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Max Crowder, chronicler of days gone by, dies at age 81

South Boston News
Max Crowder shows off his historic marker describing Whittle’s Mill / March 06, 2013
When Max Bagley Crowder died Feb. 26 at the age of 81, South Hill lost not only a distinguished citizen but its most eminent historian.

The scope of his interest in all things South Hill and Mecklenburg County typically amazed visitors who toured the Tobacco Farm Life Museum in South Hill, where the soft-spoken Crowder was curator and a seemingly endless font of tales of days gone by.

Frank Malone, executive director of the South Hill Chamber of Commerce, called his time working with Crowder “perfect joy,” even when Crowder would chide him about being underpaid for his work at the Tobacco Farm Life Museum.

Both Malone and Crowder’s younger brother, Jimmy Keith Crowder, agree that Crowder’s work, chronicling all things South Hill, was born of his love for the town and area — a love that may have been inspired by his mother, who was a teacher, and his father, who was a charter member of the South Hill Lions Club and American Legion Post 79 in South Hill.

They also believe it suited his personality as a planner and an organizer. Malone mused that if St. Peter has a book identifying everyone in heaven and their accomplishments, he now can turn the job of organizing and maintaining the book over to Crowder.

One of Max Crowder’s first projects as unofficial historian of the town was to map and catalogue every gravesite in South Hill’s Oakwood Cemetery. The town meticulously maintained the grounds, explained Jimmy Crowder, a local funeral director, but no central agency kept records of who was buried in the cemetery, or where or when they were buried.

It took his brother two years, but by the time he completed his work, he had written down the location of every person buried and at least one fact about that person.

He next turned his attention to Whittle’s Mill and the Meherrin River. Jimmy Crowder said his brother and friends, Monty Rainey and Willard Hazelwood, spent hours exploring the area around the mill and pouring over history books in Richmond trying to find an historic graveyard once described by one of Max Crowder’s teachers.

In 2010, Crowder published his findings in “Whittle’s Mill: An American History.” It was as much an account of his quest to uncover the graveyard as it was a narrative of the first families to the area, the mill, and the Meherrin River.

When he was not writing or conducting museum tours, Max Crowder was working to have his beloved Meherrin River designated as a Virginia scenic river. His efforts were rewarded late last year when the Virginia General Assembly granted scenic river status to the Meherrin River in Mecklenburg County.

He also wrote two historic marker signs — one identifying Whittle’s Mill, and the other marking the center of the circle around which the town of South Hill was developed. Jimmy Crowder proudly tells that his brother was one of the few people who knew that the original town of South Hill was laid out in a circular pattern.

His newest work, a history of South Hill entitled “South of Little Mountain,” will be published posthumously, said Jimmy Crowder.

Before Max Crowder became the unofficial town historian, he was a planning manager for Burlington Industries. It was a job well suited for a man who would later record and organize much of Southside Virginia’s historical data. His job at Burlington, according to brother Jimmy, was to take orders, collect the raw materials, and oversee final production of each order.

When asked to share something that few people know about his brother, Jimmy Crowder spoke of Crowder’s humanitarian efforts at the close of the Korean War. He and members of his Army unit were so taken by the suffering of the orphaned children in South Korea they founded an orphanage.

Crowder is survived by his wife of 57 years, Mary Edith, his three children Catherine Townsend of Seattle, Washington, Charles Randall (Randy) Crowder of Barnwell, South Carolina and M. Bagley Crowder, wife Susannah and granddaughter Chloe of Denver, Colorado, and his brother, Jimmie Keith Crowder of South Hill. He was preceded in death by his parents, Charles H. Crowder, Sr. and Lina Bagley Crowder, and by his brother, Dr. Charles H. Crowder, Jr.

Crowder graduated from South Hill High School and attended Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University) before joining the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He served from 1951 until the armistice was signed in 1953.

He served for 15 years as curator of the Tobacco Farm Life Museum of Virginia in South Hill. He is a past member of the South Hill Lion’s Club, Junior Chamber of Commerce, Virginia Historical Society, and the South Hill Rescue Squad.

Of his brother’s passing, Jimmy Crowder said, “I am now the last man standing. We three“ — referring to himself and his two older brothers, Max and Charles, Jr. — “spent the last twenty or so years living within sight of each other and the homestead where we grew up.” Jimmy Crowder’s son now lives in the original Crowder family homestead.

Crowder was laid to rest on Friday next to his parents and older brother, Dr. Charles Crowder, Jr., in the cemetery he painstakingly documented.

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