THE WASHINGTON POST – Most mornings just after 8am, two hours before the first customers, Mary Fannie Woodruff arrives at Woodruff’s Cafe & Pie Shop to peel apples, fold pie boxes and make sure all of the ingredients are on hand for her sweet potato and buttermilk pies.
She also needs a long morning break for coffee with extra sugar, but never mind that. Woodruff is 103-years-old.
“I love what I do, but I have to have my coffee,” she said.
Her morning coffee and watching the company she keeps are the secret to her good health, she said. And an occasional thick slice of buttermilk pie doesn’t hurt, either.
It was 1952 when Woodruff and her husband, James Earl Woodruff, opened a small grocery store and gas station in the two-storey cinder-block building they built along a rural highway near Monroe, Virginia, about 180 miles southwest of Washington, DC.
The couple raised five children in the apartment upstairs, and Mary Woodruff often spent busy summer afternoons pumping gas for vacationers.
The shop, on State Route 130 in Amherst County, was turned into a sandwich and pie cafe in 1998 by Woodruff’s daughter, Angela Scott, who hoped to sweeten the family legacy. Scott was joined by her twin sisters, Darnell Winston and Darnette Hill, and their mom, who was delighted to have her daughters together again.
Although the women have seen many changes since the 1950s, one thing has remained constant: their love of sharing (and enjoying) a slice of homemade pie. “There’s nothing better,” said Woodruff, who also raised two sons above the shop. “Nobody can resist stopping to try our pie.”
“People walk in and their eyes light up when they see the pies in the case and then see Mama,” said Scott, 61. “‘Look, there she is!’ they tell each other. Everybody loves her.”
With the annual mathematical celebration of Pi Day, Woodruff and her daughters expect a rush on the pies they offer in flavours of apple, pecan, buttermilk, sweet potato, coconut custard and lemon meringue.
But most people drop by year-round for another reason: to spend time with Mary Woodruff.
When her husband died in 1998, she was happy to have a new reason to spend her days inside her old shop after Scott turned the place into a cafe.
“I do love pie,” said Woodruff, who especially enjoys making sweet potato pies from memory. “But more than anything, I like to sit and talk to the customers.”
Although she no longer lives above the shop, Woodruff still doesn’t have to travel far to work.
She lives across the street with Winston, near the site where her husband’s grandfather, Wyatt Woodruff, opened a blacksmith shop and became the first African American man to own a business in Amherst County, Scott said.
“He was a freed slave who earned his freedom during the Civil War,” Scott said, “and when he moved here, the spot where his shop was became known as Wyatt’s Corner. Our family has been here ever since.”
During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Woodruff family experienced difficult times, with some white families avoiding the store, Mary Woodruff said. Her twin daughters were the only black children at Elon Elementary School, three miles up the road.
“Somebody threw a brick through our store window because they didn’t want my girls integrating the school,” she said.
“It was heartbreaking when that happened, but we kept sending them. We thought it was important.”
“Looking back, I sometimes wonder how in the world we made it,” added Winston’s twin, Hill, 69.
“We were seven-years-old, and we were used to being protected and loved by our family. But my parents weren’t afraid – they thought we should go to school in our community like the other kids.”
The work inside the store takes place in the kitchen from 10am to 4pm, Wednesday through Saturday, as Woodruff, her daughters and Scott’s husband, Larry, mix filling and roll out pie crusts to keep hungry customers supplied with their favourite pies.
“Growing up, we always had fresh pie or cobbler at home,” Scott said. “Mama used fresh berries and peaches from our orchard, and of course, we always had those cobblers with ice cream.”
Scott, who has a background as a restaurant waitress and hostess, said she decided to open a cafe in her parents’ old store after she attended a family reunion and learned more about her ancestry.
“I can’t explain it other than I felt I had a calling,” she said.
“I just knew that I was supposed to do it. There’s so much history here.”
“And a whole lot of love,” her mother added. “Who doesn’t love pie?”