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Hyatt Headley: The Storyteller
by Nancy W. Vickers

     Hyatt Headley was a cross between Tom Sawyer and Bob Hope. To those who knew him, he was a treasure. He always had a story and he could always make you smile. We lost him on January 26, 2004 at the age of 86, and he was buried at Bethany Baptist Church Cemetery in Callao. He will be sorely missed, but the seeds of laughter he planted will live forever. Many called him the unofficial “Mayor of Callao”; others called him the “Bob Hope of Callao”. Nobody ever told a story like Hyatt! Folks would cluster around him to listen. 
Hyatt Headley was born August 16, 1917 in Cowart, Virginia, near Lewisetta. He was the second child of four born to Hester Kirwan Travers Headley and Albin Rosser Headley. Hyatt enjoyed his childhood days and was always surrounded by his friends. Even as a youngster he told wonderful stories and made people around him laugh.

     His Mama never knew where Hyatt was. He was always running around the creek shore or down looking at the steamships. He would head for the Cowart Wharf at the end of the road soon after breakfast to join his buddies William Cowart and Sam Headley, Jr.. Hyatt definitely was mischievous, a bit of an instigator and always a leader. His childhood was filled with teasing, fun and games. The three boys would work at odd jobs long enough to make enough money to buy cookies and a drink. Once they purchased a pack of cigarettes, but after getting sick and turning green, they swore an oath to never tell, and their parents never did find out.
When Hyatt was 10, his Granddaddy lived and worked in Baltimore, Maryland. His Granddaddy thought the world of him because Hyatt was his namesake. His Granddaddy invited his two grandsons to visit him for a week in Baltimore. Money was scarce, but Hyatt’s Mama had a $10 bill for Hyatt to spend. She used a safety pin to attach it to the inside of his pocket. Hyatt felt like a rich man and he knew that Rockefeller had nothing on him. The boys were terribly excited because they had never slept on a steamboat. The next day when they arrived in Baltimore, Granddaddy Travers was not there to meet them. The two young country boys went into a saloon across the street to see if anyone there knew Harry Travers. After the bartender used some unprintable words, he told the boys not to bother him again. A short time later their Granddaddy appeared, and they were certainly glad to see him. He took them to breakfast in a restaurant and the boys ordered nothing but watermelon! They had never eaten in a restaurant before, so that was the highlight of their trip. They came back to Cowart feeling as it they were world travelers!

     Hyatt was the ringleader of the three boys who always played together. His sense of humor could always draw a crowd when the steamboats docked at the local wharf. Produce, cattle, chickens, tomatoes, etc. were bought and sold at the docks, and Hyatt thrived on all the activity. The captains of the steamers looked for Hyatt and allowed him to come aboard. His imagination went wild and he thought he was in heaven as he roamed the decks of the steamer. His dream was to be a steamboat captain one day. 

     Mrs. Bea Gawen, Hyatt’s devoted special friend, shared a story with me about his love of steamboats. The boats would stop at the local ports where they would load and unload different items the local folks needed. Once Hyatt was allowed to come aboard and ride from the Cowart Wharf to the Lewisetta Wharf. The Captain let him blow the whistle before he got off the boat. Hyatt had to walk all the way home, a distance of about two miles, but he was happy as could be!

     Mrs. Dora Harding held Sunday School in an outside shed lined with benches. She would play the old pump organ and everyone would sing. During the little service Hyatt was pumping the organ, and he had a mischievous grin on his face. When he changed the song “Bringing in the Sheaves” to “Bringing in the Cheese”, everyone burst out laughing. Mrs. Harding shook her finger at him and said, “No more of that, Master Hyatt!”
Hyatt was a hard worker and did odd jobs like scraping the bottoms of boats that had been hauled up on Headley’s Railway which was owned by Sam Headley, Jr.’s father. It was a filthy job, so when the boys were hot and dirty, they would jump in the water to wash off and then go back to work scraping off the barnacles.
Grandma Headley paid the three boys one penny per post when they whitewashed her fence. When Grandma discovered they had also done the neighbor’s posts, she paid the bill, but their job ended abruptly!

     Mrs. Carolyn Cralle, Hyatt’s sister, told me so many wonderful stories about her brother. Once some boys dared Hyatt to shave off all his hair. When his parents drove him to Lewis Evans’ Barber Shoppe in Callao in their Model T Ford, he jumped out of the car and ran in the shop. “Mama said shave all my hair off”, he told Lewis. By the time Mom and Dad arrived at the door, there was no turning back; half of his hair was already shaved off! He won the $5 bet, but his parents weren’t too happy.

     When the Floating Theatre came to Kinsale, it anchored on the shore where the granary is now located. Hyatt saw a way to earn some money because big crowds always came to see the show. He would fill up some pitchers and sell cups of water to the folks waiting on the hillside for the show to begin. He was very innovative.
In his teens Hyatt worked for Mr. Allen Haydon for room and board on his big farm in Callao. He worked in the gas station where soda pop and groceries were sold. Many old timers from Callao remember it well. The Haydons were very fond of this ambitious young man. Late one night Hyatt, Virginia and her mother, Mrs. Addie Haydon, were in the brooder house sitting on a bench made from a board spread across two baskets. The stove in the brooder (incubator) had to be kept warm enough every night for the newly hatched baby chicks. Hyatt was secretly holding hands with his sweetheart while the three of them sat there talking. When Virginia got up to check on the baby chicks, Hyatt was shocked to discover he was holding hands with her mother instead! The joke was on him because Mrs. Haydon knew exactly what Hyatt was doing.

