Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Route 11 Road Trip - Day 4: Lexington

The fourth day of our road trip we spent in and around Lexington, Virginia. The entire trip we'd been enduring 100-degree temperatures with high humidity, and today was no exception. Even though it rained throughout the morning, the air was thick with moisture after the storms had passed. Next time, we'll plan something for either the late spring or early fall!


We took a brief trip out to Fairfield. There's a quilting store there that one of us in interested in. In the 1920's many towns initially had automobiles park at an angle, with the vehicles facing the sidewalks rather than parallel to the curb. That's still the case in downtown Fairfield, which makes for extremely wide main street.

The United Methodist Church there provided yet another example of variation on an architectural theme. Note the large, open belfry in the tower. The neo-classical elements  so common farther up the Valley are missing. This is a very plain (if large) structure.

The United Methodist Church in Fairfield, VA.

Virginia Military Institute

When we arrived in Lexington proper, we passed by two institutions whose histories are inextricably mixed with that of the region: VMI and W&L.

We didn't have a chance to tour VMI, but most the buildings are
in this no-nonsense military style.
 The Virginia Military Institute is a state college founded in 1839. Many of its alumni, faculty, and even students served in the Confederate Army with distinction. Stonewall Jackson was an antebellum faulty member, and important to this day is the events at the 1864 Battle of New Market (further up the Valley Turnpike).

The Union forces were gathered to push into the Valley. The VMI cadets force-marched 81 miles to arrive on the scene, where General Imboden held them in reserve. When the Confederate line broke,  the cadets repulsed the Union adavance, and charged across the field to capture an enemy battery, turning the tide and helping the rebel forces win the day.

The Lee Chapel
To commemorate this event, every year a squad of cadets marches from Lexington to the New Market battlefield. To mark the end of their probationary status, the freshman class (known as "rats"), recreate the cadets' charge across the battlefield. When they arrive at the old Union battery, they're greeted by the upperclassmen, no longer rats, but full-fledged members of the corps.

Washington & Lee University

Civil War events not only define VMI traditions, but are important to Washington & Lee University, which is literally next door to the military school. Established in 1749 as the Augusta Academy, the school changed its name to Washington after the First President gave the college a sizable donation.

Photography isn't allowed in the Chapel. But
thedoor details provide a good indication
of the architectural features inside.
When Robert E. Lee returned to civilian life in 1865, he became president of the college, a post he held until his death in 1870 (when his name was incorporated into that of the institution he served so well).

The Lee Chapel on the campus is a small, stately building, steeped in history. Robert E. Lee and members of his family are buried in the crypt undeneath the chapel. Inside the chapel, the walls are lined with commemorative plaques, going back over a century. Like Lee, it's a building filled with quiet dignity.


The city of Lexington is an old one, extablished in 1777. In addition to being at an important crossroads, it's also the county seat for Rockbridge County. Throughout the downtown we saw many examples of colonial and Federalist-inspired architecture. Case in point: the Baptist Church downtown.

The Baptist Church in Lexington, VA.
Another good example was the (what else?) United Methodist Church. The one in Fairfield was a simple wooden clapboard structure. This was a brick building with more complex architectural features. And it also references a common form of hospitality in the Valley (and many other parts of the rural South). Its front porch had several rocking chairs with a sign inviting folks to stop and rest a while.

The United Methodist Church in Lexington.
Complete with porch and rocking chairs.

Downtown Lexington had many small boutique and antique stores. I personally liked the Second Hand Shop, with its stained-glass banjo transom (right).

As we were waiting to meet friend for dinner, we head a mighty rumbling. The Rally North America's 2011 Rally Appalachia came to town, with dozens of cars slowly crusing down the thoroughfare to park in designated areas along the street.

This kind of serendipitous show was one of the delights of the trip. Unplanned, unanticipated -- just a cool, random event that we happened to be in the right place and the right time to observe.

We have good friends in Buena Vista (pronounced Bewna Vista), which is a small town just down the road from Lexington. Locals travel to the city sometimes on a daily basis for work, and often for shopping and entertainment. Although we had met our friends many times in Lexington to get together, we seldom had time to explore the city -- not like we did this day.

And because we had decided to spend a second night in our motel room, we didn't have anyplace we had to be later. The four of us talked well into the night, celebrating the time we had together, and mindful of how things had changed in just one short year.

Tomorrow we would start out in Lexington and continue our journey down Route 11.

#route 11

Route 11 Road Trip -- The Plan

Route 11 Road Trip -- Day 1: Winchester

Route 11 Road Trip - Day 2: Winchester to Harrisonburg

Route 11 Road Trip - Day 3: Harrisonburg to Lexington

Route 11 Road Trip - Day 5: Lexington to Christiansburg

Route 11 Road Trip - Day 6: Christiansburg to Abingdon

Route 11 Road Trip: Day 7 Abingdon to Bristol

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