to East Africa, (Kenya)
* The life history of a rare catocala moth, Catocala duciola.
Thank you, John! I know I will certainly look forward to reading these stories, when John gets around to it, in his spare time!
If you are interested in purchasing any of John Coffman’s books, you can reach him at: