Shenendoah Three-Day Journey
The Shenandoah Valley has become an eclectic mix of history and industry, heritage and hip, traditional and commercial, as rural, small-town ways of life find ways to survive in the 21st century. Valley native Cara Ellen Modisett ventured out to explore the nooks and crannies of the Shenandoah and discovered that the old valley is living still – in battlefields memorialized along heritage trails, in Victorian homes resurrected as bed and breakfasts, along small-town Main Streets busy with coffee shops, gift shops and bookstores.
The screen doors are tall and painted green, and they look as old as the building whose front porch sits a matter of feet away from Va. 623. This has been a store since 1860. It’s the sort of place where there should be a dog snoozing somewhere underfoot.
Look east and the countryside stretches into the interior of the valley – distant silos, fence rails, red-roofed barns. Look west and the mountains begin, a wall of ridges marching north to south, parallel with the road.
Everywhere in the Shenandoah Valley the land is like this. I love the north-south roads, the ones that made history. There’s U.S. 11, the valley’s first highway, where old hotels and restaurants and quirky attractions still linger, products of a time when family vacations involved driving to see grandparents rather than cruises in the tropics.
There’s the Blue Ridge Parkway, winding along the ridges of the mountains from the North Carolina line until it meets the Skyline Drive, which traces a line through Shenandoah National Park from Afton to Front Royal.
There’s the Appalachian Trail, sometimes paralleling the parkway, sometimes going its own way here near the midpoint between Georgia and Maine. There’s the Norfolk Southern railroad, along which towns lived and faded with the coming and going of steam. There’s the Shenandoah River itself, which flows 150 miles to Harpers Ferry in West Virginia.
But even more mysterious are the roads that wind off those north-south routes. For wandering, I take Virginia and West Virginia road maps to get my general bearings, and gazetteers to fill in the gaps – the tiny crossroads and creeks and communities too small for the VDOT (and WVDOT) versions.
And then I drive. Every side road ends up in another hollow, at another family cemetery, another peaceful farm or hidden creek or soaring view or falling-down farmhouse.
As I step inside Baker’s Store in Mt. Olive, the first thing that greets me is the smoky vanilla smell of pipe tobacco. Old shelves line the walls, selling groceries and gifts. The hardwood floor is uneven and worn by years and many feet. It could almost be 1860.
But there’s the tall wine rack at the front of the store, with handwritten signs pointing out the Virginia bottles.
And there are the antiques advertised in the back of the store – a mix of dusty badminton rackets, dishes, suitcases and Spanish editions of children’s books.
In between those two, however, is the real thing. Not just the groceries on the ceiling-high shelves, but the folks gathered around a vintage red table that reminds me of the one my grandmother had in her kitchen. This is the origin of the warm vanilla smell: Carl Ritenour is sitting with pipe in mouth, reading the newspaper.
He sits with his wife, retired registered nurse JoAnn Ritenour, and Anna Sager, who works in the store. Three more men arrive wearing work clothes. They sit at the table, one with a bowl of what looks like chicken noodle soup.
“These men are farmers,” says Carl, who turns out to have a wonderfully dry sense of humor. “They come in to spread their manure.”
This draws a burst of complaints, but good-natured ones.
I pick up a paper and a book, and we talk for a good 20 minutes, trading names of family members, churches, streets. We’ve lived in some of the same places, know some of the same neighborhoods. We talk about the war in Iraq, about politics and racism.
The valley is where I grew up, where my parents and grandparents and others back another five generations grew up. It’s where I spent a childhood of Sundays navigating cattleguards, chasing barn cats and singing hymns in a century-old church where my mother plays the organ and my great uncle was in charge of the cemetery plots.
On this journey, some 20 years after I last chased barn cats, I drive one morning out Port Republic Road, from my hometown of Harrisonburg, heading east and north.
The Virginia Civil War Trails meander through much of this region, tracing the marches of Jackson, Lee, Sheridan and others. The Carrington Williams Interpretive Site marks Cross Keys Battlefield, a quiet expanse of field where 684 Federal troops and 288 Confederate troops were killed or wounded nearly a century and a half ago.
That’s what’s striking about these battlefields – the quiet. Across the road, two children play, accompanied by two cats, a rooster and a sleepy dog. The only other sound is the occasional whoosh of a car passing by. It’s hard to imagine violence once happening here.
There are threads that run through the valley. The Civil War is one, with battlefields scattered from north to south. The railroad is another, and in almost every town I stop in I can hear the trains clatter and squeal on the tracks.
Driving on, I head through Port Republic, then on U.S. 340 to Elkton and Shenandoah and Luray.
The town of Shenandoah, my mother remembers, was thriving in the 1950s, when the steam trains came through for repairs, loading and unloading when she came here as a teenager with friends to see movies.
Today, the town is quiet, but not as quiet as it was the last time I drove through. The boarded-up storefronts along the railroad have new facades and signs promising new businesses. The old train depot is bright with paint, and what was once a gutted, falling-down warehouse now has new framing going up. The trains clatter by. Shenandoah is waking up.
On to and through Luray, home to the Luray Caverns, the Luray Singing Tower and a charming main street of antiques, books and cafés, I climb Va. 675 up and over Massanutten Mountain.
I’m eye-to-eye with the tops of the peaks. Over the side of the road I can look down and see the Shenandoah River far below, broad and reflective and beautiful. It’s a bit like entering another world, as the road curls on around the mountain and into the woods.
I pass Camp Roosevelt Recreation Area, Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp, Fort Valley Stables, Town of Kings Crossing, population 39. A man in a white beard and pickup truck raises one index finger, the low-key greeting of Shenandoah Valley drivers.
A right on Va. 678, national forest closes in, and I’m in Fort Valley – a perfect place for outdoors folks. Stone ledges and giant boulders are visible from the road; here is Passage Creek Day Usage Area, Elizabeth Furnace Campground, Massanutten and Tuscarora Falls trails, Signal Knob. Off the road, a fly fisherman stands knee-deep in water in a stream.
Then I’m in Warren County and out of the forest, and the spell lifts.
Past Front Royal, the valley’s German and Scotch-Irish heritage gives over to English settlement, especially obvious in West Virginia communities such as Berkeley Springs.
One of my favorite corners is a trio of Virginia towns – White Post, Millwood and Boyce. Stone houses and walls, giant old houses and ancient-looking trees make this landscape almost European.
The West Virginia line is not far ahead, and it’s 10 miles to Harpers Ferry, 20 miles to Martinsburg. I have spent enjoyable hours in Martinsburg and Berkeley Springs – a great small town with eclectic arts community, grand old hotel, kitschy attractions, the country’s first national park and one of my all-time favorite restaurants/night spots, Tari’s.
But I have never been to Harpers Ferry, so I head there.
I haven’t made a reservation and it’s nearly 5 p.m. I take a random left onto Ridge Road, having seen signs for the “Hill Top House Hotel.” After maybe a block, I take a closer look to my left, through back yards, and realize why it’s called Ridge Road – we are high up, hundreds of feet high up, and looking down on the river – it’s astounding.
Below Hill Top House, the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers come together. The railroad goes into the mountain. All I can hear is the rush of the water far below, between the peaks, and the occasional wail of the trains.
Inside, the hotel is cozy, charming on the edge of shabby. It was built in 1888, and boasts guests from Mark Twain to Bill Clinton. There are wandering halls and doors that look slightly crooked on their hinges because of the slant of the floors. The restaurant looks over the river, and the service is slow but friendly. My room is small, furnished with a quilt, no television, an art deco reminiscent bathroom and an approximately four-inch deep closet.
I love it.
The next morning, I explore historic Harpers Ferry, a collection of small museums, shops and a walking trail past the river and railroad. I happen across the headquarters to the Appalachian Trail Conference by chance and spend some hours with the folks there. I never get to the national historic park.
I’ve mapped out an obscure sequence of roads to get me back into Virginia, following U.S. 340 south through Charles Town, then W.Va. 51 west through Middleway, Inwood and Gerrardstown – a small, pretty place.
I’ve missed the turnoff I meant to take – W.Va. 739 – but I follow 51 up the mountain to where it intersects with W.Va. 45. I stop, deliberate, study the map, take the plunge and turn left. Glengary, the next town, is three miles. I descend, ears popping the whole way.
Conveniently, the Siler Country Store is located right at the intersection in question. It’s been here since 1892 and is now owned by Richard Kerns. He sells everything from Advil and Kleenex to hot chocolate and bananas.
Kerns sets me on the right track, and I continue to Winchester, home of beautiful architecture, a walkable downtown mall with shops and restaurants and of course more Civil War history.
I wish I had more time to stop: I pass by Wayside Theatre, Cedar Creek Battlefield and Belle Grove Plantation. Strasburg, south on U.S. 11, is home of the historic Hotel Strasburg and a giant antiques emporium, plus Hupps Hill battlefield and caverns.
I take Va. 55 west from Strasburg and a left on Va. 623, which takes me through Mt. Olive and to Baker’s Store.
At Columbia Furnace, bear right on Va. 675, a confusing intersection, and head downhill, then cross Va. 42, following 675 to Edinburg.
