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World-class collections of old bricks, gourds, dinosaur poop and more? You never know that you’ll find over the next mountain. And, we tell you where to dine and sleep after you see the collections.
VIRGINIA: Guns, Cameras, and the Hollywood Appalachian Family
Until recently, folks thought of the museum at Virginia Military Institute (540-464-7334, vmi.edu/MuseumSystem/) as the place to see the mounted hide of Stonewall Jackson’s horse, Little Sorrel. The stuffed steed is still there, but the museum’s world-class collection of muskets, pistols, rifles and early air guns is now the main attraction.
Where else can you see the air rifle that explorer Meriwether Lewis carried on his shoulder during his 1803 trek to the Pacific? Or the .44-caliber rifle that Sam Colt presented to Mexican President Valentin Canalizo in 1844 in hopes the leader would likewise equip his army? Luckily there was no sale, or the 1846 Mexican-American War might have ended differently.
The 800-piece collection was bequeathed by alumnus Henry Stewart, who began his fascination with firearms pondering a Colt revolving rifle at VMI museum. Stewart’s collection contains a seven-barreled Artemus Wheeler flintlock rifle, the first patented revolving firearm, purchased by the U.S. government in 1820. It also boasts a host of beautiful, deadly revolving cylinder guns, some ornately engraved. Look for one that so impressed Queen Victoria at the 1851 world exhibition that it was dubbed the “Queen Victoria Rifle.”
“A number of these pieces are exceedingly rare,” says Col. Keith Gibson, VMI Museum director.
Colt’s Paterson revolvers, for instance, have collectors everywhere drooling, and VMI has 28. The Paterson, carried by a few U.S. troops in the Civil War, was the first commercially successful repeating firearm with a revolving cylinder and a single, stationary barrel. “They essentially opened the general market to repeating firearms,” says Gibson.
There are guns disguised as walking sticks, a 17th-century matchlock revolver from India, and even a rifle with a vertically mounted turret. The last was not a success story. Patented by P.W. Porter in 1851, would spew loose powder, primer, and projectile into the rising chamber, essentially detonating a small bomb before the shooter’s face. The VMI collection contains the only complete specimen known. Others, one suspects, exist in exploded parts.
With hundreds of guns, hundreds of interesting stories lurk here, especially if you’re lucky enough have Col Gibson available for a few minutes. The VMI Museum also contains exhibits about life at VMI, the cadets’ role in the Civil War, and Stonewall Jackson.
Other Lexington Attractions: The must-see here is the Lexington Ghost Tour (540-464-2250). Scenic, historic spooky drama plus some exercise—what more can you ask? Walk through dark streets in the footsteps of Robert E. Lee and others as you listen to tales that make you question reality. During daylight hours, visit the Robert E. Lee Chapel and Museum, take in a show at Virginia Horse Center, and/or enjoy seasonal concerts at Lime Kiln outdoor theatre. For a recharge, hike the Woods Creek Trail behind the campuses to Jordan’s Point Park.
Staunton, 40 miles north, is another great small town with a past. President Woodrow Wilson’s Birthplace Museum and the Frontier Culture Museum, a living history village spanning three continents, are located here. Staunton claims the world’s only authentic re-creation of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Theater, a must-see where the playwright’s works are performed nightly. For an extra jolt, ask to be seated on the stage.
The Camera Heritage Museum (540-886-8535; cameraheritagemuseum.com), is a quirky collection of amazing cameras disguised as a working frame and camera shop in downtown Staunton. Inside the Camera & Palette lurks a museum closing in on the world record for cameras in a free public museum. Owner David Schwartz’s collection of 6,000 includes the 1870 camera of Barnett Clinedinst, the Staunton native who invented the reflex camera, freeing photographers from the black drape. The collection contains a monster camera called Big Bertha, built to capture baseball games. Other highlights are the KGB spy camera camouflaged as a Zippo lighter, a spy camera used in James Bond’s “You Only Live Twice,” and a 1948 camera/radio combination. The big surprise: The museum holds a Japanese aerial camera used at the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, gifted by the photographer himself.
For yet another unique museum, head to Schuyler in Nelson County, taking a scenic shortcut off I-64 through Afton over routes 151 and 6, where you can access the Appalachian Trail. Another justification for this route is the fresh French cuisine served from a roadside trailer at the Flying Fox Wine Vineyard. Keep your eyes open for Le Chic Picnic. You can also meander along the Route 151 wine trail before turning onto Route 6.
Walton’s Mountain Museum (434-831-2000; waltonmuseum.org) Remember “The Waltons”—the long-running CBS show about a writer growing up in a large family in Depression-era Virginia? The show was so popular that eight reunion movies have been televised since the series ended in 1981.
At Walton’s Mountain Museum in Schuyler, a former schoolhouse—which Waltons creator Earl Hamner Jr. attended—serves as a repository for Waltons memorabilia. An old radio plays big band music in the authentic living room set, while Corabeth and Ike Godsey pop from the post office window—a popular backdrop for selfies. You can also find show scripts, the Baldwin sisters’ moonshine still, and information about the Walton’s cast as well as the Hamners they portray.
Where to Eat:
Lexington: Red Hen for fine farm to table cuisine.
Staunton: Zynodoa where the chef has magic ways of keeping that warm-from-the-fields flavor popping.
Afton: Le Chic Picnic for roadside French cuisine.
Where to Sleep:
Lexington: the Georges (theGeorges.com, 540-463-2500)
Staunton: Stonewall Jackson Hotel (stonewalljacksonhotel.com; 540-885-4848)
Schuyler: White Pig B&B and Animal Sanctuary at Briar Creek Farm, vegetarian retreat (thewhitepig.com; 434-831-1416)