Friday, March 19, 2010

Local Legends

How much do you know about the area you live in? Could you give a guided tour?

Just wondering.

Orange County isn't the cultural, political, or even geographical center of the Commonwealth of Virginia. And yet when friends from out-of-town came for a visit, I surprised myself with how many points of interest (both important and not) we were able to show them.

Like many localities, Orange County does have some historic places. Montpelier, the home of James Madison is probably the most famous. But as we drove around, places and stories just spilled forth.

Montpelier, for example, was also one of the locations used for the filming of "Hush" with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jessica Lange (the murder weapon came from Faulconer's Hardware in downtown Orange). If you look carefully in the background, you'll see many Orange County residents (and many Four County Player thespians) working as extras in the background.

Near Montpelier is Mount Athos, current home to Donna Somerville. Did she really murder her husband, Ham Somerville, the squire of Somerset? The court ruled not, but the jury of public opinion is still out.

And then there's St. Thomas Episcopal Church in the town of Orange, which features stained glass windows by Tiffany and Company. Across the street is the Orange Presbyterian Church, which has the pew that Robert E. Lee sat during worship services (with an appropriate plaque).

And speaking of the Recent Unpleasantness (known as the Civil War in other parts of the country), there's the Exchange Hotel in Gordonsville. This vacation destination was converted into a field hospital, with a chute connected to one window that shunted severed limbs into a pit.

The Battle of the Wilderness happened in Orange County, and near the town is an overgrown arched stone bridge. This is the now abandoned replacement to the wooden Fat Nancy railroad bridge, which collapsed as an excursion train crossed it in 1888 -- a train full of Civil War veterans returning from a reunion of Gettysburg. One of the survivors was General James A. Longstreet.

There's also the building where a kayak factory used to be -- the first enterprise of Peter Rice, who would later founded the Plow and Hearth. We showed our guests the remains of the narrow gauge railroad right-of-way that hauled timber from Wolftown at the base of the Appalachians to the furniture factory in the Town of Orange.

We dined at the Silk Mill Grill, one of the many businesses occupying the old silk mill building, at one time the town's biggest employer. We drank Barboursville Vinyards wine, grown on the former estate of Governor James Barbour of Virginia. His home, designed by Thomas Jefferson, burned in 1884. The ruins still stand, and in addition to providing a graphic for the vineyard's label, also serve as an outdoor stage for summer productions.

And there are many more stories we could have shared, too. I know that my father could give an equally detailed tour of his home town, which got me thinking. What about you? What stories would you share about where you live? Because every location has at least one.

- Ralph

(And if you have a great story about where you live, please share in the comments field)


  1. Ralph,

    You omitted "Historic Radio Orange". ;-) It's a "PSA" from 1976. I see I can't include a link here, so the curious should go to, then pick "promos" on the left side and you'll find it at the bottom of the promos page.

    I thought Marse Lee's pew was at St Thomas.


  2. I am so embarrassed. I did indeed neglect to mention historic Radio Orange (although it wasn't part of our cook's tour.) Maybe its time to do another post about that.

    In the library of the Presbyterian Church there's a pew with a plaque denoting that Lee worshiped from it while he was here. I think this is a different pew than the one in the Episcopal Church.

    And again, I was just giving examples of what I knew of the area, which is by no means all-encompassing.