Edinburg and New Market both make for pleasant strolls, with their history and shopping and quaint Main Streets. New Market is home to the New Market Battlefield and two of my favorite stops – Paper Treasures bookstore, a long-standing business, and the Southern Kitchen Restaurant, a true step back in time.
From New Market to Harrisonburg is the end of my three-day journey, but only a fraction of the roads, historic sites and towns left to explore.
If I continue on Route 11 I would be back in the southern valley – great spots including the Virginia Artisans Center in Waynesboro, the historic rail district of Staunton, Natural Bridge and its neighboring museums and attractions, Lexington’s arts community and picturesque college campuses, beautiful hiking at the Roaring Run Falls in Botetourt County, Buchanan’s Main Street on the banks of the James River.
Further west are Allegany and Highland counties, half hidden in the foothills, home to annual festivals of maple syrup and bluegrass.
The southern terminus of the valley is at Roanoke, Star City of the South, the largest metropolitan area on the Blue Ridge Parkway and home to museums, restaurants, railroad history and the only museum in the world devoted to the photography of O. Winston Link – it opened in 2004 in what was formerly a N&W passenger station, renovated in the 1930s by industrial designer Raymond Loewy.
Beyond that, the valley finally ends and the mountain highlands begin.
Also in this Article:
- Daughter Of The Stars, Son of the Valley
- Berkeley Springs, W.Va.
- Stones That Sing
- Chips on Route 11
- Clyde Jenkins, Basketmaker Before You go
Daughter Of The Stars, Son Of The Valley
Out back of Woodstock, Va. flows a body of water that Native Americans believe had the power to gather the stars. With the Blue Ridge Mountains as its eastern guide and the Alleghenies as its western boundary, the North Fork of the Shenandoah River is one of just a few in the world that flows generally northward. This stretch of the river is wellknown for its “Seven Bends.” Guarded by large sycamore trees on both sides, the river is fed by springs that emanate from the valley’s limestone formations. A lack of sediment causes the water to be crystal clear during the summer and fall seasons, providing the perfect habitat for a smallmouth bass population that will rival any stream in the world.
Every summer my grandsons, with parents in tow, journey from their homes in the Cincinnati suburbs to spend time fishing with me. We discuss the fishing possibilities and strategies months in advance of their annual visit. They know that after a day of fishing, rafting, tubing or canoeing they can cool off by frolicking in the cool, clear, clean waters. As five of my seven grandsons have grown into their teenage years, this place has made each aware of what nature has to offer, including its fragility as well as its pleasures.
As we attempt to catch one of the more than 10 species of game fish, a sideshow of entertainment is sometimes provided by a pair of Baltimore orioles pillaging in the brush for seeds or berries or by a kingfisher, a year-round resident, chattering constantly as he makes a surveillance flyover looking for his next meal. If we are lucky a beaver will slap his tail on the water surface to warn of our intrusion. The otters and muskrats are stealthier, thus seldom seen.
Native Americans believed that the Great Spirit had made a beautiful lake surrounded by blue mountains where the stars could meet. Once a large boulder dislodged, causing water to pour from the lake and rush toward the sea and creating a winding river. As time passed the stars agreed to meet in this valley and discovered that it was once the bed of their beautiful lake. The stars were so pleased that they placed their brightest jewels in the river where they still lie and sparkle. My grandsons and I know this place since my backyard is part of this natural splendor.
Berkeley Springs, W.Va. Recognized for Art Community - Again
Berkeley Springs’ recognition as an art destination continues to grow, making the historic spa town almost as widely known for local art and galleries as for its warm mineral waters. The spring 2003 edition of John Villani’s “100 Best Small Art Towns in America” includes Berkeley Springs for a fourth time.
Mountain Laurel Gallery is the most venerable of the shops and was recently voted by artists throughout the United States as the number seven retailer of fine American crafts. Six rooms on two floors of the building that anchors one corner of the historic downtown square are filled with artwork from about 125 local, regional and American contemporary artists. Owner Chuck Wheeler bought the shop in 1997 and dramatically expanded the business, which initially opened in 1976.
Mountain Laurel is a regular stop on area Art Walks that occur eight Saturday nights a year, often featuring an artist-in-residence. Other art stops in the walkable downtown include the artists cooperative Ice House Gallery, Tari’s Premiere Café, Heath Studio Gallery and Mallory Gallery, a newly opened home for fine art in the historic Berkeley Springs train depot.
For more information: 1-800-447-8797, www.berkeleysprings.com.
Stones That Sing Carilloneur David Breneman Rings the Bells in Luray, Va.
