A high point in the Shenandoah Valley

Staunton: A frontier museum and Woodrow Wilson's home are just two of the many reasons to stop by this town in western Virginia

Short Hop

May 16, 1999|By Stephanie Fletcher | Stephanie Fletcher,Special to the Sun

The picturesque town of Staunton, Va., is an unlikely place to find a big museum complex.

The town of 25,000 souls is nestled in the broad and beautiful Shenandoah Valley, known for its apples and dominated by the time-softened Appalachian Mountains of northwestern Virginia. On the map, Staunton (pronounced, STAN-t'n) is a midsize dot just off Interstate 81. Some motorists opt to stop for a meal or even to spend the night on their way to and from other destinations. But most zip by without discovering the time machine that awaits the curious explorer willing to deviate from the beaten path and visit the Museum of American Frontier Culture, which is located here.

Staunton also possesses a range of other diversions -- a presidential birthplace, a charming historic district, a country music mecca and a historic church filled with Tiffany stained glass windows. If you add mountain vistas and charming accommodation options to Staunton's list of attractions, you come up with a winning combination for a weekend getaway.

Living history

Robert O'Hagan is a history interpreter at the Museum of American Frontier Culture. Clad in knee breeches, feathered felt hat and smithy apron, and pounding red-hot nails at a 300-year-old forge, O'Hagan certainly makes a believable late 17th-century Irish blacksmith from County Tyrone. He points to an adolescent boy in the group of visitors clustered in the shop.

"I have an apprentice about your age. He's been working for me since he was 10 years old. In a few years, he will take my place and marry my daughter. Then, they'll take care of me in my old age."

He goes on to say that business has been bad recently. Rent on land is high. Folks are moving away. He's thinking he and his family may move to America where a man who is willing to work hard can make a good life for himself.

O'Hagan continues to interact with the group. He answers questions about his craft and offers nuggets of information about the Scotch-Irish (a term used to distinguish Irish Protestants, a minority that came to Northern Ireland primarily from Scotland, from Irish Catholics, who make up the majority and live mainly in areas outside Ulster).

It is nothing short of amazing to find an extensive cultural resource such as the Museum of American Frontier Culture in a rural setting. This fascinating compound offers visitors an opportunity to experience 300 years of history and four cultures during the course of a morning or afternoon stroll. The complex is set up like a village, composed of the four authentic 17th, 18th and 19th century farmsteads that were disassembled, brought to the spot and rebuilt with exacting attention to detail. The newest addition to the community of historic structures is an old Ulster forge.

Three antique farms and the blacksmith shop were brought from Europe and represent the cultures from which most of the first settlers in the Shenandoah Valley and the American backcountry originated -- namely, England, Ireland and Germany. The fourth farm complex, an 18th-century Appalachian farmhouse and outbuildings, illustrates how European cultural influences blended to yield a unique American hybrid.

Costumed interpreters portray the men and women who lived and worked in those regions. The actors who assume roles in the Appalachian farm setting demonstrate how American pioneers evolved a unique character fed by three different forms of European rootstock and from African roots, as well.

In the Appalachian farmhouse, an interpreter clothed in a simple long dress and apron takes on the role of one slave rented by a modestly successful landowner.

Through observing historically accurate architecture, farming techniques, furnishings and household goods, and by interacting with personnel who are trained to add insight into the lives of pioneer home cultures, visitors get a true feel for American history.

Presidential home

The Commonwealth of Virginia claims bragging rights to quite a few American presidents, however only one served during the 20th century. Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president, was born to a prosperous Presbyterian minister and his wife in a bedroom of a Greek Revival-style house in the Gospel Hill section of Staunton. Although the Wilson family lived in Staunton only briefly, the manse is now maintained as a house museum. It features many authentic Wilson possessions and is fleshed out with period furnishings and household items designed to evoke the era during which the Wilsons called the state their home.

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