Whiffs of Local History

There are other names for Lexington, Virginia, and environs, names fashioned in the minds of creative folk who lived here. A French exchange student who somehow landed at Washington and Lee University in the mid-1950s, Philippe Labro, called it Genoa, ShenandMcCormick statueoah Valley, in a nostalgic novel he wrote later, L’Étudiant étranger. Another writer, a native son who fled to New York, wrote a 2009 book of eleven short stories about “a Southern town” he called Concord, Virginia. And the textbook I assign in my news-writing class at W&L calls it Valleydale, in “Blue Ridge County,” a theater of incredible news events dreamed up by the former head of this department, where “professional education for journalism” first began in 1870 thanks to Robert E. Lee (according to the plaque just inside the door of Reid Hall).

But these are gossamer veils that barely hide the real Lexington and Rockbridge County. If you’re looking for the real thing around here, you might start by looking down.

In the sidewalks of Lexington (named in 1778; chartered as a city in 1966), you’ll find among the double-bullseye patterns of Lexington paving bricks nearly 60 granite pavers that note the “Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge.” Patsy Cline lived here, for instance. So did Admiral Byrd and General George Patton, as cadets, before they transferred out of Virginia Military Institute. But I try not to stop and read these snippets underfoot, these footnotes, as if I hadn’t heard all the stories after 16 years of living here. As if this were all reliable history.

I peer down in the ditch that construction crews are digging along East Washington Street, between the briefly controversial little cottage restaurant called The Red Hen and the Stonewall Jackson House.

I open an unlocked door, mount an unimproved stairway, and drop in on the last living 19th-century-style newspaper editor, Doug Harwood. His office is a beautiful mess, bunkered around with remaindered issues of his elegantly mischievous monthly, The Rockbridge Advocate. A scruffy, thin figure around town, he’s here at his computer, transcribing scans of handwritten Rockbridge chancery court records from the late 19th century.

Harwood is on the case again, another lode from that foggy realm of undiscovered history that he likes to publish in the back pages of his news magazine each month. “I wish I knew what I had here,” he says. It’s about a vineyard south of town in the Brushy Hills area, and to Harwood’s delight, the story involves three or four nasty lawsuits and a French winegrower, Gaspard, with a local mistress and a family back in France. Gaspard eventually acquired the vineyard from the wealthy local lawyer Elisha F. Paxton II, got tangled in the lawsuits, died and was buried in “St. Patrick’s” Catholic cemetery. That surprises Harwood because St. Pat’s, the only Catholic church in a county with about 85 Protestant churches, doesn’t have a cemetery. (There are no mosques or synagogues, and that itself is the presence of history.)

A few years ago, I researched old letters-to-the-editor in the musty back office of another local  newspaper for a book I put together with the help of student researchers, The Lexington Letters: 200 Years of Water Under the Bridge (published in Buena Vista). Another professor and I dedicated that book to Pam Simpson, then in the last weeks of her life, with cancer. Pam Simpson was a deeply knowledgeable art-history professor at W&L whose research exhumed the history of so many structures around Lexington. The W&L house of the Dean of the College, formerly called the Lee-Jackson House because both Jackson and Lee had lived there at different times, is now called the Simpson House, for Pam.

In time’s maze
over fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves.

So goes a Wendell Berry poem, “The Wild Geese.” Although he was writing about his farm in Kentucky, the poem ends with the best line for Rockbridge County: “What we need is here.”

This is from the cutting floor. It is material that Kurt Rheiheimer, editor-in-chief at Leisure Media 360, cut from a 1,500-word article I sent him. Cuts were entirely made to get the thing down to 900 words. That was the assignment.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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