Main street in this Shenanloah Valley town has risen two feet, from dirt to macadam to asphalt, in the 97 years since the old plumber was born here.
Two feet in 97 years, hardly worth mentioning. But a plumber has to keep track of such things to find the pipes he has buried through time.
George B. Thomas, the oldest man in Clark County, a man who wears high-button black shoes and a white Stetson, has no trouble finding buried water lines or digging up memories that span nearly a century.
There was the shooting of President William Mckinley in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 6, 1901. Thomas was off plumbing that day in Rising Sun, Md., and was shocked by news of the assassin who claimed he had done it for the sake of the working man.
There were the lies told by the defeated Confederate veterans of Berryville-lies about how they whipped the Yankees. "They wore themselves out whippin' the other fella is what they claimed," said Thomas, who back in the 1890s was a teen-ager standing on Main Street, soaking up the tales of the Civil War.
And there is Thomas' plumbing office on Main Street, the only business establishment in town that does not have a sign out front. In the office on a bleak November day, the leathery-faced old man explained: "I never believed in making too much of a grandstand play. I never needed it. If you deliver the goods, that's all you have to do."
Thomas, who has watched five generations of Virginians grow up and die off, has delivered the goods, according to Kenneth Levi, the 69-year-old publisher of the Clarke (County) Courier.
Levi said Thomas dug two wells for Berryville's water supply and sold them to the town of 1,600 at a loss, constructed the sewer system and sold it to the town at a loss and did the plumbing for free at the Episcopal church, even though he's not a church-going man.
"He's an institution, that man. You can call him in the middle of the night even now and he'll send somebody to fix your furnace," said Levi, who cannot recall a time when the old man with his great wrinkled jowls did not preside on Main Street.
Fifteen years ago the town of Berryville planned a day to honor the plumber. But Thomas wouldn't have it. "If you got more business than you can do," said Thomas, who employs 19 full-time men, "why advertise?"
Publisher Levi descibed Thomas as "a man who lives in the past, who loves the past."
In the plumbing office with no name, Thomas sat at a 100-year-old gonged-out oak desk strewn with pipe fittings. On the walls around him were sepia photographs of steam engines, dusty streets and Confederate soldiers.
A photograph of Col. John Singleton Mosby, described by his biographer as "the strange little Confederate officer" whose rangers terrorized the Union army in Northern Virginia, was on the plumber's wall.
Thomas knew Mosby. "He was a famous man when I was a boy.He used to come to Berryville quite often. Some of his old rangers lived around here," Thomas said.
Mosby, who in 1863 captured a Union general as he slept in his bed at Fairfax Courthouse, "was just a soldier and that's all there was to it," said Thomas. "Nothing could stop Mosby."
Thomas said he is burdened with a memory that recalls things people said that "didn't amount to a row of pins." But the sweet years he lingers over are those before World War I, before families butchered themselvs in their automobiles and before laws were enacted that stopped a plumber from taking on a 14-year-old apprentice.
Where establishments such as Frank's Pizza, C.B. Headquarters and Century 21 Realty now sit along Main Street, Thomas remembers oak trees whose branches touched above the street in the spring at the turn of the century.
"Saturday night was the big night. Horse and buggies were parked at hitching posts. People usually washed up a little; they didn't have long whiskers. They put on what best clothes they had and came down the streets to see one another, down to see the passenger trains come in," Thomas said.
The oak trees are long since gone, as are the buggies and trains and the people who rode them. The plumber who once watched them wonders sometimes if he may have lived too long.
"If you stop circulating among the people, you're damn soon forgotten. I promised all my old friends that I'd make a hundred, but they all died off. I don't think you fill many spots after a hundred," Thomas said.
Thomas, the youngest of nine children and the son of a carriage maker who moved to Berryville in 1867, filled his first spot as a boy by following a plumber named Hampton Erb around the county.
He left at age 17, in 1898, traveling through Maryland and Pennsylvania and then heading out West. He was in San Francisco when World War I broke out. "Oh, God, the war was mess," said Thomas, who joined the Marines and fought in France.
He didn't drink when he was a young man, and he doesn't drink now.
"A man doesn't have any more brains than he has to use. I use no reason to clog it all up with alcohol," said Thomas.
In Berryville, Thomas opened up the plumbing office he still works in six days a week. He never married. He kept working seven days a week, hiring and firing and fixing pipes and attending the funerals of his parents, his brothers and sisters, his nieces and nephews and his employes.
He learned how to drive a Model T after the war, loathed Franklin D. Roosevelt, had a prostate operation in 1954 in Charlottesville, watched exurban Washington spill over the Blue Ridge Mountains and wondered why Nixon didn't burn those "damn tapes."
In 97 years, the worst inventions the country has come up with are fast cars and easy credit, in Thomas' view.
"The automobile put this high speed idea in people's minds," Thomas said. With easy credit, Thomas said, any fool can get out on the highway and make the whole country nervous.
"I'm not a sourpuss or anything," said Thomas, who justifiably refers to just about everybody alive as boy or girl or kid. "If some damn kid goes and pulls off a bone head stunt, you can't do much about it."