I told you a bit about Virginia last time but didn’t have the time or space to describe the full scope of what just might be our most historically significant state. It was not only an incubator of American independence and the cradle of American presidents — eight of them — but also the scene of ferocious, climactic battles of our great civil war.
Virginia ranks 35th among the 50 states in size, which surprises what my mother used to call the “living daylights” out of me. I guess I’ve squeezed among and around so many thousands of trucks while impatiently plying Interstate highways 66 and 81 to and through the Blue Ridge Mountains that Virginia seemed to go on forever.
Virginians themselves, with so many presidential homes and antebellum mansions, caverns and oystering coves, battlefields and “living museums,” wineries and microbreweries (my favorite), and the longest stretch of the Georgia-to-Maine Appalachian Trail footpath to enjoy any time they wish, never seem to be in much of a hurry.
They are a rather refined lot. While their accent has hints of what Carol’s father, a Georgian, called “southreen,” it’s subtle, gentle, without a trace of a twang until you hit the hollows close to West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Some Virginia men — mostly lawyers, of which there is an abundance — still wear white or seersucker suits and bow ties; and you’re quite likely to bump into slightly more rumpled professors, declaiming about Thomas Jefferson at one of the state’s 40 or so fine colleges and universities.
My middle daughter, Juliette, is dean of women at the University of Richmond, a private, highly selective, 180-year-old institution in the old capital of the Confederate States of America. She’s not rumpled, but she declaims with the best of them. At least three other colleges in the state are older. Jefferson, our third president, founded one of them. All these academicians’ thoughtful demeanor and measured pace seem to have leaked off campus and blanketed the state.
But Virginia isn’t just the Old South; signs of the New one abound where high-tech firms cluster around Dulles International Airport, at the nation’s largest naval base at Norfolk, and within “educational consortiums” that do whatever consortiums do in several spots around the state. Five of them involve Virginia’s historically black institutions in tandem with corporate executives.
Lacking any major-league sports teams, Virginia obsesses over a sport of its own — politics! — played with uncommon delight from the remotest county courthouse to the chambers of the General Assembly in Richmond.
The Old Dominion’s cities, countrified towns, and suburban interests clash mightily over clout and funding. Charlottesville and Richmond and Falls Church, for instance, are independent and autonomous cities; they are not part of any county but administer their own schools, police, and fire departments and jostle with their surroundings for resources, making Virginia’s political stew all the spicier.
Virginia Republicans, proud to paint themselves as old-school conservatives these days, were once the state’s wild-eyed progressives — “Mountain Valley Republicans” — who bucked the old Democratic political machine. It was only when perceived liberals and “laborites,” including the populist “Howlin’ Henry” Howell from the Tidewater area along the Chesapeake Bay, and Douglas Wilder of Richmond — elected America’s first black elected governor in 1989 — gained prominence that many longtime Democrats departed for the G.O.P.
Democratic governor Mills Godwin, for instance, left office, sat out a term, then ran again as a Republican and won, defeating Howell in 1973. Virginia is unique in the nation in forbidding its governors from succeeding themselves. Those who like the idea say this prompts each new governor to work harder and faster; detractors say the governor is a lame duck the moment he or she — though every one of the 71 of them so far, going back to Patrick Henry in 1776, has been a “he” — takes the oath of office.
Alongside the oldest legislative body in the United States, the governor runs the state from a gleaming-white, columned capitol building in Richmond. Designed by Jefferson, it was modeled after the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple in what is now Nîmes in southern France. Looking at this massive hall of state, high on a hill, you can understand how it survived the burning and sacking of Richmond by Union forces after the Confederates fled town in 1865.
John Smith, a founder of colonial Jamestown, came upon what is now the state capital region in 1609 when he sailed up the James River and encountered rapids and a pleasant countryside that he named “None-Such.” How quaint. Nowadays, some real-estate speculator would have called it “Exeter on the James” or something.
More than a century later, the town that grew there was named Richmond after the London borough of Richmond-on-Thames. The dark poet Edgar Allan Poe was a Richmond native; all manner of other southern notables, including Confederate president Jefferson Davis, are buried at the city’s Hollywood Cemetery; and the world’s greatest concentration of Rebel memorabilia can be found at the Museum of the Confederacy and at the “Confederate White House,” where Davis lived.