     The Haydons were so good to Hyatt and they loved him like a son. Mrs. Haydon always saved him a pitcher full of fresh, cold milk because he loved it so much. Hyatt fell in love with the farmer’s daughter, Virginia, and they married on October 13, 1941.

     The video rental store in Callao was once Hyatt and Virginia’s corner drug store known as People’s Drug Sundry. For 35 years (1940 until Hyatt’s retirement in 1975) this was the friendliest place in town. Hyatt greeted all of his customers by name as they entered his store and this made them feel important. He was famous for his jokes and stories, and nobody could tell them any better. He could make the best limeade in the world and spin a yarn at the same time. The taste of his fried chicken, hamburgers, fries, delicious homemade pies and chocolate nut sundaes lingers even today in the minds of his many friends. Mrs. Clara Headley, and later her daughter Mrs. Vivian Headley Balderson, made those wonderful pies for many years. The pies sitting near you at the counter on pedestal cake stands looked like a picture in a magazine.

     Hyatt and Virginia would open the store early in the morning, and soon the row of counter seats would be filled with his “regulars” catching up on the news of the day. Salesmen loved swapping stories and jokes with Hyatt. Everyone knew him. New comic books came out on Tuesdays (two for 25 cents) and they sold out quickly. 

     Pat Hayden Crandol, one who well remembers Hyatt, recalls the fun she had as a child waiting for rides home from his store on the corner in Callao. Parents used the drug store as a pick-up place for kids taking swimming lessons. “It was always a treat to get a drink and a pack of nabs or ice cream while waiting for your ride home.” Hyatt made every child feel very special. He always had something to say to them when they came in his store. Hyatt could easily strike up a conversation with anyone, and he was especially good at talking with children. He never had any children of his own, but he had everyone else’s. He sponsored many a baseball team in his day. Hyatt didn’t miss many local ball games, and he knew all the players by name. He would take his folding chair to the Ruritan Ball Park in Callao and sit with old friends like Milford Harrison.
Years ago small stores like his were also used for other purposes, e.g., post offices. In Hyatt’s store he served as the local Justice of the Peace for years. One day a young sailor came into the store and Hyatt introduced him to a nice young lady from Callao. Hyatt was a good matchmaker because the couple soon fell in love and were married.

     Hyatt was a good Christian soul who dearly loved his Lord. His sister Carolyn has his long string of perfect attendance awards for not missing a Sunday in 12 years! He was an active member of Henderson United Methodist Church for 67 years, and he sang in the choir for 50. Hyatt’s very favorite poem, “Crossing the Bar” by Alfred Tennyson, was read at his funeral by his dear namesake and niece Virginia Hyte (Garland) Smith. This was a sweet ending for someone who dearly loved the sea and its ships.

     Callao Day was always the best day of the year! The celebration included baby contests, crafts, food, a big crowd-pleasing parade, fire trucks, ambulances, Scouts, churches, politicians and a street dance in the evening. In 2003 Hyatt was honored at Callao Day because he was the last surviving charter member of the Callao Volunteer Fire Department founded in 1948. Hyatt took his place on the reviewing stand and was so proud as each unit passed by in front of him. The biggest surprise came when a very special float stopped in front of the stand. Lisa Deitz and some other friends had worked really hard for months secretly creating a float representing Hyatt’s People’s Drug Sundry store. It was a wonderful replica, complete with counter, barstools and friends drinking ice cream sodas. He rose to his feet proudly and was deeply touched to be honored with his own float. How the town of Callao kept that secret from him still remains a mystery.

     He belonged to lots of organizations and helped support many others: The Ruritan Club, the Chamber of Commerce, Rappatomac Shrine Club, and he was also a member of Westmoreland Lodge #212 and Westmoreland Royal Arch (Chapter 41) of the Masonic Order. When he was in Lions Club, they all loved his tale spinner stories at the end of their meetings. 

     Hyatt’s sister Carolyn shared some of the sentiments written on cards and notes following his death. “Hyatt was quite a character, but always a gentleman.” “The memories of Hyatt continue to make us smile.” “Callao will never be the same, he was so much a part of the church and the community.” “The community has lost a good friend and a dear neighbor.”

     We can still hear his often-used expressions such as: “Gracious me! Indeed my Lord, that’s the truth!” He was a lover of steamships, a practical joker, a wonderful storyteller, a party person and a great listener. Hyatt was never unkind and he never complained about things. He had a quick wit, excellent recall and everyone enjoyed his marvelous sense of humor. 

     Goodbye to the unofficial “Mayor of Callao”. Knowing him was a real blessing and an honor. There will never be another like him; he was one of a kind who will remain in our hearts forever.

About the author: It has been nearly twenty years since Nancy and Charlie Vickers moved down from Fairfax to Westmoreland County on Gardner Cove.They have two grown children and thoroughly enjoy spending time with their grandchildren. After retiring from the Federal Government in Dahlgren in 1995, Nancy began her writing career and continues to write articles and poetry for Chesapeake Style Magazine. She has written two books (Poems from the Heart and The Whitney Storybook: Life on the South Dakota Prairie). Nancy encourages others to record those priceless family stories while their loved ones are still around to enjoy them. This tribute to Hyatt Headley was published in the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Magazine, December 2004.
Appreciation is extended to Carolyn Cralle, Bea Gawen and Virginia Hyte Garland Smith for their contributions and photographs used in creating this article.

Reprinted with permission of the Editor, Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Magazine, December 2004. 



© 2004 Nancy W. Vickers All Rights Reserved

 


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