Sweet Home Lexington

The small college town nestled in the Shenandoah Valley embraces its rich heritage without forsaking the present.


May 23, 2004|By Sarah Clayton | Sarah Clayton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Lexington is a handsome little village with good buildings.

- Isaac Burr, traveling in Virginia in 1804

The night was dark, the narrow country road deserted. The lights from the few houses along the way looked like distant stars. I'd never been to Clark's Lumber Yard, but I'd heard things got hopping out there on Friday nights.

The Saw Mill Band, led by 82-year-old Bruce Clark, started playing at 7:30 p.m., and the dancing started at 7:31. Or so I'd been told.

Quite frankly, I couldn't imagine anything "hopping" down this remote road, 15 miles north of Lexington, Va., in rural Rockbridge County, except maybe a frog or two.

But then again, the Lexington area can surprise you. Bluegrass and Bach mix comfortably here, and visitors will find a thriving intellectual community in the midst of a gorgeous rural setting.

I parked the car, and heard the high whine of a fiddle, barely audible, like a night bug keening. I pushed open the door to Clark's and was soon drawn in by the familiar lilt of old-time mountain music - music I grew up with here in the Shenandoah Valley.

I paid the $3 suggested donation and stepped into a long, rectangular space - the former planing room for the lumberyard - filled with an older crowd, most of them in jeans, many in cowboy boots. And everyone having a good time.

The next night I would be in Lexington at the Lenfest Center, Washington and Lee University's classically styled performing arts center, to hear the internationally acclaimed Amernet String Quartet.

Silk dresses and skirts rustled expensively as people moved into their red upholstered seats, eager for the music of Bartok and Shostakovich. And everyone having a good time.

Home again

I returned 12 years ago to live in this place of my youth, having traveled through or lived in a great deal of the world, and I have learned what Ralph Waldo Emerson came to know - that often one must travel the world over in order to return home and discover it for the first time.

Rockbridge County, named for its Natural Bridge, a 215-foot-high rock bridge that draws some 200,000 visitors a year, lies at the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley between toney Charlottesville and the West Virginia border.

By the mid-18th century, when the valley was still a seasonal hunting ground for the Iroquois, the Scotch-Irish were flocking to the area to establish farms. German and Swiss settlers came soon after.

Farming is still one of the county's economic mainstays. Cattle and grain-filled fields roll up to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the east and the Allegheny Mountains in the west.

Lexington, the Rockbridge County seat, was built at the intersection of the main north/south route through the valley and the route west. It is a discreetly restored, predominantly brick, mostly 19th-century town of almost 7,000, much the same population as it was when I was a child half a century ago.

Church steeples dominate the skyline. And the two institutions of higher learning, Washington and Lee and Virginia Military Institute, bring a steady stream of world-class cultural events to town, along with many folks who visit and never want to leave.

"Lexington has given me a sense of roots," says Irene Peterson, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., who came to live here six years ago after a 30-year stint in Atlanta. "It reminds me of Staten Island when I was a child. It was all horse pastures and pretty little towns. No industry."

"Even though I lived in Atlanta for so long," she adds, "I actually run into a greater variety of people here - artists and writers and musicians - because it's smaller. People stop and talk to you on the street; they have more time than big-city people."

"Where else do you have this mix of high-level intellectual and academic community with rural culture?" asks Catharine Gilliam, a native of Rockbridge County who returned home to live three years ago after a 25-year hiatus, mostly in Washington, practicing law and working for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"I don't know which is more impressive - the best bluegrass music in America or a great philosopher giving a lecture in Lexington, but this area offers a spectrum of culture that I've never seen anywhere else," Gilliam adds.

Actors and generals

Most weekends in the Lexington area have more going on than one person can fit in, especially in the summer. At 5:30 on various Friday evenings, beginning June 11, free outdoor concerts - Fridays Alive - take place in Davidson Park, a sloping green lawn near the East Nelson Street bridge where people set up chairs or spread out blankets and listen, dance or just commune on warm summer evenings.

The Theater at Lime Kiln, an outdoor venue set in an old limestone quarry on the edge of town, offers a variety of plays and music - bluegrass, folk, gospel, swing, jazz - that reflect the heritage and culture of this Appalachian region.

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