Photo by Douglas Graham
Life on Corbin Lane
Built into the side of Waters Mountain in Bethel, an old root cellar sits, nearly indiscernible from the road, vines and overgrowth beginning to take it over. Built in the mid-1930s by Mr. William Gill, the root cellar was used by the family that lived in an old cabin beside it. The small hands of a 10-year-old boy helped build the root cellar. He earned ten cents each day for his help. “It was enough to buy a coca-cola and ball of candy,” says Alan Corbin, the man who grew into those boys hands, with a smile.
Corbin’s story is a window into the Warrenton of days gone by. Having lived in Warrenton all his life, he is a treasure trove of information about the way life used to be in the area in the first half of the 20th century.
Corbin has lived at the corner of Corbin Lane just north of Warrenton since his father, tired of working on a farm, bought a small house there in 1927, when Corbin was two years old. His father tragically died in 1932 from a brain tumor, leaving his widow with four young boys, ages 7 to 14, to raise. Corbin was the youngest. “We struggled,” he says of making ends meet. “My mother had a large garden and canned what she could. We boys went out to find work.” As a result, none of the boys finished high school.
At age seven, Corbin spent his summer working as a corn thinner, “the hardest job in the world,” according to him. “Three kernels were planted, but the farmer only wanted two stalks,” he says. “We would walk through the fields pulling the smallest stalk. If it broke, we used a digger fashioned from a stick to dig up the root.” He made $1 a day for this laborious work beneath the hot summer sun. “I came home and walked straight to my mother to give her the dollar. We needed it to survive.”
Another neighbor was a source of work for the Corbin boys. About a quarter mile down the road sits Drake Castle, now called Humblestone. “They owned a lot of land, and many of these homes around here were originally small tenant homes for the farm workers,” explained Corbin. He and his brothers would comb the woods belonging to the castle to collect berries for the Drakes. “We gathered 30 gallons one time,” he recalls. “I earned thirty cents for each gallon, that was good money,” he says with a reminiscent smile.
Another local family, the Woods, owned a retrofitted bus they used as a traveling country store called The Rolling Store at Your Door, which was yet another source of employment for Corbin as a boy. One of its stops was near the Corbin home.
“They would take me to their home in Greenwich [Vint Hill] to work for a week. They would pick me up on a Thursday when they made their stop here, and then drop me back off the following Thursday,” he says. In 1942, at age 17, he began driving the mobile store for the Woods. “When the store owners in the small towns launched a petition to stop the traveling store, the Woods took delivery orders instead and I dropped them off,” he recalls. Corbin also worked the Washington D.C. farmers market for the Woods, waking up at 3 a.m. to load the bus with eggs and chickens. Corbin was employed by the Woods until one Friday in 1944 when he dropped a bowling ball on his ankle, breaking it and requiring 10 weeks in a cast to heal.
Corbin missed the draft the first time he was called because of a failed physical. “I had asthma,” he says. The second time he was called, he passed and spent two years serving in the Navy during WWII. Following his military service, Corbin worked for the ESSO Station (which was located where McDonalds stands now) for 18 years and then began employment at Quarles Oil Company, where he remained for over 30 years. He worked directly for Mr. Doug Quarles, Jr., when it was still a family-owned business. “He was a good man, and he wasn’t afraid to roll his sleeves up and work beside you,” he said of Mr. Quarles. When Corbin left Quarles Oil Company, he continued working for Mr. Quarles, helping with landscaping at his home near Great Meadow.
Alan Corbin has observed time as it unfolded around the former tenant homes on Corbin Lane. The road itself was named in 1988, when the county installed the 911 emergency system. “We figured we’d been here since 1927, so it just ought to be the name of the road,” says Corbin. Corbin Lane was once Old Route 17, and before that, Route 17. “Two brothers paved the road with mules, a steel wheel grader and an old Caterpillar crawler,” he says, recalling watching the construction as a ten-year-old boy. “The mule yard was right next door. I remember the mule manager, who oversaw the prisoners who tended to the mules.” It took two years to pave from Warrenton to Tavern Road in The Plains. The current Route 17 was put in around 1988, when they straightened a dangerous curve in the road near Corbin Lane. “They had to move the curve a lot to make it less sharp,” he says, recalling the accidents he has witnessed from his front door.
Corbin celebrated his 93rd birthday on July fourth, although for his first six decades, he celebrated on the 8th of July. “My momma knew when my birthday was. It wasn’t until I needed my birth certificate for Social Security that it was pointed out to me that the date read July 4. That Doctor changed the date, so it was on the fourth. I had to change everything, so it matched by birth certificate,” he says of the surprise of learning what his birth certificate read. Since that revelation, he has celebrated his birthday twice, on both days each year.
Today, Alan Corbin and his wife of 72 years, Clay, live quiet lives on Corbin Lane, adjacent to the house where Corbin grew up. Their five children make frequent visits with their families. Corbin still tends to his garden, setting out early during the hot summer sun to do his weeding. But, unlike the days of his youth when he worked the corn fields, these days he can stop when he’s had enough and head back inside to enjoy the cool air conditioning.