Take a day trip to Winchester, Virginia
My drive from Washington, D.C., to Winchester, Virginia, took only about two hours. But when I arrived there, I felt as if I had traveled back centuries in time.
When I approached the minuscule city (population about 28,000), after crossing the Shenandoah River, there was little hint of the treasure trove of history that lay ahead.
I passed through a phalanx of familiar chain stores and fast-food restaurants. Then, as suddenly as this mass of modernity had appeared, it disappeared and I found myself in another world — a history-rich setting that envelops visitors in the past without fuss or fanfare.
I was beaten to the location by Shawnee and other Native American tribes who lived for thousands of years in what today is Frederick County, Virginia. and more recently by European explorers who came as early as 1606.
Arriving at Winchester is like entering a time capsule. This is no ersatz commercial attraction. Rather, it’s a real place where important chapters of American history were written, offering a glimpse of those memories to those who seek them out.
Yes, GW slept here
George Washington’s life is closely intwined with the story of Winchester. There are so many references to, and touches of, the presence of George Washington that by the time you leave town, you have new insight into the man behind the fame.
Washington arrived in 1748, at the tender age of 16, to help survey land. During the next 10 years, he became commander of Virginia’s militia forces, planned and oversaw construction of more than 80 forts to protect settlers from attacks, and was chosen to serve as a delegate in the House of Burgesses, representing Winchester and Frederick County.
Remnants of Fort Loudoun, which was Washington’s headquarters from 1756 to 1758, are among numerous traces of his time in the area. So is the tiny log-and-stone George Washington’s Office Museum, whose displays include his orders to soldiers concerning “tippling” and Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, which he wrote at age 14.
Other notable men and women, historic structures and mesmerizing museums add to the appeal of Winchester and its surroundings.
More than 1,100 significant sites dating from the 18th to mid-20th centuries stand in the Winchester Historic District. They range from log buildings and early stone houses, to Federal-style town homes and elegant Victorian residences.
Civil War sites
The heart of the district is marked by the stately Greek Revival Frederick County Courthouse. It was completed in 1840, just in time to serve as a hospital and prison for both the Union and Confederate armies. Graffiti on some walls dates back to the time of military occupation of the building, which today houses the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum.
Reminders of that conflict are scattered about the Winchester area like shotgun shells. That’s not surprising, because the town and county’s location as a transportation hub made it a highly contested prize. Six major battles raged there, and control of Winchester changed hands more than 70 times.
Visitors may relive those skirmishes at three Civil War museums, battlefields, remains of forts and other sites.
One of those, the home used by Stonewall Jackson as his headquarters during the winter of 1861-2, contains a large collection of his personal objects and memorabilia.
After admiring Jackson’s imposing office desk, and a smaller traveling version, I turned my attention to an unfamiliar Confederate flag. I learned that it’s the battle banner from which the more recognizable Confederate pennant evolved.
More intriguing to me was Jackson’s sword, which earned the nickname “Rusted Blade.” It turns out that Stonewall was not the most fastidious of groomers and his lack of care extended to the ceremonial rapier. It rusted so badly that eventually he could not withdraw it from the scabbard.
Apple orchards and wineries
After delving deeply into the Revolutionary and Civil War history of the Winchester area, I turned my attention to the variety of other attractions the destination offers. Food and beverages rank high on that list.
For many people, Frederick County, Virginia means apples. The Shenandoah Valley was the largest apple-growing region in the country in the early 1800s. While that distinction is no longer true, apples continue to hold an important place in the region’s rich agricultural heritage.
Family-owned farms and farmers markets offer a cornucopia of locally grown fruit, vegetables and meats. Pick-your-own orchards and micro-farms sell goods ranging from fresh produce and homemade baked wares, to local crafts, goat milk soap, wine, cider and mead.
Outstanding wine, along with other libations, add to the tastebud treats available in the area. My tasting at the family-owned, award-winning Briede Family Winery included its wine ice cream.
A very different experience awaited at Misty Mountain Meadworks, which concocts the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage using Virginia honey.
Where there are apples there is cider, and the English-style hard version is created from locally grown fruit.
Speaking of locally grown, that applies to hero Patsy Cline, the Winchester native who became a leading country and pop music singer whose professional career (1954-1963) was cut short when she died in a plane crash. Her modest house (now a museum) depicts the hardscrabble life she led before she became a local hero.
Heroes of various kinds have been part of the story of Winchester, Virginia. Accounts of their lives are among a number of reasons to visit there — and, as I quickly learned, there are many more.
For more information, go to visitwinchesterva.com.