By Victor Block
Famous cities like New York and Paris attract millions of visitors, and they deserve to. Much smaller, but, in ways, equally inviting communities also boast attractions that warrant an exploration.
My recent sojourn to Winchester, Virginia turned out to be a case in point, a fascinating trip back in time. The visit echoed that of Native Americans who lived for thousands of years in what today is Frederick County and European explorers who came as early as 1606.
As I approached the miniscule city (population about 28,000), there was little hint of the treasure trove of history that lay ahead. I passed familiar chain stores and fast-food restaurants. Then, suddenly, this mass of modernity disappeared. I found myself in another world—a history-rich setting, which envelops visitors in the past without fuss or fanfare.
Arriving at Winchester is entering a time capsule. It’s a place where important chapters of American history were written.
This immersion in earlier times serves as a backdrop for the memories that were born there. One example: 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’s life is closely entwined with the story of Winchester. He arrived at the tender age of 16 in 1748, four years after the town was founded, to survey land. During the next 10 years he became commander of Virginia’s Militia regiment; oversaw construction of more than 80 forts to provide protection for settlers from attack, and was chosen to serve as a delegate in the House of Burgesses.
Remnants of Fort Loudoun, which was Washington’s headquarters from 1756 to 1758, are among traces of his time in the area. So is the tiny log and stone George Washington’s Office Museum, whose displays include his written orders to soldiers concerning “tippling” and “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior.”
Other notable men and women, historic structures and mesmerizing museums add to the appeal of Winchester. A number of significant sites sit in the Winchester Historic District. It encompasses 1,116 buildings dating from the 18th to mid-20th centuries, ranging from log buildings and early stone houses to elegant Victorian residences.
The heart of the district is marked by the stately Greek Revival Frederick County Courthouse. It was completed in 1840, and served as a hospital and prison for both the Union and Confederate armies. Graffiti on walls dates back to the military occupation of the building, which today house a Civil War museum.
Reminders of that conflict are scattered about the area. That’s not surprising, because the town’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 Civil War museums, battlefields, remains of forts and other sites. The home used by Stonewall Jackson as his headquarters during the winter of 1861-1862 contains a collection of his personal objects and memorabilia.
Most intriguing to me was Jackson’s sword, which earned the nickname “Rusted Blade.” Stonewall was not the most fastidious of self-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.
After delving into the Revolutionary and Civil War history of the Winchester area, I turned my attention to other attractions the destination offers. 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 is no longer true, the fruit continues to hold an important place in the region’s agricultural heritage.
Family-owned farms and farmers markets offer locally grown fruit, vegetables and meats. Pick-your-own orchards and micro-farms sell goods ranging from fresh produce and homemade baked goods to local crafts, goat milk soap, and wine.
Outstanding wine and other libations add to the taste bud treats available in the area. My sampling at the family-owned, award-winning Briede (pronounced BREE-day) Family Winery included its crafted wine-flavored ice cream.
A 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 liquid is created from locally grown fruit.
Speaking of locally grown, that applies to 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 house museum depicts the hard-scrabble 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 reasons to visit there – and, as I quickly learned, there are many more. You may be pleasantly surprised to discover similar hidden gems not far from where you live. For more information about Winchester, log onto visitwinchesterva.com.