Outside Those Caverns, There's Actually A Town

POSTMARK: LURAY, VA.

July 18, 1993|By KATHERINE DREW DEBOALT

In the shade of the wide, arched veranda of the Luray courthouse, a notice for a senior basketball league is posted on the same bulletin board as petitions for divorce.

In Luray, the seat of Page County, Va., it seems folks have better things to do than spend their days in court. The white brick courthouse has only a part-time chief prosecutor and a single criminal courtroom. There, last month, was held the first murder trial in town in five years. During the most recent term, court stayed in session the entire three months without need for a single jury.

And in a town of 4,500, that can be a blessing, said Luther E. "Ikey" Miller, 61, clerk of the Circuit Court.

"You do run into problems with a small place like this. People know each other," he said. "And it's pretty likely you are going to lose some jurors because they know the attorneys or a witness or the defendant or the judge."

The low level of crime is one of the many appeals of Luray, which sits in the northern tip of the Shenandoah Valley.

To reach Luray (pronounced "Looray" by residents), a visitor leaves Baltimore and travels south and west for about two and a half hours, following the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Highway through historic towns, past Dinosaurland and gas stations advertising Elvis and Hank (that's Hank Williams) memorabilia.

Luray's one long main street boasts an eclectic mixture of old and new businesses occupying ancient storefronts. Pizza chains and tanning parlors share the street with a combination barber shop/poolroom and a five-and-dime where shoppers can buy shoes, or electric organs, or cashews by the pound. Many of the town's businesses are closed on Wednesdays; at the town's Chamber of Commerce, no one could recall the origin of this custom.

"I've always said the best business in the world here would be a store that sold everything and was only open on Wednesdays," said Scott Sedwick, 25, who runs the chamber.

The area's main business is Luray Caverns, which townspeople view less as a source of wonder than as a source of summer work and tourist dollars. Many who grew up here have at some time worked at the caverns, which attract a steady stream of tour buses to the outskirts of town. (Some residents even visit the attraction. "If you live in the town, they'll let you go through the caverns for free," said Glenrose Dameron, 44, who has lived in Luray all her life.)

The area's other major employers are agriculture businesses, a Wrangler denim factory and a car-door plant outside of town.

To townspeople, Luray is more than a mecca for tour buses; it's a Southern town.

"People are oriented to the South here; it's where they feel their ties," said Mr. Sedwick.

Both traffic circles in the town surround memorials dedicated to heroes of the Confederacy. The Massanutten Prospect, the local rTC monthly newspaper, in June announced a party celebrating the birthday of Belle Boyd, a teen-age girl from nearby Front Royal who worked as a spy for the South during the War between the States. The same paper earlier advertised a $50 reward to anyone who could produce Yankee buttons or Confederate bullets that might help pinpoint the site of the Battle of Luray, which was fought Sept. 24, 1864.

"As far as I've heard, they've never located it [the site]," said Mr. Miller. "Out here, you get your Civil War buffs, and they're always looking for little scraps."

A stop for Luray visitors interested in history is the restored, one-room Massanutten School. Inside are old desks, faded maps and graying photos of students -- with names like Humie, Truen )) and Zethel -- posed solemnly on the school steps.

Most of Luray's residents come from old families whose names fill large blocks of the local phone directory, but there are a few recent arrivals.

Joyce Erickson, 43, moved with her children and grandchildren to Luray from Laurel, Md., three years ago to escape the drugs and crime she saw in her schools and neighborhood. Today they live in an old frame house above the Purple Pet Palace, which she opened three months ago.

The shop, with puppies penned in the side yard, sits behind a white post fence with a picket gate. The porch railings, the house trim, even the sidewalk, are painted purple -- not a subdued, interior-decorator purple, but a screaming psychedelic violet.

"I just like purple. It makes me feel good," said Mrs. Erickson, standing among cages of ferrets and birds. She was wearing a purple sweat shirt, purple pants and a purple headband.

Listening to the hum of the lawn mower as her husband cut the grass (he was wearing a purple tie-dyed T-shirt), Mrs. Erickson said she has come to regard small-town life as the good life.

"It's very comfortable," she said, "and we feel safe."

IN CAVERN COUNTRY

Green and yellow billboards dot Virginia highways for miles, beckoning visitors to "visit another world"--in Luray's caverns. But for town residents, the caverns, with their natural stalactite and stalagmite formations, symbolize down-to-earth concerns, including full-time and summer jobs, and tourist dollars. The caverns attract about 500,000 visitors per year who shop, eat and sleep in Luray.

Most natives don't spend their weekends in the caverns. Says lifelong Luray resident Glenrose Dameron: "Once you go through three of four times, there's not much point. Not a whole lot changes in there."

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