Richmond’s memorable Monument Avenue began in 1890 with a lone memorial to Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, erected in a field at the city limits. Since then, a procession of other monuments followed, as did stately homes along the boulevard. In 1996, convention was ruffled — as were some Richmonders — when a monument to a black man, tennis star and Richmond native Arthur Ashe, was added to the panoply of statues to white, male heroes (and their horses).
Richmond is a city of scrumptious neighborhoods. “Scrumptious” usually refers to delectable food, but it fits the magnolias and gables and pocket parks that are feasts for the eyes. The city of 200,000 people includes magnificent estates, more than 30 museums, cultural sites spanning four centuries of history, and extensive decorative cast iron — thanks to the city’s many early foundries — creating an architectural display second only to New Orleans’s ironwork filigree.
The Richmond metro area is also home to 14 Fortune 500 companies, and a surprising variety of products produced. They include Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil, ChapStick lip balm, Marlboro cigarettes, Nabisco’s Oreo cookies, Virginia Atelier porcelain dolls, and Mrs. Fearnow’s Brunswick stew. (Now there’s a name: Mrs Fearnow!) Plus the blindingly yellow “traffic paint” for those luminescent lines that guide motorists along highways is made by Douglas Chemical Co., just outside of town.
South of Richmond in Central Virginia lies Petersburg, which endured the longest military siege in U.S. history — 10 months, ending in March 1865 — during the Civil War. Petersburg marks the upper edge of “Southside” Virginia, a bucolic region long dependent upon tobacco and cotton.
Tobacco auctions from mid-August through early November, the most colorful events in the industry, originated in Danville, the region’s hub, now forlorn over the shuttering of its big Dan River textile mills. Chanting at a rate of 400 words a minute, a good auctioneer can sell at least 500 lots of tobacco an hour. (How much is a lot? A lot!)
Thus, a farmer’s entire crop, representing a year’s labor, can be sold in minutes, after which he or she receives immediate payment. Then the tobacco is trucked to manufacturing plants, where it is tightly packed in big barrels called hogsheads and placed in storage warehouses. After proper aging, it is manufactured into cigarettes and other smoking products.
Speaking of Danville, I should mention our former VOA colleague Sarah Long, who I sometimes caught daydreaming of refinement, sipping mint juleps on the veranda of her own fine southern mansion. She and her husband, Dan Latham, retired to such a life on “Millionaires’ Row” in Danville. Having spent years and a fortune fixing up their old chateau, however, they are still working on the “millionaire” part.
Old U.S. Highway 29 winds northward from Danville through Lynchburg, Charlottesville, and Warrenton on its way to Arlington, just across the Potomac River from Washington’s Lincoln Memorial. This scenic alternative to the state’s interstate highways offers stops at gristmills in Pittsylvania County; the Martinsville auto-racing speedway; Jefferson’s graceful homestead, Monticello; the slave cabin of Booker T. Washington; and the Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park.
Washington rose from slavery to become an educator who, in 1881, was chosen to organize a school that grew into America’s most famous college for African Americans: Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Even in death, Booker T. Washington remained, arguably, America’s most famous black man until Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and basketball superstar Michael Jordan came along.
Appomattox Courthouse was the setting of the South’s surrender in the American Civil War on April 9, 1865, when Robert E. Lee offered his sword to Union commander Ulysses S. Grant. More than 63,000 soldiers had died, as would a few more before word of the capitulation reached the hinterlands.
To the west of Appomattox lies the misty Shenandoah Valley, which fills the 48-km (30-mile)-wide void between the long Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountain ranges. Virginia’s western “toe” slices so far into the Blue Ridge Highlands that it touches four other states. Indeed, Bristol, which spills over the border into Tennessee, is closer to three other state capitals than it is to Richmond.
This is coal country, struggling mightily despite many tax incentives passed by the General Assembly. It is the beginning of the imposing Cumberland Gap, the first great mountain pass to the West. Frontiersman Daniel Boone led settlers on the Wilderness Trail through this portal in 1775. The region features a natural limestone cave so large and long — 61 meters (200 feet) — that’s it’s used as a railroad tunnel; and a gorge so impressive that it earned the name “Grand Canyon of the South.”
Blacksburg, home to Virginia Tech, the state’s “polythechnical institute and state university” used to be a hub for mountain visitors. But since Virginia Tech has become a national power in American-style football, it’s more of a magnet for frenzied Hokie fans.