“You want to try it?” David Breneman asks, and I’m afraid to say yes.
An hour ago, we climbed three flights of stairs, going floor by concrete floor up to the top of an almost- 70-year-old stone tower near Luray, Va., on an unseasonably warm winter day.
“I’ve never been really comfortable in high places, except in here,” Breneman says, “‘cause I know it’s going to stay in place.”
Stay in place, yes. It’s strong enough to survive wind, fire and flood, certainly. It’s built of solid stone quarried from the nearby mountains. It’s tall – Breneman can see it from his kitchen table on Massanutten Mountain, some miles away west and up. Thirtyfive thousand pounds of bells hang in the top of the tower.
Right above Breneman’s head. “Where the carilloneur sits is really the worst place to be,” he says – climb a few feet further, up a steep, spiral metal stair and you’re right underneath all 47 of them. “It’s plenty loud. It’s like being in an orchestra.” The noise measures about 110 decibels, he’s been told.
David Breneman has been carilloneur at the Luray Singing Tower since 1984. The carillon has been there since 1937, erected by one Col. Northcott in memory of his wife, Belle Brown Northcott. At the time, Northcott owned the land under the tower and above neighboring Luray Caverns. He gave the carillon to the Town of Luray but the caverns remain privately owned.
Breneman sits at the clavier – the keyboard of the carillon, so to speak, except instead of keys there are batons – polished English oak rods placed just like piano keys. He plays them with his fists and palms, not his fingers, and there are foot pedals, too, as on an organ. Playing with fists, rather than looking clumsy or violent, is an elegant technique.
Up here in the top of the tower, Breneman plays weekly concerts during the warm-weather months. Sousa, Bach, Broadway tunes, even “Rocky Top,” “Shenandoah” and “Unchained Melody.” “The World’s Greatest Fakebook” sits in his music stacks along with a Methodist hymnal and crumbling sheet music.
“If I see a car in the parking lot from Missouri, I play the Missouri Waltz.” He once played “Happy Birthday” for a neighbor’s little girl.
Breneman, whose other keyboard instrument is the pipe organ, grew up in Luray, and in high school his choir would come to the tower and sing at Vespers services. At that time, the carilloneur was Charles T. Chapman, who was carilloneur from 1937 until he retired in 1984.
Later, while a music student at Bridgewater College, Breneman saw a television program on carillons, “and I thought – now, I’d like to do that.”
So the next day he drove to Luray, knocked on Chapman’s door and when it opened, asked if he taught lessons. “His eyes just sort of lit up and he said, ‘Oh yes!’”
Today, Breneman sits on the bench and checks the bells. The batons are connected to axles, which are connected to arms with wires that reach up through the open space to the bells. When he plays, the mechanism rattles noisily and the wires shiver in the sunlight above.
The batons are touch-sensitive, so a carilloneur can play loud or soft. Breneman strikes an F gently, and it sounds distant and mysterious, as if it’s floating in on the wind from someplace far away. He strikes it again, harder, and the ring is brighter, louder.
Temperature, he says, doesn’t affect the bells, which were cast out of iron in Loughborough, England.
“Tuning is done once,” Breneman says. “Maybe after 150 years it’s good to check them.”
The cold, however, can cause the wires to constrict. “This one’s a little tight.” The bell thunks. He adjusts, then plays the note again. It rings.
I am looking at the keys warily. Breneman asks, “You want to try it?”
He’s quite serious. I sit down, thinking, a lot of people will hear if I miss a note.
I play a C, then a B, then on through the first phrase of “Joy to the World.” It seems a good bell-ringing kind of carol, and it is still December.
“It’s always quite transforming,” Breneman had said earlier. “I can be mad at the world, but by the end of the recital I feel good again.”
I wait a moment, listening to the bottom C resonate, and keep going.
“…And heaven, and heaven and nature sing.” No wrong notes.
Chips on Route 11 Small Town, Big Business
“It’s this kind of insane story,” says Sarah Cohen. Her parents were in the restaurant and hotel business in Washington, D.C., and a little more than a decade ago decided to try organic potato chip making. They first worked with a family factory in Pennsylvania and then decided to buy their own in Middletown, Va.
Route 11 Potato Chips is still based out of a small building in Middletown, producing about a tractor load of chips a week (that’s approximately 40,000 pounds of potatoes) and shipping them as far as Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, Vancouver – and even to soldiers in Iraq. “Their mothers come in, or they order through the Internet,” says Cohen. “It’s weird to be communicating with people in a war zone who want potato chips.”
On this particular morning, a couple comes in. “Barbecue, large bag.” They walk fast, order fast, talk fast. They’re from New York.
