What historical period dominates the (interpretive) landscape, and which are sorely absent?

Posted on October 15, 2011 by


I'm conservative in my definition of the Shenandoah Valley, and look more at the area that is the watershed, as the Valley. Lexington and Rockbridge County fall outside the watershed, but fit culturally. Points further south of this, however, just don't... to me... fit the culture of this area, but have a culture defined more to that particular area. Image from Wikipedia.

As I drive nearly the entire stretch of the Shenandoah Valley (excepting the West Virginia counties of Berkeley and Jefferson), at least four days a week, I pass various sites of interests. Few, actually, are marked with any indication of their stories… though I’m aware of the stories for most of them. I suspect many folks ride by most of these and say, something to the effect… “what a charming old place”, and leave it at that. Sure, I do the same thing when driving through other areas (and try, in my head, to guess the actual dates of such buildings), and, therefore, think its pretty common anywhere one goes. Likewise, from the vantage point of a local seeking to see stories told and local relevance revealed, I wonder sometimes what is absent that should not be. I also understand, however, that all places cannot be identified by interpretive signage… such signs, overdone, can be quite a distraction on the landscape. Still, as I mentioned in the title, what historical periods dominate the landscape, and which are sorely absent?

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the American Civil War dominates the Valley (in the way of interpretive sites), and, as much as I am passionate about the subject, I find it somewhat disturbing, knowing that this period only captures four years of the Valley’s history. I don’t even feel that there is a need to count how many Dept. of Historic Resources markers and the Virginia Civil War Trails markers there are, because it’s obvious how they all overwhelm any other interpretation of history here.

What sites really do tell the tale of life in the Valley, in all the years leading up to the Civil War? What is interpreted from those 120+ years after European-rooted settlers arrived here (and, what interpretation exists for those who were here before that time)?

Frontier Culture Museum's 1850s (Barger) House

Well, we do have museums, such as the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia, and Luray Cavern’s Luray Valley Museum. These places do offer a glimpse at history here, in the first 120+ years since European arrival, but…

Oddly enough, the Frontier Culture Museum, for quite sometime, had very little to do with the very thing that seems to dominate its name… “Frontier”, and more to do with the places from whence the Valley settlers came (more recently, they’ve added West African “village”). Even the 1850s farm was a transplant, coming from Botetourt County… not in the Shenandoah Valley. Yes, they do deserve credit for relocating these buildings (or, in the case of the West African huts, building them), because it was no easy process, and these things offer visitors here, in the US, an opportunity to visit European buildings that date to periods of emigration (English, German, and Irish houses are there… the English yeoman house dating to the 17th century). Also, in the past decade, the Bowman Farm, from near Timberville, and dating to the mid 1770s, has come to the museum, and offers just a little bit more about this place prior to the Civil War.

Elk Run Meeting House

Likewise, Luray Cavern’s Luray Valley Museum offers a taste of the first 100 years of European settler and descendant history (and a little about pre-Euro-rooted history), but, in my opinion, at a “cost”.  Granted, the visitor gets an experience… to see a collection of stuff, in one place, but… is something missing from doing it this way? There is stuff (cool stuff… to include some very cool old buildings), and it is interpreted… but what has been lost? The answer… place.

None of these items are in the places from which they came, and therefore, there is an element that is lost, and I believe a very strong element necessary to interpretation. It’s almost like a zoo. The animals (historic buildings) are real, but a false environment has been created.

Furthermore, as in the situation with the “Page Valley Mining Company”, at the Luray Valley Museum, visitors are getting a taste of something that really didn’t exist in the Page Valley (copper mining, on the other hand, did occur, but not with California Gold Rush-type sluice), and is more there for the “wow/fun factor” for kids (and, even with adults) than anything else. The Elk Run Dunkard Meeting House, by the way, did not, as interpretation tells visitors, serve as a “barracks” for Union and Confederate soldiers. Rather, it was a stopping point for Union soldiers in different campaigns (most Union writings on the wall reflect the 1862 Valley Campaign… as Union troops marched to and/or from Port Republic), and, in the case of Confederates, more than likely it served as little more than a comfortable picket post (men from the 12th Virginia Cavalry). Look up the definition of “barracks”… sorry, but picket posts and stop-off points don’t fit the definition. I’m very aware of the history of the graffiti on the walls of the old meeting house, and having carefully cross-referenced unit designations on the wall with troop movements in the area made it clear to me… not a barracks. Trying hard not to digress… so, moving on…

In the case of historic markers, however, they often interpret the historic buildings… at the actual sites… well, for the most part. The Fort Philip Long marker, within site of the Luray Caverns, for example, offers interpretation with the actual Ft. Philip Long not being anywhere nearby. It’s simply a marker telling a story about a place that nobody can see (without permission from the landowner… since it is on private property, approx. 6 miles to the south).

On the other hand, we have the Catherine Furnace marker, the White House & White House Bridge markers, and the Ruffner House marker, (and many others which I’d be happy to list, perhaps at another time, to include markers in major population hubs throughout the Valley), which both do interpretive good, at the actual sites. But, oh, hold on…! With the exception of the White House, and, a little bit for Catherine Furnace, these, once again, are markers focused mainly on the Civil War.

Luray's "slave block"... at least interpreted as such... though history may have revealed that it was something quite to the contrary. Image from the Historical Markers Database

And <… sigh… >, we also have interpretive markers that may not actually be telling us the truth (which is a shame, considering such markers are, I believe, mostly believed by visitors as revealing true stories about place), and were put in place by those not so much concerned with history. The “Slave Auction Block” marker, at Luray, tells a tale that is questionable at best… and I say this knowing the history of the block as documented from the early 20th century, and am able to cite provenance (I’ve been meaning to write about this, at length, for some time, so, I will be writing about this block, very soon, in another blog post). It’s not that I don’t think we should interpret sites relating to slavery. No, quite on the contrary… and that’s part of my motivation for part of the title to this blog post… interpretation that is “sorely absent”. In lieu of the marker (at least as it currently reads) for the block, I would have much rather preferred a marker at a site just south of Luray, at a place where a slave auction (in 1856) has been documented as having taken place. No… no auction block exists… but the place… no more than land on which it occurred… where these heart-wrenching scenes unfolded… is still there. After all…

Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger… – Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Finding myself dangerously close to going off track, let me wrap-up by getting back to a key question that I raised, and still stands…

What is interpreted from those 120+ years, after European-rooted settlers laid foot here (and at the actual sites)?

True, we have a few places, such as Green Meadows (Adam Miller), Washington’s Office, Belle Grove, and Abram’s (Abraham Hollingsworth) Delight… and even the Burwell-Morgan Mill. But these represent a fraction of the sites, which are comparatively much less than the number of interpreted sites (without any buildings) in this same area, for the Civil War. We’ve got much, without interpretation, here that tells us a wide range of stories, still within the context of place, and beyond the limited scope of memory that centers on the Civil War. Aren’t the years before and after just as important? How many come here… and leave here… with misconceptions of the people and the place that existed here, in  years before the Civil War? Do we care? Do they care? Granted, if they want to know, they can refer to books, but, why shouldn’t we engage people through interpretation… more than what we have? Would we not benefit from, oh, say… a series of Virginia Backcountry Markers?

Because there isn’t really much at all (and nothing, actually, on the landscape, whatsoever, that tells us about the people here before Europeans arrived), to me it seems the interpretive history of the Valley is incredibly slanted, hard, in one direction. Regretfully, our interpretive history IS off-balance, here in the Valley.