What’s a Hokie? Not anything at all, really. The sports nickname derives from an old Virginia Tech cheer: “Hokie, hokie, hokie, hy!!” These were nonsense words, leading to more mishmash: “Sol-a-rex, Sol-a-rah/ Poly Tech Vir-gin-ia/ Ray rah VPI.”
You had to ask.
The university mascot is a Hokie-bird, a turkeylike creature that evolved from the days when the sports teams were called “Gobblers.” Things can get weird back in the mountains.
Many modern-day Virginia explorers take a leisurely drive through the ancient mountains via the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 755-km-long, two-lane scenic roadway. Administered by the National Park Service, the parkway follows the mountain ridge into North Carolina to its terminus in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Fourteen years ago, the U.S. Transportation Department declared the Blue Ridge Parkway one of the nation’s first six “All-American Roads.”
Delightful Roanoke and its smaller, antiques-filled sister city, Salem, together refer to themselves as the “Capital of the Blue Ridge.” Roanoke, which began as a railroad town called “Big Lick,” offers a panoramic view of the entire Roanoke Valley from Mill Mountain.
Nearby is the world’s largest manmade star, a 30-meter, five-sided specimen. Erected in 1949 and illuminated at night, it has become the city’s symbol.
You can also get some of the world’s tastiest pies at the 128-year-old farmers’ market in downtown Roanoke. I speak from experience, but I mention it mostly to justify this posting’s clever title.
Farther up the Shenandoah Valley, small cities offer a host of allurements. In Lexington, Robert E. Lee spent his last years as president of struggling Washington College. Staunton — pronounced “Stanton” for reasons that may or may not have something to do with Scots-Irish settlers’ mangling of the proper name — is the home of President Woodrow Wilson. Check out his cool limousine. Winchester was country-singin’ legend Patsy Cline’s home, and polar explorer Richard Byrd’s as well. But it’s best known for the annual Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, with princesses, pumpkin carving, oohs and ahs over the fall foliage, and tangy apple cider.
Via the blogmagic power of the keyboard, we can whisk right past congested Northern Virginia and the historic Tidewater area, where the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay, and streams of cars pouring off the long bay bridge and tunnel converge. I wrote about both regions last posting.
There is, however, one more smidgen of Virginia. It’s the state’s tiny slice of the “Eastern Shore,” a remote, 113-km (70-mile)-long finger of land at the northern end of the bay bridge and tunnel. “Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation,” wrote John Smith after a trip there in 1608. But not many others found this windswept peninsula that runs all the way up into Maryland and Delaware quite so appealing. Until that bridge and tunnel were completed in 1964, this stretch of the Atlantic shore was entirely separated by water from its home state.
The only place thereabouts that gets much notice to this day is Assateague Island, an Atlantic barrier island and protected national seashore, shared with Maryland. Once a year, as part of a festival and auction, wild ponies, some perhaps descended from horses that swam to safety after a Spanish galleon sank offshore back in 1600-ish, go for a swim again — this time across a strait to Chincoteague Island National Wildlife Refuge.
In the early 1980s, Virginia briefly replaced its widely-imitated “Virginia is for Lovers” slogan — its neighbor trotted out “Maryland is for Crabs” — with a drippy “These Are Exciting Times in Virginia” campaign. That landed with such a thud that the commonwealth rushed back to its “lovers” theme, no doubt with flowers and a box of chocolates in hand.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Declaim. To recite, eloquently.
Filigree. Delicate, twisted, lacy metal artwork.
G.O.P. Grand Old Party, a nickname for the Republicans.
Hogshead. Originally a British unit of measurement, a hogshead is a huge barrel that holds 235 liters (62 gallons) of liquid, such as wine. But it’s often used to store and transport a solid substance — tobacco — as well.
Lame duck. A political officeholder nearing the end of his or her term, thus said to be somewhat crippled and vulnerable to attacks from predatory opponents.
Ply. As used in this blog in verb form, ply means to travel between two places, often regularly. Ships ply a given trade route, for instance. One can also ply a trade, such as making two-ply toilet tissue.
Requited. Reunited with or returned to. The opposite, unrequited, as in “unrequited love,” is better known.
Seersucker. Thin, lightly puckered cloth used, especially, to make men’s and boys’ summer suits. The name comes from a Hindi corruption of a Persian phrase meaning “milk and sugar,” perhaps referring to the alternately rough and smooth texture of the cloth.