They’re friendly, though they answer questions fast, too. “Once a year. We stock up on our way back to New York.” That’s from visiting her family in Strasburg.
Music plays from an oldies station. A window opens into the potato chip production room, officially open on Fridays and Saturdays to the public.
“I always thought the potato chip idea was ridiculous,” says Cohen, who originally planned to be a filmmaker (her first short, a love story about Salvadoran dishwashers, has won awards). “But my dad, who died a few years ago, was a visionary.”
Route 11 Potato Chips is located on Route 11 in Middletown. 540/869-0104, Click here to Visit Route 11 Online.
Clyde Jenkins, Basketmaker
Sunlight peeks in the wooden farm outbuilding in the Shenandoah Valley where I find Clyde Jenkins, white oak basketmaker for Colonial Williamsburg. Weaving his splits of wood, there are calluses on top of his sore hands and scars are everywhere but his smile is infectious as he sits and “works the wood.”
“Every tree is different,” he tells me. “It has to be grown just right to become a basket.” White oaks, free from knots, about 10 inches in diameter are what he seeks – hundreds a year to make his literally thousands of baskets – just he and brother Jim, in his tiny shed… the ceiling covered with hanging baskets of all shapes and sizes.
He doesn’t like to “fight” the wood. It’s more like “what the wood will let you do.” Every tree is different and he makes whatever the tree allows. Trees work differently from one side to the next. Some trees are good for splits (the body of the basket – strips), others, only for rims and handles.
“A blind person could tell what is inside a tree if they learned how to feel the bark – soft, flaky bark is just right. If it grows nice and slow the bark has fine flakes.”
You have to work it green and there is only a limited window of time to work it once it’s split apart. This isn’t just a craft but a lost art.
Even though Clyde learned to make the baskets as a child, this stonemason by trade only decided to take the plunge and go into full time 12 years ago. He made an entire truckload of the very hardest baskets and drove them to Williamsburg’s museum, requesting an appointment. They were extremely impressed, and he got the contract.
He doesn’t just “stand by his work” but stands on it to prove its strength and durability!
Clyde teaches the art of split white oak basket weaving in Luray, Va. and at Big Meadows and Skyland in the Shenandoah National Park.
Before You Go
Bath County Chamber of Commerce
- Hot Springs, Va., 540/839-5409, 1-800-628-8092
Front Royal Visitor Center
- Front Royal, Va., 540/635-5788, 1-800-338-2576
Greater Augusta Regional Chamber of Commerce
- Waynesboro, Va., 540/949-8203, 1-800-471-3109
Harrisonburg-Rockingham Convention and Visitors Bureau
- Harrisonburg, Va., 540/434-2319
Highland County Chamber of Commerce
- Monterey, Va., 540/468-2550
Jefferson County Convention and Visitor Bureau
- Harpers Ferry, W.Va., 304/535-2627, 1-800-848-TOUR
Lexington and the Rockbridge Area Visitors Center
- Lexington, Va., 540/463-3777, 1-877-453-9822
Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau
- Luray, Va., 540/743-3915, 1-888-743-3915
Martinsburg-Berkeley County Convention and Visitors Bureau
- Martinsburg, W.Va., 304/264-8801, 1-800-4WVFUN
New Market Area Chamber of Commerce
- New Market, Va., 540/740-3212
Roanoke Convention and Visitors Bureau
- Roanoke, Va., 540/342-6025, 1-800-635-5535
Shenandoah County Tourism
- Woodstock, Va., 540/459-6227, 1-888-367-3954
- Staunton, Va., 540/332-3865, 1-800-342-7982.
- Visitor Center, 540/332-3971.
Strasburg Chamber of Commerce
- Strasburg, Va., 540/465-3187
Winchester/Frederick County Visitors Center
- Winchester, Va., 540/542-1326, 1-800-662-1360
Woodstock Chamber of Commerce
- Woodstock, Va., http://www.woodstockva.com/
* * *
Shenandoah Valley Travel Association Tourist Information Center
- New Market, Va., 540/740-3132.
Appalachian Trail Conference Headquarters
- Harpers Ferry, W.Va., 304/535-6331
Blue Ridge Parkway,
- 828/298-0398, 828/271-4779.
Friends of the Shenandoah River
- Front Royal, Va., 540/636-4948.
George Washington and Jefferson National Forests
- 1-888-265-0019, 540/265-5100.
Shenandoah Council of the Arts, Inc.
Shenandoah National Park/Skyline Drive
- Luray, Va., 540/999-3500, 540/999-3500
The sun’s still bright when I leave, feeling a little like extended family.